Norman Allcorn's Memories of Bevendean FarmI
was born on 7/6/32 and spent the first ten and a half years of my life
at Lower Bevendean. My grandfather, Frank Allcorn, was the farmer and
my father Jack worked for him as the cowman. With my grandmother and
mother we all lived in the front part of the farmhouse. Norris and his
wife lived in the northern three storey annex. He had been the Shepherd
before the flock was sold. There were two other farm workers Baldwin
and Howse the carters. My grandfather, using the class conventions of
his day, always referred to his employees by their surnames only. (My
father was christened Norman Jack but called Jack by his mother and
John by his wife. I was christened Frederick Norman but called Norman,
something that has dogged me all my life!) My father went to Coombe
Road School and later on in 1929 married Violet May Batchelor also from
Coombe Road. She was four years older than him and was a talented
The farm had been much larger in the past. Frank took the tenancy of Lower Bevendean in 1908 when he moved from Chailey with his wife Edith and son Jack. The farm then stretched down to the Lewes Road and over the downs to Bevendean Hospital. He could have bought the farm in 1913 but instead chose to continue renting and ownership passed to Brighton Town Council. The cornerstone of the farm at this time was the flock of pedigree Southdown sheep. Norris the Shepherd got a mention by Barclay Wills in the book The Downland Shepherds. “From Brighton Racecourse I trod the little path to Bevendean Farm which nestles in a hollow at the bottom of the steep hill. Here I met Mr. Norris, the Shepherd, with his flock of about 200 sheep and lambs. He directed me along a steep path leading from the farm to the downs of Falmer and Kingston. The cornfield by the path was alive with butterflies.” Alas the flock was sold in the early thirties victim of the fanning depression.
Cows were now the main money earner. There was a herd of 20 odd cows plus a bull. He was a necessity in the days before A. I. Corn was grown and some chickens kept and eggs sold at the back door. About 60 geese were reared for Christmas.
Over the years the town continued to expand and by the time that I remember things it was only about 100 acres, and this included the deserted Heath Hill Farm, and the houses were only one field from the farmyard. Then came W.W.2 and the formation of the War Agriculture Committee. (The War Ag.) Lower Bevendean was inspected and found not to be producing as much as required. The trouble was that my grandfather was very traditional; some would say old fashioned. He was still using horses and milking by hand whereas at Upper Bevendean, next door, milking was by machine and ploughing was by caterpillar tractor pulling a 5 furrow plough.
We did rent a Fordson tractor but eventually the War Ag. issued a Compulsory Requisition Order in September 1942 and we left just before Christmas.
In some ways I had a privileged upbringing but not to the extent of a private education or owning a pony but far better than the average farm workers child. Occasionally I played with the West boys from Upper Bevendean, sometimes with boys from school, John Teague, Eddie Helficker and the Sands brothers. My usual playmates though were the carters children Mary and Charlie Baldwin. The farm and farmyard were our playground. No Health and Safety in those days and no RC. either. We would go birds nesting and ‘blow’ the eggs to start a collection, pull apart the owl pellets from the barn to see the mouse bones and fur from the Barn Owls diet. Things we were told not to do, but did, included climbing trees in The Shaw, walking on top of the flint walls, and climbing up the face of the chalk pit. We also played ‘Mothers and Fathers’ in an empty cottage There were bats, lots of them. On dusky evenings we would throw small stones into the air and watch the bats locate them with their radar. On one occasion my father took me to Hyldons knacker yard to see one of our cows cut open. A type of autopsy to find out why she had died. The waste meat was boiled up for the bloodhounds. When the wind was in the right direction we could hear them howling as far off as Bevendean.
I did have some accidents. I fell off my bike into a large patch of stinging nettles while still in short trousers. I ate some white berries and the doctor had to be called and I speared an ‘empty’ wasp nest and was stung by an angry wasp on the leg, which swelled to twice its size. Also the usual childhood illnesses, Chicken Pox, Whooping Cough Measles and had my tonsils out at Bevendean Hospital.
I went to Moulsecoomb Infants, Junior and one term in the Senior Boys and walked to and fro, including dinner times except when it was wet when I went to my aunt in Widdicoomb Way. When I was very young an older Baldwin girl, Grace, took me to school. When she was 14 she started ‘In Service’. That is in the service of a family as a maid. Domestic servants worked long hours for low pay and little time off. Not quite like sending small boys up chimneys or under looms but harsh by today’s standards. The school leaving age did not rise to 15 until 1944 and not till 1973 did it reach 16.
3. THE FARM.
The farm had become smaller by the 1930’s and although there were stables for 8 only 4 horses remained. They were Shires; a large patient breed. Some corn was grown and all cultivations were done by horse power from ploughing to binding the corn. The only exception was threshing, when a steam driven traction engine would pull and operate a threshing machine. The owner was a Mr. Page from Falmer and his machine was called ‘Queen Mary.’
The sheep now gone but chicken and geese were kept. However the main enterprise was the dairy herd of 20 plus Shorthorn cows. These were out to grass in the summer, apart from milking. In the winter they were tied up in the cow-stalls. There were 3 sheds for the cows with a feed store in the middle and a ‘wet grain’ silo at the top end.
In summer, damp grains, the by- product of brewing, came by lorry from Kemp Town brewery. They were levelled in the silo and trodden down to exclude air. They then kept for several months to be fed in winter, when they were carried to the cows in bushel trugs. Mangels were also grown and fed after slicing in a hand turned machine. Hay was loose in a stack just outside the cow-stall and had to be cut out with a hay knife and carried to the cows by pitchfork. As you can see there was a lot of hard work. The only thing that was easy was the cows drinking water which was piped to each individual cow-stall. There was a small bowl with a lever which was opened by the cow as she drank.
The cows were hand milked and the milk taken across the yard to the dairy where it was passed over a water cooler into churns. The churns were put on a stand ready to be taken by lorry to Davigdor Dairy in Hove. I learnt to milk aged just 7 years old. My parents would not let me start any younger!
If a churn was returned because it was sour, my grandmother would make sour milk cheese.
4. THE CHRISTMAS GOOSE. Written in 1998.
My Grandfather made use of the market on his doorstep by rearing 50-60 geese for Christmas. For this purpose he kept half dozen a mature geese and one very necessary gander. This gander was very protective of his females and would chase anyone who came near with a lot of hissing and flapping. I had to be especially careful as even the blunt beak of a gander could inflict a nasty nip on the bare legs of a schoolboy in short trousers.
When the eggs were laid some were set under hens at four eggs each. The hens were Light Sussex or Rhode Island Red. The rest were hatched in an oil heated incubator. This was a tricky business as the temperature had to be just right. The paraffin container had to be kept topped up and the wick on the burner trimmed every day. The eggs were turned daily and for this reason a pencil cross was put on one end of each egg and a circle on the other. The humidity was controlled by the rather crude method of sprinkling some tepid water over the eggs with the finger tips. After about a month most of the eggs hatched. The baby goslings were put under a hurricane lamp for warmth for the first few days. Then they were reared in coops in the orchard. Later on they were grazed in the hilly field to the rear of the farmyard. They made quite a sight flying down the hill at feed time. They also made a lot of mess when the weather was wet despite of farm being on free draining chalk.
A few weeks before Christmas, the geese were brought into a cattle yard with a high fence around it. The strongest fliers had some wing feathers cut to stop them escaping. Water was put in the bottom of half round pig troughs and corn was floated on top for the geese to gobble up. This was their final fattening.
About a week before the big day, the killing and plucking began. This was done in a small building with a loft. The farm workers did this in the evenings for some welcome extra money. My father caught the geese and tied their legs together with a webbing halter. They were suspended from a beam downstairs and their necks wrung. The big wing feathers were removed despite a lot of involuntary flapping. They were then laid on the floor of the loft with heads hanging down the stair-well to drain the blood from the body. Upstairs was a magical scene, especially to a small boy allowed up late and excited by the impending festivities. An oil lamp was hung from the roof in the centre of the loft. Around the circle of light sat the pluckers on three legged milking stools or upturned beer crates. Each had a goose across his knee and was removing feathers as fast as possible. White down was everywhere, like a snowstorm, piled in drifts behind the men and covering the floor several inches deep. The down was saved for pillows and mattresses. When all the geese had been plucked for that evening they were taken over to the farmhouse. Here my mother and grandmother singed the hairs from their bodies over an oil stove or the kitchen range if still alight. Those that were to be trussed were sliced open along one side and the intestines and giblets removed. Most though were sold as they were as this was cheaper. All the geese were then placed in the larder. This was a long narrow north facing room with zinc gauze at the window. This kept out the flies in summer but let the air through. One side had small wooden shelves, floor to ceiling. On the other and across the end was a wide shelf of inch thick slate. Underneath were several earthenware crocks containing ‘isinglass’, a preserving liquid, in which were stored surplus eggs from the spring to be used in winter. The naked birds were laid on the cool slate slab, heads hanging down. Labels were tied on their necks giving weight, price, and who had ordered them.
Christmas Eve saw a steady stream of customers collecting their birds for the next day. Some who had not booked their bird in advance were disappointed, but we always managed to keep a good one back for ourselves.
It is not surprising that I was nearly a teenager before I realised that most people had turkey for Christmas!!
5. THE FLOOD.
Several years ago Bevendean suffered a flood of mud. Heavy rain falling on steep slopes caused soil to wash down into the valley.
In the early years of WW 2, Lower Bevendean Farm was the site of a very different kind of flood. A period of hard frost was followed by a considerable snowfall. When the thaw eventually came the water could not penetrate the normally porous chalk earth. It flowed down the valley taking snow and ice with it. When it reached the fence and trees at the start of the garden a dam was formed and a small lake built up behind in the valley. Sometime in the small hours of the night the dam burst and a wall of water rushed down into the farmyard. The rumble of the collapsing dam woke my father who dressed and went out to try to save his ferrets. They were in the lowest shed and the water was up to his waste. He was too late and they had drowned. He then had the added misfortune to have to face my mother. “Bloody fool to risk your life for a couple of ferrets” was her scathing comment.
Daylight showed the full extent of the flood. The farmyard lay in a saucer shaped depression, which was now a pond. Thankfully the water could not get any deeper. There was 12 inches in the farmhouse, two feet in the cow-stall and three feet in the deepest place. The cows were up to their bellies in icy water.
The drains did not seem to be lowering the water level, so we called on Brighton Fire Service. They sent first one pump and then a second. After many hours of pumping the water was removed. One pump returned the following day to pump out the cellar.
Grandmother and mother then had the task of removing a thin layer of mud. There was no running water as the pipes had frozen, so they were getting flood water from outside to wash out inside! There were no more casualties, but what tough animals were those Shorthorn cows. My father said that milk production was back to normal after only a few days.
6. ENVIRONMENTALLY UNFRIENDLY. Written in 1996.
The environment was not a term in general use in the 1930’s. The nearest, in a countryside context, would be ‘nature’, although all farming to greater or lesser degree, is unnatural. “As the Vicar said to the Gardener ‘ Isn’t it wonderful what God can do in a garden, Yes but you should have seen the mess when he had it to himself, was the apt reply.” Furthermore what is acceptable practice for one generation is not necessarily acceptable to the next.
At Lower Bevendean there was, and still is, a south facing steep bank between Whites Bottom and North Hanger field. Half of this four acre bank was a beech wood. In some parts of the country, including West Sussex, trees growing on the side of a steep bank are called a ‘Hanger’ because they seem to be hanging on the side of the hill. These trees however were called ‘The Shaw’. A Shaw is much more of an East Sussex word meaning a band of trees or narrow wood. But then Bevendean is on the boundary of both counties.
Beech is a total cover tree. Whereas scrub and brambles can grow under other deciduous trees, nothing grows in the shade of the beech. This makes beech woods good for walking and playing in. Myself and other farm children played and climbed in this wood. Doubtless the children from the Bevendean estate still do, as it lies between Heath Hill Avenue and Norwich Drive. The other half of this bank had no trees only some small thorn bushes and rough grass which had been allowed to turn brown and go to seed. My grandfather used to carry out controlled burning of this dead grass. The burnt residue contained potash which enriched the thin chalk soil and fresh green grass grew back. This provided much better grazing for the sheep. In doing this my grandfather was only following other farmers who had used this method for thousands of years. The first prehistoric farmers burnt vegetation on areas of ground and grew crops for a few years before moving on to another place. This was called ‘Slash and Burn’ and would not have found favour with today’s environmentalists.
Nor did my grandfather’s burning find favour with the local naturalists. There was uproar because this bank was said to be the breeding ground of many rare butterflies. When Barclay Wills visited Bevendean a few years before he described it thus. ‘Butterflies swarm here, Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Small Heaths, Blues and Coppers flew by in quick succession. Silver Y moths fluttered about. The Blues were most numerous….….’. Some of the rare blues like the Chalk Hill Blue and the Adonis will only breed on a south facing slope, as was this one. Hence the protest by the butterfly buffs of Brighton.
My grandfather could not understand what all the fuss was about, which only underlines the conflict between farmers and conservationists.
Barclay Wills also describes ‘A great mass of scarlet, a field of poppies with the sunlight on it.’ I too remember the poppies. Selective weed-killers have removed the poppies and other wild flowers from the corn and in the process have done more to destroy butterflies and other wild life than the burning of one small area of dead grass. Both would however be called in today’s terminology “Environmentally Unfriendly”.
7. SPORTS AND PASTIMES.
The chief sport at Bevendean in the summer was the regular Sunday tennis party. These consisted of family and friends. Farm workers were not invited as this was still a class conscious society, although if no one else was about my father would play with Norris, the Shepherd. But then the Shepherd was considered a cut above the average farm worker. The tennis court was very much a do it yourself affair. My father cut the grass by hand and marked out the white lines. The nets around the court were old fishing nets supported by poles from the woods. The only time everyone played together was an impromptu game of cricket in the cow meadow. In the winter evenings we had our wireless, played board games, cards and darts. No TV, of course, as no electricity. It was oil lamps and candles indoors and hurricane lanterns and torches outside.
Rabbits had to be kept down as this was well before myxomatosis, and this provided sport in the winter. My father was a keen shooter but paradoxically also interested in wildlife. He was friends with a Brighton taxidermist and we had stuffed animals and birds. One of my favourite playthings was a life sized badger. I hugged this so much that he was nearly bald.
We also went ferreting. Nets were placed over rabbit holes and ferrets sent down to flush out the rabbits. The biggest warren was in the cow meadow. One day the army came to practice in this field. They set up a cut out tank and shot at it with a mortar firing bottles like Molotov cocktails. That evening my father decided to go ‘long netting’. This involved quietly setting up a long three feet high net between the warren and the field. Then pulling a cord across the ground behind the rabbits who, heading for home, got caught in the net. All went well until we picked up our equipment. Our hands were glowing in the dark. The bottles used by the army must have contained phosphorus! However we suffered no long term effects although it did give us a fright at the time.
8. TWO PUZZLES.
At the south-east corner of the tennis court was a pile of rusting cast iron in a bed of stinging nettles. This had been a pumping shed before piped water was laid on. Older photos show a substantial building on this site. Whether there was a well or bore hole or how the water was raised I do not know?
The flat topped building next to the farmhouse was called ‘The Laundry’; Why? It seemed much more like it had an agricultural use. An opening on the end of the first floor could have been for hay, straw or grain. Outside was a circle where a horse would have pushed round a pole attached to a shaft and by a series of cogs transferred power to inside the building, sometimes called a Horse Gin’. Under the ceiling of the ground floor were some pulleys and shafts which by belts could have driven machines. This may have been for corn crushing or cutting chaff for horse feed. All that was there in my time was a hand turned chaff cutter which cut hay or straw into very short lengths. It had two extremely sharp blades and as we children used to turn the handle it was lucky that one of us did not lose a finger or two!
9. THE WAR.
I came in from play at a few minutes to eleven on Sept. 3rd. 1939 just in time to hear the prime ministers announcement. Our radio was in a wooden cabinet with a fretwork front and was powered by an accumulator. Mr Chamberlain’s sombre tones came through the loudspeaker, ‘I have to tell you that no such assurance has been received and that we are now at war with Germany’. Then the air raid siren sounded and we all trooped down to our vaulted cellar, including two people who had come to the back door to buy eggs. Shortly afterwards the all clear went! The war caused the Allcorn family to leave Bevendean when it was taken over by the ‘War Ag.’ in 1942. It is quite possible that we would have been gone by then anyway. The town was expanding and the war merely delayed the development of the Bevendean estate.
Of course there were changes as the farm had to produce more, especially corn. We hired a Fordson tractor to help out the horses. Labour was scarce and my mother learnt to milk. My father was in the Home Guard. He was used to handling shot guns and was very strict about gun safety. Now he had a rifle and later on a sten gun. It could not have been easy doing night duty on the racecourse and coming home to milk the cows. Nights were cold and even the Canadian soldiers were complaining. ‘Surely you are used to the cold’ my father told them. ‘Yes a dry cold ‘ they replied. ‘Not this damp cold which gets right into your bones’. When the invasion threatened, beach huts were taken from the sea front and placed in the cow meadow. This was to deter gliders from landing there. Unfortunately there was a shortage of both timber and fire wood and the huts gradually ‘disappeared’. My father made a chicken coop from some of the wood. The huts were replaced by scaffold pole ‘A’ frames with steel ropes slung between. Rolls of barbed wire were placed between the cow meadow and the houses of ‘Happy Valley’. Not ideal for cows with their delicate udders. One cow did get it’s leg caught and had to be cut free.
I was never evacuated. I do not know why as Bevendean was only a short distance from one of Hitler’s chosen landing beaches. For a short time we had half day schooling as London children were evacuated to Brighton. This crazy idea of moving children to the south -east was soon reversed and we went back to full days at school. Of course gas-masks had to be taken with us at all times.
I only had two close encounters with the enemy during the war. (The second was with a doodlebug in 1944 in East Sussex). I was coming home from school at lunch time and had reached the top of Widdicomb Way, when the road suddenly became deserted. I heard no air raid siren, but as I looked up I saw two German planes, almost level with me, flying westwards down the valley. A bomber and a fighter, and I remember how menacing they looked, with their big black crosses. There was a burst of gun fire and I dived behind a wall. I made my way home to find that the farm had been attacked. Fortunately the gunners aim was poor and he only hit the large tree by the cow-stall. The bullets cut some finger sized twigs from the tree before passing harmlessly on into the cow meadow. The same field that I had to cross to get home! If I had been a few minutes earlier or the planes a few minutes later then I might not be writing this today.
10. MOVINGDAY. Written in 1999.
My Family moved from Lower Bevendean Farm Brighton a few days before Christmas 1942. That was my Grandparents Parents and myself aged just 10 years. It was a grey overcast windy winters day following over-night rain. The first of the two removal vans got stuck in the slippery, narrow gateway of the front drive which had been designed much more for pony and trap. The second van had to start loading from the back door across the back yard. In doing so this upset my mothers careful planning of which was to be loaded first. Worse was to come because the removers had underestimated the large farmhouse furniture and it would not go all go on the two Lorries. Left behind were those essentials like a kettle, mugs and a packet of tea. Also left behind were my Christmas presents. I finally got those 10 days after the event. I was upset to find that Loppy my pet black rabbit was not coming with us and even more upset when I remembered that we had had rabbit for dinner the previous Sunday.
The reason we were leaving Bevendean was because my Grandfather was too much of a traditional farmer, some would say ‘stick in the mud’. The country needed food but he had not moved on from the 1930,s,a time of cheap imports and low incomes. Our neighbour had a caterpillar tractor pulling 5 furrows and milked his cows by machine. Our flock of Southdown sheep had been sold and we were still using horses and milking the Shorthorn cows by hand. (I had started hand milking on my 7th Birthday).
All this did not impress the War Agriculture Committee and so they had ‘Compulsorily Requisitioned’ the farm. By a grim irony this same committee had offered my father a job as farm manager at a farm that had been similarly ‘requisitioned’. This was Messens Farm, Ninfield. Eventually the removal vans got away and I was allowed to travel in the cab with the workmen. We arrived at Messens Farm in the middle of the afternoon with not too much daylight left. All would have been well but the outgoing occupants were still there! The farmer’s mother and wife were in the house but the farmer was stomping around the farmyard with a shotgun under his arm. The local ‘Bobby’ arrived and quietened things down. We started unloading, under police escort, through the front door while the others were still moving out of the rear of the house. When both lorries were empty the policeman said all should be well but not to go into the kitchen as crashing noises had come from there. (In the morning my grandmother was annoyed to find that someone had taken a sledgehammer to a lovely old built in Welsh Dresser and smashed all of the shelves). With the kitchen out of bounds, tea was made by boiling a saucepan on an open fire and my father cycled to Sidley for fish and chips.
I then went to bed but my most abiding memory of the day was yet to come. This was waking up and going to the toilet down a long dark passageway with a gale howling wolf like through the pine trees at the side of the house. Even now, after all this time, I can still close my eyes and imagine myself back in that black corridor and hear that eerie mournful wailing wind!
11. AND FINALLY.
Just before my grandmother died in 1949 she said that she would like to be buried in the churchyard at Falmer. Bevendean had been in Falmer parish when she first came there and she had worshipped at the church. My grandfather wrote to the Rector and was shocked and outraged to be told that it would cost him £50.00. This was ten times the average wage, i.e. about £5000.00 in today’s money. This was because so many people from Brighton wanted to be buried in this picturesque spot. (The Rector, the Rev. Ashdowne, was in dispute with his parishioners at this time. He had closed the Mothers Union, shut the Sunday School and called his congregation ‘Little Devils’.) He would not budge on the price so my grandfather appealed to the Bishop. The only concession he got was that he could be buried in the same plot; and he was.
The last farmer of Lower Bevendean, and his wife, are just through the gate in the yew hedge of the extra churchyard.
We moved to Messens Farm, Ninfield at Christmas 1942 and stayed until September of that year. We then went to Priory Farm, Rushlake Green. My father was Farm Manager until his retirement and then Gamekeeper on the same estate until his death in 1988. My mother had died in 1980. I went to Bexhill Grammar School and Plumpton Agricultural College and milked cows for the next 25 years. Ill health forced me to give up and I finished my working life with SEEBoard retiring in 1994. Since then I have shown dogs, enjoyed my garden and taken an interest in local history.