Hailsham History: “Nothing but fields for miles and miles”

There was a time when Hailsham really was a rural community. This was illustrated in the message on a postcard sent in 1932. Local historian Paul Endersby explains…

The picture on the card was of the lower end of the High Street and her message included the words, “The country round here is lovely, you can see nothing but fields for miles and miles with few houses and one or two farms dotted about. I like it here very much.”  

For many years there was a small town centre with a few buildings, not all used as shops, at the lower end of The High Street and the top end of George Street. 

Additionally, there were other small groups and individual shops just outside the town centre serving local neighbourhoods and communities notably at Horsebridge, plus individual small stores scattered around the outlying roads including the Harebeating Stores in Battle Road, Swingate Store in the road leading up to the former Hellingly Hospital. This includes Rays Stores in London Road midway between Leap Cross and The Horsebridge Mill and another small store in Mill Road.

The town centre was surrounded by farms now largely replaced by housing developments many of which took the names from these former farms on which the houses now stand. Such names include Lansdowne, Harmers Hay, Diplocks, Town, Grovelands, Ersham, Bakers, Seaforth and Hawks plus Knockhatch. This is by no means an exhaustive list. In total the 1871 census identified 26 farms in the Hailsham area.

The 1851 census revealed for the first time there were now as many people living in the towns as the countryside. However this was not reflected in
Hailsham until many years later. Even with the development of the two rope factories, Burfields and Green Bros in the nineteenth century, by the end of the century farming still remained the largest single employer in the area providing employment for about 25% of the town’s population.  

Because of the heavy reliance on agriculture it is little wonder the annual Harvest celebrations reflected this dependency. Thanksgiving services were held in most of the churches and were an important and significant event in the life of the town. 

This was also reflected by the Harvest Suppers also held primarily in the churches. The importance of harvest was further reflected in the well known hymns composed specifically for these harvest services. Such was the high dependence of the majority of the population that giving thanks to God for the fact the harvest was completed in good time was a natural response – “all is safely gathered in ‘ere the winter storms begin.” Accounts of the church services and other harvest celebrations were reported in both the Parish Magazine and the local press. 

Harvest time was when as many people as possible were recruited to help out including quite young children. As such the schools fixed the summer
holiday break around the main harvest period. They also incorporated the Hop Picking season although by about 1890 Hop growing had virtually ceased in Hailsham. This did not stop some of the young lads skipping school and making their way to the Hop Gardens of Kent!

Thomas Geering writing in “Our Sussex Parish recalls a different kind of celebration. He writes of the harvest home celebrations at Otham Court. After a hearty Harvest Supper the cloth is removed from the table and, “the real business of the evening begins.” 

He describes the different characteristics of the farm labourers present, some droll, some grave, the chief singer; the hero proud he has been a militiaman; the returned pensioner home from the wars minus an arm battling now with the hedgerows in the harvest field. They were all to be found around the table but chief among them was the singer.” Geering goes on to describe the singer and the evening. He continues “from the silver headed old man to the unfledged youth this was a time of honest pride. Another year had passed. They had sung as the last load of sheaves had reached the barn:

We have ploughed, we have sowed

We have reaped, we have mowed

We have carried the last load

And never overthrowed”

Another song included the words –

Come, come, come ye sons of hearts

Come, come away

Tune up your voices, let your
instruments play,

For to celebrate this happy day.

Then followed the health of the visitors, and then of course more beer and they sang:

Then we all agree

To spend this night most joyfully

Geering concludes, “whatever prudes may think or say about these old fashioned carnivals, these annual gatherings of rustic life, to those who have witnessed them and sat side-by-side with these hard working men, there can be no doubt about the satisfaction to all concerned being great, to the ploughman and his boy, that the  cultivation and the seed sowing had not been in vain; also to the master, that the harvest is over and the barns are full, and that hope for the future is justified and in the ascendant. The farmer then to his full bowls invites his friends And what he gets with toil with pleasure spends”

Whether people celebrated harvest in church at Harvest Festival services, at Harvest Suppers or a rather more bawdy evening with plenty of beer, the celebrations reflected the importance of the work on the land culminating each year in Harvest Home.

The Wealden Eye Magazine | November/December 2020 Issue
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