Until 1992, every morning as I climbed on the train, a herd of cows would sing a serenade to me from their pens adjacent to Lewes railway station. With big cow eyes, they would lift a hoof and wave farewell as I slammed the door. Ah, those were the days when we had slam door carriages. Frankly I didn’t give a damn about the slam doors themselves, but those carriages had a buffet on them, which meant they provided for two of my weaknesses, a bacon sarnie in the morning and a gin and tonic on the way home. Those cows always reminded me of my days in Moscow struggling with the Russian Cyrillic lettering. I sat on the Metro trying to figure out the four letter word C followed by a T followed by a Greek Omega and another Greek letter which looks like a door scrawled by a child. In mathematics it’s called Pi. It took several journeys before I realised that Cyrillic sounds are often dissimilar to the way we sound letters in English. Of course, the word was STOP.
As I sat having lunch in a restaurant just off Moscow’s Arbat Street, I had the same experience in trying to figure out why a life size statue of a cow had the letters My My inscribed on it. After several breath stopping vodkas, I translated yet again. The letter Y in Russian is the sound of OO. It was a sign for a milk shake café. Moo Moo.
I haven’t been to Moscow recently, so I don’t know if that cow is still there.
What I do know is the cows that saw me off each morning definitely are not. Instead, there is a small estate of new houses on a road called Tanners Brook.
I had been witness to the last cows to be sold in Lewes and therefore the death of the cattle markets that had flourished for centuries in the settlement. But people still use the words ‘Market Town’ when describing Lewes.
Don’t argue. The description is used time and time again. Horse Fairs, Sheep Fairs, Cattle Markets. Lewes has had them all. It was said that in the middle of the nineteenth century that after market days, which took place on the High Street, the stench was so bad, the middle class residents couldn’t venture out to do the shopping.
Several other appellations have been used to describe the town. It’s often called an ‘Arts’ town because of its history of housing works of great renown such as Rodin’s The Kiss, the superb collection of art housed in the Town Hall or even the home town talents of artists such as Peter Messer, an extraordinary artist, but also an interesting character.
Some say, because of the presence of the Assizes and Crown Court based in Lewes almost from the time of The Conqueror, it is a law town, while later descriptions have included university town, commuter town and dormitory town, depending on which members of its community contributed most to its economy.
But get into conversation with Paul Myles, born and bred in Lewes, and he holds a deep conviction that Lewes has been for many years an industrial town.
His argument is persuasive. First there are some street names that reflect this industrial past. Foundry lane, Fisher Street, Mill Road, Phoenix Place, Potter’s Lane, Timber Yard Cottages, Baxter’s Field. Not overwhelmingly conclusive but certainly an indicator to a past not reflected by the antique stores, charity shops and chain stores now populating the town.
No one likes a little pub argument more than me. So, engaging with the knowledgeable, likeable, but in your face Myles to see if he is right, sent me racing to the history books. Hang on, many people will say. You always claim you’re a storyteller, not an historian. Quite right too. But my on-line debates on Brexit with this friend and adversary garnered a sideline crowd, variously cheering on him or me, according to our one upmanship qualities. So, I never let his assertions go unchecked.
I regret to say he has a point. What I don’t regret is that the mini industrial revolution in Lewes, started at the same time as its most successful brewer.
John Harvey set up shop in 1790, right on the cusp of the advent of a string of businesses that developed in Lewes, giving it an extended period of industrial prosperity.
Making beer is probably the only lasting sign of this period, Harvey’s now being the final vestige of successful industries that drove the economy of Lewes for many years.
Yet John Harvey held off making beer for several years after he set up business.
Seagoing ships came to Lewes in its early years, but the trade dropped off in the 13th Century as ports closer to the Channel flourished. But this industry left a legacy and Lewes was an important port until the advent of the railway in 1854.
The town was already a transportation centre with a flourishing coaching industry serving Brighton, smaller than Lewes until 1790, and London. Several existing pubs and hotels thrived from this trade and the presence of sailors and river workers added to their profitability.
The Ouse was altered to accommodate river traffic in 1791, maintained as a canal until 1812 by the Upper Ouse Navigation Company. Ouse shipping exported iron as well as coal and vegetables to the Continent.
Minor industries had also sprouted in the 18th century with clothiers inhabiting the North side of the High Street. They still do, but of the original enterprises, only one lasted until the 21st century. Alas, even Hugh Rae couldn’t fight modern disdain for small business and closed its doors in 2016.
Even more importantly, brewers sprung up in the 17th century in Southover. The much quoted ‘63 pubs and 17 breweries’ of the mid 1800s, showed how this trade flourished as Lewes grew. Although John Harvey was really a wine, port and sherry distributor and exporter until 1838.
But brewing had remained robust with Verrall’s and Beard’s the main breweries until John Harvey added to the beer flow.
The Napoleonic Wars contributed to expansion, with barracks being built for 1000 soldiers.
Iron works opened in Cliffe, providing material for the military and brickyards followed as factory building expanded. A foundry came along in 1808 and although the industry ended in mid-1800, tanneries, which came into being in the 16th century were still busy.
A cement and lime works, existed, and a light engineering operation. A paper mill was associated with Baxter’s, long standing printers established in 1802 and closed only in 1994.
But apart from Harvey’s and Hugh Rae, the most enduring was the Phoenix Ironworks.
A number of small ironworks populated the banks of the Ouse, but the Phoenix, established in 1832 in a small building on the banks of the river, was developed by John Every as one of the country’s leading iron workers, even developing a ship building arm at one point. And even other ship builders prospered in mid-1800 Lewes.
Phoenix lasted in one form or another until 1986.
So reluctantly, I give this round to Paul Myles. In all the titles given to Lewes, including the extensive and job producing horse racing sector of the 20th century, Lewes really does stem from a strong, powerful and vibrant industrial sector, mostly forgotten except for Harvey’s. So, I suppose I owe Paul a drink. Harvey’s of course. •