Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences



I WAS sent to Miss Lee's School, 170, High Street, Lewes, at Christmas, 1843, and remained there one year. Small children in those days generally slept two in a bed, and my bedfellow was William, afterwards Sir William Grantham. Miss Lee had two brothers, both very clever men, and one certainly, and I believe both, were connected with the "Sussex Express," the chief agricultural paper of East Sussex, and wrote at times very witty articles. At about that time there was living in Lewes an old horse-dealer named Drowley, very illiterate and eccentric, of whom numerous anecdotes were told. This old man once asked Mr. Lee to write something pretty to put on his tombstone. He wrote :

" Here lies the man that lived by lying,
   Some people thought 'twould leave him dying,
   But to the nation's great surprise
   Even in his grave he lies."

The garden at the rear of 170 went back in the form of two terraces to a wall of the old castle which at that time formed the side of a brewery (I believe Mr. Langford's). One night this wall fell into the garden, covering it with an enormous mass of debris. School life in those days was very different to what it is at the present time, but we were kindly treated and well fed, and I think were far healthier and tougher than children of the present day who are brought up more luxuriously and fed with less plain and much less nutritious and wholesome food; for example, articles of diet made from very white, that is, inferior blanched flour.

Lewes was then not only the County Town but a very gay and busy place, though it had ceased to be the winter residence of the nobility and gentry of, at all events, the eastern part of the County, whose residences, with the remains of their former grandeur, especially in the form of old oak carving and gardens and things of a like nature, still remain. A cattle-market was held in the Town on alternate Tuesdays, and pens formed of oak wattles for sheep extended from the "White Hart Hotel" for some distance towards St. Michael's Church and occupied a considerable part of the road. Besides the sheep there were numbers of bullocks and horses, and these, together with the sheep, took up a great part of the width of the road and interfered a good deal with the traffic.

In the days before railways, Lewes was the main artery through which nearly all the traffic between east and west Sussex passed, as well as that to and from Brighton. There was no other bridge over the Ouse either up or down stream for some miles, and the High Street of Lewes was therefore a busy place. Besides the ordinary traffic, which was of a very considerable amount, coaches, four-in-hand, "Unicorn" and pair-horse, both from ease and west, were constantly dashing through the town; the pace at which they went down School Hill and the rattle they made can scarcely be imagined; and to this must be added the crowds at the booking-offices and sometimes the scramble for places. I well recollect the railway between Lewes and Brighton being made. I was told that there were great difficulties in its construction. The curved viaduct over the London Road and the skew-arch at Hodshrove in those early days of railways presented problems very difficult of solution. Mr. Lutley, who had a good deal to do with the construction of the line, told me he had more than once driven up Falmer Hill sitting on the safety valve of his engine.

Lewes was a place to which a large number of people in advanced life came to reside, and these, with the usual inhabitants, formed a very sociable and friendly community. In summer in the after-noon there was generally an assemblage of elderly gentlemen at the bowling-green which was situated just through the Castle Gates by the Barbican. They took the greatest interest in the game and played as if their whole future in life depended on it. In those days dinner was usually at 1 p.m., tea at 5 p.m. and supper at 9 p.m. Social visits in the evening were very frequent. During the greater part of the year whist, or a round game of cards or chess was played, and after supper a glass of hot spirits and water, brandy, rum or gin, went round. Conversation, very slow at first, became much more lively after the first or second glass. With "The Times" at sixpence, and other papers at threepence or fourpence, a newspaper was taken only once or twice a week and conversation was confined very much to local topics, and the same old anecdotes were related and old stories told perhaps for the hundredth time. Everyone knew what was coming and everyone laughed at the proper time, as if they had never heard them before. Among many remains of old customs at Lewes was the night watchman who walked about the town during the night, I believe with a bell, and called out the time and the weather. I was in the Convict Hospital which was then in the Old Jail, in 1858, and well recollect the first night I slept there hearing him call out "Twelve o'clock and a moonlight night." He has now disappeared.

There were two fairs at Lewes, chiefly for sheep, though horses and other cattle were well repre-sented. They took place on May 6th and on September 21st. These fairs were very important. People came long distances to buy the Southdown sheep, and a very large amount of business was done. They also marked in the town and neigh-bourhood the change from summer to winter and from winter to summer. Among the older inhabitants after May 6th, black bars in the fire grates were taken out and replaced by bright polished ones, and after this no fire was lighted however cold the weather; winter clothes were exchanged for summer, and on September 21st these bright bars were taken out and the black bars put in and fires were lighted. Winter garments were put on, winter curtains were put over the windows and they "shut up for the winter."

The Fifth of November was always, from time immemorial, a great institution at Lewes. I well remember when at school in 1843, hearing the noise of blazing tar-barrels rolled through the street, and the shouting and racket. Squibs and crackers and fireworks of all sorts were thrown about and all windows had to be protected with shutters. There was a large bonfire in the middle of the town in front of the County Hall, not far from the spot where the martyrs were burned, and with this and the fireworks and rockets, the sky was illuminated all round. For several hour the town was given up to the mob and all traffic through the streets was suspended. With the altered state of modern social life and the advent of motors, this state of things could no longer continue, and the "fifth of November" was, a few years ago, entirely given up.

Lewes people in those days were all sportsmen. The Dripping Pan was famous for its cricket matches, and though at the present time it would not be large enough, in those days when cricket was a game in which all could join, and not an exhi-bition of professional athletes, when one parish played against another parish and one local club against another, it was considered an excellent ground. Friends met and watched the game and took a real interest in the play of their friends and acquaintances, and there was probably more real enjoyment than in the scientific contests of athletes of the present day.

With the Downs surrounding the town afford-ing excellent gallops for race-horses, it was only to be expected that a large number of these would be kept and trained and some owned by men living in the town. There was, and is, a race meeting, on or about August 5th of each year; formerly a King's Plate was given, and there was always a large attendance from the town and surrounding country. Disputes in those days would occasionally arise and were not always settled by lawyers in a court, but frequently on the spot and with fists. I believe the last battle of Lewes was fought by my grandfather and Mr. Gallop, who lived at Edburton, on Plumpton Plain. They had been to Lewes races and were returning home in the evening on horseback in company with several friends who were going in the same direction, when Mr. Gallop said something very derogatory about the troop raised by Lord Gage, in which my grandfather held the position of Sergeant, and of which he was very proud. (In the wars of Napoleon, it was the custom for noblemen and gentlemen of wealth and position to raise troops at their own expense among their tenants and others). My grandfather much resented Mr. Gallop's remarks and the quarrel got so hot that they came to blows. They got off their horses, which two friends held, and fought it out. Many years afterwards I was told of it, and asked my grandfather if it was true. He said "Yes, and 'twas lucky for me Gallop did not want much licking."

The Brookside Harriers were a great institution in Lewes; Mr. John Saxby was for many years huntsman, a thorough sportsman and most popular man, and Mr. Charles Beard was the master, a most genial man and liked by everyone. I was attending his sister, who was rather seriously ill, and we were walking together in her garden one Sunday morning, when Mr. Beard said "I am not at all well, doctor, I wish you would send me some medicine." After a short pause he continued : "I don't know when I can take it. To-morrow there are our hounds, Tuesday is Lewes Market, Wednesday the foxhounds, Thursday our hounds, Friday and Saturday the foxhounds. I can't take any medicine this week." I did not think he required any.

Lewes in former times, as the County Town, was a rather festive place. Balls and parties were frequent. The County Ball, an important function, was held at the County Hall, and there were several other balls during the season, and other were held at the "Star," where there was a large room. I occasionally went to one of these balls and returned rather late. The prison where, as I have said, I was acting as Medical Officer, was closed at 10 p.m., and if the doors were opened between that hour and 6 a.m. it was entered in a report book, which was sent up and examined at Headquarters. The Governor therefore suggested to me that I should not return till after 6 a.m., when the doors were opened for the day. One night I went to one of these balls with my cousin, Mr. Montague Blaker, and we did not leave till between 4 and 5 a.m. The problem was what to do till 6 a.m. My cousin kindly walked with me up to the "Black Horse," and we then returned to his father's house, 211, High Street, and sat down in the drawing-room and talked. In a short time the door opened gently for about half an inch, and through this chink we saw a streak of light, surmounted by something that sparkled. Then the door opened more widely, and disclosed old Mr. Edgar Blaker in his white nightdress with his spectacles on, and armed with a poker against burglars. After a little explanation he retired again to bed.

There were a great many dinner parties in Lewes in those days, and men drank rather freely, and strange things sometimes happened afterwards. That a gentleman should take a little more wine than he could carry comfortably was of a very common occurrence and was always treated as a joke. The late Mr. Richard Turner told me that on one occasion his father, Mr. R. Turner, senior, had gone to one dinner party, and he, with their assistant, Mr. Boanerges Boast, had gone to another. At about 2 a.m. they all three met on the doorstep of their house in High Street. Mr. Turner, senior, accused Mr. Boast of being drunk, which he stoutly denied. Mr. Turner said: "Well, you can't walk on the top of the wall between our garden and Mr. Gell's" (Mr. Gell was coroner, and the wall was perhaps, 10 feet high, flat, and 12 inches or more wide on the top). Mr. Boast said he could, so they got a ladder and Mr. Boast got up and walked some distance on the top of the wall, turned and came down safely. Mr. Turner said: "You have done that, but you can't run round the dining-room table." Mr. Boast tried but could not turn at the corners quite steadily.

On looking back upon the men of those days, one cannot help feeling that they were in many respects superior to their descendants of to-day. They were more manly, more independent, more persevering and spoke their mind more freely tough their speech was garnished very frequently with plenty of oaths. They hated untruthful-ness or trickery, and anyone guilty of such conduct was held in contempt, and I well recollect the frequent use of the axiom: "My word is my bond." They were most kind-hearted and hospitable to a degree, and many had an innate politeness and polish, though some were cast in a coarser mould. The present generation certain-ly differ much from their forefathers. That great "revolutionist," steam and the railway have taken away all the old landmarks, and education, not always of a judicious and sometimes of a mis-chievous character, seem to have quickened the intellect without improving the moral feeling of this generation and has to some extent taken away the sterling qualities of our predecessors. I have asked very many business men of over middle age what they thought of the present manner of transacting business, and I always received the same answer that mercantile morality is at lower ebb, and things are done now which would not have been tolerated a few years ago, and confidence is diminished. Though this may seem to be the case, fortunately the conduct of our gallant soldiers and sailors proves that the fundamental qualities of the race have not deteriorated.

It is impossible to avoid a feeling of regret, when you call to mind your early recollections of Lewes, and miss so many features of great interest. Fore-most of all in importance, perhaps, are the tanyards. Owing to the situation of Lewes, with the river passing through it, bark could always be brought from the Weald without any difficulty, and tanning as an industry has been successfully carried on no doubt from very remote times, but steam and altered conditions at last made it unremunerative, and the tanyards were given up. There were at least two, one at Malling, near the road leading to Ringmer, and the other on the low-lying ground in front of the present railway station. I have a faint recollection of being taken to see this tanyard, when I was eight years old and at school at Miss Lee's in 1843. When these tanyards were in full work, the whole of the lower part of Lewes was generally pervaded by the smell of the tan, and I recollect that the first intimation I had that the Malling tanyard was given up was the absence of this smell when driving from Lewes toward Ringmer.

There was another industry, which I have not heard mention for years, but which in my younger days was more talked of perhaps that any other. No hunting man considered himself in proper hunting costume unless he had on buckskin breeches. Mr. Hother, of Lewes, was thought to be almost the only man who could make these garments properly, and his reputation extended far and wide.

Of all the changes which have taken place in Lewes during the last few years, not one perhaps has caused deeper regret than the disendowment of the old Grammar School. When I first knew Lewes its reputation stood high, and many of the older men of the present generation received at all events much of their education at that School. The building is now used as a private school.

The Paddock and Six Sweep Mill have been to me subjects of great interest ever since I was at school at Miss Lee's. The Six Sweep Mill, almost a unique object, stood on the high ground to the west of the town; it has shared the fate of almost all the windmills which were once ornaments and landmarks on the South Downs.

The Paddock made a great impression on me as a child. I seem now to recollect it as a large, slightly undulating space covered with beautiful turf, enclosed with a broad fence of low trees or shrubs, and crossed diagonally by a white path leading to the road from Lewes to Offham (I am not sure, however, that this is quite an accurate description). It has now been invaded by the modern architect. The historic "Hangman's Acre" still remains. The subterranean small building, the "Little Ease," supposed to have been at one time a place of punishment for refractory monks, in the garden in Southover Crescent, which formerly belonged to Mr. John Blaker, still remains, but the old Priory ruins, which the railway has spared, seem to have crumbled somewhat, and the beautiful lines of the "Mount" have been obscured by a modern House.

<< Previous - Steyning Contents


Country Bringing Up - Next >>