At the dawn of the 19th century Barcombe’s population was no more than 600. A bare 30 years later it had soared to 1,000, but with no increase in work available for the men who made their living off the land. Too few of them at haytime and harvest, too many in all other seasons, it is not surprising that they might turn to crime to feed hungry mouths.
By today’s standards the nocturnal activities of the Barcombe Gang are positively petty – the theft of sheep, chickens and turkeys – but the punishments were harsh. Transportation to Australia, with its attendant breaking up of families and loss of the breadwinner, was viewed with particular dread. There were always those who were willing to take their chances, though, and the farms of the village and its neighbouring parishes were hit by a rash of night raids at the end of the 1830s. The rustlers went undetected for three years until a stolen pullet was spotted in the garden of one William Heasman. A search of his cottage revealed a quantity of mutton (one leg was found hidden under the bedclothes) … and the days of the Barcombe Gang were numbered.
Heasman had a wife, mother and four children under 10 to support. He decided to turn Queen’s Evidence rendering him immune from prosecution, confessed to 15 or 16 robberies and started to name names.
The Brighton Gazette, in its account of the Quarter Sessions on 11 November 1839 reads: ‘True bills were found against James Towner, aged 30, William Miles, 21, George Day, 22, Philip Elphick, 24, Richard Funnell, 45, John Jenner, 36, charged with having stolen sheep, chickens and turkeys at Barcombe, Hamsey, Ringmer and other places.’
Towner, a decent family man, emerges as one of the saddest figures in the affair, saying that his neighbour Heasman (described as a smooth-faced, light haired, gawky countryman’) had tried over a long period to draw him into the crime and at last he had succumbed. He faced only one charge at the trial, the theft of sheep from Flood’s Close, but was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years’ transportation.
Funnell, Elphick and Day were found not guilty of any charges and ‘Squat’ Miles was found guilty of the theft of a sack of wheat from Clayhill Farm. The jury recommended the prisoner to the mercy of the Court, in consequence of his having been drawn into the commission of the crime by an older man.’ He was given a year’s hard labour.
There was no such mercy for Jenner. He was found guilty on four counts of theft and sentenced to four days’ imprisonment, but a fifth charge of housebreaking at Cowlease earned him 15 years’ transportation. The census of 1841 describes his wife as both pauper and widow.
Not surprisingly, the talkative William Heasman left the district at this time. There used to be a variation on the old theme of Sussex folk being strong in the arm and weak in the head which unkind neighbouring villages applied here: ‘When the people of Barcombe want to make a cart, they make a wagon and saw it in half.”
The simple rustics of the past have been replaced by what modern jargon would describe as an upwardly mobile community, but one that cares enough about its heritage (though not so much the bumpkin image) to revive maypole dancing outside The Royal Oak every May Day and to introduce a new angle on beating the bounds with a village fun run for charity.
There is enterprise here as well, with a workshop making snooker tables established in perfect anticipation of the meteoric rise in the sport’s popularity and acres of blackcurrants which help satisfy the demand of the manufacturers of a well-known fruit drink.
Barcombe is really three villages in one, the old community near the church, which was largely deserted when the Black Death ravaged the land, the populous Barcombe Cross which replaced it and Barcombe Mills near the now defunct railway line and the river Ouse. The flour mill here by the river was mentioned in Domesday, and the last working mill was built on the site in 1870. It stood empty for many years after ceasing to grind corn until 1934 when it became a button factory, owned by a German and run by Italians as one of the major sources of employment in the village. But the war clouds were looming and the factory was completely destroyed by a mysterious fire in the early hours of Friday, 10 March 1939. Sadly, several of the Italians who worked here died when the ship carrying them back to their native country was torpedoed by a German U-Boat after the outbreak of the Second World War. Their ghosts are supposed to haunt the site of the old mill.
Percy Blackford was a button polisher at the factory at the time it was destroyed. Many years later he recalled how the buttons were placed in a giant drum full of reject matchsticks supplied by Bryant and May which was then revolved by water power (sometimes a turbine was used) and the friction produced a gleaming finished product. The nearby Angler’s Rest has pictures on the walls, which show the old mill buildings in their heyday.
Just up river was another mill, known to the locals in the early years of the 20th century as the ‘oil mill’ where they made linseed-cake for the feeding of cattle.
Barcombe Mills was a popular spot for picnics on high days and holidays in Edwardian times thanks to its proximity to the station. It conjures up an attractive picture of mamas with parasols sitting on the riverbank with their children playing around them while the menfolk, in their shirtsleeves, indulged in a little fishing. The Ouse is tidal as far as here and occasionally sea trout are taken.
The first place in Sussex where road tolls were levied was over the village’s Ouse bridge and the last recorded charges in 1939 show that getting from A to B could be expensive: Carriage and horses ls; four wheels and horse 6d; two wheels and horse 6d; wagon and horses ls 6d; steam engines 2s; motor cars 1s; motorbike and sidecar 3d.
Barcombe Place was at one time a Dr Barnardo’s home for girls. Many of them married local men and settled down here. Temporary residents of a different kind caused consternation during the Second World War and led to the (probably apocryphal) tale of the Canadian soldiers. They were stationed here and during that time a number of village girls fell pregnant. The commanding officer was furious and had the company parade before the unfortunate mums-to-be. “Well,’ the officer demanded, which of my men are responsible?’ In unison the girls all pointed at one man, standing sheepishly in the back row.
Stoolball is a game played by sturdy Sussex girls, and this interesting variation on cricket with its square, upright wickets and round bats is largely confined to the eastern part of the county. It owes a big resurgence in popularity to a Barcombe man, Major W.W. Grantham KC, who between the wars was active in promoting stoolball for the benefit of men who had lost a limb in the First World War.