KEVIN GORDON - All-round garment that can even be worn to church

Reuben Russell, (Seaford's last shepherd)  in his smock
Reuben Russell, (Seaford's last shepherd) in his smock

I popped into Ticehurst Church a couple of weeks ago. It is a delightful building with so much of interest both inside and out. One item that caught my eye was a beautifully embroidered Sussex smock.

A smock is an all-purpose all-weather garment what was very popular with the agricultural classes during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the south of England.

The smock at Ticehurst

The smock at Ticehurst

They were usually worn by shepherds and other men who worked outdoors such as carters. They were made of linen or wool and had wide sleeves and usually went down to the knee.

The front would be heavily embroidered which pulled the fabric tight across the chest. This would be the area where there could be decoration, often to reflect the trade of the owner; for instance a carter would have a wheel design. Traditionally the embroidery would be the same colour as the rest of the smock.

The colour of a smock was important; carters and ploughmen tended to wear black smocks while shepherds usually wore blue. The last shepherd at Seaford was Reuben Russell who always wore a smock when working with his flock on Seaford Head. His smock was blue and the linen had a thick, denim like quality. There was little embroidery. When he died aged 71 years in 1899, his smock was saved and was later passed on to Seaford Museum where it can be seen today.

The smock at Ticehurst, however, is white. White smocks were used for ‘Sunday best’ and also for funerals.

Members of the church choir would also often wear white smocks. When ‘Mad Jack’ John Fuller of Brightling gave the local church, St Thomas a Becket’s, a huge barrel organ in 1820, he also presented each member of the choir with a white smock.

For some reason an order was given to warders at Lewes Prison in 1836 to the effect that prisoners should not be allowed to wear their smocks. This was the old ‘House of Correction’ - the current Lewes Prison was not built until 1853.

Often the smock was the week-day wear of the local clergy (As God’s ‘shepherds’ this is not surprising). It was reported in 1844 that rural clergy were wearing smocks when they went on their rounds of the village. Examples given include black smocks with the embroidery stitches in red. The design was often in the shape of a cross.

When Lady Ashburnham was buried at Guestling Church in 1907, estate workers attended her funeral wearing smocks.

Smocks were popular until the start of the 20th century but had their last use during the Great War. In 1914 a soldier at Uckfield Market put on a smock to collect money for Belgian refugees.

A Sussex marching song of 1916 had the line “Jake throws off his Sussex Smock/he leaves his masters flock and answers the alarm”.

During the war, local eccentric Major W Grantham would regularly wear a Sussex smock and suggested it was the best item of clothing to be worn when playing stoolball.

In 1917, it was recorded that the pall-bearers at a funeral in Catsfield wore ‘old fashioned Sussex smocks which imparted an old world air to the occasion’.

A photo in the Kent and East Sussex Courier the following year shows mourners wearing white Sussex smocks at the funeral of Earl Brassey who was also buried at Catsfield.

In 1930, an elderly man, Charlie Bennet, attended the Mayor of Hastings’ annual dinner wearing his old Sussex smock. In 1933 pall-bearers at the funeral for Lord Monk-Bretton wore white Sussex smocks at Barcombe church. One of the last references I have been able to find dates from 1940 and neatly brings us back to Ticehurst.

When Lady Calthorpe was laid to rest at Ticehurst church, farm hands and other mourners from her estate wore traditional white Sussex smocks.

The smock at Ticehurst church dates from 1939 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the local Women’s Institute. It was presented to the church in 1963 and is a beautiful example of the long lost craft of smocking.