Ringmer

A place that has expanded so much in recent years that it ranks among the biggest villages in the county. But it is more than just a dormitory at the end of the working day for those that toil at the nearby county town of Lewes. Its people have a strong community spirit and nobody is allowed to forget one of Ringmer’s most distinguished residents. He was Timothy the Tortoise, who takes pride of place on the village sign beside the green. He belonged to Mrs Rebecca Snooke, who lived at Delves House and was the aunt of the naturalist Gilbert White who took a great interest in the pet’s habits when he paid visits.

White recorded: ‘I was much taken with its sagacity in discerning those that do it kind offices; for as soon as the good old lady comes in sight who has waited on it for more than 30 years it hobbles towards its benefactress with awkward alacrity, but remains inattentive to strangers.

‘Thus not only the ox knoweth its owner, and the ass his master’s crib, but the most abject reptile and torpid of beings distinguishes the hand that feeds it, and is touched with the feelings of gratitude.’

In April 1780 the aged Timothy went to live with White at Selborne in Hampshire, being carried the 80 miles in post chaises which apparently perked him up enough to do two laps of the garden when he arrived. After the demise of the pet his shell was preserved at the British Museum.

Two Ringmer girls were married to famous men. John Sadler, vicar from 1620 to 1640, had a daughter who married John Harvard, founder of the university in America; and the daughter of Sir William Springett of Broyle Place, Gulielma Maria Posthuma (because she was born after his death in 1643) married William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania.

Centrepiece of Ringmer is the village green, fringed (like all good greens) by old cottages and the parish church of St Mary which dates mainly from the 14th century and has had a singularly unlucky time with its tower.

The first tower burned down in the mid 16th century and the second suffered the same fate in about 1800. The present tower was built in 1884 by William Martin, who is also credited with having made the first cycle in England with wooden wheels.

In the churchyard is the Butcher’s Stone, not as sinister as the name might suggest but simply the place where the village butcher used to sharpen his knives, and a low stone building with a Horsham slab roof. It looks as old as the church, but in fact dates back only as far as 1922 and was erected to bring music to the church in Heath Robinson (but effective) style. When the villagers acquired a new organ soon after the First World War it was far too big to be pumped by hand and there was no electricity to do the job. So the new building went up to house a motorcycle engine and a fan which blew air through an underground duct to the organ in the church. Electricity has now replaced the old engine but you can still hear the fan at work if you stand outside when the organ is playing.

One of the most devout churchgoers in the parish was Herbert Springett, whose determination to be punctual for church must have been a curious sight in 17th century Ringmer. When the roads were too muddy for his horses he yoked eight oxen to his carriage to be sure of getting to his destination on time.

A little before 6 am on a June morning in 1838 John Gaston, gardener to the local curate, went to fetch some water from the pond below the vicarage. There he found a basket and umbrella, trampled grass and a damaged willow. The basket was recognised as belonging to Hannah Smith, a 43-year-old Lewes woman who earned her living as an itinerant pedlar. The pond was dragged and out came Hannah’s still-warm body.

An investigation revealed that she had left the county town early the previous morning with goods worth 10 shillings in her basket. At 9 am she arrived at a beer shop near Ringmer Green where she fell into conversation with one General Washer – not a military rank, but his Christian name – and remained there with him until 2 pm, drinking beer and dining on eels. They moved on to The Green Man where they had more to drink and then to The Anchor where they remained drinking until 11 pm, now in the company of four other young men.

A coroner’s inquest at The Anchor reached the open verdict of found drowned.

Nothing further happened until the new Sussex County Constabulary came on the scene fully two years later, headed by Superintendent Francis Fagan. Arrests followed. Three men, Pockney, Briggs and Stedman, were accused of assaulting Hannah and stealing items from her. They were not charged with murder because the evidence against them was inconclusive. Pockney told the assize court that he was with Briggs and Stedman in The Anchor when Hannah agreed to ‘have connexion’ with all three of them. The men went with her out into the fields … and later left after stealing from her. It was their opinion that she had probably then stumbled into the pond in a drunken stupor. In the event, Pockney and Stedman were convicted of larceny and sentenced to two years and 18 months’ hard labour.

Poor Hannah lies buried in Ringmer churchyard. What really happened on that early summer’s night must remain a mystery.

Life must have been desperately tough in this area 150 years ago. The great mass of the people were attached to agriculture and when the winter came they were likely to be laid off. Ringmer found an answer to feeding the men and their families who had little or no money coming in during the harsh weather by establishing a soup kitchen, used by two-thirds of the population twice a week. Local man John Kay discovered the following soup recipe for 1839 scribbled in the margin of a memorandum book for the period: ‘Half bushel carrots, six gallons turnips, four gallons onions, 31b Scotch barley, four gallons peas, 70lb beef, half head, 10lb oatmeal, 7lb salt, 6ozs pepper, 560 loaves bread.’

With the services of two cooks, the bill for that sea of soup amounted to £3 10s 11d a time. Mr Kay said: Attached to the recipe was a list of those who received it – 207 families, containing 379 adults and 544 children. In total about 923 people, or two-thirds of the Ringmer population of the time.’

The soup looks nutritious enough (perhaps not a lot when divided among nearly 1,000 people) but the recipients would not be used to much of anything. It is certainly a sobering reminder that Ringmer has not always been the prosperous place that it is today.

On the green, in November 1830, 150 farm labourers met Lord Gage to complain about the enclosures of common field land which had reduced them from extreme poverty to starvation and from independence to serfdom. They asked for their wages to be increased from 9d to 2/6 per day and for the dismissal of the cruel Poor Law Overseers, particularly the one in Ringmer whom they described as “lost to all feelings of humanity’. Lord Gage agreed to their requests and the men dispersed with hymns and tears of joy’, stopping on the way to smash the village grindstone which symbolised their suffering.

One Horace Theophilus King, known to everyone as Alf, was an old craftsman famous within living memory for his thatched cornstacks with little plaited straw crowns. He also had a powerful regard for the old Sussex saying ‘We won’t be druv.’ To demonstrate that the green was common land to all Ringmer people he sat down in the centre of the cricket pitch while a match was in progress and refused to budge. The old timer took no notice of the pleas, arguments or threats and eventually had to be carried off. An early example of the sit down protest.

Another local of the old days with something of a stubborn streak was the village sweep, who tethered his pony in the church porch, claiming he had as much right to do so as a certain well-to-do lady who did the same with her pet dog when she went to services. The sweep apparently got short shrift from the vicar.

On the road to Laughton is a large wooden building, now hunt kennels but in the early years of the last century the Ringmer lunatic asylum. It must have been a grim place for in 1853 the Commissioners in Lunacy made an adverse report on it and it closed down two years later.

The building had served as a barracks for officers stationed in the village during the Napoleonic Wars, with the other ranks a little way off at Rushey Green. Here two of the soldiers fought a duel and killed each other. The mounds of their graves can still be seen near the entrance to Plashett Park Farm.

Ringmer is a great sporting village (few who drive through can have failed to notice the flagpole on the green surmounted by a cricket bat and ball), with soccer, bowls and even an annual run to the top of Mount Caburn and back.

In the Great War 28 out of the 34 playing members of the cricket club freely joined the colours. Those that did not return are remembered on a sad tribute in the church: “They played the game.’

The soccer club reached a pinnacle in 1971 when they battled through to the first round proper of the FA Cup in true Boy’s Own style. With the whole village (and most of Sussex) rooting for this mouse that roared the blue boys’ were knocked out, honourably, by Colchester United from the Third Division.