THE LAST OF THE SOUTHDOWN SHEPHERDS.
STEPHEN BLACKMORE is dead, and with him has passed away the last of the old race of Southdown shepherds. This is a matter that will be greatly regretted by all who are intimate with pastoral Sussex, for the Southdown shepherd was a man apart from his fellows ; one who had his own customs. followed traditions, and was full of wise saws and a homely wisdom that came largely of a life of contemplation among his lonely hills.
Such was Stephen Blackmore. In addition he had a fame that spread throughout the hinterland of East Sussex, and even beyond the confines of the county. He was what we in Sussex call a " knowledgeable man," and his knowledge included an understanding of prehistoric flint implements, of which he had a fine collection found by himself when wandering across the hills at the tail of his flock. I remember incurring the wrath of the old man some years ago by reason of an article I wrote in one of the London papers. It appeared that following the publication of the article Blackmore had been visited by one of the officials of the South Kensington Museum (I believe)—" a gennleman from the Lunnon Museum," he called him—who had offered to buy the flints and had been indignantly refused. But though
he declined to sell his collection, about twenty years ago he presented some 700 Neolithic specimens to the Museum of the Sussex Archaeological Society, and I understand that at a later date he gave the remainder to a gentleman who had interested himself in his welfare.
Blackmore had a sense of humour which he occasionally exhibited in the form of a mild practical joke. He was some- times pestered by inquisitive visitors anxious to see his " flints," as he called them. Though nothing loth to show his hoard, the old man had a quick intuition which enabled him to decide whether or not his questioner possessed any expert knowledge of prehistoric implements, and if he decided that the visitor merely wished to satisfy his curiosity he would presently pick up a common flint from the ground and examine it attentively. His action invariably drew forth a question from the tiro as to the nature of the shepherd's find. " Only one o' they old flints, Sir," said he ; " you may's well keep it," and the unsuspecting visitor would carry off the present with no suspicion of its worthlessness.
I well remember my first meeting with Stephen Blakkmore. This was over twenty-five years ago, and I was a boy. I was climbing the hill beyond Beachy Head with my first camera when I saw the shepherd descending the slope with his collie and flock. He wore the time-honoured shepherd's cloak, and with his crook made so picturesque a figure that I persuaded him to permit me to take his photograph. Then followed an interesting conversation in which Blackmore told me much of his early life. He was born at Falmer, near Brighton, and there gained his initiation into shepherdcraft. While still a boy he became messenger in the household of Lord Chichester ; but the call of the Downs was always in his ears, and eventually he returned to the flock which he never again deserted until he retired from active life.
" Blackamoor," as his brother-shepherds called him, was one of the last shepherds to use the " Pyecombe hook," that famous crook which for many years was preferred by Sussex sheep-tenders to all others. The " Pyecombe hook " is difficult to find iowadays, though there is a specimen in the Sussex Archaeological Society's Museum at Lewes, and I have one in my own possession. The virtues of this instrument lay in a peculiar twist in the hook itself which prevented the sheep from escaping. It was invented by a blacksmith of Pyecombe, near Brighton, and the best specimens were made from old gun-barrels, which did not bend when subjected to the strain of the struggling animal. Black- more was exceedingly proud of his, and valued it because the art of making a shepherd's crook on the Pyecombe pattern died with the inventor. Modern crooks were " numb things," and were too often made of soft iron.
While the shepherd showed me his " hook " I observed that he
lad only one arm. He informed me that he had lost the other when a boy through an accident with a chaff-cutter. That was he only time in his life that he had had a day's sickness. " My Viand was taken clean off," he said, " an' when the doctors Dperated my fadther wouldn't allow 'em to give me no chloroform, sot believing in Bich stuff."
Those were the days when the shepherds of the South Downs wore the " chumney " and smock. The former was a soft felt sat with a moderately broad brim. The smock was a garment A which the shepherd was particularly proud. It was made of unbleached linen and was almost weatherproof. That worn during the time of farm work was of blue or grey material, but a white smock was worn on Sundays and holidays, and was Jrnamented with honeycomb work at the shoulders. Blackmore informed me that he was married in his, and later when I visited his little cottage in the hollow at Hodcombe, near Beachy Head, he showed me the garment.
This conversation, as I say, took place over twenty-five years ago. As my intimacy with the old man increased I learned From him many stories connected with the South Downs. He was full of yarns concerning the Sussex smugglers, and one day he showed me the spot where a Preventive officer had been done to death by members of the Alfriston Gang. The smugglers were expecting the landing of a cargo in the " darks " (moonless night), and learning that the Preventive officer on duty would shortly pass along his beat on the top of the cliff they led the line of white chalk stones, by which he was guided in the darkness, to the edge of the cliff. Presently the patrol came along the beat, following faithfully the line of little chalk mounds set apart at regular intervals of a few feet. When he reached a point opposite the furze-bushes in which the smugglers were hiding he disappeared over the cliff. The smugglers ran forward and found their victim clinging to the edge of the precipice. His cries for mercy were unheeded, and a member of the gang, stepping to the rim of the cliff, trod on the Preventive officer's fingers until he loosened his hold and fell to his death on the beach below.
Another of Blackmore's smugglers' tales concerned the betrayal of a member of a West Sussex gang by a woman. One of the most notorious of these desperadoes was a certain Ben Tapner, who determined to avenge his comrade. He lay in waiting for the woman on Slindon Common, stripped her of her clothes, tied her to the back of a horse, and with a long whip scourged her across the common.
At a later date I heard from Blackmore that he frequently had long conversations with the late Professor Huxley, who was then living at " Hodeslea," Eastbourne. " He were a great man, Sir," he added, " but I never heard tell o' what he did."
Blackmore was married to a woman of the true Sussex cottage- wife type—clean, frugal, hard-working, and, it must be added, sometimes exacting. I remember an one occasion visiting the cottage to see my friends after a somewhat long absence. The old lady was so annoyed at my apparent neglect that she abso- lutely declined to speak to me, but retired upstairs to her bed- room, where she remained during the whole time of my visit. Her death a few years ago was a great blow to the old man, and I believe he never really recovered from it. " I married my wife for love," he said ; " they dotin't marry so much for love nowadays as they did when I was young."
I kept in touch with Shepherd Blackmore until a few years ago, when increasing infirmities compelled his retirement from his shepherding duties. A home was found for him in the almshouses at Seaford, and at a later date he was removed to Steyning Workhouse, where he died in his eighty-seventh year. He lived a life of hardship and usefulness, and his character as the last of the Southdown shepherds has earned for him a fame which those of the following generation should be slow to forget.