Life on the Sussex Downs


Downs generally refers to any chalk downland. The South Downs are the range of chalk hills running westwards from Beachy Head near Eastbourne to the county boundary near South Harting.

Here you will find details of life on the Sussex Downs especially among the shepherding community, their working customs and traditions.  


Burial custom for shepherds

When a shepherd was buried, a piece of fleecy wool was placed in his folded hands. This was so that Peter, at Heaven's gate, would know when the man arrived, that he was a shepherd and would then understand why he had been so often absent from church.

Don of the Forest

This was the title given to the best fighter in the village, determined by a bare knuckle fight, and held for a year or until bested by another man. The fight would take place in the woods, hence Don of the Forest.

Sheep shearing gangs

A group or company of shearers made up of seasonal labour such as hurdle makers or farm workers. They varied in size from just a few men to as many as thirty. The man in charge was known as the captain and his right-hand man the lieutenant. The captain had to make the arrangements with farmers for shearings, act as treasurer and attend to all the details connected with the trips.

A junior member of a shearing gang working his first season was known as a colt. The youngest member was the Tar boy. It was the Tar boy's duty to smear a dab of tar on any cut inflicted on the sheep during shearing to prevent infection. It is from this practice that we get the expression 'spoiling the sheep for a ha'porth (half penny) of tar'. This is often misquoted as 'spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar.

Sheep markings

The farmer's initials were printed in pitch on the wool with a marking iron. Some also had dots of colour applied to the body. These were dabbed on with the end of a stick to denote the sex of lambs.

A marking iron was often made with a farthing (The Farthing Mark). This was a coin of approximately 1 cm. in diameter. The coin was drilled with a small hole and attached to a metal rod. A wooden handle was fitted to the rod. Apart from the ordinary markings, it was used to mark the inside of a sheep's ear. This was known as a memorandum mark, for the shepherd's own use, to remind him of ewes that had particular trouble during birthing, sheep that he wanted to set aside for sale to the butcher, or to prove ownership where several rams were kept together.                     

 White and Black Ram nights.

White Ram night was held on the evening before shearing began when the programme of work was made known. Packets of shears  would be on sale. Shearers could select a new pair if required and pay for them at the last meeting. When all the shearing trips were over for the season, another gathering was held called Black Ram night. Here, the captain made a final share out of wages and money owing for shears was paid. Both nights were celebrated with much drinking.

Turning the cup over

This was an old drinking game played on White and Black Ram nights. Beer was ladled into a horn cup and each man in turn had to receive it on his hat held crown up. He must then drink it down without spilling it and then throw the empty cup in the air and catch it in the hat reversed. 

Shepherds Crown

Fossil of a sea urchin, dome shaped with a little round spot on their tops from which the spines of the sea urchin run down the sides. Not really like a crown but more like a bishop's mitre. Found in chalk. Kept as charms (lucky stones) by rural folk.

Rough Music

This was a way for villagers to express their disapproval of a neighbours behaviour. The villagers would gather outside the victim's home, sometimes with an effigy of the person, and then make as much noise as possible with saucepan lids, bird scarers etc.

What was lucky?

  • Market women spat on the first coin they received for their first sale of the day. They would then keep it in a separate pocket for luck.
  • Pebbles with a hole through them.
  • Babies born on the day of the first cuckoo call would be lucky throughout life.

What was unlucky?

  • Seeing the new moon through glass.
  • A peacock's tail feathers. They were not allowed in the house as they were thought to bear the emblem of the evil eye.
  • Counting the number of carriages at a funeral.
  • Birds on wallpaper.
  • A bird flying into a house.

Make a wish:

  • When you see a piebald pony.
  • When you eat the first fruit of the season.

 The Devil

The devil was known as The Poor Man, Old Nick, Old Scratch, Old Grim, Old Harry.

Nettles in Sussex were called the Devil's playthings.

It was thought that the devil spat on all the blackberries on 10th October. If one was eaten on the 11th then someone close would die or be in great trouble before the year was out.

Making a score in the top of a loaf before it was baked was 'letting the devil out'.


Notify of death by placing black material round hive, tap on the hive and tell the bees or they will leave and another death follows.

If a bee flies in at the window of a sitting room it was a sure sign of a coming visitor.

White material was placed round the hive for a birth. If this didn't happen the child would grow up to dislike honey.

If bees swarm in a roof, the daughters of the house will never marry.

When a person got married the bees should be giver a piece of wedding cake.


When you hear the first cuckoo, turn over your money to double it.

If you hear the first cuckoo on an empty stomach there will be a death or sorrow.

If you are in bed, when you hear the first cuckoo, it is an unlucky sign.

When the first cuckoo calls and you look under your foot and find a hair, it will be the hair colour of the person you will marry.

The ashes of the roast bird will relieve stomach pains, fits and malaria.

Persistent cuckoo calls forecast rainy weather.

Girls waiting to be wed could work out how long to wait by counting the calls- 2 calls/2 years, 3 calls/3 years, etc.

Robins' eggs

Never take a robin's egg. if you do, your fingers will grow crooked.


When a cat 'kneads bread' with its paws it is a sign that there will be rain.


You shouldn't point at a grave or your finger will rot and fall off.

Gold earrings

Seamen wore gold earrings because they thought it would improve their eyesight.

More will be added soon. Please visit my site again 




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