My curiosity about the elaborate dresses in the old family photograph remained and, to find out more about these, it was necessary to dig deeper into the Miles family. Next to the headstones of Thomas and Rebekah Miles in the Wivelsfield graveyard, stands a memorial to Sarah Bridger which reads, formerly of Burgess Hill, died at Hove, November 28th 1895, aged 62 years.
Sarah was Mary’s next younger sister, who grew up to be a remarkable and enterprising lady. At the age of 14 she left the family home at Lent Ridge and went to be apprenticed to a dressmaker. Up to that time, the girls and women of the Miles and Lindfield families had worked on the farms, daughters and wives, as dairy maids, house servants, mothers, tending the chickens and many other necessary jobs. The life must have been physically hard, marriage meant multiple pregnancies and childbirths and children were often lost in infancy. The husbands mostly outlived their wives and remarried. Whether Sarah was influenced by the lot of women around her, or whether she was persuaded a better life could be had by other means, we cannot know. There was also at this time an enormous social revolution taking place with the coming of the railways. For the first time in the lives of ordinary people, it became possible to move from town to town quickly and easily, and it was no longer necessary to live and work in the place where you were born.
Not long after she completed her apprenticeship, Sarah’s father died and she returned to Lent Ridge, continuing to work as a dressmaker, now 25 years old and unmarried. However, she did not stay long, but moved to Burgess Hill, where she set up her own business in premises in Cant’s Lane, taking her sisters Anne and Esther with her as apprentices, and also Hasted’s oldest daughter, her niece Mary Rebecca Lindfield. The premises were also a draper’s shop, managed by Benjamin Bridger, a widower with a 5-year-old son, and the dressmaking business was probably in the upper storey.
It was around this time that the photograph of Hasted and Mary was taken and it is reasonable to suppose that Sarah made the clothes for her sister and children. The quality appears superb and the alliance with the draper’s shop ideal for providing the materials. The skirts are wide and full and Mary’s may be hooped, at a time when the crinoline was just giving way to the bustle. The bodices are fitted, with soft shoulders, and the generous bow at Mary’s neck is almost certainly silk. It is hard to know what such clothes would have cost, but with the advent of the sewing machine and artificial dyes, and with new rail connections between town and country, fashions were being adopted by all classes for the first time.
The business prospered and Sarah expanded into new premises at no.4 Prospect Place, a parade of shops with living accommodation over, opposite the Congregational chapel at the end of Junction Road, and very near to the railway station. She took on more apprentices, her nieces Anna Elizabeth and Adah Lindfield and Kate Miles. She also took on Charity Oden, who went on to marry Isaac Lindfield, son of Peter of Broadstone farm, who was also living in Burgess Hill. It is quite possible that they met at Prospect Place, which Isaac may have visited on family business. Sarah’s sisters and nieces all qualified as milliners or dressmakers under Sarah’s hand, giving them economic independence and lifestyle choices, which their mothers would not have had.
Sarah returned to the Bethel Chapel, Wiveslfield, to marry Benjamin Bridger on 13th March 1875, when she was 39 and he was 43. By 1887 they had moved to Hove and Sarah’s sister, Esther, had taken over the business at Prospect Place. Sarah and Benjamin enjoyed many happy years of retirement.
Adah Lindfield was only 20 when she left the dressmaker’s in Prospect Place to look after her widowed father, Hasted, in Scaynes Hill. She remained unmarried. Anna Elizabeth qualified as a milliner and later married George Ashby, living at 18 Granville Road, N 19. Mary Rebeccah Lindfield became First Dressmaker at Prospect Place, then moved to north London, where she set up her own business with an assistant at no.33 Camden Hill Road, a lovely rising street with a splendid view across to the city. Sadly, she contracted tuberculosis, which was rife, and was nursed by her sister, Anna, in Granville Road, where she died on 21st December 1892, aged 35 years. She left £73 18s.8d. attested by brother Hasted (Jr.) and was interred at Beckenham cemetery, but commemorated on Hasted and Mary’s headstone at Wivelsfield.