KEVIN GORDON - Earning his keep at age of only eight

David Breach with his flock at East Dean
David Breach with his flock at East Dean

Last week I wrote of the amazing early life of Arthur Mewett who started work at the age of six, working on the fields around Cuckmere Haven. I finished with the fact that he left home at the tender age of eight to work with David Breach at Crowlink on the downs between Friston and the Seven Sisters cliffs.

David Breach was a shepherd and Arthur became a shepherd boy working under him. His first job was to look after the lambs and he was given his very own sheep-dog (called Watch). Every morning he walked to Crowlink from Cuckmere and his first job of the day was to make folds from wattles and stumps in order to keep the lambs together. He would select a good patch of tare (common vetch) or some clover and would remain with the sheep for the day. In the afternoon the lambs would also be fed with linseed cake which had to be broken up before being fed to the lambs to fatten them up.

Shepherds had a tough life on the exposed downland. Arthur wore corduroy trousers, leather leggings, oilskin jackets and thick socks under his heavy boots. In the winter this ‘uniform’ was supplemented with mittens and a heavy so’wester. Many of these items were obtained from the Ingrams Store either in Newhaven or Friars Walk, Lewes. Food had to be taken from home every morning and usually consisted of bread and dripping with a sip of sweet cold tea which was stored in a can. One memorable meal was at Christmas 1905 when David Breach sent young Arthur to his home (Crowlink Farm Cottage) to have a Christmas meal. Afterward Arthur looked after the whole flock of thousands of sheep while David went for his Christmas lunch.

Once while walking across to work, his dog Watch growled as he passed Crowlink Barn. Arthur went in to investigate and to his horror found the body of a dead Indian sailor. The mystery of how he got into the barn was solved when the local Coastguard explained that the man had been found washed up under the cliffs but had been taken to the barn until the matter could be reported to the Coroner.

Life as a shepherd boy was tough, boring and paid little, however the money could be supplemented with other small pieces of work. One shilling (5p) was paid for clearing an acre of charlock, which is wild mustard, but in Sussex was known as ‘kilk’. This was thought to be poisonous to sheep. Every Easter, Arthur took part in an adder hunt (again because they were thought to be dangerous to sheep). A penny was paid for each one killed. He would also get paid for breaking flint to make roads. He would collect the flints and smash them up and was paid 2 shillings (10p) for each ton that he provided. (Although how these were transported is not recalled). Arthur could also get pocket-money in season by scaling down the cliffs to retrieve mews (gulls) eggs which he would sell to a Seaford doctor. This was a particularly dangerous occupation and one day Arthur slipped and it took him hours to climb back up the crumbling chalk cliffs. He decided that it was too risky to do it again. (I have reports of other local shepherds being killed when they fell while collecting mews eggs on Seaford Head).

One day there was a gorse fire on Seaford head and acres of land went up in flames. He managed to find dozens of (pre-cooked?) rabbits which he was able to sell in Seaford making a tidy profit. He must have been a sight though as he walked around the streets with a rabbit over each shoulder absolutely blackened by all the fire ash.

In 1909 Arthur and his father Andrew moved to live in a small cottage shared with other members of the family at Black Robin Farm near Eastbourne. Things were tough and the family survived on ‘bread and scraps’ and weak tea. Andrew contracted pneumonia and died at St Mary’s Hospital. For a while Arthur had to look after his father’s flock as well as continuing to work for David Breach in Crowlink – these must have been very long days and difficult times for him. Remember he was only 12 years old!

In 1911 Arthur - now living with relations - had to move to Blatchington to the west of Seaford. This was too far for him to commute to Crowlink so he worked as a caddy at Seaford Head Golf Course and would also carry parcels to and from Seaford Station. Luckily on one of these errands he bumped into a former employer, Mr Gorringe, of Chyngton Farm, and Arthur got a job working with horses and ploughing and sowing fields.

On the outbreak of the First World War two huge military camps were built at Seaford. Arthur was now 17 and found that he could make money by assisting with the building of the camps. He obtained work for McAlpines, first hauling bricks and timber to East Blatchington and then, when the camps were built, ferrying ammunition supplies from the station to the camps. He did try to join the army at this time but was turned away as he was too young. Strange to think that by that time he had already been at work for 11 years!