Social conditions in the Cuckmere Valley 1660-1780: the influence of church and dissent

Doff, Audrey Elizabeth (1987). Social conditions in the Cuckmere Valley 1660-1780: the influence of church and dissent. PhD thesis The Open University.



This isolated area of East Sussex was divided into Weald and Download, each with a separate agricultural economy. In the Weald, radical theological views had been denounced before the Reformation, but in the whole area religion was a divisive factor in neighbourhood relationships after the Restoration, when Baptists, Quakers and Presbyterians held meetings, according to their zealous beliefs, and were persecuted by members of the Established Church. Their numbers declined slowly after the Toleration Act had provided limited concessions. Most Quakers disappeared by 1710; other sects lingered on. A Calvinist revival after 1760 produced renewed animosity.

Despite their former Parliamentary affiliations, the Pelhams (magnate landowners living near the Cuckmere) conformed and became the arbiters of behaviour and county leaders. Elevated to the peerage in the eighteenth century, they figured as national statesmen whose continuing patronage and manipulation of freeholders and local clergy declined before 1770. The clergy, although not debauched or ill-educated, suffered from episcopal indifference (as did their churches and parsonages). Almost all were gentlemen or scholars, increasingly aloof from parishioners, particularly where ill-endowed livings necessitated absenteeism.

In the absence of the clergy, the chief representatives of the Church were often the churchwardens. They and the parish overseers tackled, with honesty and a reasonable amount of compassion, the difficult task of caring for growing numbers of the suffering poor - children being particularly vulnerable. Paupers, due to financial and administrative problems, were gradually alienated from fellow parishioners. Increasing taxation and the need for agrarian improvement caused the decline of smallholders and the de-population of Downland villages. Farms (Wealden as well as Downland) became larger and, by 1780, gentry landowners or tenant farmers (many of whom achieved social elevation) held the chief parochial offices, exercising social control on behalf of the church. The polarisation of society was evident.

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