BY today’s standards the nocturnal activities of the Barcombe Gang were positively petty – the theft of sheep, chickens and turkeys – but the punishments were harsh.
Transportation to Australia, with its attendant breaking up of families and loss of the breadwinner, was viewed with particular dread.
However, there were always those who were willing to take their chances, and the farms of Barcombe and its neighbouring parishes were hit by a rash of night raids at the end of the 1830s.
The rustlers went undetected for three years until a stolen pullet was spotted in the garden of one William Heasman. A search of his cottage revealed a quantity of mutton – one leg was found hidden under his bedclothes. Heasman had a wife, mother and four children under 10 to support. He decided to turn Queen’s Evidence, rendering him immune from prosecution, confessed to 15 or 16 robberies, and started to name names.
The Brighton Gazette, in its account of the Quarter Sessions on November 11, 1839, read: ‘True bills were found against James Towner, aged 30; William Miles, 21; George Day, 22; Philip Elphick, 24; Richard Funnell, 45; John Jenner, 36, charged with having stolen sheep, chickens and turkeys at Barcombe, Hamsey, Ringmer and other places.’
Towner, a decent family man, emerges as one of the saddest figures in the affair, saying that his neighbour Heasman had tried over a long period to draw him into crime and at last he had succumbed. He faced only one charge at the trial, the theft of sheep from Flood’s Close, but was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years transportation.
Funnell, Elphick and Day were found not guilty of any charges and ‘Squat’ Miles was found guilty of the theft of a sack of wheat from Clayhill Farm.
The jury ‘recommended the prisoner to the mercy of the Court, in consequence of his having been drawn into the commission of the crime by an older man.’ He was given a year’s hard labour.
There was no such mercy for Jenner. He was found guilty on four counts of theft, but a fifth charge of housebreaking at Cowlease earned him 15 years transportation. The census of 1841 describes his wife as both pauper and widow.
Not surprisingly, the talkative William Heasman soon left the district.
n There used to be a variation on the old theme of Sussex folk being strong in the arm and weak in the head which unkind neighbouring villages applied to Barcombe: ‘When the people of Barcombe want to make a cart, they make a wagon and saw it in half.’
Pictured: They knew how to deal with with petty offenders in the old days!