Hartfield is a charming village on the edge of Ashdown Forest. It is particularly famed for its association with A. A Milne’s famed Pooh Bear – the shop Pooh Bear remembering it. However, visit it on Good Friday and you will see another famed association Nicholas Smith’s Dole. I say see but perhaps I should add if you are unlucky.
Hart -felt story
A 17th Century local story tells how Nicholas Smith was an itinerant who had travelled around the Sussex countryside dressed in old clothes looking for food and shelter. At each placed he was treated poorly by the local inhabitants who thought he was a beggar and sent unceremoniously on his way. Finally he arrived at Hartfield where the local people gave him a friendly welcome. Thus he revealed himself to actually be a wealthy man. As a result he finally settled due to the friendliness of the locals at Cotchford farm. When he died in 1634 he left money to be given to the poor each Good Friday from his tomb which lies close to the south door of the church. The Reports of the Commissioners appointed…to inquire concerning charities and education of the poor in England and Wales (1815-1839) records:
“Nicholas Smith of Hartfield, gentleman, in his will dated 18 October 1634 and proved in and proved in PCC on 29 April 1635 (PROB 11/167), gave a rent charge £5 on that part of the Manor of Cotchford, Hartfield in the possession of Lady Sherley, for the poor of Hartfield to be paid 21 days before 25 December and distributed at the discretion of the minister, churchwardens and overseers ‘upon the stone which should then be lying on his grave”.
It is claimed that Nicholas Smith was the son of a rich squire at East Grinstead. However, Jacqueline Simpson’s 1973 Folklore of Sussex:
“But the real origins of the custom remain obscure; some attribute it to an eccentric called ‘Dog’ Smith because he drove about in a cart drawn by dogs.”
The dole is distributed on the grave which suggests its founder remembers the tradition of sin eating and one wonders whether food may have been given out at some point. Now it consists of money in an envelope the amount distributed dependent on how many attend the custom. Although previously as Simpson notes in The Folklore of Sussex:
“The custom demands that immediately after the Good Friday service is over, the Rector and the churchwardens walk to what they believed to be Nicholas Smith’s tombstone in the churchyard, and lay out the money on it, the churchwardens calling out the names of each recipient.”
Never a dole moment?
I had read of the custom in an old book and on the off chance I happened to be in this area of Sussex in around 1994 and decided to see the custom. I turned up just as the then vicar appeared and got dressed into the white hassock in the porch and was pleasantly surprised to see me. ‘Are you here for the dole? He asked ‘ I replied yes to film it not to collect it’ He looked a little crestfallen and said ‘well I’ve vicar here for many years and no one has ever come to collect it’. It did not seem positive but nether-the-less I awaited. And waited. And waited. And he was just about to disappear with his white envelopes when two elderly ladies appeared. Had they come for the dole? One of them said they were local residents and had read about and came to see if they were eligible. The vicar was clearly delighted and duly gave over the envelopes. Unfortunately, the two women were too embarrassed to being photographed having the envelopes handed over – although I did take some photos and believe I videoed it too – sadly I cannot find good copies of either at the moment! It was amazing coincidence that I should be there when it happened. Interestingly, Averil Shepherd notes on her page on the ever excellent Calendar customs website:
“The dole is given to local residents in the churchyard in a simple low-key ceremony, which is only publicised normally in the parish magazine. When we went in 2013, there were no claimants; we discussed the likelihood that even though there are probably local people in need of a helping hand, they won’t want to publicly admit it and be seen to be asking for money.”
Perhaps I witnessed the last collection. Of course in a largely affluent area such as the Sussex Weald there fortunately is not much demand for charity of this nature although it is surprising that it is not visited by some who might not exactly be financially eligible might well appreciate the tradition and a bit of pin money. Back when F. J. Drake Carnell’s 1938 Old English customs and ceremonies include a photo of it (though no reference in the text) it looked well attended and even Homer Sykes’ visit in 1975 showed attendees but clearly local demographics change. The Hartfield Dole asks the questions when does a custom become defunct? Perhaps the church could return back to the list and calling names as seen in the Pathe film Caught By Camera in 1935 it is successful in other affluent areas with such customs.