Since the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 A.D., the area around Kent, Sussex, and Surrey has been a hub of poultry production with a reputation for producing chickens of the finest 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 certainly did bring poultry, including some with five-toes which would later be called Dorking chickens, but they also brought the knowledge of breeding livestock to fulfill a purpose and may have introduced the British to eating poultry.
The chickens of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey had the reputation of being the finest table-poultry, with white skin, legs, and feet and juicy, tender flesh. Many early writers made remarks regarding the superior qualities of the 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 the five-toed fowls 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, while the four-toed fowl were bred in flocks varying much from one to the next. 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.
Speaking to a group of Sussex farmers in 1903, Edward Brown, a noted writer on the rural poultry industry, reminded them of their history and reputation for producing the finest poultry and berated them for being on the point of letting this breed die out. His speech moved many and in July of that same year E.J. Wadman took up the mantle and 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 are a dual-purpose breed with a deep broad body, close fitting feathers, and white skin, shanks and feet. The breed will put on fat very easily, making it well suited for market poultry. The hens are fair to good layers of brown eggs, though they lay best if not allowed to get overly fat. This could be a wonderful breed for a small farm or homestead, being active and all-around an excellent breed for meat and eggs. Sussex chickens have a reputation, in some circles, of having flesh superior even to that of the Dorking and Old English Game chickens. Sussex chickens reached America about 1912 and was recognized by the American Poultry Association 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. Males weigh 9 lbs, females weigh 7 lbs.
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.