BRIGHTLING

Lucas called it an ‘alien curiosity’ and the editor of the Sussex County Magazine commented in 1932 that there is something incongruous in the fact that a Sussex church houses the infant bed of the author of Gulliver’s Travels and in so doing takes on the character of a museum.’

The critics won the day. But where can the cradle be found now?

How Joseph and Anne Cruttenden got together in the first place must remain a mystery, but their bizarre marriage ended in tragedy and one of the more unsavoury incidents you will find in this book.

It was a union that must have been the source of much gossip and rumour in the latter part of the 18th century. He was the village butcher and, at almost 80 years of age, she was 40 years his senior. Old enough to be his grandmother as some of their more uncharitable neighbours might have said.

The unlikely match came to a horrible end in June 1776. Joseph had been missing for three days and his family – Brightling abounded in Cruttendens in those days – was growing increasingly worried. Finally his brother broke into the butcher’s shop and made a grim discovery upstairs. Joseph was dead in bed, his throat cut, and Anne was beside him complaining: ‘There lays the butcher. I have been talking to him and cannot get him to answer me.’ Worse still, her pet cats were on the point of starvation and had started eating the corpse.

To say Widow Cruttenden appeared ‘disordered in her senses’ was probably an 18th century understatement. A coroner’s jury was unable to form a verdict because of her ‘mad answers’ and had to sit again a week later. This time they returned a verdict of murder and she was committed to Horsham Gaol where she languished throughout July in a ‘perfect state of distraction’ awaiting trial. She was found guilty and condemned to death, the method prescribed by law for a husband-killer at that time being burning at the stake.

There was no mercy. A contemporary report refers to her as ‘a hag’ and adds: “This execrable and remorseless woman, who is near eighty years of age, not satisfied with having barbarously and inhumanely murdered her husband, exposed him prey to her half-starved, voracious cats, whose nose and cheeks they had entirely devoured and left him a most horrible spectacle. The deceased was not more than 40 years of age.’

Exactly how and why Joseph Cruttenden met his end in the butcher’s shop bedroom will never be known. His widow went to the stake on 15 August 1776, the last execution of its kind in the county, and it was reported ‘her behaviour to the end was such as strongly indicated insanity.”

Squire John Fuller of Brightling was dubbed “Mad’, ‘Honest’ and ‘the Hippopotamus’; a larger-than-life eccentric who left an indelible mark on the landscape he loved. His famous follies ring the little village: the Temple, the Tower, the Sugar Loaf, the Pyramid and Brightling Needle.

The Fuller family made their money from the Sussex iron industry, suitably commemorated in the family coat of arms Carbone et Forcipibus (By charcoal and tong), and John inherited the family fortune and the Brightling mansion, Rose Hill, on his 20th birthday in 1777.

He was large, he was outspoken, his style of dress was oldfashioned and he wore his hair powdered and pigtailed long after it had ceased to be the fashion. As the MP for East Sussex he had a stormy political career and his boisterous attitude often got him into trouble. During a heated debate he once insulted the Speaker by calling him that insignificant little fellow in a wig’. Another account describes Fuller leaping to his feet during a dull debate and in his sonorous tones describing the virtues of living in Sussex. After defying the demands to sit down for several minutes he left the totally bewildered House to return to Brightling in his heavily armed and well-provisioned carriage.

His days as an MP were numbered after a sensational outburst when the House was debating the ill-fated Walcheren expedition against the French in 1809. Fuller suspected a plot was being hatched against his king and country and hurled abuse at all and sundry. He was ejected from the Chamber twice, the second time in the custody of the Sergeant at Arms assisted by messengers.

He was offered a peerage for his philanthropy but refused it saying ‘I was born Jack Fuller and Jack Fuller I’ll die’, which earned him the nickname ‘Honest’, while his enormous girth (he topped the scales at 22 stones) made him the Hippopotamus’ to his fellow MPs.

The county as a whole owes a great debt to this colourful character. He bought the dilapidated Bodiam Castle in 1829 when it was due to be demolished by a firm of Hastings builders, thus preserving the great building for future generations, and he built the Belle Tout lighthouse on the cliffs at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. He was also a great patron of the arts and sciences, giving £10,000 during his lifetime to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and one of the greatest of England’s painters, J.M.W. Turner, was a frequent visitor to Rose Hill, his host paying large sums for paintings and drawings by the artist. But it is for the Brightling follies that he is best remembered as ‘Mad Jack’. He entered gleefully into their construction on his retirement from politics. Buildings apparently with no purpose but each with a tale to tell.

The Temple in the grounds of Brightling Park is a round building with a domed roof and Doric pillars in the Grecian style designed by Sir Robert Smirke. Local stories suggest it was used for gambling sessions or that it provided suitable privacy for the portly Fuller to cavort with giggling ladies of the night. Maybe it was just a nice spot to take tea on a summer’s afternoon.

The Tower stands in a copse below the village making it almost invisible when the trees are in leaf. It is 35ft high, 12ft in diameter with a Gothic entrance, four windows and a top surrounded by battlements. Fuller is said to have built it so he could watch the repair work in progress at distant Bodiam Castle.

The Sugar Loaf can be found at Woods Corner, near Dallington, taking its name from its likeness to the shape in which sugar was delivered to grocers. Legend says Fuller made a bet that he could see Dallington church spire from his window at Rose Hill. When he discovered he could not he had a curious structure erected in a single night to look like the church top and win his wager. Inside the Sugar Loaf, saved from demolition by public subscription in the early 1960s, is a small room and in the 1930s an old man would describe how he once lived in it and brought up a family there.

A landmark for miles is Brightling Needle, or the Obelisk standing 65ft high at the second highest point in Sussex, 646ft above sea level. It was probably put up to celebrate Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815, though there is another theory that it marks Nelson’s triumph at Trafalgar a decade earlier. Over the years it fell into disrepair and in 1985 the Needle took on the look of a rocket launchpad surrounded by steelwork when renovation work was under way.

Perhaps the most remarkable of the follies in Mad Jack country is the Pyramid, 25ft high and dominating the parish churchyard. It is a sobering thought that Fuller was preparing for his death 24 years before the event in 1834 and would look out of the window at his future mausoleum long before it was needed. It became generally accepted that he was interred sitting at a table in full evening dress with a top hat, a meal and a bottle of claret before him. The floor of the Pyramid was believed to have been scattered with broken glass to keep away the Devil. Repairs to the structure shattered that bizarre legend: no sign of Mad Jack was found inside (he is buried in the conventional way beneath the tomb) but on the wall was a verse from Thomas Gray’s famous Elegy:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour; The paths of glory lead but to the grave.’

The Observatory was another of Fuller’s buildings, but it can hardly be called a folly. Mad Jack took a genuine interest in astronomy and it was fitted with the most sophisticated equipment of the day and contained a camera-obscura. Fuller gave numerous gifts to the church including a barrel organ, the largest in Britain in working order, and on its installation in 1820 he presented the male members of the choir with white smocks, buckskin breeches and yellow stockings, and the females with red cloaks.

He was a village squire in the old paternal mould, providing work for the local unemployed by commissioning the building of a wall stretching for four miles around his land. The story has gone full circle and repairs to the wall are providing employment all these years later.

The Green Man was the pub opposite the church in the centre of the village and it seems the vicar asked that it should be moved to take away temptation; the people were drinking instead of attending church. The new pub was established half a mile away from a converted barn owned, of course, by Mad Jack. It became The Fuller’s Arms.

The church is dedicated to St Thomas a Becket. His festival was often kept on 7 July and it became the custom in Brightling to honour their patron saint with a wake or feast. On the Monday after 7 July the landlady of the inn would make light cakes to be sold in the morning and puddings in the evening.

 

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