Lewes History Group: Bulletin 136, November 2021

Please note: this Bulletin is being put on the website one month after publication. Alternatively you can receive the Bulletin by email as soon as it is published, by becoming a member of the Lewes History Group, and renewing your membership annually.

  1. Next Meeting: 8 November 2021, Mary Norris ‘War Memorials of St John-sub-Castro’
  2. Future LHG Meetings (by Neil Merchant)
  3. Robert A’Borough’s Will
  4. The Easter 1682 Quarter Sessions held at Lewes
  5. Watercolour of  Lewes Castle at auction
  6. Gideon Mantell and the Petty Treason conviction
  7. Problems getting petrol
  8. William James: a Lewes publican and horse dealer
  9. Bonfire Night cancelled
  1. Next Meeting                       7.30 p.m.                       Monday 8 November        Mary Norris              The War Memorials of St John-sub-Castro

The centenary of the dedication of the WW1 War Memorial at St John-sub-Castro occurs on 2 November 2021. At this time of Remembrance this talk is a timely look at the lives of some of the people from the parish who lost their lives in the defence of this country and whose names are inscribed on the Memorial. Mary will also cover some of those who lost their lives during WW2. The 75th anniversary of the dedication of the WW2 Memorial at St John’s occurs next year.

This meeting will again be a Zoom webinar, and to attend you must register in advance. You will then be able to join the meeting from 7.20 pm. LHG members will be sent a link to register directly: non-members will need to purchase registration via https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/lhg.


  1. Future LHG Meetings                                                (by Neil Merchant)

Our next (December) meeting will be preceded by a short A.G.M., for which the agenda will be included in the December Bulletin.

Thank you to all our members (over 200, 40%) who responded to our recent survey about our talk venue plans. The results were as follows:

Q1: Continuing with Zoom through to March 2022: 87% supported, 8% didn’t mind, and only 4% disagreed. So overwhelming support.

Q2: Resuming face to face talks in April 2022: 63% supported, 23% didn’t mind, 14% disagreed.

Although only 14% of respondents disagreed, support for resuming live meetings in April is more equivocal, which is understandable given the uncertainties involved. About 20 respondents said it was too early to answer Q2 definitively. We will consider repeating Q2 nearer the date.

A few respondents (5 or 6) asked us to consider adopting hybrid meetings or mixture of virtual and live events. We’ve looked at this, but concluded that putting on hybrid events that give a good experience for both audiences is beyond our abilities as a small group. A mixture is something we could consider.

Many thanks to Chris Taylor, our membership secretary, who ran the survey, collated the results and carried out the analysis.


  1. Robert A’Borough’s Will

Robert A’Borough held the lease of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s large Stoneham demesne farm in South Malling parish, based on the fertile land just north of the Downs but with its sheepdown extending far up onto Malling Down. His 26 June 1535 will shows that, in the days when Anne Boleyn was Queen and Thomas Cromwell guiding the affairs of state, he remained an adherent of the traditional Roman Catholic faith. He bequeathed his soul to Almighty God, the Blessed Lady Virgin Mary and the glorious company of heaven. He requested 10 masses at his burial, a further ten at his month’s mind and a final ten at his year’s mind, with a distribution of money, bread and beer to the poor to mark these occasions. Two honest priests were to be paid 10 marks each to pray throughout the year after his death for his soul, the souls of “my fader, my moder” and those of all Christian people. One priest was to pray at South Malling and the other at Ringmer.

He also left 6s 8d to the mother church of South Malling for tithes negligently forgotten and twenty shillings to the Dean of South Malling College. In his lifetime he had started to add a chapel, today called the Lady Chapel, to the north of the chancel of Ringmer church, and in his will he ordered his executors to sell his three Lewes houses to finance its completion. He may well have envisaged that his body would be buried in his new chapel, but as it was still under construction at his death, instead he asked that his body should be buried in “the parishe chapell of Southmallyng”. This implies that, a decade before its dissolution, there was a chapel at South Malling College for the parishioners to worship in separate from the part of the great church there used by the Dean and Canons. It did not survive the dissolution.

His will was probably made on his deathbed, as it was proved less than a month after it was written. He had a wife Alice, but no children. The 1552 will of his nephew and executor, by then a Protestant, confirms that by that date his Ringmer chapel had been completed, Robert A’Borough’s sister had been buried in it and his nephew wished to join his mother there.

Sources: Probate copies of the 1535 will of Robert A’Borough [NA PROB 11/25/368] and the 1552 will of his nephew and executor John A’Brook [NA PROB 11/35/182].


  1. The Easter 1682 Quarter Sessions held at Lewes

The magistrates heard a number of local poor law cases at this sessions.

The Cliffe parish officers complained that John Daby was a very dissolute, idle and disorderly person, who ran about the country from place to place misbehaving himself. They ordered that he should be apprehended, taken to the Lewes House of Correction, whipped, and set to hard labour until legally discharged.

Jane Blaber, a covenanted servant to John Tucke of All Saints parish, Lewes, was ordered to be sent from St John’s parish, Lewes, to serve her master until her agreed term had expired.

They heard a complaint from Eastbourne parish that the four children of John Reedes, deceased, were now chargeable to that parish, but that Anne Franke of Southover, widow, was their grandmother and “of ability”. She was ordered to pay four shillings a week towards their maintenance until the next sessions. At the Midsummer sessions they heard that she had not paid as ordered, so the overseers were to levy on her goods and chattels for the sums due. At the Michaelmas sessions they heard that she had taken two of the children, and maintained them herself, so the previous order was set aside.

John Penvell was charged with for being a disorderly person and abusing his master, Anthony Springett Esquire. He was committed to the House of Correction at Lewes, and was to remain there until the next quarterly sessions, or until discharged by two magistrates.

Source: Quarter Sessions order book, ESRO QO/8


  1. Watercolour of Lewes Castle at auction

The Cambridge auction house Cheffins had a watercolour featuring the north view of Lewes castle for sale at its Fine Art auction on 29-30 September. The spire of St Michael’s church is visible to the right. Described as “by a follower of Paul Sandby”, it is not attributed to any individual artist, but is believed to date from 1770-1780. The watercolour came from a private collection at a Suffolk country house. The sale estimate was £600-£800, plus the 30% buyer’s premium Cheffins add to the hammer price. The lot actually sold for £1,300.

Thomas Hearne watercolour of Lewes CastleThis is not the first picture of Lewes castle to have been offered for sale by Cheffins. The watercolour opposite by Thomas Hearne (1744-1817) was twice offered for sale at the same auction house in September 2011 and March 2012.

Thomas Hearne was a well-known artist of his day and, with a lifelong interest in architecture and topography, well placed to attract the interest of patrons. After three years in the Leeward Islands, he returned to England, and worked across the country. His work is well represented in the collections of the Tate Gallery, the Royal Academy and the Victoria & Albert Museum.


Sources: 5 Sep 2021 The Argus; Cheffins online catalogue; David Morris, ‘Thomas Hearne and his landscape’ (1989).


  1. Gideon Mantell and the Petty Treason conviction

In 1826 Hannah Russell stood trial at Lewes Assizes for the crime of ‘petty treason’, the murder of her husband Benjamin Russell, by arsenic poisoning. Their 19 year old lodger Daniel Leney was also charged as an accomplice. After hearing the case the jury took 15 minutes to find the defendants guilty and both were sentenced to death, with their bodies to be dissected. ‘Petty treason’ attracted the additional penalty of being dragged to the place of execution on a hurdle – the original penalty for this crime of burning had been abolished before 1826, and petty treason itself was merged into the crime of murder soon afterwards. In the excitement the judge omitted to set an execution date. After a further hearing to put that right Leney was indeed executed, still protesting his innocence, but the judge deferred the execution of Hannah Russell. It appears that he had some concerns about the way he had summed the case up to the jury. The Lewes surgeon Gideon Mantell then entered the fray, taking issue with the local doctor who had conducted the post-mortem at Burwash about the evidence he had presented. Eventually, after Gideon Mantell had enlisted other prominent men in support of his case and petitioned Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, Hannah Russell was pardoned and released. Some years later Mantell visited her and her new husband, and congratulated himself of having saved an innocent from execution.

Mantell was unconvinced that arsenic had indeed caused the death of Benjamin Russell as he considered the time taken for him to die too short. His opinion was that Benjamin Russell had died of heart disease (of which he had complained) occasioned by exertion. He was also unconvinced about the post-mortem evidence that substantial amounts of arsenic had been recovered from the victim’s stomach – the more specific tests were introduced only in the 1830s. The chemical tests for arsenic at that time were fairly primitive, but an impartial 2009 expert re-examination of the forensic evidence concluded that the post mortem evidence from the local surgeon, who had taken the precaution of inviting two other doctors to join him, was pretty sound, and that Mantell was mistaken about the speed with which the poison could kill. An oddity was that the arsenic recovered from the stomach was not accompanied by food residue, suggesting it might have been taken in a drink rather than hidden in a meal. Russell was noted in evidence as frequently drunk.

Benjamin Russell, was described at his trial as a labourer in his mid-thirties who lived in Burwash Weald. However, his known activities also included poaching, smuggling, prize-fighting and using his home as an unlicensed public house. He had convictions for poaching and theft, and was in debt. Hannah Russell was 32 and ran a bakery. Daniel Leney accompanied Russell on his nefarious activities, and had twice avoided conviction, once when implicated in the theft of an expensive scarf, and again when in 1825 he was caught red-handed breaking into a barn and stealing wheat. On the night Russell died he and Leney had broken into a barn and stolen two sacks of wheat, and it was while carrying these home that Russell collapsed and died. To cover up the crime Leney moved the body to a nearby wood, where he ‘discovered’ it the next day. A tale was concocted about Russell having gone to recover a tub of contraband gin, but the story did not stand up against evidence from the numerous villagers about the countryside for one reason or another in the middle of a Sunday night. There were in all 21 witnesses for the prosecution, including several who testified to threats Hannah had made about her husband, and others who had witnessed her purchase of poison from the village shop, which she claimed was to kill mice.

Gideon Mantell, daguerreotype by MayallThe 2009 re-evaluation of the case substantially rebutted the case that Mantell had made, and also suggested that the symptoms of heart disease from which Benjamin Russell had suffered might very well have been caused by chronic arsenic poisoning. As arsenic was widely available and undetectable when administered in food or drink, this may have been a less uncommon means of resolving marital problems than one might like to think. The post mortem found Russell’s intestinal tract was inflamed, but his heart normal. Arsenic poison was also used for suicide, but it is unlikely Russell would deliberately have taken a fatal dose and then embarked on a criminal endeavour.

Source: R.J. Flanagan & K.D. Watson, ‘A petition to Mr Peel: Gideon Mantell and the trial of Hannah Russell’, Med. Sci. Law (2009), vol.49, pp.153-169. This image of Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790-1852) is from his obituary in the 4 December 1852 Illustrated London News, available online at http://sussexrocks.inthepast.org.uk/ftp/mantell1.pdf


  1. Problems getting petrol

We may have experienced some issues in 2021, but a little over a century ago you had first to complete an application form, and then have your case considered by a Lewes-based committee.

East Sussex Agricultural Executive Committee letter regarding Application form for Petrol, 1918

Source: Letter offered for sale on ebay, October 2021


  1. William James: a Lewes publican and horse dealer

William James (1856-1927) was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father Robert James was born in Hamsey in 1829, a servant’s son, and moved to Lewes as teenager to work as a harness maker. In the spring of 1854 he married Rhoda Ware, the youngest daughter of a Newick farm labourer, whose mother had died when she was very young. In the 1841 census, when her age was given as 6, Rhoda was the youngest of seven children, with her eldest sister, just 16, filling in for her absent mother. By 1851, when her age was given as 14, Rhoda was a lodger in a Newick beershop keeper’s establishment. Her 1854 marriage to Robert James was a necessity, not a choice, as her eldest son was born just a few months later. William James, their second but eldest surviving son, was born after another 18 months, in the spring of 1856. By the 1871 census he was a 15 year old bricklayer’s labourer, the eldest of 8 children squeezed into their Mount Pleasant cottage. William’s father died aged 46 in 1874, but this had little effect on his mother’s fertility. By the 1881 census Rhoda had four more children, the two youngest of whom, aged 5 & 2, cannot have been his father’s. In 1881 Rhoda James was described as a washerwoman, and her Westgate Street household also included three young male lodgers, all labourers. She married one of these lodgers in 1884. The 1891 & 1901 censuses find her in Vallance Road with her husband, 14 years her junior, a general labourer in 1891 and a chalkpit labourer in 1901. She died in 1908.

In 1876, just two years after his father’s death young William James married Charlotte Batup or Light, when they were both aged under 21. She was the daughter of a huckster or peddler. Her birth was registered as Batap, she was baptised as Bateup, and she appears in the 1861 & 1871 Lewes censuses as Batup, but she used the surname Light at her marriage. She gave her maiden name as Batup when registering the births of her first two children, but Light for the third and fourth. Five years later, in the 1881 census, William James was a beer retailer in Cliffe High Street, running a beershop owned by the Hillman’s Southdown Brewery. His household now included, as well as his wife Charlotte, two small children, William aged 3 and Louisa aged 2. It may well have been the same William James who briefly held the licence of a Newhaven alehouse called The Ark, belonging to the same brewery, in the late 1870s. Local directories and licensing records show that by 1882 he had become the licensee of the Kings Arms alehouse, North Street, a house owned by Verrall’s Southover Brewery. He remained there until at least 1899, a comparatively long stint for a Victorian publican, but was replaced by 1901. In the 1891 census the North Street household of William James (35, publican and general dealer) included his wife Charlotte (34), four children William (14), Louisa (12), Amy (8) & Annie (4), a brother(-in-law) Albert Light (40) and a servant.

In 1897 the Page & Overton Brewery took over Verrall’s Brewery. However, before this date William James had diversified into other business activities, perhaps previewed by the ‘and general dealer’ in the 1891 census description of his occupation. In 1895 he had purchased some property at the south-west corner of Little East Street, together with a garden and stables at the north-west corner of Little East Street, properties that he mortgaged to Latter Parsons of Lewes in 1896. In April 1896 plans for 1-4 Lime Terrace, North Street, for William James of the King’s Arms Inn were submitted by the Lewes developer Henry Card & Son and the Little East Street builder H. Constable. These were followed in September 1899 by plans for a stables & coach house on Little East Street for William James, King’s Arms, North Street, Lewes, licensed victualler. He had acquired sufficient capital to move into the property development business. Sadly at the same time his eldest daughter Louisa, newly married to become the wife of Frederick Geering, died at North Street at the age of 20. This was followed a year later by a lawsuit brought by Frederick Geering, horse dealer, against William James, horse dealer, for the return of some furniture.

By the 1901 census William James had left the King’s Arms and moved to ‘The Limes’, on the corner of Little East Street & North Street, where he and his wife seem to have lived for the rest of their lives. 1-4 Lime Terrace were directly across Little East Street, on the opposite corner. He was now aged 45, a farmer and horse dealer, and was accompanied by his wife Charlotte (43) and his children William (23, farmer and horse dealer), Amy (18) & Annie (14), all born in Lewes. If he had a farm in 1901 it has not been identified, but in 1906 he purchased a country house, Park Gate, in Ringmer by the side of the Lewes-Uckfield road which had 18 acres of associated land. The manor of Ringmer court book entries recording the purchase describe him as William James of ‘The Limes’, Lewes, horse dealer. He paid £1,600 for it, but it was an investment property, leased to members of the gentry, rather than somewhere for his own family to live. In the 1911 census William James (55, horse dealer) was accompanied by his wife Charlotte (54), children William (34, working horse dealer) & Annie (24, assists in the business) and a 2 year old grandson William James Riordan (also born in Lewes, the eldest son of his daughter Amy). In July 1922 William James of ‘The Limes’, North Street, submitted plans for a new shop front and bay window for 30 Cliffe High Street (at Cliffe Corner later demolished and replaced by public toilets), that he had also acquired at some date before 1910.

Houses 61-68 North Street, Lewes showing bomb and fire damage, 1943

‘The Limes’, 60 North Street, is just visible at the left hand end of the row of eight bomb- and fire-damaged Georgian houses, 61-68 North Street, that stood between East Street and Little East Street in this 1943 photograph. They are now replaced by a car park. 68 North Street was the Stag Inn, completely destroyed by the fire that followed the bombing.

30 Cliffe High Street, Cliffe Corner
30 Cliffe High Street, Cliffe Corner

William & Charlotte James’s son William died in Lewes in 1916, aged 39. William James appears in the 1927-8 Pike’s Blue Book as a horse dealer resident at 60 North Street, but died on 4 March 1927 in the Lewes registration district at the age of 70. His will was proved by his widow Charlotte and unmarried daughter Annie James. Charlotte James continued in the property business. In the 1934-6 Blue Book Mrs C. James is listed at 60 North Street, along with her grandson William J. Riordan, horse dealer. On 2 October 1935 plans for Crosshaven, Church Lane, for Mrs William James, ‘The Limes’, North Street, were submitted to Lewes Borough Council by the Lewes architects EH & HV Fuller. Charlotte James died in January 1936, also in the Lewes registration district, and her will was proved a month later by her daughter Annie James and grandson William James Riordan. On 1 April 1936 plans were submitted for a garden shed and fuel store at Crosshaven, Church Lane, for the executors of Mrs William James, followed in November 1937 by plans and specifications for a bathroom for The Limes, North Street (submitted by Mr Alfred Wycherley) and in December 1937 by plans for alterations to ‘The Limes’, 60 North Street, for the executors of Mrs W. James. By the 1938 Blue Book ‘The Limes’ had become the base for the Lewes Secretarial Bureau and Commercial College, J.J. Riordan of Malling Farm had moved to Crosshaven and William J. Riordan, had moved to 8 Malling Down. A 1946 site plan for 61 North Street, which had been bombed and cleared, was described as adjacent to ‘The Limes’, which was also demolished. In the 1951-2 local directory James Riordan and Miss Annie James were listed at Malling Farm, South Malling.

This life story provides just one example to show that it was perfectly possible in Victorian society for a young man born in a provincial town, without inherited wealth or much in the way of education, to make his way in the world through hard work and commercial acumen. Horse dealers, perhaps like second hand car salesmen later, did not always have the very highest reputations for integrity, but his father’s occupation as a harness maker will have ensured that William James was brought up with horses from his boyhood, and in a small town like Lewes repeat custom will have been an important element of almost every business.

Sources: Familysearch; ESRO PTS 1/3; ESRO DL/A 25/112, 25/514, 25/1282, 25/1354 & DL/D 145/11; ESRO ACC 5611/3/1848 & /3288; Manor of Ringmer court books; 15 August 1899 & 15 Sep 1900 Sussex Express; Colin Brent, ‘Lewes House Histories’; the photographs of ‘The Limes’ and 30 Cliffe High Street are from the Historic England archive, refs 5789/1 and BB93/23589; the photograph of Park Gate is from its 2019 sale particulars.


  1. Bonfire Night cancelled

The last major flood in Lewes, prior to 2000, occurred in the autumn of 1960. Margery Barrett recorded the consequences in her diaries.

4 November 1960: Lewes is cut off by floods. The river has been up to Library Corner. The Station is under water. The Grange Gardens are submerged. Eastport Lane and The Course are flooded. The Lewes to Brighton Road [the High Street was then the A27] is closed.

5 November 1960:The Fifth Celebrations are cancelled owing to the floods. It seemed so strange this evening. Many visitors came into the town today to look at the floods and take photos. The station is a sorry sight with rails and platforms submerged, with a waterfall rushing through from the cattle market.

Source: Diana Crook, ‘A Box of Toys’, p.72


John Kay

Contact details for Friends of the Lewes History Group promoting local historical events:

Sussex Archaeological Society
Lewes Priory Trust

Lewes Archaeological Group
Friends of Lewes

Lewes History Group Facebook, Twitter


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