Cottage Life in Sussex

An Article by Roy D. Grant


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Investigating how many of our Sussex ancestors lived in a rural environment has frequently proved difficult for they were often just ordinary 'Ag Labs' with little ability to read or write. Understandably, few were able to leave us with much evidence of their homes or their way of life and we have been obliged to rely on the sometimes biased reports of the educated gentry. Some time ago I was pleased to discover a report dated March 1841, which I felt was more factual than any I had previously read.

E. Carleton Tufnell took us into two homes of the agricultural poor in East Sussex, and like a 'fly on the wall' painted the picture he saw of the rural existence of our early Victorian ancestors. Those of you with an interest in arithmetic, might like to add his weekly food bill to the 2s. a week rent and one fiftieth of the £2 11s. He owes on faggots. You will begin to realise that without sons, piece work, and harvests, the Sussex agricultural labourer's income was insufficient to meet his anticipated weekly expenditure.

Health, General, Book 3, 1832-42 pp. 670-671

(Extract taken from original copies of British Parliamentary Papers: and reprinted in Ireland in 1970)

I will first describe the cottage and mode of living of a Sussex labourer, whose family is such as to make him the most distressed of his class. He has a wife and seven children, the eldest of whom is a girl aged twelve, and all the rest happen to be girls, except one boy, five years old.

I entered the cottage through a garden rather less than a quarter of an acre in size, which does not supply quite enough vegetables for their consumption. On the left, close outside the doorway, is a large pile of faggots for winter use, it being towards the end of October, and coals not used in this part of the county. These faggots were obtained by the man from his employer at a low price, and are not yet paid for, part of his wages being stopped for that purpose. They consist of I00 house-faggots, whose cost was £1 16s. and 100 kiln-faggots for the baking, costing 15s.

On entering, the cottage displays a room about 20 feet long by 15, paved with brick, and nearly divided into two by a partition; the fire-place is here, and it forms the sitting-room of the family. The furniture consists of one common looking deal table, a rather elegant round oak one, with movable flaps, a mahogany cupboard, and six chairs; there are curtains to the windows. Adjoining is a pantry, which seems well filled with all sorts of cooking utensils, and a bakehouse, where the family bake once a-week, as is the custom in these parts, bakers being rarely employed. Up stairs there are two bedrooms, in one of which the man, his wife, and the baby sleep, and in the other, which contains three beds, the rest of the children.

They purchase six gallons of flour weekly, which is made into bread or cakes with potatoes. They drink tea made with burnt crusts, China tea being too expensive now. Since the price of sugar has risen, they have been obliged to give up its use, but a quarter of a pound is bought weekly to sweeten the pap for the baby. They have no meat except on a Sunday, when a meat pudding is made, and none of the family ever tastes beer, except, perhaps, the man gets some now and then from his master. The man is in constant work at 12s. a-week, but sometimes he gets piece-work, and then earns 15s. weekly. The cottage, which is rented at 2s. weekly, is clean and well drained; its literary furniture consists of two Bibles and a New Testament; there is no Prayer-book, as the inmates are Dissenters. The distress of the family arises from the unusual circumstance that the children are nearly all girls, and hence can earn nothing. Were the eldest or the second a boy, he would probably add 2s. or 3s. a-week to the general income by assisting his father.

The actual weekly expenditure is as follows:-

6 gallons of flour @ 16d

8s. 0d

8 oz. soap

3s. ½d

12 oz. candles

4s. ½d

1 lb. butter

1s. 0d

4 oz. sugar

2s. ½d

1 lb. 8 oz. meat




Starch, pepper and salt


1 lb. cheese


Worsted, cotton, tape &c



11s. 9 ½d

Here, and subsequently in the accounts of the weekly expenditure of labourers, I shall not insert the rent or clothing, as l find that these are generally not paid for weekly, but are reserved to be paid off at harvest, or at odd times, when more than the usual wages are earned.

I now proceed to another cottage, also inhabited by a distressed family, consisting of a widower with two grown-up daughters, one of whom is a cripple, totally incapable of work; the other is prevented from entering service by a disease, which, however, does not incapacitate her from taking the management of the house; there is also one younger girl, who attends school, and a boy 10 years old, who earns, when employed, 6d. a day.

The first room on entering their cottage is the kitchen, about 18 feet square, and which contains five neat cushioned chairs, two rush-bottomed ones, a deal table, a mahogany one, a mahogany commode, a shelf neatly adorned with crockery. There are curtains to the windows, and a handsome clock case, the works of which are gone, I suppose, to pay a debt. A wash-house opens from this room. There are two bed-rooms upstairs, which l did not enter; there is no garden; the rent is 1s. 6d. a week. They bake their flour in an oven common to three houses, the tenants of which use it in turn. The man earns 12s. a week when in employment, which, however, is not constant as he bears a bad character. There is no stock of faggots here for the winter, as in the preceding case, since, owing to the man's character, his master would not trust him, for the payment, and he buys what he wants by single faggots. The distress of this family is entirely owing to the indifferent character of the man, which prevents his having continuous work, and deprives him of many little advantages which a trustworthy labourer can always obtain.

From: Cottage Life in Sussex Copyright © by Roy D. Grant
from SUSSEX FAMILY HISTORIAN, the Journal of the Sussex Family History Group
Vol.10 No.6 June 1993 - pp.242-243. Reprinted with the author's permission (11 Aug. 2020)

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This page was updated on: 8 September 2020