Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences

Reminiscences

Steyning.



HORSFIELD, in his history of Sussex, says that the name Steyning is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "Staen" a stone, though Mark Antony Lower says it is one of the Saxon "Meares," meaning the abode of the children of one "Staen." It is stated that in the Saxon and Norman times there was a port at Steyning and that the small ships of that period could come up the estuary of the Adur, and, though for centuries this has been rich pasture ground, I have often, during a rainy season with high tides, seen it and the villages of Beeding and Bramber many inches under water. My late friend, Mr. E. J. Furner, was once asked to see a patient there in consultation. He got to the house well enough in a carriage, but the question then arose, how was he to get to the patient's bedroom, the lower part of the house being under water. A ladder was at last procured and he entered ignominiously through the window.

Steyning Church is said to have been built in the time of Henry the First, and I can recollect, as a child, being struck with the grand arches resting on circular pillars with curved stone round them and on the capitals. Under the Church are supposed to be buried St. Cuthman and Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great.

I recollect also the old beadle, who stood in gorgeous array with a cane in his hand in the Church porch on Sundays; and also the old clerk, whose loud and hoarse "Amen" always seemed to my childish mind like the up and down stroke of a pit-saw. In those days on the top of a pit about eight or ten feet deep, a massive wooden frame was arranged, and on this the trunk of a tree was placed and sawn into boards with a large saw by two men, one standing at the top on the tree and the other in the pit, who in this manner took days to accomplish what would now be done by a steam saw in an hour or less time.

Standing on the right hand side of the street leading to the Church, not far from its junction with the main (High) Street, is "Brotherhood Hall," the house of an ancient guild or fraternity, which, with other property, formed part of the endowment of the Grammar School, founded in 1614 by William Holland, Alderman of Chichester, in which so many Sussex boys were educated. The porch with the massive old oak door, studded with nails, having a small door in the centre, through which, it is said, alms were given, still remains. One clause in the deed, we were told, provided that the master should be allowed the sum of five shillings a year for each scholar for birch rods.

Steyning Fair, one of the largest fairs in the county, was held on the 11th and 12th of October, and it has been estimated that, on some occasions, 3,000 Welsh cattle have been brought there, besides a number of Devons and other breeds. On these two days a great part of the south side of the principal street was occupied by gypsies' caravans and stall, at which sweetmeats, especially gilt gingerbread, toys, fruit, etc., were sold, and one or two cheap-jacks could be seen standing on a platform in front of their caravans selling bridles, harness, cutlery, carpenter's tools, pottery and almost every conceivable article, and one could not help being amused at their quick repartee and witty remarks.

At the back of the "White Horse" yard were large refreshment booths, the dinner usually consisting of roast pork and apple sauce. Here also were brought droves of New Forest ponies, from 60 to 100 in each, of course quite unbroken. It was curious to watch the manner in which the men caught any one of these animals a customer might select : two of them ran in, one seized the pony by the head and the other by the tail, and a halter was slipped on. It seemed dangerous, but the men apparently were never kicked or hurt. On the south side of the town the horse-fair was held. It was a scene of great excitement and confusion, and probably of as much iniquity as could be crowded into so small a space. The sheep-fair, of no great importance, was also on the south side of the town. The cattle-fair was held in a field to the west of the town, and it was a striking spectacle to see such large herds of black cattle, with here and there a herd of red, in one field, with men in all sorts of costumes, from the drover with his dog to the professional man and country gentleman walking about among them. The Welsh cattle usually appeared in the neigh-bouring fields the day before the fair, having been driven by easy stages from Wales by Welsh drovers. The bargaining for these animals was sometimes rather a long affair, and was always concluded by shaking hands, or rather either the buyer or seller held out his palm, which was struck with the palm of the other. The Welshmen in all parts of the field watched this most atten-tively, and directly they saw the hands touch there was a loud Welsh cheer. It sometimes happened that a person bought some cattle, but had a provided no one to bring them home. In this emergency the drover, with his dog, was always at hand. He attended all the fairs in the neighbourhood and, though he probably found other employment when not engaged as a drover, yet no one seemed to understand how or where he lived. It was, however, generally understood that he lived a very hard life, sleeping at times under hedges and on straw in outhouses; yet, though the cattle entrusted to him were sometimes worth very large sums, and the distances he had to drive them were very great, he rarely or never failed to bring them home safely. One of these men I recollect, who concealed a good deal of natural shrewdness under a most stupid exterior. He always spent his wages in advance on each Saturday at the "White Horse," because : "Ye see, Sir, if I was to die, I shouldn't like my relations to quarrel over my money."

About twelve months ago I visited Steyning Church and Churchyard and could not help a feeling of melancholy at seeing one monument after another to those whom I had known and from some of whom as a schoolboy I had received much kindness. The Reverend Thomas Medland was then the Vicar. He was a good specimen of the old country parson, refined, polished, thoroughly good and kind-hearted and perhaps a little "sedative" in the church, at all events to school-boys. There was a report that he had a hundred sermons which did duty in rotation once in two years, but this was certainly not always the case. Mr. George Gates, brewer and farmer, who was very kind to us boys, was a thorough gentleman of the old school, shrewd, retiring and very strict in all business matters. It was told me that one morning he went out on his cob as usual, and, on his return to dinner in the middle of the day, was reminded that he had an appointment in London on the following morning. In those days railways were scarcely in general use, so Mr. Gates, after a rest, ordered his cob to be saddled and quietly rode to London and was thus able to keep his appointment. Mr. George T. Breach was another well-known man in Steyning. He was a wool-stapler and tanner. He was not well educated, talked load and lived freely; he yet was very much respected for his honesty of purpose and straight-forward conduct. In early days, owing to a panic in the trade, he was under some financial difficulties. He called his creditors together and paid them 15s. in the . He bound them to keep this matter secret and promised to pay the remainder as soon as he was able. Some few years after he invited all his creditors to dine with him, and under his plate each guest found a cheque for the remaining five shillings in the .

Steyning Market was held on each alternate Monday; on these days Mr. Breach's front door was always open, and in a room at the side were refreshments with bottles of spirits of various kinds. On these occasions a large amount of business in the way of wool, skins, etc., was transacted, and a considerable amount of liquor was consumed. I recollect going there one day from school with one of my agricultural friends, when a tall big man came in whose arrival caused a slight flush of excitement. I found in a short time that he had just come from before the Bench of Magistrates, which sat on Market-days in a room in the White Horse Inn, to which he had been summoned for assault and fined, I believe, 2. This gentleman kept some race-horses and for many years a feud had existed between him and another gentleman who also kept race-horses, and lived at a few miles distance. Some mutual friends tried to reconcile these two, and so far succeeded that this gentleman invited the other to dine with him. The dinner passed off well, but after dinner, as he himself told us, he was much annoyed at what ho considered an insulting remark frrom his guest. All the old animosity suddenly returned. He said he would not have his guest, who was a much smaller man, in his house, seized him by the collar o f his coat and his trousers and carried him to the door. Unfortu-nately, the trousers, which were not made of "gude braid claith" like Mr. Baillie Nical Jarvie's garment, would not stand the strain and the rent went right across; hence the summons for assault. I well remember my boyish wonder that such scenes should occur among grown-up men, but in those hard drinking days they did occasionally happen. Mr. Serjeant Ballantine in his "Ex-periences of a Barrister's Life" relates that once on circuit, the Judge, with several of the Sergeants of Serjeants' Inn, were staying at the same hotel. One night these grave and learned men, after a convivial evening, went into the Judge's bedroom and pulled the clothes off his bed in mistake for the room of one of their number, who, contrary to all circuit rules, had left the table early and retired to bed.

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