Location and prehistory
Newmarket Hill is the highest hill of a connecting number of ridges linking the many valley bottom settlements and farms of Brighton (east), Bevendean, Moulescombe, Falmer, Ashcombe (south), Southover (near Lewes), the villages of the lower Ouse Valley, Balsdean, Rottingdean, Ovingdean, Roedean, and Whitehawk. In prehistoric times such ridges were used as trackways. Newmarket Hill, at the centre of this web of ridges and valleys between Brighton and Lewes, would have seen much traffic over the ages.
As a teenager, David found a broken ceremonial polished axehead dating from Neolithic times in a ploughed field near the hill top. These first farmers built a causewayed enclosure on nearby Whitehawk Hill above Brighton. Just like the polished axehead, it too was probably used for ceremonial purposes. The thin, but fertile, chalk soils were some of the earliest to be cleared of their woodland cover for crops and livestock. At the bottom of the Whitehawk causewayed enclosure’s ditches archaeologists found the long dead remains of snail shells that today would be expected to be found in woodland clearings, and the evidence indicates that it remained cleared for the duration of its existence. This appears to be exceptional, for elsewhere on the downs the evidence is that such clearings were normally both small and temporary in a generally forested landscape. The population of the whole of the Britain at this time probably numbered just tens of thousands, and were probably mostly mobile forest dwellers.(1)
There is evidence of trading during this period, so the track between Brighton and Lewes known as Juggs Road, running over Newmarket Hill, was almost certainly in use at this time.
As Britain’s population increased, more and more of the downland was cleared of its trees for grazing, and put to the plough for cereals. By Roman times the whole of this downland area was probably being heavily farmed. It is supposed that these Downs were probably more densely inhabited by about A.D. 100 than at any other period since, and that it was at least as put under the plough as it is today.(2) There is evidence that, though not a military road, the track between Brighton and Lewes, known as Juggs Road, was used as a major east-west route between Lewes, Brighton, and thence to Chichester at the foot of the Downs along the northern edge of the coastal plain. It is likely that the route was an ancient one, even by Roman times. A small hoard of Roman coins was found next to the Juggs Road, near the top of Newmarket Hill. Such hoards were often buried by the side of roads.(3)
With the collapse of the Roman Empire came a collapse in infrastructure, population, and thus a large decline in the downland farming. It is likely that scrub and woodland would have returned to cover much of the Downland hills and valleys. The Saxons were slow to establish themselves, though clues to their legacy are to be found in the burial mounds on the nearby Castle Hill, and the place-names of their many farms and settlements in the area. The nearby settlements of Falmer to the north, Kingston to the east, and Balsdean to the south, all show evidence of being Saxon in origin. However, it was Kingston that, at least by Norman times, seems to have held the ridge, hill top, and southern slopes of Newmarket Hill.
The history of Kingston near Lewes from the Norman times to the present has been well documented by writers such as Joseph Cooper,(4) Mrs Alexander,(5) Roger Taylor,(6) Margaret Thorburn,(7) and Charles Cooper.(8) It has been summarised in Lewes District Council’s Kingston Conservation Area; Character Appraisal of April 2007, which is available on the Internet. As far as the character of the Downs was concerned, the rabbits that they brought with them ended up being one of their major legacies. To the south-west of Newmarket Hill is Warren Hill, between the present-day Brighton Racecourse and the villages of Ovingdean and Woodingdean. There is evidence that this was the site of a medieval warren, an enclosure for the breeding of rabbits, for there is a thirteenth century document complaining of the damage caused by the rabbits that had escaped.
During the medieval period Britain’s population increased again to similar levels of that of Roman times. This would have put pressure on the Downland grasslands, causing them to be put to the plough, to meet the demands for bread by a rising urban population. Traditionally ploughing was done with oxen rather than horses, for oxen were able to plough steeper slopes. The remains of their fields can be seen on the steep valley sides of Balsdean Valley, to the south-east. However, during the fourteenth century, bad harvests and plague caused England’s population to crash. Much of the Downs would have been uncultivated due to a lack of labour. As a result, many landowners switched from arable crops to the raising of sheep on its marginal land. Not only would they require less labour for their care, but there were big markets for their wool to supply Britain’s thriving export market for the weaving trade. Just as important was the dung from the sheep that was mostly dropped overnight when they were penned (folded) on the arable fields surrounding their settlements. This more intensive form of farming would have enabled their reduced acreages of arable to produce higher yields. Thus it was that from the fourteenth century, the Downs surrounding Newmarket Hill would have become the short-cropped springy turf for which it was to become justly famous some four hundred years later.
However, because this downland hill was both central and yet remote from habitation it would have seen more than just shepherds and travellers on legitimate business. By the eighteenth century, in order to avoid paying the high taxes on certain goods, many people from the area turned to smuggling. The village of Rottingdean, on the coast to the south, was especially famous for its smugglers. They were romanticised in ‘A Smugglers’ Song’ by Rudyard Kipling, but the realities were very different. They were organised gangs best compared with the South American drug smuggling cartels of the present day. In one instance, as many as two hundred men were recorded as being involved in the unloading of smuggled goods from a boat in Cuckmere Haven in broad daylight. Anyone trying to stop their activities, whether local farmer, parson, excise man, or judge, would be likely to have either their property or persons damaged, and killings were not unusual, for the profits to be made were considerable. On the Yeakell and Gardner map, surveyed in about 1780, there is a curious symbol on the summit of Newmarket Hill that may well represent a gibbet. These were iron cages in which the dead body of a notorious criminal were placed. They were usually in a public yet remote roadside location, as a deterrent to criminals. As we later discovered in our researches, the Downs surrounding Newmarket Hill very much had a reputation for disreputable characters.
Nevertheless, the young shepherd John Dudeney (pronounced like the word scrutiny), whilst tending the Kingston flock on Newmarket Hill, managed to find the peace and quiet necessary to studying the books that enabled him to give himself an education. He was born in Rottingdean in 1782, and started tending the Rottingdean flock at 8 years old. He was encouraged in his studies by the Rottingdean vicar, Dr. Hooker, who most interestingly was very much involved in smuggling. John Dudeney moved to Kingston when he was 17 years old and, with 9 years of experience, was now responsible for taking all of Kingston’s 1,400 sheep up onto the Downs every day. This was midsummer, 1799, and he stayed there 3 years. Kingston’s old shepherd was, at this time, too infirm to manage the steep climb up above the village to Newmarket Hill. It may be that his new boss was also involved in smuggling, based on reminiscences recorded by Mrs Alexander in her book on Kingston.(9) Whilst there is no evidence that John Dudeney was ever involved in smuggling himself, he would certainly have known to look the other way in order to stay out of trouble.
At this time the only water on the Kingston downland was a dew pond on Newmarket Hill, opposite the later location of Newmarket Farm. It was close by that John Dudeney dug a hole in the chalk for his books (his library) which he covered with a large stone. He bought his books and writing materials with his surplus income, largely obtained from catching moles and wheatears. He was thus able to teach himself astronomy, French, Latin, Hebrew, mathematics, and European history. After about 16 years of shepherding he had sufficient education to gain the position of schoolmaster in Lewes, and later owned his own school. He died in May 1852, having advanced himself in a manner that few others attained.
Most of his fellow shepherds and other agricultural labourers would have been illiterate. The next evidence of an ability to read and write was that of Martin Brown, a lodger of Newmarket Farm, in 1868. The first ‘scholar’ of which we are aware was the 9 year old Elizabeth Timms who in 1871 went to one of the new schools of either Falmer or Kingston, for by then education had become compulsory for children.
(1) Bangs, David (2004) Whitehawk Hill; Where Surf Meets Turf. (2) Brandon, Peter (1998) The South Downs, chapter 3, Phillimore and Co. Ltd. (3) Shields, Glen. (2005) The Roman roads of the Portslade/ Aldrington area in relation to a possible Roman port at Copperas Gap, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 143, 135–149. (4) Cooper, Joseph (1871) History of Swanborough Manor. (5) Mrs Alexander (1950’s), edited and reprinted by Hazel and Arthur Craven, Record Book of Kingston. (6) Taylor, Roger (1990) A History of Kingston-near-Lewes. (7) Thorburn, Margaret (2001) An Account of the Manor of Hyde: Kingston near Lewes, Sussex. (8) Cooper, Charles (2006) A village in Sussex: the history of Kingston-near-Lewes. (9) An unnamed late 18th or early 19th Tuppen, was a shepherd.
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