Albert Turner hit on an ingenious idea of using water power to run a saw mill on the river Ouse, but it was to prove an expensive flop. He came to Sheffield Park in 1898, probably influenced by the proximity of the railway as a ready-made means of transport for his timber, dug a long mill pond and water channel to the saw mill and must have been delighted to see that all the saws revolved. Unfortunately there was not sufficient power to run all the saws when actually cutting timber and after a few weeks’ trial the project was pronounced a failure and a steam engine installed.
Despite the early setback Mr Turner’s business flourished and in 1928 his works was reported to be selling first grade ash for “the building of aeroplanes and certain parts of buses, the residue being used for wheelbarrow legs.’ The saw mill is still there today.
Autumn, they say, is the best time to see Sheffield Park Gardens when there are spectacular splashes of colour in the 100 acres of National Trust land originally laid out by ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton for the first Earl of Sheffield.
The third Earl was a great cricket fanatic and organised the first tours of Australian cricket teams in England. It was customary for many years for the Aussies to play the first match of the tour at Sheffield Park against Lord Sheffield’s XI on a pitch situated near the lakes. Dr W.G. Grace was one of the great names of the day to turn out against the tourists. The last match was played in 1896 but there is a lasting legacy of those days on the other side of the world. The Australian states play for the Sheffield Shield, a trophy presented by the third Earl. By way of variation a match was played on the ice of the frozen lake in the winter of 1881.
The historian Edward Gibbon, writer of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was a friend of the first Earl though a suggestion that he wrote his epic in the library at Sheffield Park is fanciful. It took him a decade to complete, which would suggest a singularly uncommunicative house guest. He died in January 1794 and was buried in the Sheffield Mausoleum at Fletching church.
It was in the 1790s that the Upper Ouse Navigation Trustees were formed to make the inland reaches of the river navigable. Lord Sheffield was chairman and their meetings in the Sheffield Arms appear to have been acrimonious affairs because of the slow progress of the work. The Upper Ouse Navigation had a life of only 60 years but in that time played its part in creating one of the county’s most striking landmarks, the Ouse railway viaduct at Balcombe. Nine million bricks were conveyed up the river by barge.
Lord Sheffield was in the chair again when the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway Company was formed in 1876. The station was at first called Fletching but to comply with the Earl’s wishes it soon became Sheffield Park. The station, incidentally, was far more handy for the Sheffield family and their guests than it was for the villagers.
The line closed in the 1950s and was taken over by the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society in 1960 as the first of the preserved steam railways in Britain. Its volunteer staff run vintage locomotives and rolling stock from Sheffield Park to
Westcote, via Horsted Kenyes, some 10 miles away and summer would not be quite the same in this part of the world without the familiar toot of the steam whistle which carries for miles.
If people had to know their place in the old days, and woe betide if you failed to curtsey or bow to Lord Sheffield, there were some fringe benefits. Once a year the work people of the estate were given new boots and red flannel petticoats (the ladies, that is); and as Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Sussex Regiment, Lord Sheffield welcomed the last of the soldiers to return from the Boer War. They paraded in his grounds and he presented them with a silver cup. Messrs Brocks put on a firework display finishing with a grand illumination with the salute: ‘Soldiers of Sussex! Best wishes to you all. Sheffield.’