The Sussex Wagon

Museum’s Writer in Residence, Suzanne Joinson, has written her second blog as part of a series until May 2017.

“I have a strange obsession with carts: anything with a huge wheel and an old handle. It’s wonderful, then, that at the Museum there are a number of colourful transport wagons with no less colourful histories. What I find most fascinating is the tiny regional differences. The Hampshire strawberry wagon shaped differently from the Dorset wagon? The Sussex wagon has a particularly interesting story.

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The Sussex wagon came from the Stevenson family who lived at the ominously named Furnace Farm near Coleman’s Hatch on Ashdown forest, situated between Forest Row and Crowborough. Curator Julian Bell kindly let me look at the Museum’s archival information about the wagon and the family who once owned it.

They lived on and worked their farm from 1913 until 1985. Always using traditional horse-drawn farming methods and the archives state:

Even when a tractor was purchased as late as 1974, it was a Standard Fordson, an old tractor even then, having gone out of production in 1945. It was used only to drive the thrashing drum, saw bench and other barn machinery. Horses were still used for everything else.

In the late Sixties Furnace Farm was registered as Common Land which gave the family rights to graze sheep, cattle, and horse with other Commoners. Reading this I discovered a new word: estovers. In English law estovers is wood that a tenant is allowed to take for life or a number of years from land for personal use: hedges, repairs, fences, firewood.

The farm was self-supporting, with a healthily producing orchard. They made cider, butter and kept hens. What, I wondered, was the wagon for? Rummaging through archives I discovered that it was used on the Whitbread estate in Kent, but the ‘wide straked wheels’ point to a Sussex maker rather than a Kentish one. The author notes that it would have once been a ‘strong Venetian red’ but is now faded to pink, and the once ‘Prussian blue’ is faded to ‘sky blue’. The Sussex terms mentioned are used in a book called The Farm Waggons of England and Wales by James Arnold.

cart-pic-2Hop picking happened all along the Rother Valley and the Kent and East Sussex border.

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A collection of old Ashdown Forest photographs includes one from the Stevenson family: Orpha Stevenson, Hop-picker in 1890. The photograph is of her in the hop garden at Hole and Alchorne Farm collecting hops in her umbrella.

The Museum has greatly benefited from the Stevenson Collection. The wagon, which has ‘S Stevenson Colemans Hatch’ painted on it. Majestic, to think of it rolling along the lanes with the hops piled high and harvested.”

Suzanne Joinson

About Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson is writer in residence at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. She has published two novels, The Photographer’s Wife and A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kasghar, (both Bloomsbury) and writes for a wide range of places including the Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent and many others. She lives in Worthing with her family.