KEVIN GORDON - Tough life of a Sussex country boy

Arthur's home - the Cottage at Exceat Bridge.  (From the Jim Marsh Collection)
Arthur's home - the Cottage at Exceat Bridge. (From the Jim Marsh Collection)

Joyce Knight of Newick died in 1997 but was keen to record details of her family, particularly her father, Arthur Mewett, who died just seven years earlier at the grand old age of 91 years. Luckily for us Joyce wrote an account of his life in agriculture which makes fascinating reading. I was particularly interested in his early life when he lived near to me.

Arthur was born in 1897 in Polegate, but soon afterwards the family moved to Seaford as his father got a job at Cuckmere Haven. Firstly the family lived in Steyne Road and Arthur remembered the flood of 1900, when he watched from an upstairs window as local fisherman, Mr Simmons, ferried people to and fro in his rowing boat.

Oxen ploughing on the South Downs near Seaford

Oxen ploughing on the South Downs near Seaford

Arthur’s father, Andrew, was a shepherd and worked for Mr Gorringe at Foxhole Farm on the eastern banks of the Cuckmere just half a mile from the sea. In 1902 the family moved to a cottage alongside Exceat Bridge (many years later the cottage became the Golden Galleon.) Arthur’s mother Lydia took in lodgers and opened a small tea-room. She made all her own bread although sometimes bought a loaf or two from Mrs Pullen at nearby Exceat Farm. There was only one delivery a week so every Saturday lunchtime Lydia used to walk over to Seaford Head to go shopping in the town. Apparently, at exactly 3.30pm every Saturday, the family dog, Mike, would leave home and walk across the hill to Chyngton to escort her back home!

Things were tough and there was much ‘living off the land’. Lydia would catch rabbits from the fields or eels from the river. She would also gather shellfish from the beach, particularly limpets which she would roast. Andrew would catch lobsters in the sea and Lydia grew vegetables, including swede and cow-cabbage (also known as Jersey Kale). Once a year Mr Baker, a herbalist from London, visited her to gather plants for his shop.

He would arrive with two large cases which he would fill with eyebright (Euphrasia) dock-roots, horehound, ragwort, tansy and marshmallow. When the cases were full they would be taken by cart to Seaford Station for the trip to London. I wonder if those plants still grow here on the South Downs?

Christmas must have been pretty bleak at Exceat. Mr Gorringe would give them a joint for lunch but there were no special presents apart from dates and nuts and an extra large dinner, although one Christmas Arthur did get a wooden horse on wheels.

One day an official arrived at the cottage and demanded that Arthur attend school, the nearest being at West Dean. Lydia kept her son away from school telling the authorities that he was unable to attend due to nose bleeds. In two years he only attended school for just five days. I suspect that the reason Arthur did not attend school was that he was needed to assist his father as a shepherd. By the age of six, he was working in the spring as a rook-scarer which involved standing alone in a field from dawn to dusk keeping birds off the fresh corn.

For this he was paid 4 shillings (25p) a week. Needless to say he never learnt to read, although his sister Lily (also called Tilly) taught him the words to hymns so he could become a choirboy at West Dean Church.

Although he couldn’t read, he was once given an old comic book where he saw a picture of someone rolling down a hill in a barrel. This seemed a good idea so he borrowed a barrel and tried this for himself. When he didn’t return home, his father found him unconscious at the bottom of a steep hill beside the smashed barrel. He was carried home and when he eventually woke up he was not only covered in bruises, but also had to endure a smacking from his father for being naughty!

At this time the family moved across the river to live at the remote Foxhole Farm.

When Arthur turned eight, he started to work full-time as a cattle-minder on Exceat farm. Most days would find him, rain or shine, tending to the cows on the Salts Fields alongside the river. During harvest, he worked as a standfast-boy. This job involved being at the front of a team of oxen who were pulling a cart to collect the harvest. He would have to move them forward very slowly a few inches at a time so the men could load the hay or sheaves of corn.

Arthur also worked as an ox-boy which involved driving the lumbersome oxen by goading them with a long stick.

Oxen were better over muddy fields but didn’t have the intelligence of horses so sometimes Arthur would be in charge of a ‘pick-axe’ team which was a horse between the shafts with two oxen ahead.

The farmer, Mr Gorringe, kept the oxen when other farmers gave way to sheep and later tractors. He was the last farmer in Sussex to use the beasts.

While he was still eight years old Arthur left home to work at Crowlink, three miles away near East Dean where he worked with shepherd David Breech.

I find it astonishing that young Arthur Mewett put in hundreds of hours’ hard manual labour, working in all weathers, often alone, before he reached his ninth birthday! It seems almost medieval – but it was just over a century ago on our own doorstep. I cant imagine any eight year olds today being able to do that!