West Sussex Unwrapped Week 6: Rural traditions

Peek into the history of West Sussex’s traditions, some you may know and some you may not. A few are shared with other counties but others are unique to West Sussex. Traditions have, by their nature, changed with time and many are no longer practised. If you’ve experienced a ‘West Sussex tradition’ let us know in the comments, or on social media. We’d love to hear from you!

Traditions on film

Morris dancers in Horsham, 1989.

Snippet from the Rural traditions film on Vimeo by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.

Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.


Boxgrove Tipteers in a Christmas Mummers Play, the actors appearing in a variety of costumes, 1936, Garland N13694

Mummers plays are a form of folk entertainment traditionally performed in return for food or money. Mummering dates back to the medieval period, and may even have roots in pagan tradition. Though mummers or ‘tipteers’ (as performers were also known) can perform anytime of the year on special occasions, Christmas is the most popular season.

There have been, and still are, numerous groups keeping the mummering tradition alive across the county. Theatrical performances are common, but dancing, joke-telling, singing and recitations also fall under this typically rural tradition. Tipteering groups would devise characters that would feature in each play, as can be seen in the above image.

Sheep washing

In order to produce the cleanest, purest, and fluffiest wool sheep farmers would often wash their flock in a local shallow river or stream. This wasn’t always a pleasant experience for both farmer and sheep. The former would be stood in chilly water for long periods whilst the latter were bathed – not something that exactly comes naturally to sheep.

Sheep washing streams could be found all over the county, and some bridges even became known for the activity. Sheepwash, a small area of land near Westbourne, is thought to have been named so as a popular place for this traditional activity.


Information of Charles Green, Supervisor of Excise, preferred against Taylor Johnson for being concerned with the conveying of 3 quarts of brandy without payment of duty at Sellers Park, East Dean, 21 October, 1826, Add Mss 1476.

Whilst not a tradition, exactly, West Sussex, with over 50 miles of coastline, has a very long history of smuggling. As you can see from the document above, the county’s customs and excise officers struggled to control the import of illegal and taxed goods. From secret hideouts, to alleged smuggling tunnels and shocking legends, many residents know of a tale or two.

One gang in particular, the Hawkhurst Gang, is infamous. Although they were operational across the south east, and named after their ‘home’ village in East Sussex, it was West Sussex who played host to their final murderous escapade. Chichester is also particularly known as the place of their capture and incarceration in 1749.

You can read more about their infamous downfall on The Novium Museum blog.

Cider making and apple howling

George Garland, the famous Petworth-based photographer, was a prolific recorder of traditional West Sussex life. Amongst his enormous collection are a number of images of cider makers. These photos document the collecting of apples from orchards, pressing the fruit ready for fermentation, and not least the drinking of cider (the above image of the gentleman drinking was taken for a Bulmer’s campaign).

Ernest ‘Dick’ Bicknell was one of many generations of extremely experienced cider makers in the county. He is pictured in the above photos with Jesse Dalmon, undertaking the annual task of pressing the apple harvest.

Not only is the making of cider a tradition in West Sussex, wassailing apple trees (also called ‘apple howling’) is also a feature of rural living in the county. Rather than toasting your neighbours with singing, dancing and warmed alcohol (the usual form of wassailing), you do the same thing in an orchard. This, traditionally, encourages a good harvest of fruit.

You can read more about apple howling here and more about George Garland here.


Upper Street stoolball team, Fittleworth, early 20th century, John Smith 13-140

The wonderful Sussex-based game of Stoolball is quite likely to be a forerunner to cricket, and was being played as early as the 15th century. You play with bats, wickets, and two teams who compete to score the most runs. Many West Sussex school pupils will remember stoolball matches in PE lessons, and there are numerous active teams in the county. Whilst anyone can play, ladies teams are particularly popular. In fact, the sport has been favoured by female players for centuries, as you can see in this photo of Fittleworth’s Upper Street ladies team.

Playing stoolball in period costumes, at Graffham Festival Fete, 1951, Garland N35672

Ploughing matches

Printed Programmes of the Mid-Sussex Ploughing and Agricultural Association Annual Exhibition and Ploughing Match, 1920s, Add Mss 31589

Whilst not unique to West Sussex, ploughing matches have been held in the county since at least the mid 19th century. These matches were a way of demonstrating ploughing expertise; speed, precision and neatness being the aims. They also helped to promote the farming community.

So prestigious were these competitions, that local organisations such as the Horsham Ploughing Match Society were established to manage and regulate them.

West Grinstead Ploughing & Agricultural Society (est. 1871) still holds these matches annually, ensuring that they remain a key fixture of the county’s agricultural calendar.

Otter hunting

Crowhurst Otterhounds, Bines Bridge, 18 April 1927, Garland N263-266.

Otter hunting, which The League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports described as “an incredibly vile sport” in 1931, was a blood sport predominantly pursued in Sussex, Devon, and Wales until 1978 when it was finally banned.

Though otter hunting dates from at least the early medieval period, otterhounds – the breed of dogs used during the activity – were not established until the 1800s. Like fox hunting, packs of otterhounds accompanied the hunters (on horseback) to track and trace prey. The archive holds a number of photographs of otter hunts which documents this cruel but once widely accepted country tradition.

Detail of Add Mss 17101, a map of Woodmancote and Albourne, showing an otter hunter with hounds, 1768.

Pram racing

Fancy dress pram race to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Outside The Chequers, Oving Road, Chichester, 1953, PH 22747

Many towns and villages in West Sussex have experienced the delight of the pram race, and Pagham, in West Sussex, is home to the ‘World’s Oldest Pram Race‘. For those not familiar with this eccentric event, it involves contestants (usually in fancy-dress) racing each other whilst pushing a pram. Extra points are awarded to the best looking pram and themes are common such as the Coronation Pram Race of 1951, as you can see in the above photograph. It is a fun and family-orientated tradition that brings the community together for a few mad-cap hours!

West Sussex Gazette 30th December 1954

Keep an eye out for next week’s theme, ‘Country life’, on Tuesday 28th July.

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