Hey mister, can we have our ball back?
The answer was ‘A resounding No’
The ball in question was a cannon ball fired by British Man o’ War HMS Poictiers on the town of Lewes in Delaware during the war of 1812.
The captain of the British ship had pulled into Lewes harbour, demanding the town worthies provide provisions for the vessel and its crew. The war of 1812 wasn’t a clear-cut conflict and some American communities supported the Union while others favoured the ties linking them to Britain.
Unfortunately, the ship’s captain chose the wrong town. Not only did Lewes refuse his request, backed up as it was by an armed assault, but they fought back. The captain, a bit miffed by this lack of cooperation by a bunch of rebel colonists, fired on the town.
It was a bit like a scene from a ‘Carry On ‘series. A canon ball went through the window of a house, failed to do any damage and ended up lodged in the staircase.
And there it remains, even though the house is now a museum.
American Lewes was named after Lewes UK by William Penn. And the similarities in history and lifestyle are intriguing.
Lewes UK has always been a rebellious town, kicking against authority and developing favourite sons, who went on to thwart custom and practice and set new antigovernment trends.
Tom Paine was the most outstanding of course. But the fact that the good burghers of Lewes Delaware should tell a British navy captain to get lost, shows they too had a rebellious spirit.
The town was sacked by pirates several times in the 17th century, but when the famed corsair Captain William Kidd arrived off the coast, he was said to have sat there and left the town alone. A gentleman pirate, although sneaking into the narrow streets by night in 1700, he is alleged to have buried gold there.
But if it’s pirate gold you’re after, then Blueskin, Levi West is the man to follow. Trying to scarper from a bit of looting and cut throating, he buried treasure near to the town and as far as can be certain, it has never been found. The reason he is the better bet, it seems he was the son of an upright citizen of Lewes and knew every nook and cranny.
Lewes was named by the noted Quaker William Penn because Charles II owned Delaware and because he owed a debt of gratitude, plus cash for the help the Penn’s had given in restoring him to the throne, gave it to William. A frequent visitor to our Lewes and a pioneer in establishing Quaker communities throughout Sussex, Penn named the town after our own dear community, including making it the county town of East Sussex, Delaware, which he also named.
Lewes ceased to be the County Town in 1791. But it still proudly proclaims that it is The First Town in the First State’. Some boast. Perhaps it was a wise move on the part of its citizens. Look at the mess our county governance is in! But Lewes Delaware had real problems with names. Until William Penn called it Lewes in 1682, the community had a number of strange names. But the one that caused the town’s leading citizens to petition for a name change was its name used before Lewes. Strangely given by a group of Englishmen, it was called Whoorekill or Whorekill. I can imagine the governor of Delaware Edmond Andros turning up at the White House and the toastmaster in ringing tones, announcing Governor Andros from Whoorekill.
The ladies of the night would surely have blushed with embarrassment.
So Whoorekill became Lewes.
Later, a debate raged about what name should be given to the residents. As with us in our fair English town, debate in the pubs raged far and wide. ‘Lewesians’ of course was in the frame, as was Lewesites.
But tradition prevailed and research suggested that as early as 1700, the people had been called Lewestowners. And so, it was to be. Lewestowners it was.
As the producer (and if they can keep me out of the pubs, presenter) of a documentary series on Lewes called the Bloody Past of a Tiny Town, I more than most am aware of the blood that has been spilled in and around this county town.
Whoorekill started off much like Lewes. A small Dutch community of settlers, who were whalers and traders, settled there in 1631.
They were massacred to a man after getting involved in a quarrel between local native Indians.
One Indian nicked a coat of arms from the whalers, who insisted they should get it back. Not only did they get the emblem back from friendly Indians, but also the head of the thief, cut off and dangled in front of them. Pals of the robber took umbrage, however and in revenge wiped out the 32 strong settlement and so it was temporarily lost. A number of members of the Mennonite religious sect then set up camp.
But the nasty old English, that’s us, wiped them out as well, so completely that ‘nothing not even a nail, was left there’.
You must give credit to the Dutch; they were real triers. In 1673, yet another batch of settlers built a village. Who was the big bad wolf, this time? Why, us Brits again. Soldiers from nearby Maryland attacked and burned down the fledgling society.
A period of calm then settled on the people of Whoorekill after William Penn arrived from Lewes, renamed the town after us (thank goodness) and developed a civilized town with churches and court houses and all manner of other good things.
The American Lewes Coat of Arms or Great Seal is also that of Lewes East Sussex. To this day we share that seal and as a result, there are civic visits between the mayors of Lewes and er… Lewes.
Back to that cannonball, so proudly nestling in the staircase.
As noted above, Commodore Sir John Beresford bombarded the town after he was refused provisions for his ship. Either he wasn’t much of a commander, or the locals were able to dodge everything that was chucked at them; history doesn’t relate.
But the damage to the town was a few chimney stacks. Casualties included a pig and a chicken, neither of them fatal. No human casualties.
Beresford had sent a message to the town’s mayor which said, Sir, As soon as you receive this, I request you will send 20 live bullocks with a proportionate quantity of vegetables and hay to the ‘Poictiers’ for the use of Britannic Majesty’s squadron now at this anchorage, which will be immediately paid for at the Philadelphia prices. If you refuse to comply with this request, I shall be under necessity of destroying your town.
I have the honour to be, sir, your very obedient servant, J. P. Beresford
Commodore and Commander of the British Squadron in the Mouth of the Delaware.
Sounds very gentlemanly when you think of the rivers of blood battles with the Vikings at Halland, the savagery of the Battle of Lewes and the defence of the town by 200 English bowmen, strong and true against French marauders.
We have plenty of ghosts here in Lewes UK, but in the doppelganger Lewes, there’s a spectre in Cannonball House and sometimes a ghostly figure is seen holding a candle in a window in some of the Lewes houses. (No. I made that up). But Lewes was an important station on the Underground Railway in 1861, when anti-slavery proponents helped runaway slaves to freedom in Northern States. The candle in the window showed the building was a ‘safe’ house and the residents were willing to help slaves on their way north.
Today, Lewes is a small town of 3100 souls, pretty, charming and full of pride in their early history.
There is no recorded sighting of Jaws in Delaware Bay, but the crowds flock to Lewes on Labour Day and other American holidays. It’s a wonderful magnet for this part of the US and a terminus for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, which links Delaware with New Jersey, carries some million passengers a year.
And just so we in Lewes UK wouldn’t get too steamed up about eccentricity, an unknown donor hired a helicopter in Lewes and in the terms of a will, dropped $10000 to the astonished residents and holiday makers in the town below.
I know which pub I’d head for if I had that sort of money, so perhaps a summer in Lewes Delaware? Nah, I never win anything on the lottery, so why start now. •