Since the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 A.D., the area around Kent, Sussex, and Surrey has been a poultry center with a reputation for producing birds with fine flavor. There is much speculation on the origins of the poultry of this area. Phoenician traders were known to visit Britain before the Romans and exchange poultry for tin. The Romans brought poultry, including some with five-toes that would later be called Dorking chickens, but they also brought knowledge of purpose-breeding livestock and may also have introduced the original British to eating poultry.
The chickens of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey had the reputation of being fine table-poultry, with white skin, legs, and feet and juicy, tender flesh. Many early writers commented on the superior qualities of the “new” five-toed fowl, implying the four-toed fowl were more common, but still of high quality. Old literature seems to indicate that in the early days of this landrace of poultry, the four-and-five-toed birds were produced from the same stock.
By the time of the introduction of Asiactic fowl to England in the mid-1800s, the five-toed fowl were being maintained as a breed (Dorking), while the four-toed fowl were bred in flocks varying much from one to the next.
During the Victorian age, the counties of Sussex, Kent, and Surrey were known as the best areas to raise chickens for eggs for the London market, and the Sussex chicken was felt to be the best of them all. In 1845, the first poultry show was held in London, and the Kentish/Sussex chicken was exhibited there for the first time. The birds exhibited there were likely similar to todays Speckled and Red Sussex.
With a great deal of excitement, the British crossed the Asiatics on local flocks seeking improvements, such as increased size and hardiness. To their disappointment, they discovered that size did increase, but bones became larger and flesh coarser and less tender. By 1900 there were precious few flocks of the old Kentish, Sussex, and Surrey chickens that had not been contaminated by crossbreeding.
In 1903, Edward Brown, a noted writer on the rural poultry industry, reminded a group of Sussex farmers of their history and reputation for producing the finest poultry and berated them for being at the point of letting the Sussex breed die out. His speech moved many and in July of that same year, E.J. Wadman formed a club for Sussex chickens. Soon farmers networked to find relatively pure pockets of the breed and began its promotion. So it is that an ancient breed was brought back from the brink of extinction and became a “new’ player in the emerging poultry industry of the early 1900s. Sussex chickens became the bird we know today about 100 years ago and have been a part of the poultry world since.
Sussex chickens reached America about 1912 and was recognized in the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection in three varieties: Speckled (1914), Red (1914), and Light (1929). In England another variety is recognized, the Brown (a very dark red color). Some breeders have created additional colors, such as Coronation, Buff, White, and Silver.
Sussex chickens are a large, dual-purpose breed with a rectangular shape, wide shoulders and deep broad body, close fitting feathers, white skin, whitish shanks and four-toed feet. They have a rich red, five-pointed comb, horn-colored beak, reddish-bay eyes, and red earlobes. The breed will put on fat very easily, making it well suited for market poultry. Males weigh 9 lbs., females weigh 7 lbs. At the time of their inclusion in the Standard of Perfection, they were one of the top breeds used for meat production. Sussex chickens still have a reputation in some circles of having flesh superior even to that of the Dorking and Old English Game chickens.
The hens are fair-to-good layers of between 200-250 large tan/brown eggs a year; they lay best if not allowed to get overly fat. They can be broody and are good mothers.
Sussex do well in confinement if they have an area to roam and appreciate the ability to free-range for a while during the week. They are not prone to flying, but if they are confined to a run, it is best to have cover for protection from predators, and leaf piles, stumps, perches, and other things to explore to keep them from being bored.
This breed does well in the winter but is not fond of the heat.
This could be a wonderful breed for a small farm or homestead, and are a suitable breed for beginners. They are curious and like people, and are a good choice for a family with children who might enjoy being involved in showing or 4-H programs. They are confident, but they are not aggressive with other breeds, so you might need to monitor them to make sure they are not bullied if there are other more assertive breeds in the flock.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.