Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences


Sheep Washing.

FULKING, in times when the number of sheep kept on the South Downs was far greater than at present, was a place to which all the flocks within a somewhat large radius were sent to be washed; for it is necessary to wash sheep before they are shorn in order to remove the gritty material, which would not only deteriorate the quality of the wool, but would also blunt the edge of the shears. Fulking, besides its central position as far as the Southdown flocks were concerned, was admirably fitted for the construction of a place for washing sheep. A spring of pure water, one of several which issue at irregular intervals from the front of the South Downs, rises here and soon cuts its way through some rising ground, which forms a bank on each side, and so by constructing a dam by some very simple appliances, the water could be raised to any required height. A small pen or fold, of which the stream formed on one side, was constructed, capable of holding twenty or thirty sheep, and into this the sheep were driven. From this pen they were thrown into the water and washed by two or three men who stood in the stream and were for several hours up to their waists in the cold water; and though the sheep washing took place in May and June, the water, as it issued from the hill, was bitterly cold. The flock itself was kept in a larger pen, one side of which was formed by that of the sheep-wash itself; the opposite side, by a post and rail fence, and each end by the same sort of fence and a gate. Through these two gates the main high road passed, so that during the time the sheep were being washed, the high road was stopped, and when a cart or other vehicle appeared, it was held up until a man could open the gate at each end and allow it to pass. Such was the primitive state of things in those days. There were but few railways, their influence on the habits of the people was not yet felt, and there was none of the hurry of modern times. The amount of traffic was very small, generally only two or three carts in a day. Even a stranger on the road was so rare that people turned round and stared after he had passed, and so it was a somewhat rare event for the sheep-wash gates to be opened and the sheep disturbed, and when it happened the drivers took it as a matter of course.

To stand for hours up to the waist in a stream of cold water was most trying work for the men who washed the sheep and I have seen them, when the work was over, walk to the "Shepherd and Dog," the adjacent public-house, stiff and scarcely able to move with cold, and with the water dripping from them and sprinkling the road like a shower of rain. They suffered much from rheumatism in various forms and could only continue the work for a very few years. For several years before the sheep-wash was closed, the men stood in casks fixed in the ground in the stream.

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