Charles Fleet.

Glimpses of our ancestors in Sussex : with sketches of Sussex characters, remarkable incidents, & etc. online

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wages he received, the "guerdon" he got for successful
lambing, and such-like business matters, and not to rages
and jealousies and hates arising from the tender passion
the jiltin'gs of mistresses (his "young woman" never thought
of jilting him nor his "missus" of planting the "green-eyed
monster" in his breast!) or the treasons of friends. If the
human passions slumber anywhere they do so in the heart of
a Southdown shepherd, and thus he seldom or never figures
at a Police Court or in an Assize calendar. Even the Game
Laws lose their terrors to him: he is no poacher, but fast
friends with the sportsman, to whom a "shepherd's hare" is
always a dernier ressort, and a safe one too, when the covers
fail to supply sport.

The Down shepherd, too, has his own field of sport, or
used to have. Wheatears, which once abounded on our
Downs, were a little mine of wealth to him he caught them
with springes set in the turf and plovers' eggs were another
source of revenue. The capture of the first and the search
for the second, the marking down of a hare's seat, or the
watching of rabbits going in and out of their burrows these,
doubtless, supply those varieties to the shepherd's life on the
Downs without which it would be dull indeed, for days must
sometimes pass with no other society but that of sheep
and dog, and nothing more to do than watch the one and
order the other.

92 Glimpses of Our Ancestors.

"What a fine opportunity for study!" some contemplative
reader, or some member of a School Board, eager for juvenile
development, may exclaim. We believe that the class is as
innocent of literary or scientific tastes as Audrey was of
poetry. It is in the society of men, and not of sheep or
beeves, that these cultivated tastes flourish in England at
least. Now and then there is an exception ; but they are
few and far between. Scotland can boast of a poet and an
astronomer who were shepherds, and Sussex has one instance,
and only one, of a shepherd who turned aside from sheep to
letters. This latter was John Dudeney, a native of Rotting-
dean, and a descendant from a long line of shepherds, who,
in a " plain unvarnished tale," has left us a chronicle of the
life of a shepherd of the Southdowns which is, in prose, as
truthful a picture as Shakspeare's is in verse.

John Dudeney was born at Rottingdean on the 2ist
April, 1782, his father being shepherd to John Hamshaw,
Esq. His own shepherd-life extended from his 8th to his
23rd year, when he exchanged his flock of sheep for a flock
of children in fact, became a schoolmaster at Lewes, and so
spent a long and useful life.

"When I was eight years old," he tell us, in a communication made
by him to Mr. R. W. Blencowe at an advanced period of his life, " I
began to follow the sheep during the summer months ; in winter I some-
times drove the plough. I was fond of reading and borrowed all the books
I could. When I was about ten a gentleman (whom I aftenvards found
to be Mr. Dunvan, author of what is called Lee's History of Lewes) came
to me on the hills and gave me a small History of England and Robinson
Crusoe, and I read them both with much interest. When he first came
he inquired of the boy who tended my father's flock, while I was gone to
sheepshearing, for a wheatear's nest, which he had never seen. These
birds usually build their nest in the chalk-pits and in the holes which the
rabbits had made. I afterwards bought, when I came to Lewes fair, a
small History of France and one of Rome, as I could get the money;
indeed, when I came to the fairs, I brought all the money I could spare to
buy books.

" My mother sometimes tended my father's flock while he went to
sheepshearing. I have known other shepherds' wives do the same; but
this custom, like many others, is discontinued. I have not seen a woman
with a flock for several years.

" The masters allowed me the keeping of one sheep, the lamb and the
wool of which brought me about 145. or 155. a year, which I saved till I

The Southdown Shepherd. 93

had enough to buy a watch, for which I gave four guineas, and which has
now shown me the time of day for more than half a century. My father
let me have the privilege of catching wheatears, which brought me in a
few shillings. These birds are never found in great numbers so far from
the sea-coast, and I very seldom caught a dozen in a day. The bird called
the bustard, I have heard old shepherds say, formerly frequented the
Downs ; but their visits have been discontinued for nearly a century. I
have heard my father say that his father saw one about the year 1750 ; he
saw that near to Four Lords' Dool, a place so called because at the
tumulus or dool there four parishes meet St. John's under the Castle,
Chailey, Chiltington and Falmer. When I was sixteen I went to service,
as under-shepherd, at West Blatchington, where I remained one year.
When the transit of Mercury over the sun's disc took place on the 7th
of May, 1799, my curiosity was excited; but in looking for it without due
precaution I very much injured one of my eyes.

"In the winter of 1798-9, during a snow, my flock was put into a barn-yard,
the first instance I know of putting the sheep into the yard, except in lambing
time. There we caught more wheatears than at my father's. I used to sell
some to the gentry on their excursions to the Devil's Dyke for 2s. 6d. or 35. a
dozen ; at the beginning of the season sometimes catching three dozen in
a day, but not often. At Midsummer, 1799, I removed to Kingston, near
Lewes, where I was under-shepherd for three years. The flock was very
large ([,400 the winter stock), and my master, the head shepherd, being
old and infirm, much of the labour devolved on me. While here I had
better wages, 6 a year ; I had also a part of the money obtained from
the sale of wheatears, though we did not catch them here in great numbers,
a dozen or two a day, seldom more. The hawks often injured us by tearing
them out of their coops, and scattering their feathers about, which frightened
the other birds from the coops. During winter I caught the moles, which,
at twopence each, brought me a few shillings. I could, therefore, spare a
little more money for books. I still read such as I could borrow, on history,
&c., for I never, after I was twelve or thirteen years of age, could bear to
spend my time in what is called light reading.

" I had very little opportunity of reading at home, so used to take a
book or two in my shepherd's coat-pocket, and to pursue my studies by
the side of my flock when they were quiet. I was never found fault with
for neglecting my business through reading. I have sometimes been on
the hills in winter from morning till night, and have not seen a single
person during the whole day. In the snow, I have walked to and fro
under the shelter of a steep bank, or in a bottom, or a combe, while my
sheep have been by me scraping away the snow with their forefeet to get
at the grass, and I have taken my book out of my pocket, and, as I walked
to and fro in the snow, have read to pass away the time. It is very cold
on the Downs in such weather ; I remember once, whilst with my father,
the snow froze into ice on my eyelashes, and he breathed on my face to
thaw it off. The Downs are very pleasant in summer, commanding
extensive views of both sea and land : I very much wanted a telescope,
and could not spare money to buy one ; but I met with some lenses, and
putting them into a paste-board case, I contrived one, which afforded me
much amusement in pleasant weather.

" In 1802 I began practical geometry from Turner's 'Introduction.' I
bought some paper and a pair of iron compasses. I riled off part of one

94 Glimpses of Our Ancestors.

of the legs so that I could fasten on a pencil or pen, then, laying my paper
on the greensward on the hill, I drew my circles, triangles, &c.

" On that part of the hill where my sheep required least attention, I
dug a hole in the ground amongst the heath, and placed a large flintstone
over it. No one would think of there being anything under it if they had
seen it. In that hole I kept some books and a slate, which, when
convenient, I took out and went to work at arithmetic, algebra, geometry,
&c. This under-stone library was on Newmarket Hill, not far from a
pond, near to which a cottage and a barn have since been erected. For
more than thirty years the place where the hole had been was to be seen;
and I have several times gone a little way out of my road to visit it and
offer up my thanks to that gracious Providence who has so directed my
way; but within these last few years the plough has passed over it, and I
can no longer find the exact spot.

" My master, the head shepherd, at Kingston, had the keeping of
twenty sheep as part of his wages ; and I have heard old shepherds affirm
that, in the generation before them, some of the shepherds had nearly, or
quite all, their wages in this way, and it seems to have been of very ancient
practice. We have an instance in the case of Jacob and Laban ; and I
think it probable that the wages of the labouring man were, almost of
necessity, money being scarce, paid in this manner.

" At Midsummer, 1802, I went (at his request) to be head shepherd to
James Ingram, Esq., of Rottingdean. Mr. Thomas Beard and Mr.
Dumbrill had each of them sheep in the flock, but Mr. Ingram having
most, he was my real master. The farm was called the Westside Farm,
extending from Rottingdean to Black Rock, in Brighton Parish ; it was a
long narrow slip of ground, not averaging more than half a mile in width.
My flock required very close attention, as they had to feed so much
between the pieces of corn, and there were no fences to keep them off.
In such situations a good dog is a most valuable help to a shepherd, and I
was fortunate in having a very excellent one.

" The farm extending along the sea-coast, I caught great numbers of
wheatears during the season for taking them, which lasts from the middle
of July to the end of August. The most I ever caught in one day was
thirteen dozen ; but we thought it a good day if we caught three or four
dozen. We sold them to a poulterer at Brighton, who took all we could
catch in the season at i8d. a dozen. From what I have heard from old
shepherds, it cannot be doubted that they were caught in much greater
numbers a century ago than of late. I have heard them speak of an
immense number being taken in one day by a shepherd at East Dean, near
Beachy Head. I think they said he took nearly a hundred dozen ; so many,
that he could not thread them on crow-quills in the usual manner, but took
off his round frock and made a sack of it to put them into, and his wife did
the same with her petticoat. This must have happened when there was a
great flight. Their numbers now are so decreased that some shepherds
do not set up any coops, as it does not pay for the trouble.

" I had a good father and mother, though they were poor, my father's
wages being only ^"30 a year, and the keeping of ten or twelve sheep,
having a family of ten children, yet we were never in want."

We doubt if John Dudeney has had any followers among
Southdown shepherds in his pursuit of knowledge under

The Southdown Shepherd. 95

difficulties, or in his exchange of the tending of sheep for
the instruction of children. The life of the Southdown
shepherd is, at best, a " hard one," and presents few or no
opportunities for self-improvement, and none of those degrees
or steps in the social scale by which men mount Fortune's
ladder. As a rule, once a shepherd, always a shepherd ; and
the shepherd's boy has nothing higher to look to than to be
a shepherd. The opportunities of leisure and contemplation
which, to minds already formed to study, may seem tempting
to some, are more than counter-balanced by the absence, in
a shepherd's life, of those incentives to exertion which are
supplied to other men by closer contact and the fiercer
competition of city-life. To those engaged in them these
seem to be evils ; and doubtless they have their evil side.
But let the theoretic lover of solitude poet or philosopher
try a year or two of sheep-tending on the Southdowns, and
those hills, so beautiful and delightful when seen in their
summer garb, would soon disgust him by their barren solitude
and bleakness. The shepherd endures all this with stolid
patience ; but it does not develop his mind or raise him in
the scale of humanity. We question if the tendency in the
life of the Southdown shepherd of modern days is not to
sink, rather than to rise, in comparison with other classes of
labourers. The latter move onward with the stream ; he,
almost necessarily by the conditions of his life, is stationary.
His world of action is rather narrowed than enlarged. The
wide-sweeping Downs are pressed upon by the plough on
the one side and by Building Societies on the other; the
limit of the shepherd's domains is yearly narrowed, and he is
brought more under the eye and within the ordinary control
of the farmer, and is less his own master; has lighter
responsibilities and less trust ; and all this tends to make the
Down shepherd a less important member of the rural com-
munity than he used to be in bygone days. Still, he remains
perhaps more closely and truly resembling the figure that was
seen on the same hills a thousand years ago than any other
set of men, on mountain or plain, in this England of ours.

9 6 Glimpses of Our Ancestors.

And, of all spots so to see the shepherd in his primitive state,
the Southdowns are the best.

"Shepherds," writes Richard Lower, of Chiddingly,
Sussex (the father of Mark Antony Lower), in a paper on
" Old Southdown Shepherds," " were famous for spinning
long yarns; and if it chanced that two or three met together
on some lofty brow, within sight of their respective flocks,
stories of great length would surely be related. These, chiefly
referring to their own calling, would beguile many hours, and
sometimes concerned matters that happened ' fifty year
agoo,' or very likely a ' hundud.' I once accidentally
overheard two retired shepherds, who were sitting on a March
morning under a sunny hedge, conversing in a somewhat
disconsolate tone concerning the prosperity of bygone days.
One was telling the other how he had known the time when,
in a single year, from forty to fifty thousand sheep had been
washed near the spot where they were sitting, and ' now,' he
exclaimed, ' there be none! ' The ' wash ' had been removed
to another locality and this seemed to him almost a national
calamity. 'As to birding,' he continued, in a still more
doleful tone, 'birding is now all auver; why, I used to make
quite a harvest of my birds twelve pound a year or more I
have made of my birds ; and one year I made fourteen pounds
eight shillings. We sent 'em ye see to Burthemson (Bright-
helmstone Brighton) and otherwhile we catched so many
that the Burthemsoners coud'nt take 'em all, and I myself
have sent some to Tunbridge Wells. That was the time o'
dee, Old Boy, for shepherds.' For laziness the shepherd, in
his every-day habits, had no equal. Wrapped up in his thick
great-coat, impervious to rain, snow or hail, he would throw
himself backwards into a hawth bush and snugly repose as on
a bed of down for hours together. If a traveller, chancing
to stray to the spot where he lay, enquired his road over those
trackless, lonely hills, the shepherd, too lazy to rise to give
the required information, would stretch out his leg, pointing
with his foot, and say ' over dat yander hill by de burg

The Southdown Shepherd.


down that 'ere bottom and so up de bostle,' as the case
might be, and drop again into his doze as snug as a dormouse."

This matter-of-fact view of shepherd life, from shepherds
themselves, may help us to qualify the somewhat artificial
and sophisticated one which poets and outsiders are apt to
take. The truth, perhaps, lies between the two pictures, for
shepherd life has its poetry as well as its practical hardships
and common-places, and we leave our readers to arrive at it
by the help of the material, drawn from both sides, that we
lay before them.


The Sussex Sheep-Shearer.

O some readers it may suggest itself that the shearer
of sheep ought to have been associated with the
shepherd that it is one and the same set of men
who tend the sheep and who shear them. But
this would be to fall into a mistake. A shepherd may be,
and, indeed, usually is a shearer, but the great majority of
shearers are not shepherds ; and whilst the character of the
shepherd varies with the locality in which he carries on his
work and thus the shepherd of the hills may be a very
different character from the shepherd of the plain or the
mountain the occupation of the sheep-shearer knows no such
variation. It is pursued in every county and country pretty
much under the same circumstances and conditions, and
gives rise to no special character in those who pursue it. It
is, indeed, so to say, only an accident of rural life; occupies
a few days' labour, and then is not needed until another year.
So, sheep-shearing is not a vocation a settled calling; there
is no body of men who get their living solely by it, as
shepherds get their's. A shepherd is always to be seen where
there are sheep ; but enquire for a sheep-shearer in any but
the sheep-shearing months, and the only reply you would get
would be to be shown a man who can shear, but whose
settled employment is of a very different kind. And yet it is
not every man that can shear only here and there one; and
so the sheep-shearer stands out from the common herd of
agricultural labourers: he is, for some few days of the year,

The Sussex Sheep- Shearer. 99

a skilled labourer almost an artist and as such he must be
treated with some respect and calls for our notice and

Sometimes, indeed, a shepherd will undertake the shearing
of his flock, and then we have the nearest approach to a pure
sheep-shearer. But there is many a shepherd who does not
shear, as there are thousands of shearers who are not
shepherds not, indeed, agricultural labourers at all. It is
the one province of rural industry, now that spinning is no
longer carried on in the cottage, that approximates most
closely to the work of townspeople. Not only may any hand
on a farm take to shearing if he possess the necessary skill
and will be allowed by his master to shear for other farmers
as well as -for himself, but men who are not farm labourers at
all tailors and shoemakers and such-like as are skilful in the
use of the scissors will join a " Company " of shearers and
take a circuit of country, such circuits being mapped out and
kept by the different sets of shearers with as much strictness
as gentlemen of the long robe keep to their circuits and
some people may be malicious enough to insinuate, for the
same object, namely, of shearing their sheep !

The arrival of these shearing "Companies" at a farm used
once to be a very important event. Each Company had its
captain and lieutenant, selected for their trustworthy character,
their superior intelligence, and their skill in the shearing art.
And, as a symbol of the authority with which they were
invested, the captain wore a gold-laced hat and the lieutenant
a silver-laced one. As soon as the Company was formed, all
the men repaired to the cottage of the captain, where a feast,
which was called the " White-ram," was provided for them,
and on this occasion the whole plan of the campaign was
discussed and arranged. They generally got to their place
of shearing about seven, and, having breakfasted, they began
their work. Once in the forenoon, and twice in the after-
noon, their custom was to "light up," as they termed it;
that is, th,ey ceased to work for a few minutes, drank their

loo Glimpses of Our Ancestors.

beer, sharpened their shears, and set to work again. Their
dinner-hour was one, but this was not the great meal of
the day, their supper being the time of real enjoyment, and
when this was over they would remain for several hours in
the house smoking their pipes and singing their sheep-
shearing songs, in which they were joined by the servants of
the farm ; and sometimes the master and mistress of the
house would favour them with their presence.

Some of these sheep-shearing songs still linger in the
memories of old men and women, and may occasionally be
heard at rural merry-makings, one of their characteristics
being their interminable length. The following is a speci-
men :

Come, all my jolly boys, and we'll together go
Abroad with our masters, to shear the lamb and ewe ;
All in the merry month of June, of all times in the year,
It always comes in season the ewes and lambs to shear ;
And there we must work hard, boys, until our backs do ache,
And our master he will bring us beer whenever we do lack.

Our master he comes round to see our work is doing well,

And he cries, " Shear them close, men, for there is but little wool."

" O yes, good master," we reply, "we'll do well as we can,"

When our Captain calls, " Shear close, boys !" to each and every man.

And at some places still we have this story all day long,

" Close them, boys, and shear them well!" and this is all their song.

And then our noble Captain doth unto our master say,

" Come, let us have one bucket of your good ale, I pray."

He turns unto our Captain and makes him this reply :

"You shall have the best of beer, I promise, presently."

Then out with the bucket pretty Betsy she doth come,

And master says, " Maid, mind and see that every man has some."

This is some of our pastime while we the sheep do shear,
And though we are such merry boys, we work hard, I declare ;
And when 'tis night, and we are done, our master is more free,
And stores us well with good strong beer and pipes and tobaccee.
So we do sit and drink, we smoke and sing and roar.
Till we become more merry far than e'er we were before.

When all our work is done, and all our sheep are shorn,
Then home to our Captain, to drink the ale that's strong.
'Tis a barrel, then, of hum cap, which we call the black ram ;
And we do sit and swagger, and swear that we are men ;
But yet before 'tis night, I'll stand you half a crown,
That if you ha' n't a special care the ram will knock you down.

The Sussex Sheep- Shearer. 101

The next specimen of rural minstrelsy is in a more tuneful
spirit, but, we fear, is not such a genuine production of the
soil as the foregoing. It was, however, frequently sung at
Sussex sheep-shearings in former days, and, for aught we
know, may be so now:

Here the rose-buds in June, and the violets are blowing ;
The small birds they warble from every green bough ;

Here's the pink and the lily,

And the daffydowndilly,

To adore and perfume the sweet meadows in June.
'Tis all before the plough the fat oxen go slow;
But the lads and the lasses to the sheep-shearing go.

Our shepherds rejoice in their fine heavy fleece,

And frisky young lambs, with their flocks do increase;

Each lad takes his lass,

All on the green grass,

Where the pink and the lily,

And the daffydowndilly, &c.

Here stands our brown jug, and 'tis fill'd with good ale,
Our table, our table shall increase and not fail;
We'll joke and we'll sing,
And dance in a ring ;
Where the pink and the lily,
And the daffydowndilly, &c.

When the sheep-shearing's over, and harvest draws nigh,
We'll prepare for the fields, our strength for to try;
We'll reap and we'll mow,
We'll plough and we'll sow;
Oh ! the pink and the lily,
And the daffydowndilly, &c.

Some of the toasts given on these occasions were very
quaint and had their special ballads attached to them. One
of these latter commenced as follows:

Our maid she would a hunting go,

She'd never a horse to ride;

She mounted on her master's boar,

And spurred him on the side.

Chink ! chink ! chink ! the bridle went,

As she rode o'er the downs.
So here's unto our maiden's health,
Drink round, my boys ! drink round !

The supper finished, and the profits shared, the members
of the Company shook hands and parted, bidding each other
good-bye till another year, and each man bending his steps
towards his own home, which, probably, lay widely apart from

IO2 Glimpses of Our Ancestors.

those of his late companions. Yet year after year the
members of these Companies meet together, make their
accustomed round, and carry out their compact with much
goodwill and harmony. It is one of the few remaining
instances which modern life affords of such voluntary
associations for a common end. In the Middle Ages they

Online LibraryCharles FleetGlimpses of our ancestors in Sussex : with sketches of Sussex characters, remarkable incidents, & etc. → online text (page 9 of 26)