The bar fly historians of Lewes can stir things up quite considerably.
I’m not a historian but a storyteller, so its rumour, banter and gossip that continually intrigues me as the beer-swilling pundits impart their theories on what happened in Lewes, why some alleys and passages are named as they are and how extensive these passages and tunnels can be.
So much of this tale of tunnelling in the town is based on rumour, speculation, bits of the historical tract and a fair measure of guessing, ranging from architectural certainty to grandad told me when I was five years old.
All this investigation into underground Lewes started because I wrote an article a couple of months ago about Mad Jack Fuller and his follies.
The Fuller family contacted the magazine and said darkly “There’s a cellar under Fuller’s Passage halfway down School Hill.”.
And sure enough, there is. But as I am well known for doing most of my research in various pubs, I volunteered another staff member to go down and investigate while I tried to figure out why it was there.
The underground network of passages undoubtedly is real. The Fuller Passage vault is real.
The later mining tunnels are real.
But the mystery is why some of them exist.
According to the brave soul who clambered down the ladder and into the Fuller vault, the place was ideal for storage. Legitimate goods or smugglers contraband? The cellar is bricked up at one end and could easily have wound its way down to the Ouse and onto a ship.
The tunnels and passages in Lewes are indeed extensive but seem to be the legacy of three different eras. Some say they are linked to witchcraft, but the only relationship I could find with the coven and the black brewing pot was that witches came from Medieval legend, and many of the passages in Lewes were former Saxon Twittens.
Fullers Passage is believed to have been a Saxon Twitten and is better preserved as a passage than most.
Dozens of more Twittens no longer exist, although roads have replaced many of them such as the link road between the High Street and Southover, Watergate Lane.
Archaeologists have made an extensive search of the ground under the old Greyfriars Priory. There is no question that underground cellars, passageways and vaults lie buried there, a testament to the size of the Priory and its powerful influence on medieval life in Lewes.
The second wave of tunnels and chambers, of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were undoubtedly used by smugglers when Lewes was an important port. The strange thing about Lewes though is there is little to suggest that it was a big smuggling town.
Stories abound about pubs, inns and secret passages from Hastings to Chichester.
The Hawkhurst gang ranged unchecked across the whole of Sussex, violent and almost unstoppable.
But evidence that smuggling was rife in this town is scant. Tom Paine, about whom much is written was an 18th-century customs man. The only reference I can find (although I stress, I’m neither historian nor scholar) is broadcaster Melvyn Bragg’s claim that Paine vigorously hunted down smugglers while he was here.
The most intriguing story to surface about the tunnels is the one that claims King Charles I was holed up in Lewes Castle during the English Civil War and slipped down a tunnel to Antioch House when the Roundheads thought they would check out the fortress in routine searches. Indeed, the Antioch House end of the tunnel is there. I’m led to believe the castle end is also extant.
But of Charles the First, the evidence is their none.
Those are the dramatic and engaging stories I love. So that’s my favourite tunnel and best-loved story.
The third period of tunnel building was purely for commerce and took place mainly in the 19th century when access to the railway and river saw new tunnels built from as far away as Offham. Many are still in existence, although few are in use.
Underground Lewes is so extensive that I can go on and on with descriptions of various passageways.
So it is with some relief that the vault or cellar under Fuller’s passage, thank the Lord, brings me back to Mad Jack Fuller.
As surmised above, this hole in the ground undoubtedly was used for commerce and spread through to neighbouring shops. Mad Jack’s 22 stone frame was such that clambering down the manhole leading to the cellar would have been no easy task for him. So he probably didn’t. So I didn’t either, leaving this necessary but unenviable research task to our T&Cs technical supremo.
Whether the vault was used for anything, but cargo is anybody’s guess. But what is a fact is that Mad Jack was physically closer to Fuller’s passage than many believed.
Despite his main home being at Brightling, John Fuller lived for a short while in Lewes House on School Hill. From there he launched his campaign to become MP and controversially won and kept the seat, despite charges he had rigged the election.
This was yet another colourful episode in a very eventful life, and when I pass Fuller’s Passage as I wend my way through town, I can’t help but think of the larger than life (despite being 22 stone) figure that was dear old Mad Jack.
If current MPs think they have invented the fandangos going on in Westminster right now, they are sadly mistaken. John Fuller called the speaker a little man in a big wig in 1810 and was promptly thrown out of Parliament for doing so.
Mad Jack owned ‘School Hill’ House, which he inherited from his great grandfather. It was from here that he launched his campaign for that second shot at Parliament in 1807. Politics in the 19th century were not for the faint-hearted. Elections were a rough and tumble affair.
John Fuller tilted at the prize of being the local MP, but his rival destroyed the polling booth before the result could be verified. So Jack won by default.
The night the election result was announced, Fuller and his opponent took to the balconies of the White Hart and the Star Inn, hurling abuse, turnips and rotten eggs at one another in an almighty street row, worthy of the earth-saving marches recently bestowed upon Parliament.
Colourful? Jack was a philanthropist, Folly builder, Father Christmas to Brightling villagers, a spirited MP and all-round a most intriguing figure.
Now a new mystery enters the debate. Whether they realised it or not, Jack’s father was about to start a dynasty when he tied the knot in Hamsey Church. Fuller Senior you see married a Frances Gorringe.
Fuller, Harmer, Gorringe. Names to conjure within modern Lewes.
The wedding took place in the present-day ghost village of Hamsey on the River Ouse.
Today the Fullers, if not as wealthy as Mad Jack, are substantial businesspeople in Lewes and Gorringe is a legendary name in the estate agent and auctioneering field. Harmers are a long-standing farming family of considerable note.
Did this triumvirate of leading families all spring from Mad Jack’s family?
But is it the same Gorringe? Is it the same Harmer?
While Mad Jack was the squire of Brightling, he also lived, played and worked in Lewes as he was its MP.
The present Fuller family have the authenticated family tree showing they are descended from Mad Jack, even though the famous man himself had no children. The Gorringe family has a somewhat more obscure history and present-day Gorringe’s almost daily search genealogical web sites, seeking a connection.
The present family of estate agents and auctioneers started their business in 1926.
But they appear to be descended from the wave of Norman immigrants who flowed into Britain following the Conquest.
I was wrapping this article up when being the saintly character that I am, and I popped off to St. Michael’s Church on Lewes High Street. It just so happened that the service embraced the christening of two children from people I’ve known for a long time, the Harmers. Susan Harmer’s daughters had each given birth to a youngster within days of each other, ensuring the Harmer dynasty will live on.
The Harmers have been farming in Offham for 270 years. Where were mad Jack Fuller’s parents married? Hamsey Church. Offham is the village established after the plague devastated the population of Hamsey (Off Ham, you see). So it was a natural question, any relationship to Mad Jack? The answer was explosive. Of course, my dear. What do you expect? Indeed, the Harmers are closely related. Considering John Fuller died childlessly, the family via his two sisters has increased, and the Fullers and Harmers continue as distinguished citizens of Lewes.
What about Gorringe’s? That was Jack’s mother’s maiden name. ‘They’re very close friends’ Susan shoots back but as far as I’m aware, not related.
So investigating the Lewes family tree rooted in Mad Jack’s empire is going to take some unravelling.
Fuller, Harmer, Gorringe. Names to conjure with now. But were they a syndicate back then?
Fullers and Harmers have proof.
But this story, like the tunnels under Lewes, is shrouded in mystery.
The Gorringe family trace back to the immediate post Conquest era. Part of the problem tying them into modern East Sussex is that Gorringe, like many Medieval names, has a dozen or so different spellings. So even the genealogists have a problem tracing the family tree.
Suffice it to say that Jack’s mother was a Gorringe and I lay a good bet at a local bookie, and there’s a link somewhere.
Deerstalker, Ulster cape and spyglass out. Step aside Sherlock, the T and C mob are on the case! But more interested in stories from the mouth, than written confirmation.
So no more sloshing about in dark, damp tunnels. That story is relatively dull.
Who is related to whom? There’s a real story in that.