Winchelsea

Mystery in the churchyard here. Village tradition says it is haunted by a most unusual ghost – a black man in a red uniform. But there is no clue to his identity.

Negro slaves were not unknown in this country and many were brought in until the trade was abolished in 1807. Indeed, it became quite fashionable among wealthier families to have a black servant and great care would be taken in dressing them in splendid liveries. In red perhaps.

Or is this a phantom soldier? ‘Men of colour’ were extremely rare among the rank and file in the days when the British Army went to war in scarlet, except in the West India Regiment where recruitment was confined to the Caribbean. That’s a long way from Winchelsea and makes the man among the graves at St Thomas’s all the more puzzling.

The brothers George and Joseph Weston were immortalised by William Makepeace Thackeray in his unfinished novel Denis Duval. They were certainly a wild pair in their youth, guilty of a string of criminal activities which included extensive fraud, obtaining money by threats, highway robbery and smuggling.

They put their shady past behind them towards the end of the 18th century when they bought The Friars in the village and settled down to enjoy the life of country gentlemen. They appeared utterly respectable (George even became a churchwarden) but their misdeeds were about to catch up with them.

George had a curious deformity – a thumb which looked like a crab’s claw – and this was recognised by a sheriff who knew it to be a characteristic of the erstwhile highwayman. The sheriff and his men lay in wait for the brothers outside St Thomas’s and when they emerged, bibles in hand, there was a violent and dramatic chase which ended in their arrest as far away as Lewisham. Sentenced to death, the Westons were taken to the gallows at Tyburn ‘kicking and struggling and biting their captors’ and hanged on 3 September 1782. The Gentleman’s Magazine gave a more sympathetic version of their last moments with a ‘full account of their penitential behaviour’.

John Wesley, the great apostle of the 18th century, preached his last open air sermon here under a great ash tree on 7 October 1790. He noted in his journal: It seemed as if all that heard were, at the present, almost persuaded to be Christians.’

If his views about the future piety of the inhabitants were uncertain, he had very definite ideas about the nature of the place itself. That poor skeleton of ancient Winchelsea,” he called it. It is beautifully situated on the top of a steep hill, and was regularly built in broad streets, crossing each other and encompassing a very large square, in the midst of which was a large church, now in ruins.’

While most towns are villages that grew, this place did the reverse with a history that has been singularly unlucky. It had its own mint before the Conquest and by the 11th century was a port of considerable importance. But in 1250 it was partially submerged by the sea, and matters were not helped 16 years later when Prince Edward sacked the place to put an end to the indiscriminate piracy that was rife among Winchelsea’s seamen. Another great storm destroyed the old settlement in 1287.

A fresh start was made on a new site with a model new town which must have been the medieval planner’s dream and was designed on the grid system. With its tidal harbour on the river Brede, Winchelsea became a member of the Cinque Ports Confederation, providing ships for the country’s defence. But repeated raids by the French devastated the place with great slaughter and the Deadman’s Lane of today marks the area where the victims were buried. Finally the sea retreated, the harbour silted up and the once proud port was marooned.

There was a revival of fortunes during the 16th and 17th centuries when refugees from France brought their weaving skills, but by the end of the 18th century the once great fair on 14 May had dwindled to a shabby version of pedlars and gingerbread.

Wesley’s ash tree was uprooted in 1927 but another has replaced it. There is a photograph, taken in 1867, of an old lady of 84 called Asenath Jones. When Wesley came to Winchelsea he was the guest of her father, and she is pictured beside the chair on which the preacher had sat with the young Asenath on his knee.

Two Members of Parliament were returned until the Reform Act of 1832 when the last pair of MPs, James Brougham and Judge Williams, voted for the abolition of the ‘rotten borough’ they themselves represented. Later a Royal Commission recommended the abolition of the mayor and corporation, but though Winchelsea lost its magisterial and other functions the corporation was allowed to remain in existence to administer a sum of less than £20 a year derived from town rents and royal dues. Every Easter Monday a mayor and other corporate officials continue to be elected with due pomp and ceremony for this purpose at a Hundred Court in the ancient Court Hall.

Lace was made here a century or so ago, mainly by small children apprenticed by Overseers of the Poor in neighbouring parishes, and in the late 19th century Mrs Skinner of Periteau House launched a lace making school.

Two distinguished men of law came from Winchelsea. Henry Peter Brougham MP and Thomas Denman gained royal gratitude (and displeasure from the other party) when they successfully defended Queen Caroline against the attempt to dissolve her marriage to King George IV in 1820.

The actress Dame Ellen Terry lived at Tower Cottage for a number of years. The ‘painters’ actress’ was immortalised by some of the great artists of the Victorian and Edwardian age. She never sat for Millais despite the fact that at one time they were neighbours here. Dame Ellen gave great encouragement to the parish’s own amateur theatricals, and was remembered for her kindness by the locals. At the turn of the century every child’s shoe in Winchelsea was said to have been supplied by her.

Visitors to the Castle Inn saw ties before their eyes in the saloon bar- and that was before they had had a drink! The ties, more than 50 of them in all colours and sizes, had been handed in by retired colonels, majors and generals who were regulars at the pub. When landlord Derrick Baldock and his wife Lena took over they discovered there were quite a few military men in the area and the idea of collecting their regimental ties just snowballed.