Vagabonds of the forest

Nutley's local scenery.
Nutley's local scenery.

Nutley was a rough and ready kind of place in the old days.

The Sussex historian Mark Antony Lower denounced the forest dwellers there as ‘rogues and vagabonds’.

When the fair visited Nutley, in the field by the old Shelley Arms, the stallholders always nailed their gingerbread to the counter for fear the ‘foresty people’ would snatch the lot.

The writer Barbara Willard, who made her home in the village, recorded before World War Two that there were ‘ strange ragged characters under rough shelters, barefooted children and bearded tinkers’. The road was small, dusty and winding; and at the pub on the corner, one that has now gone, the landlord would give you a pint of beer just to stay and talk to him! Pinching bits of the forest was considered a perfectly respectable occupation (by some) until late in the 19th century and there was none more adept than James ‘Tinker’ Wright, a man partial to chewing a mixture of tobacco and Spanish licorice kept in a coffin-shaped tin box of his own construction.

He squatted on the forest and from time to time enclosed an acre of ground and built a hut upon it. This he afterwards sold and bought, legitimately, a much smaller enclosure where another ‘matchboard mansion’ sprang up to become home to his wife, three sons and grandchild - and a donkey - all for the princely sum of 10 shillings.

One winter’s day Tinker himself told the Rev Harry Job Peckham, Vicar of Nutley from 1882 to 1913: ‘You would ha’ laughed if you had been in my place this morning. I always sleep in all old billcock hat, and this morning when I woke, bothered if my head wasn’ t jammed tight. ‘It had snowed in the night and come through the cracks, and my head and my hat and the wall was all froze together solid, and I was forced to tear the old hat before I could get my head out.’

Mrs Peckham knitted him a balaclava to replace the spoilt billycock.