The Sussex Cokelers: A Curious Sect
By DONALD MACANDREW
PERHAPS the strangest Cling about these strange people is their obscurity. Almost one can say that the Cokelers have never been written about.
Numerous authors have written innumerable books about Sussex but none of them ever seems to have found the Cokelers. Messrs Kipling, Belloc, Massingham, Mais, E. V. Lucas, A. A. Evans and Miss Sheila KayeSmith ignore them. Encyclopedias and dictionaries-whether of Christian biography, National biography or religion and religionsare dumb, though The Victoria History of the County of Sussex gives them eight lines! The present essay is drawn entirely from unpublished letters and tales told by ancient members of the sect.1
With their antique clothes and extraordinary marriage taboo these people in Sussex resemble us little more than do, say, the natives of Bali, and during the ninety odd years of their being they have escaped reporters and cameramen more successfully than have the above-mentioned Antipodeans. Though black-outs engulf them and planes zoom above them, they live to-day in a sphere as deaf to the clangour of war as the moon herself. Their chapels are towers of precious ivory wherein Herr Hitler and his sort are never mentioned.
Of these chapels only seven remain. Numbers one, two and three (Loxwood, Lordshill and North Chapel) are far from main roads and railways; number four is in a lane near Warnham, number five is tucked away behind a shop in Upper Norwood, and numbers six and seven, at Hove and Chichester, have barely a score of members between them. The urban communities are dwindling fast and among them the peculiarities which distinguish rural brethren are vanishing. It is then with numbers one, two, three and four -remote village strongholds wherein even todayCokelers and non-Cokelers are as Roundheads and Cavaliers--that we propose to deal.
They were founded at Loxwood in 1850 by John Sirgood, a "saint," whose sermons and miracles are still remembered by some very old women in the Weald of Sussex.
Cokelers in their Chapel
Born about 1820 at Averring in Gloucesteshire we first behold Sirgood at Clapham some twenty years later, a married man and a shoemaker. He and his friend John Banvard were disciples of James Bridges, the evangelist, who in 1836 had founded the Plumstead Peculiars, a tiny sect which practised faithhealing and annointing the sick with oil. Before long the two Johns were themselves preaching-Banyard in Essex where he established the faith of the peculiar People (whose doctrine spread like wildfire in the little Thames-side villages between Southend and Silvertown, till finally Bridges and his Plumstead followers were consumed in it) and Sirgood on Clapham Common. In the winter he preached in private houses.
Yet, sole entertainment of multitudes though his preaching might he, it was soon patent lo Sirgood that during the week Clapham went about its work forgetful of the tidings which it had heard. He longed for an audience such as Banyard's-yokels seemed so Case to ignite. Could not he also preach on village greens instead of on London commons? he began to ask the Lord.
Then one night the Lord answered Sirgood in a dream telling him of certain remote places in Sussex where men would hearken unto him. And next morning though he could not afford his train fare, Sirgood closed the shop, put his wife in a wheelbarrow and alternately pushed and was pushed by her on his forty-one mile trek from London to Loxwood.
Sirgood never settled in Loxwood but he used to stay there for weeks at a time. A clique of about five persons was soon formed and meetings were held in one of the cottages. Although jeered at in the beginning the numbers swelled until ten years later it included half the local labourers and farmers. Then quite suddenly there was violent opposition from the council and the clergy. Cokelers were turned out of their houses and many servant girls and labourers lost their work. Sirgood himself received a letter from the magistrate bidding him discontinue his meetings in a certain house as the landlord did not feel justified in tolerating a doctrine wherein it was possible for the teacher to say that "all parsons should go to hell." He denied the charge only to he told that "we have not been informed that the words complained of were used by you, but have no doubt that they were so by somebody at one or more of the meetings."
A long correspondence followed. Surged asked why it should be necessary to concoct a libel in order to make him leave a house from which lie could quite easily be expelled in the usual way. "I never knew until I entered the County of Sussex " he writes " that there were such individuals in existence who wanted to have dominion over another man's conscience in matters of religion because lie lived in a house belonging to them or was in their employ." And again " I am sure you must have seen marks of sincerity about those men who go to Loxwood ... for they walk nine or ten miles on the Lord's day after a hard week's work and the same distance back at night to benefit their fellow men, and I have known some walk upwards of thirty miles and preach three times on the Lord's day, and feel it to be no irksome task, but rather a pleasure to do as Christ taught 'Freely ye have received, freely give' for the love they have to Christian souls ..." "You have taken it upon yourself to act as Christ himself never acted who is Lord of all the earth. What think you would become of you and me if He had dealt with us every time we have spoken wrong as you have done with them who went to Loxwood ?"
The doctrine first preached by "Brother John" in Loxwood varied only a little from those of Banyard and Bridges; he had in a sense brought the faith of the Peculiar People to his flock whom he called the Dependents (the nickname "Cokelers" came later when cocoa was freely dispensed in the meeting house). Only he went further than Banyard. Both proclaimed the Antinomian doctrine that those who followed them could do no wrong. Having chosen Christ instead of the pleasure of the world, the brethren became possessed each of a part of His Divine Body, they are sinless even as He was without sin: they are His favoured, peculiar people, peculiar to Christ and a law unto themselves. The following verses from different Cokeler hymns make this very clear:
Every Cokeler believes that a place is reserved for him at the High Table at the marriage feast in Heaven. Phrases of this sort are always on the lips of those who are moved to speak at the meetings. "What a lovely day we have to look forward to, we who are His favourites, because we stand apart from all the sins and follies of this earthly house of play." But it is by the renunciation demanded in order to become one of His favoured that the creed of Sirgood goes so much further than that of Bridges and Banyard.
A Cokeler should not listen to secular music, read secular books, play games, have wild flowers in his home (and the Sussex woods abound in primroses, bluebells and ladysmocks!) smoke or drink alcohol. (Brewing alcohol is another matter, and the nearly dead Sussex cider making industry is kept alive at North Chapel thanks mainly to Cokeler labour). But strangest of all, a strict Cokeler may not marry!
A wife stands between a man and his God. A husband stands between a woman and her God. We should be free from earthly ties so that God may enter into us. The origin of this is economic, for in the days when a labourer earned ten shillings a week and took unto himself a wife, it was held that he could not be free to receive his God and a system was therefore introduced whereby any Brother wishing to wed could, having obtained the sanction of the Elders, enter into a trial marriagewith the lady of his choice, to he followed some two years later perhaps, should both parties be yet willing, by lawful matrimony, and this is still practised in the villages where, however, strict Cokelers even now discountenance marriage entirely. As may be guessed, the system has been a ready missile in the hands of their persecutors, who could always say that the Cokelers encouraged immorality.
All who remember Sirgood and his disciples speak of their prodigious gift of healing. Sirgood is even claimed on one occasion to have raised the dead.
But unlike Banyard he would not make faith-healing a part of his creed. Those whom he cured were seldom his followers. After he had anointed and healed a wrongdoer no less than three times and the man only sank between his illnesses into yet further ungodliness, Sirgood realised that, although this gift had been given from on high as a sign, his mission and doctrine were to be the curing of souls and not of bodies.
By 1870 the Cokelers were able to build a chapel at Loxwood on their united savings. In this chapel they could, did, and do attend three services every Sunday and two during the week, and contemporaneous with the establishment of the chapel and the burial ground was the founding of the stores.
If the chapel comes first the stores are the second and only other big thing in every Cokeler's life. Those that have savings invest them in the stores. About half of them work in the stores. If they are in difficulties the stores will come to the rescue. If they are ever in another Cokeler neighbourhood they can be sure of free board and lodging at its stores. And to-day each branch of the stores runs a car to take brethren from one Cokeler neighbourhood to another.
The stores began naturally in a small way and Sirgood's motive in founding them was a religious one. Many of the sisters were then, as now, domestic servants and in those days people allowed their maids only one day out a month, which in the case of the Cokeler girls meant that they could not attend many of the meetings. Sirgood represented this to some of the Elders and suggested that part of the money saved in order to build a chapel should go towards an enterprise of their own working in which the girls would be free to attend all the services. The Elders agreed with the project.
As they have no taste for pleasure other than chapel going, it follows that the Cokelers were thrifty and hard-working. The stores grew rapidly and soon captured all the local trade in Loxwood, Plaistow and Wisborough. Branches sprang up at Northchapel, Warnham, Lordshill and Kirdford. Because of the big dividends paid by this business, the labouring classes among the Cokelers are much, better off than those of other denominations, From being merely a small shop built to enable Brethren to keep their money within the fold, and servant girls to go to church, the concern has developed into a huge dry-goods business, the common fund wherein all Cokelers pool their resources.
They are in fact in their tiny way communists, and stauncher communists than many who follow Marx and Engels, names unknown in the Cokeler universe.
Sirgood preached in private houses and out of doors all over England. Nine years before his death, his wife, who was nine years older than he, left him a widower. He then settled at Warnham where he reverted to his old trade of shoemaking. In 1885 when he died there were over two thousand Cokelers. To-day there are barely two hundred.
Like the Quakers, the Cokelers are pacifists; their communism was not brought about by bloodshed and they have a genuine contempt for physical strife. This was recognised in the last war and most of the Brethren were given jobs on the land. Only in one instance was a Cokeler imprisoned as a conscientious objector.
A trait which the Cokeler communist shares with the more intellectual kind, is his extreme preciosity. In order to differentiate himself from his fellow labourers the Cokeler talks in the idiom of the Bible. With all the capacities for "simple raiment" which modern fashion allows, the female Cokeler chooses to array herself like a domestic servant of a hundred years ago. Rich enough twenty times over to have their hymns printed they prefer to copy them out in longhand for distribution in their "ivory chapels." Truly the Lord's "sparkling jewels" are of polished chrysoprase.
To describe a Cokeler service I must transport you in fancy to Loxwood, the headquarters of the sect.
It is Sunday morning and the plaintive tink, tink, tink of the Cokeler bell is borne to us over billowy meadows and through woods of oak. We follow the road--it is little more than a lane--upon which the village straggles, until we come to a path which winds for nearly half a mile across the fields. Here in twos and threes, in tiny bonnets of black straw and velvet, black shawls, black coats and black skirts that reach the ground, walk the Cokeler women. Their hair is scraped back into a plaited bun. The men, likewise soberly dressed, look rather Dickensian because of their mutton chop whiskers and little beards under the chin. Almost all of them are very old. Against the deep green meadows, with only the far-off drone of aircraft to recall the twentieth century, the little bent figures somehow remind us of the Pilgrim Fathers. The sect is less than a hundred years old, but just the same it is an anachronism, a flake of yesterday's vanished snow, which clings to the earth in Sussex.
The path leads us straight into the ugly bare little chapel outside which are written the words "All Welcome." Before us is a platform whereon sit three men and a woman. One is the Leader and the others are the Stalwarts. The Leader reads aloud a string of rhymed couplets which the congregation, who sit, chant after him. `Then he will read aloud a chapter from the Bible, pausing after every verse to explain or drawa moral from it as though he were teaching the Scriptures to children. Then perhaps some member of the congregation will start singing a Cokeler hymn and the others willjoin in. 'There is no music and no printed hymn book. Follows a prayer, but it is not the Lord's Prayer, for that like marriage was regarded by Sirgood as an earthly institution, incompatible with the higher life the Brethren wish to lead.
Then come the testimonies. Almost everyone testifies and there are no silences as at Quaker meetings. Often sobbing and always in a voice which trembles with fervour, the speaker will apologise for his humble way of talking and then point out that it isn't the speech itself which. matters but what he has to say. "Praise the Lord"-''Praise. His Name"--"Blessed be the name of the Lord" cry the stalwarts on the platform. Delivered in the broadest Sussex these testimonies sometimes rise to flights of metaphor and rich Biblical imagery such as can only be achieved by those whose sole reading is the Bible, whose only recreation is reading the Bible, and whose main subject in conversation, apart from business, is what they've read in the Bible.
Between the morning and afternoon service a surprise awaits the visitor. Those of the congregation who do not go home assemble in a room at the back of the chapel where tea is served ad. lib. and free of charge. Out of their pockets the Cokelers bring meat patties and little parcels of cheese sandwiches which, if they prefer, can he eaten in the chapel itself. It is not once a year that they see the face of a stranger in their meeting house, and when they do they give him a radiant welcome and almost all press forward to shake his hand.
On Bank Holidays Cokelers from each community travel by van, by hired motor coach, and by wagon to Loxwood for special services. And sometimes as they are borne through the countryside a Cokeler hymn is sung to the amazement of those whom they pass on the road:
1 The author appears to be unaware that vol v. of the S.C.M. (1931) contained an article on tit: history of the sect by the present Lord Winterton. It was reprinted from the National Review-ED.
From Sussex County Magazine Volume 16 1942 - Page 346
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