From the far side of the Industrial Revolution, it’s easy for us to overlook how closely tied the fate of a community once was to its soil. In few places was this more true than the parish of Newdigate in 1800.
Like Capel, discussed previously, Newdigate village and its parish sit close to the Sussex border, about six miles south of Darking. Both lie in the area known as the Weald, in ancient times a massive woodland, though by the turn of the nineteenth century much of the forest had been cleared for agriculture or to provide timber for building houses and ships. In the area around Newdigate, however, the soil was a deep, wet clay that formed heavy clumps with little aeration; tilling it was hard with the ploughs available at the time, and it yielded scant grain.
With the poor crop yields there was little chance for even a yeoman family to build prosperity over generations, as the Steeres and others had done in Capel parish. The farms of Newdigate remained mostly small and the ground was better suited to pasturage than cultivation; cattle were raised as well as hogs, who could fatten in the autumn on the acorns and beech mast available in the still-widespread woodlands.
The problem with raising livestock in Newdigate was getting it to market. Where Capel had benefitted from being situated on the north-south road that became a turnpike in the 1750s, the road between the market town of Darking and Newdigate remained unimproved. The resident curate in 1794, Thomas Duncomb, wrote of ‘our sequestration from the world by entrenchments of deep mud’ (quoted in Harding and Banks, Newdigate, p. 47). In Coldharbour Gentlemen we see young Harry taking the long way from Darking to his home at Henfold because the direct road was usually too muddy for his horse—the way was often flooded, or ‘floated’ in the local parlance, and the mud too slippery for beasts to find a secure footing whilst carrying a rider.
A seventeenth-century rector, another member of the extensive Steere family, had founded a school at Newdigate that continued in 1800 but served only a handful of residents—in 1797 there were only 18 students. As at Capel, however, many nonconformists, especially Quakers, lived around Newdigate, and they educated their children even though they did not contribute to the commonweal by paying tithes to the church. The parish accordingly did not provide a wealthy living for the rector, and most of the incumbents of the parish held multiple appointments and lived elsewhere, including the rector in 1800, John Buckner.
It was probably inevitable that smuggling enterprises would come along to fill the vacuum in leadership and economic opportunity in such a desperate place. Smuggling in the centuries before the eighteenth had mostly involved the illicit export of wool, a practice known as owling, and along the southern border of the parish was a wooded field known as Owls Entry. By the end of the eighteenth century there was reputedly a network of tunnels connecting the inn, the Five Bells, to the church across the street and a nearby house.
The area’s smuggling entrepreneur, John Tilt of Coldharbour Gentlemen fame, was born in Newdigate parish, and although he never lived there as an adult he was bound to recognise the possibilities there. He had leased a farmhouse in a remote corner of the parish, called Harlings or Harlands, from 1788 to 1796 (I have taken the fiction writer’s prerogative of extending his lease to 1800). It was a poor place with only thirty acres of land, well off even the inadequate main road, so profiting from its crop yield can scarcely have been his motive. And in 1796 he loaned £200 to the churchwardens and overseers of the poor in Newdigate—an unlikely act of benevolence that seems intended to earn him a good deal of tolerance in return. A remote, neglected village like Newdigate, halfway between the coast and London and filled with desperately poor people, must have been a godsend to a man of enterprise like Tilt. I have no factual evidence that he used it as the staging ground for his smuggling runs, but it seems logical that he would have done so.
Any visitor to Newdigate today will see the wooden church tower that Harry Steer climbed to help unload a shipment of genuine Crowlink brandy, as well as the inn across the street where he covertly warned the Captain of the danger closing in on the smugglers. In 1800, the inn was known as the Five Bells in honour of the church bells at St Peter’s across the way. The landlady was a Mrs Waller.
Only a few years later, under the influence of the Duke of Norfolk’s building project, things began to change in the village. A Mr Cheesman, of the prosperous brewing family from Darking and supplier of ale to the Duke’s household, took over the inn, whose name was changed to the Six Bells in 1805 after a new set of bells (with one added) was installed in the church tower. There would have been ready employment in those years for carpenters, masons, and other tradesmen. What a disappointment it must have been when the Duke’s house was abandoned unfinished in 1815, and Newdigate slipped back for a time into neglect and poverty, until the social and economic trends (and better roads!) of the Victorian Age reshaped it into a more modern form.
8 September 2021
Joan Harding and Joyce Banks, Newdigate: Its History and Houses (self-published, 1993).
John Martin Robinson, The Dukes of Norfolk (Chichester, 1995).
William Stevenson, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Surrey (London, 1809).