No such thing as a free lunch?

Sheffield Park
Sheffield Park

The saying goes that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Yet we have a record of at least two events in 19th Century Sussex that totally contradict this popular “bon mot”.

The first occurred in 1825 at Sheffield Park near the pretty little Wealden village of Fletching. In those days it was more often referred to as Sheffield Place and was the home of George Augustus Frederick Charles Holroyd, 2nd Earl of Sheffield. Born in 1802, Holroyd was known as Viscount Pevensey from 1816 to 1821.

He was the son of John Baker-Holroyd, 1st Earl of Sheffield, by his second wife Lady Anne North. The latter was the daughter of British Prime Minister Frederick North. George Holroyd (aka Viscount Pevensey) succeeded his father in the earldom in 1821 at the age of 19.

The estate he inherited at Sheffield Place had long been beautifully landscaped having enjoyed the attention some decades earlier of “England’s greatest gardener”, the famous Capability Brown, who, incidentally, sported as his actual first name that of “Lancelot”.

As was customary in those times, the new Lord Sheffield married a fellow aristocrat, Lady Harriett Lascelles, eldest daughter of the Earl of Harewood. Though he would be considered a right-wing politician today, the young Earl of Sheffield certainly went to enormous expense to include everyone in the entire neighbourhood in the celebration of his nuptuals.

That it must have cost him a small fortune you can gauge from the following extensive report that appeared in the “The Sussex Advertiser” of 13th June 1825”: “Sheffield Place was enlivened by festivities. The noble Earl having desired that the whole parish might partake of his hospitality on this memorable occasion it seemed to call every energy into action to fulfill his Lordship’s kind wishes and never were exertions more effectually made on a like occasion as on the present, both Mr Turner, his Lordship’s steward, and by the inhabitants of Fletching.

“The break of day was ushered in by the ringing of church bells and by 11 o’clock the different families began to assemble. At about 12 o’clock the children of the school, amounting to about 150, came into the enclosure in regular order, headed by the mistress and senior teachers, bearing white flags with these words on them – ‘The Earl and Countess of Sheffield Forever!’.

“Other children had white favours and small branches of laurel. The whole body of parishioners in their best Sunday clothes, and, with scarcely an exception, wearing white favours, were admitted as soon as the children had taken their seats, and to the amount of 1,800 placed themselves at the remaining 13 tables. After Grace had been said, they partook of the provisions that consisted of roast and boiled beef, hams, meat pies, bread, potatoes, plum pudding and mild ale.

“The health of Mr Turner was drunk to general acclamation, as were many others. Many of the company now proceeded to the lower part of the park, to witness the different sports that had been provided.

“A new hat, placed on a highly-soaped pole, excited infinite merriment in the spectators. They enjoyed the earnest ambition of the competitors, some of whom mounted each other’s shoulders to endeavour, in vain, to achieve the object of their wishes. This prize of the new hat was finally decided by the humbler efforts of a foot race, such was the resistance which soft soap offered to hard leather and corduroy.

“The next amusement was another footrace, by some gipsy women, for two articles of dress that shall be nameless. Men running in sacks for some shirts next attracted the attention of the spectators and excited loud bursts of laughter. In addition to these sports the scene was enlivened by jingling matches, stoolball parties and, above all, the noble game of cricket.

“The music naturally attracted many groups of dancers, in one of which, tripping to the animating sounds of a fiddle, was exhibited a novelty not unworthy of notice, namely a lame young man, supported by a crutch, managing it with an adroitness that enabled him to lead the dance with the utmost ease and precision and with an elegance too. In this dance department some of the blithe and bonny lasses of Isfield were highly conspicuous in their movements.

“Within the Park there were assembled at least 6,000 persons and some conjectured as many as 9,000 yet the most perfect harmony and good order prevailed. Of these at least 2,000 were regaled at his Lordship’s expense with a full meal and with ample portions of liquor. It was not a little surprising, given so many Englishmen having unlimited access to Sir John Barleycorn and his friend Bacchus, there had been none overpowered by potent spells. Good humour and cheerfulness was the order of the day and we have not the least doubt that this celebration of the promising union of the noble houses of Sheffield and Harewood has marked a day which will live long in the grateful memories of the inhabitants of Fletching and its neighbourhood.”

What an amazing account of an astonishing event! Can you imagine all those many thousands of local people making their way - largely on foot – to what is now the tranquil gardens and lakes of Sheffield Park on the promise of ample free food and, perhaps even more enticing, free access to copious beer, wine and spirits. And I love that image of a horde of more than slightly inebriated men all attempting at once to scale the greasy pole!

Earl Sheffield died in April 1876, aged 74, and was succeeded in his titles by his eldest surviving son Henry. The Countess of Sheffield died in January 1889. When Henry died in 1909 the Sheffield Earldom became extinct.

Elsewhere on this page is a drawing of the Dripping Pan in Lewes in 1838, a time many years before the location became the home of Lewes Football Club. It depicts the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Coronation when a free lunch was provided for the poor of Lewes and the surrounding district. You can define the Mount in the background and what is clearly the present-day flint wall along the Mountfield Road side of the ground.

It looks as though the poor are sitting along rows of tables on what is now the football pitch while what I must presume are the better-off townspeople are seen lounging about on the grassed banks observing the needy as they tuck in. The caption actually numbers the poor at 3,900 - a massive figure that makes me wonder how many of the poor people were simply free-loaders. Means-testing 3,900 hungry diners would have been difficult. The caption adds that the poor “were served by no less than 612 Gentlemen who officiated as carvers and attendants”.

Interestingly the illustration has the perspective that would have been afforded by a wide-angle lens should such a thing have existed in those days. Though the location is obviously the Dripping Pan, the original caption refers to the event being held in the ‘Priory Grounds’. A catch-all description for the whole Priory – Convent Field – Dripping Pan area.

So there we have it. Two rather wonderful stories that must count as proof of the pudding that there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch!