Stephen Blackmore was born on 1st February 1832 in Falmer, the son of an agricultural labourer. As a young boy he worked at Stanmer House near Falmer in the service the Duke of Newcastle. But it seems he was keen to be outside on the land and soon was working as a labourer on nearby farms.
In November 1844 a Stephen Blackmore of Hodshrove Farm, Falmer was one of the ‘young men’ who took part in a Ploughing Match organised by the wonderfully titled “East Sussex Association for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Rewarding Labourers”. He would have been just 12 years old. Shortly afterwards Stephen lost his arm through an accident with a chaff-cutter which was a mechanical tool with sharp blades that was used for cutting straw and hay into small pieces for cattle fodder. He recalled that the doctor wanted to give him chloroform during the operation to amputate his arm but his father refused saying that he “didn’t believe in such stuff.” Stephen later claimed that, the day his arm was removed, was the only time in 60 years that he took a day off work.
In 1861 Stephen married Maria Herriot of Hamsey. By this time he was a shepherd and Maria followed Stephen when he moved from farm to farm. Their first son George was born in 1863. Life was tough on the Downs and infant mortality in the mid-Victorian era was high. Stephen and Maria lost their first daughter, Elizabeth in 1866 when she was 3 months old and their second daughter Mary-Ann at just 11 months. Their second son John died at the age of three years. Another son, William, was born in 1867.
Stephen worked on farms between Newhaven and Eastbourne and was known to his fellow famers as ‘Blackamore’. It would be a lonely life away from home looking after the sheep in all weathers. Sometimes a shepherd would stay in a primitive hut such as this one near East Dean, now a listed building.
Stephen had a curious eye for the unusual. As he wandered across the green swarths of the Sussex downland strange items caught his eye. They were flints that had obviously been worked to make them into to early tools. Stephen would not have been aware that these worked flints were over 5,000 years old but he knew they were worth keeping. He found arrow-heads, spear-heads, knives, axes and implements that had been skilfully manufactured by our very earliest of ancestors. He soon had a large collection which he kept in his cottage. The 1881 census shows that Stephen was then living with his wife Sarah at the remote former village of Balsdean, just north of Newhaven.
Stephen became an avid collector of worked-flints and soon came to the notice of local antiquarians. In 1891 he presented the Sussex Archaeological Society with 775 specimens of flint implements.
Many however he kept for himself in a chest. Arthur Beckett, the Sussex historian considered that Stephen had the finest collection of Neolithic implements in private hands in the country. Although Becket had become friends with Stephen, the old shepherd was annoyed when an item was written about him and his collection in the local press. He said that he was ‘worrited to death by gen’lmen from one o’ they Lunnon museums’ wanting his fine collection. He was not averse to fooling those that bothered him. On more than one occasion, when he was pestered by people who wanted an ancient flint, he picked up the first flint he found and would present to them as a gift. They would leave happy, thinking that they had been given an ancient specimen. (which, in a way they had!)
One man that he did have time for however was the biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) who lived at a house in Meads, Eastbourne. Apparently the two men had many long conversations. Stephen later said that Huxley “Was a great man but I never heard tell what he did”. Huxley was one of the prominent scientists of his day and was known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ for his support of the new theories of evolution.
In 1901, 69-year-old Stephen and his 70 year old wife Maria were living at Hodcombe Cottage on Frost Hill, near East Dean. His occupation was shown as a ‘Working Shepherd on a Farm’. When visited by a reporter there, he proudly showed off his traditional shepherd’s smock and told stories of the local smuggling trade.
Stephens wife Maria died on 12thNovember 1905 and after her death Stephen was offered a place at the Alms-houses in Croft Lane, Seaford. It was here that he was visited by Walter Johnson who was researching the ever diminishing group of men who had been professional shepherds on the South Downs. Johnson described Stephen as having “a fine intellectual head with the forehead of a Darwin, broad, high, dome like” He had a “well-formed nose with a broad high ridge which betokened a strength of mind and wide nostrils that indicated a good hold on life” His eyes were dark and deep-set which “peered forth with honesty and shrewdness and the faintest trace of suspicion.”
In his book “Talks with Shepherds” published in 1926 Johnson describes his meeting with Stephen at the Seaford Alms-house in 1912 and being shown many fine worked-flint specimens. Johnson wrote “His hoard was the result of his own labours; to him it was the one ewe-lamb – the joy of his old age. As one watched his enthusiasm, one could half recover that first fine glow and rapture of that bright morning when an ogival arrow-head lay exposed in a sand-warren, or a chipped celt was seen at the bottom of a brown furrow. Taking a shapely white axe, glossy as porcelain, he gleefully told how he picked it up on the open Down. Holding a translucent knife up to the light with the appreciative zest of a diamond merchant, he dealt upon the beauty of its facets and the deftness of the tool-wright. He dived on a chipped spear-head and essayed a guess about its maker, now asleep, who may be under one of the barrows of the nearby hills.”
Just before the Great War, Stephen was moved from the comfort of the Seaford Alms-houses to the Eastbourne Union Workhouse in Church Street. In 1914 the workhouse was commandeered by the military for use as the ‘Central Military Hospital’ (later St Mary’s Hospital) and the occupants were moved to the Steyning Union Workhouse in West Sussex. It was here that Stephen died on 3rd December 1919. He was buried at Seaford Cemetery alongside his wife. According to the Worthing Herald, Stephen’s shepherd’s crook, made, in Pycombe, was donated to Seaford Museum by his son William. (The 1911 census shows William was the ‘Keeper of Pleasure Gardens for Eastbourne Council’)
Seaford Museum did not actually exist until the 1970s however the museum today does have a shepherd’s crook on display along with an original shepherd’s smock which once belonged to Seaford shepherd Reuben Russell who also lies at rest at Seaford Cemetery. The crook looks slightly different from that shown in the photograph of Stephen but could well be his.
Walter Johnson wrote of Blackmore: “The old uneducated shepherd had become an expert whose perception and judgement were of the highest kind. His name and history will never be detailed in any biographical dictionary yet he served his age well, both as a shepherd and as a willing bond-servant to archaeology.”
Last month the Heritage Manager for Eastbourne, Jo Seaman, gave a super on-line lecture entitled ‘Shepherds and Scientists’ and it was pleasing that he mentioned Stephen Blackmore. His name may not be in a biographical dictionary but it is certainly remembered over a 100 years after his death.
Sussex Archaeological Collections XXXIX (1894)
The Spirit of the Downs, Arthur Beckett (1909)
The Spectator (24thApril 1920)
Talks with Shepherds, Walter Johnson (1926)
Worthing Herald (30thJanuary 1926)
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