The Breach Family's Sussex Origins

A Family History Blog by Alison Vainlo (Breach)

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Article 1

Sheep and Songbirds
The life of the Sussex shepherd

David Breach
This photo of David Breach appeared in a Sussex local newspaper some years ago. The following is a transcription of the article that accompanied it.

David Breach lived from 1847 – 1920 and the photo was taken in East Dean probably in the early years of the 20th century.

'Shepherding sounds like a romantic and idyllic life to us today but in fact it was an extremely harsh existence. Apart from the obvious disadvantages of being out in all weathers, hours were long. It was also usually poorly paid and sometimes casual.

The workhouse registers are full of people who list their occupation as ‘shepherd’ during these times. Because of this shepherds earned extra money where and when they could.

In the Eastbourne area they would trap small birds during the summer to sell either as songbirds or, mostly, as delicacies for the tables of the rich. Some people would walk around the Downs finding these traps and would release the little captive leaving in its place ‘the pence of ransom’ – a few coppers as price of the bird.

Others of course were not so honest. It seems that huge numbers of birds were killed in this way and it was said that a shepherd could earn as much as £50 in a season. Most of the birds caught were wheatears which were most prized, particularly by the hotel trade and it so seriously affected the population that by the early 1900’s it had begun to die out, simply because of the scarcity of birds.

The sheep in the photograph are not clear but they look like Southdowns which are now classed as a rare breed. The photograph also shows the products of two ancient crafts. The fence is a hurdle, made by woven branches. Hurdle-making is a skilled craft but there are still people in Sussex who can do it.

Mr Breach is wearing a smock. These were traditional garments for shepherds and were hard wearing, warm and loose fitting for comfort.

When David Breach was buried a lock of wool would have been placed on his chest to show he was a shepherd so that God would excuse him for missed attendance at church.'


Article 2

G T Breach & Sons
Wool-staplers and Fellmongers 

George Thomas Breach began life in very humble circumstances, but by the age of fourteen he had saved enough money to become apprenticed to a wool-stapler for four years. After that he got a donkey and collected skins and fleeces from farmers, in order to start his own small business as a fell-monger. He dealt in skins and hides from his own small tannery, through which he rose to the position of a prominent wool-stapler. Buying wool from the producer, he sorted and graded it before selling it on to the manufacturer. 

George lived at number 69 High Street, an old half timbered house in Steyning, West Sussex. His business was housed in sheds and barns in a meadow behind the Star Inn. Huge bales of wool were warehoused near Steyning Station in Chappell's building. The outer part of the skins was turned into a soft leather known as basel, which was used, among other things, as a lining for horse collars. The inner membrane of the skins was made into parchment.

George came up against fierce opposition from his competitors; however, it was the crisis in the wool trade of 1827 which left him bankrupt - the price of wool had slumped to 7d in the pound. He called a meeting of his creditors and offered them fifteen shillings in the pound. This was gladly accepted, and in 1832 when his fortunes had changed, he arranged a dinner at his house for his forty creditors. They were told to look under their plates - each had a cheque for the remaining five shillings in the pound he owed. This was, he said, the happiest day of his life. In 1841 a service of plate was awarded to him by the flockmasters and wool-staplers of West Sussex for his 'upright conduct'.

During the First World War the tanyard at Steyning made thousands of sheep skins into leather jerkins, which were sent out to the troops in the trenches.

As fewer men became shepherds the number of sheep on the South Downs declined, and so did the tannery business. Restrictions brought in during the Second World War finally brought the business to an end.

The final owner of the business, which closed in 1942, was George's great-grandson, George Thomas (Tom) Breach (1882-1952). It was only after his sudden death in 1952 that some of his great-grandfather's hidden deeds of kindness became known.

From an article by Ernest Duke and Frank Cox 1953.

Relates to Branch Line BL2 - Steyning Breaches 1752 - 1925.


Article 3

Mr. G. T. Breach.
Born, 1800.
From a Sussex Newspaper,

A further version of the story of George Thomas Breach.

The Testimonial Presented to
Mr. G. T. Breach.

If the English people are noted for their devotedness to an aristocracy, they may be also praised for their appreciation of honest worth. the man who acts well his part in this world is, as Burns says,
"King o' men for a' that,"
and is so recognised in honest estimation whate'er his position in life. To illustrate this recognised national feature we have only to refer to the proceedings which we publish this day, in reference to the presentation of a testimonial to Mr. G. T. Breach, of Steyning. Throughout the Western part of Sussex Mr. Breach is as well known and as highly respected - particularly among the agricultural community - as any man; and if there are those among our readers who are unacquainted with this gentleman, it will be not an inopportune time to give a brief sketch of his career.

Mr George Thomas Breach is a woolstapler in a very extensive way, residing at Steyning. His business, therefore, in this capacity, lies very much among the farmers of Western Sussex. He is the architect of his own fortune; and his life has some very praiseworthy features in it. born of poor parentage, he had not the advantages of education to fit him for his future life, but he always displayed considerable shrewdness as a youth; and he frequently relates to his friends his first commencement in business. He will tell them how he began life with a wonderful cat having four hind legs, which died, and he afterwards got a pig, which was exchanged for a donkey. With the latter quadruped he would start selling off vegetables and fruit. This flourished with him to a small extent; but on one occasion at Brighton his donkey ran away, and wrecked the whole of his stock-in-trade, which consisted of gooseberries, and he would have been  insolvent at the commencement, had not old Martha Gunn, of Brighton, given him some fish to sell on his way home. By degrees he saved a little money, and placed his little savings under the eaves of a cart-shed. Here he was robbed on one occasion; and for greater security his little earnings were buried in the garden. He had accumulated sufficient in 1813 to bind himself an apprentice to a woolstapler, to which he devoted himself with some attention for four years. At the expiration of this period the donkey cart came out again, and he collected skins and fleeces from the farmers, and was embarked in a very little way as a fellmonger. By attention to his business, and tact in his dealings, he gradually got a little higher in the world, his donkey was exchanged for a horse, and his small premises slightly extended, and so on. this continued until he began to be looked upon with jealousy by the larger men in the trade. They found, indeed, that Breach had a better way of doing business than they had; and they determined to put him down. They soon found, however, that Breach was not to be put down; and in their combination to crush him they all failed. This was during the panic of 1827; and at this period, also, Mr. Breach found it necessary to make an arrangement with his creditors. Wool had receded to seven-pence a pound, and it was a heavy blow to the whole trade. As soon as Mr. Breach found that he was not able to meet his engagements, he did what every honest man would do - call the whole of his creditors together. They met at the "Sovereign," at Brighton. He there laid a plain, unvarnished statement of his accounts before them, and offered fifteen shillings in the £. This was gladly accepted by all; and in the contract Mr. Breach bound them all down in a penalty of £50 to keep the matter secret.

Now comes one of the best features on his whole life. In the year 1832 the panic had subsided, and the trade of the country had righted itself. the same industry and perseverance in business, which he had displayed formerly, brought Mr. Breach into the vein of prosperity. Fortune smiled on him; and in this year he sent an invitation to all his creditors who had accepted the composition, to dine with him at his house. They all met at Steyning, to the number of about forty; and the plates were laid for dinner. Mr, Breach presided, and before the dinner commenced he desired each of his guests to turn up their plates and see what they had underneath. They did so; and each man found there a cheque for the remaining five shillings in the £. This was, as Mr. Breach said, the happiest day of his life; and we can readily imagine that it was not a very unhappy day for all of them! There was such a dinner, and such a "hooraying," and such congratulations as never were known before in the quiet town of Steyning; and to make the occasion more glorious, a trained band of music under the under Mr. Breach's direction, performed the "Conquering Hero" in the most triumphant manner.

Since this period Mr.Breach has enjoyed the confidence with all of whom he has had dealings. In 1841, a service of plate was presented to him publicly by the flockmasters and woolstaplers of West Sussex, "for his upright conduct." He has weathered the storm through all the subsequent panics with which we have been visited; but during the last year, he was, unfortunately, a loser of £5,000 or £6,000 by heavy failures in the manufacturing district.

Testimonial cover

With thanks to Carol Harrison.

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