The Sussex Labourers' Revolt

An Article by Colin W. Field


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It is instructive to take a backward glance at a state of affairs - the Poor Law - which, although not mentioned in the established guidebooks on our county, is nevertheless a part of our history and, to me at least, an absorbing part. For those readers who would know more of the revolt itself, and the social conditions that led up to the revolt, I would direct attention to The Village Labourer 1760-1832, by J L and B Hammond, and also the various parish histories, notably History of Salehurst by Mr L J Hodson, and Brede by Mr Edmund Austen.

The disturbances in Sussex began with a fire on 3 November 1830 at an overseer's at Battle. The explanation given by the authorities was that the men had been `excited by a lecture given here lately by a person named Cobbett'. On the night of 4 November there was another fire at Battle, but it was at Brede that open hostilities began.

For some time, the poor of Brede had writhed under the arrogant behaviour of the assistant overseer, Mr Thomas Abell, who had been appointed at a meeting on 21 May 1829. His salary was fixed at £70 per annum, a slight increase on his salary at Ninfield, where he had previously been assistant overseer. Abell was a man of considerable administrative ability and education but was unfortunately cursed with an ungovernable temper, and, according to Mr Austen in his monograph, he was most tyrannical in dealing with the poor of the parish. It was not surprising, therefore, that the inhabitants of Brede determined to get rid of Mr Abell, and at a meeting with the farmers on 5 November, a resolution was signed by both farmers and labourers as follows:

1. The gentlemen agree to give every able bodied labourer with wife and children 2s 3d per day from this day to 1 March next, and from 1 March to 1 October 2s 6d per day, and to have Is 6d per week with three children and so on according to their family.
2. The poor are determined to take the present overseer, Mr Abell, out of the parish and to use him with civility.

The labourers were fully aware that the farmers were in no position to increase their wages until a reduction in the tithe had been effected, and they duly entered into an agreement with the farmers to achieve this object. This end was ultimately gained, by the minister of the parish - Reverend R H S Hele - agreeing to an abatement of the tithe on condition that the labourers' wages were raised.

The meeting with the farmers at an end, the populace made their way to the parish workhouse. After some attempt at resistance, the overseer was prevailed upon by the farmers to quit his quarters, and was promptly placed in the parish cart, and was then conveyed by a crowd of about 500 to the place of his choice - Vinehall, near Robertsbridge - where he was solemnly deposited by the roadside. Understandably incensed at his treatment, Mr Abell lodged a complaint at the nearest magistrates. What effect this complaint had is not certain.

After depositing Mr Abell, the crowd returned to Brede, where the farmers regaled them with beer. On passing the gate of Chitcombe, the farmer, Mr W Coleman, supplied each man and woman with half a pint of beer, declaring 'he was never better pleased in his life than with the day's work which had been done'. Mr Rede of Brede High also supplied a barrel of beer because they had done such a great thing in the parish as to carry that man away'.

Mr Abell, however, finding that the excitement had subsided somewhat, eventually made his way back to his quarters at Brede, where he was allowed to continue as assistant overseer, until his death in 1835. It is interesting to note that after his humiliating experience in the parish cart, Mr Abell's treatment of the poor underwent a striking alteration. It is said that during the following five years, affairs at the workhouse at Brede went on smoothly.

The success at Brede had an immediate effect upon surrounding parishes and Burwash, Ticehurst, Mayfield, Heathfield Warbleton and Ninfield were among those villages that decided to dispense with the services of their assistant overseers.

My own village, Robertsbridge, was not without its disturbances, as the following extract from a letter written at the time by a Battle magistrate named Collingwood will illustrate:
"The poor in the parishes in the south of England, and in Sussex and Kent, greatly have been ground to dust in many instances by the Poor Laws. Instead of happy peasants they are made miserable and sour tempered paupers...
A principal tradesman in Salehurst, in one part of which, Robertsbridge, we had our row the other night, said to me these words: 'You attended our meeting the other day and voted with me against the two principal ratepayers in this parish, two millers, paying the people in two gallons of bad flour instead of money. You heard how saucy they, were to their betters, can you wonder if they are more violent to their inferiors? They never call a man Tom, Dick, etc, but you d-d rascal, at every word, and force them to take their flour. Should you wonder they are dissatisfied?' ... Personally I witnessed but one incident, that of Robertsbridge putting Mr Johnson into the cart. ...

Although the whole of the lengthy letter is not quoted, those interested can find it in The Village Labourer 1760-1832 by T L and B Hammond. The portions quoted, however, illustrate the feeling which was rife in the country.

Author: Colin W Field,
26 High Street, Robertsbridge,
East Sussex, TN32 5AQ
From: Sussex Family Historian - Vol 16 No 8 - December 2005
[Note: Previously published in Sussex County Magazine, June 1949]

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This page was updated on: 8 September 2020