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Steyning Barracks
36 infants dead in one year

Brutality and disease killed many men, women suffered too and
infants often died.

Rev Penfold

The Rev. John Penfold saw many sad events during the
ten years when there were barracks in Steyning

Two hundred years ago in the south of England there was a lingering fear of a French invasion following the revolution in France. This intensified when Napoleon moved many thousands of his troops to the French coast.

Steyning was very much involved in the movements of troops to the English south coast, in response. On 6th December 1799, for instance, several detachments of men marched from Horsham to Steyning and the next day went on to Angmering and Littlehampton. With them went eight wagons with blankets and camp equipment together with a carriage for the ammunition. There is also a note to show that they had a special allowance for fire and candles.

By 1804, there were so many troops in Sussex that a regular barracks had been built in Steyning - just to the north of Castle Lane after it leaves Jarvis Lane. The permanence of the Steyning barracks can be spotted when there are, in the records, a barrack sergeant and an innholder of the barrack canteen.

Over the next ten years anything up to one thousand men would be stationed in the barracks at any one time. So, from time to time, the population of the town effectively doubled. At least thirty four different regiments spent time at Steyning and many more stayed just for a night or two on the way to other barracks and encampments in Sussex.

Moreover, the two storey barrack blocks of timber built on brick foundations accommodated not only the men but, in many cases, their wives or mistresses and children as well. The christenings of the soldiers' children born in Steyning are noted in the parish registers - anything up to eighteen in any one year. Yet no more than six local girls are definitely known to have married soldiers.

Conditions were undoubtedly difficult for the women folk. Two women delivered their babies during a march from Steyning to Essex - one on a baggage cart and another at an inn. We can only imagine what the barrack blocks were like, with little in the way of sanitation. That they were pretty dreadful may be deduced from the fact that during 1809-1810 close on seventy infantrymen died and were buried in Steyning, probably all of diseases which spread swiftly in the cramped conditions.

1814 was a dreadful year. Thirty six infants or young children died in one year alone and were buried in Steyning churchyard. What caused this epidemic, we don’t know. Steyning had suffered other bad years during the time that troops were in their barracks but 1814 was the worst by some margin.

What did the people of Steyning make of it all? They must have been well aware of the soldiery. The sound of bugle calls from the edge of the town, the marching columns of men or groups of off duty soldiers, would have been commonplace.

Tradesmen probably welcomed the extra business. Yet inns such as the White Horse, which initially welcomed the officers, soon took their signs down to deter the army from seeking billets in the town. The extra demands on the vicar, the Reverend John Penfold, were enormous. Besides additional baptisms and marriages, the countless sad tasks that he had to perform must have been deeply depressing for him.

There were some attachments between local girls and the soldiery. But with only six marriages recorded, there might well have been a sustained campaign by parents to keep their daughters out of harm's way. At least one unmarried woman and her soldier’s child ended up in the workhouse.

It is easy to imagine that so many young men at a loose end in the town would have caused some mayhem. If they did, though, it hasn’t been recorded. What we do know is that they were commended for their helpful behaviour on two occasions. They helped to put out fires in the town and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Militia received compliments on their “exemplary conduct”. Perhaps their good record was, in part, the result of the ferocious discipline they endured.

In April 1814 Napoleon had been forced to abdicate when the allies captured Paris. He was sent into exile on the island of Elba where, rather oddly, he retained the title of Emperor and was allowed to 'rule' the island's 12,000 inhabitants. The government in Britain was cautious, which we know because in July of that year the barracks in Steyning and other Sussex towns were still fully in operation. People were invited to put in fresh bids to run the canteens which had been set up some years before to feed the troops. The Steyning canteen manager was James Oakes, who is described in the parish registers as the "innholder, barrack canteen". He is in Steyning Museum records because he had a child baptised in the parish church in 1814, one of 15 that year whose fathers were serving in the 44th Regiment of Foot or the 5th Veterans.

But by September the government had decided that Napoleon was no longer a threat and the order went out that all the Sussex barracks should be demolished and the materials sold off. Once the decision was made they didn't hang around and no further troop movements or references to the soldiery are found - with one exception. Just days before the troops left their barracks, Corporal Edward Morgan was arrested on a bastardy charge having made Charlotte Cuckney, an unmarried servant girl of Steyning, pregnant. Her child was not born until some months later but they needed to get hold of him before his unit moved on.

By 1815 the townsfolk were in a relaxed mood and, in January, they held a ball at the White Horse. The quiet tenor of life in the small town continued. The government got it wrong, of course. Napoleon escaped from Elba at the end of February 1815 and by June 18th was confronting Wellington at Waterloo. As soon as Napoleon was defeated, the fate of the barracks was certain. They were demolished in 1819.

Records at this time are frustratingly incomplete. The museum would love to discover more about how Steyning business coped with the loss of the soldiers' custom, how people coped with frightening levels of inflation and the agricultural depression which followed the war. How did parish finances manage the increasing cost of the poor? We don't know whether Steyning men were involved in the battle and no one wrote down what they thought about it. What we do know is that a curious square of cotton printed with the disposition of the troops on the battlefield that day in June 1815 was treasured by a Steyning family. After two hundred years it is now in the museum's collection.

< See part one of this story

Steyning Barracks Officers

Off the Record
A collection of letters between the Fisher family. Thomas Fisher was in the 51st Regiment and was stationed at Steyning. His horror at the conditions of army service and his pleas with his father to get him out, confirm the sad record in Steyning parish registers.

on The Napoleonic Wars

History Portal

The James Rooke Memoirs

BBC History
Napoleon, Nelson and the French
Threat by Dan Cruickshank

White Horse, Steyning
A brief history of the venue
for the 1808 ball

Terrible Times Link