The eye-catching posters for Lewes Football Club have attracted a lot of attention in recent seasons.
They’ve featured in the national press on quite a few occasions and even have a substantial international following. In Japan they won a vote for best soccer poster in a competition the club didn’t even know existed!
The latest one reproduced here is sure to become a collector’s piece. “Brighton Rook” is a very clever play on words highlighting an upcoming friendly fixture between Lewes FC (the “Rooks”) and Brighton & Hove Albion. It pays homage, of course, to the famous 1947 film “Brighton Rock” that made a star of Richard Attenborough.
The film was based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name that exposed the more seedy and sordid side of pre-war life on the South Coast.
Attenborough played a sadistic and ruthless teenage gangster, Pinkie Brown, who was adept with a barbershop razor. In the film he meets his demise at the end of Brighton’s Palace Pier but in the book he dies in Peacehaven.
Greene’s inspiration for “Brighton Rock” came from a court case heard at Lewes Assizes in July 1936 that had its origins in gang rivalry at various southern racecourses. This rivalry had come to a head at Lewes the previous month.
The powerful gang of Charles “Darby” Sabini was a product of London’s Clerkenwell district dubbed “Little Italy”. For 20 years they ruled the roost at Epsom, Brighton and Lewes racecourses. They ran a protection racket by which bookmakers had to pay for the privilege of having a pitch.
It was said that the gang sold a bookie the tissue on which he put the names of the runners, sold him the chalk to write the odds and had little bucket boys who brought sponges around to wipe off the odds. They engaged in loan sharking to people with bad gambling debts and looked after illegal bookies, providing clerks and ticktack men who also served as bodyguards. In return the Sabinis would warn off other criminals.
It was said that Darby Sabini seasoned his gang with hardened Sicilian gunmen. Violence aside, there was no doubt that he also cultivated dubious relationships with senior police officers, judges and local politicians. Their support was vital in the ongoing conflicts with rivals.
Things started to go wrong for Sabini following a razor attack on a member of a north London gang, the Whites. On 8th June, a large number of the Whites arrived on the Downs at Lewes seeking revenge. It was claimed that when they couldn’t find their intended victim they vented their anger on bookmaker Arthur Solomon and his clerk, Mark Frater. Ironically their weapons that day were hatchets, hammers and iron bars – not razors. The police and authorities knew they had to be seen to act. Most of the Whites gang were arrested including their leader, James Spinks. He went by the nickname of “Spinky” which is where Greene may well have got the name “Pinkie” from. All the accused were found guilty of malicious wounding and riotous assembly; Spinks was given a prison sentence of five years as was another assailant who was charged in the name of Albert Blitz.
The latter brought a strange twist to the tale. During the trial, Blitz was asked about his relatives. He replied that he was illegitimate and that his real name was not Blitz. In this way he was able to deny he had ever heard of Barnett Blitz. He didn’t know, he said, that in 1924, Arthur Solomon had been sent to prison for three years for Barnett Blitz’s manslaughter. At the time Solomon was an associate of Sabini’s gang and it was a lawyer hired by Sabini who got the bookmaker off the original charge of murder, a crime that, if proven, would have earned him an appointment with the gallows.
By the time of the court case at Lewes, Sabini’s power was on the wane. He went bankrupt, following a failed libel action against a newspaper. Then he was interned as an enemy alien in 1940 due to being half Italian. Post-war his criminal empire was taken over by several rivals. Sabini ended his days as a small-time bookmaker in Brighton and died in Hove in 1951.
This September will see the 50th anniversary of closure of Lewes Racecourse and a number of events are being planned to mark the occasion.
*The Lewes v Brighton game takes place on Saturday 5th July and kick-off is 3pm. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Visit: www.lewesfc.com