KEVIN GORDON - Lewesian who rose to great prominence

W E Baxter as Mayor of Lewes SUS-150422-085159001 SUS-150422-085159001
W E Baxter as Mayor of Lewes SUS-150422-085159001 SUS-150422-085159001

A couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting day at the Tower of London and, as ever, I am always on the look out for anything which might connect to Sussex. I particularly wanted to see some prisoner graffiti in the Beauchamp Tower which is supposed to be similar to one of the carvings on the Star Inn at Alfriston. There were some imposing cannon cast in the great ironworks of the Sussex Weald but nothing much else of local interest. I enjoyed my visit, particularly the displays about the German spies caught during the Great War. One of them, Karl Lody, was the first person to be executed at the Tower for nearly 200 years and was also the only German spy to be subject of a public trial.

I have recently restarted my monthly tours of Lewes (details from the Lewes Tourist Information Centre) and one of the monuments I point out on my tour is that of a famous Lewes citizen, Wynne Edwin Baxter. He was the son of John Baxter, who was a printer, the founder of this very newspaper (the Sussex Express) and a bookseller in Lewes for over 56 years.

W E Baxter was educated at Lewes Grammar School and was obviously a bright lad as he was appointed as a solicitor at just 23 years of age. He became a Headborough (Chief Parish Constable) the following year. In 1868, Baxter married a London girl, Kate Bliss, and he seems to have had two homes, one in Stoke Newington and another in Lewes, although he had an office in Cannon Street, London. Presumably the commuting was unsuitable as he left Lewes in 1875 and was appointed an Under-Sheriff of London the following year. His legal duties occasionally bought him back to Sussex and in 1877 he was involved with an insolvency case in Hastings. Baxter was a busy man indeed, he visited Ireland in 1877 and in 1879 established the ‘Rowland Hill Benevolent Fund’ to help ‘aged and distressed’ post office employees. He must have returned home as in 1880 he became Coroner for Sussex and in 1881 was elected as the very first Mayor of Lewes.

Although there is a splendid portrait of him in his bright red robes at Lewes Town Council offices, these didn’t actually arrive from the tailor until a week before he was replaced as mayor and he never really got to wear them.

In 1882, Baxter was in court, unusually as a witness; a man called Samual Ashby was arrested for sending threatening letters to him. Baxter had dealt with him for debt and when arrested Ashby continued to make threats saying he would put a bullet through Baxter’s head.

He continued to commute between London and Lewes, and in 1887 he was made the Deputy Lieutenant of Tower Hamlets but the following year when he registered his solicitors business he gave his address as Albion Street, Lewes. By this time he was printing not only the Sussex Express but also the Surrey Standard and the Kent Mail. He was also running the London Advertising Agency.

Despite all this work, he also became the deputy coroner for both the City of London and Southwark. He conducted many ‘high-profile’ inquests, most famously the victims of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders between 1888 and 1891. His theory was that the murders had been committed in order to obtain female specimens to sell to doctors teaching medicine.

In this respect he had some good knowledge as he was a Governor of the London Hospital. One of the residents of the hospital was Joseph Merrick, who also known as the ‘Elephant Man’ and it was Baxter who conducted his inquest in 1890.

I was amazed to read that despite all his hard work in Sussex and London he also had the time to collect books and plants. He was a Fellow of the Geological Society and the Royal Microscopical Society, he was Clerk to the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and the Worshipful Company of Farriers and even had time to translate scientific books.

He was on many committees including schools in London and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Lewes. Oh, and in his spare time he was also a noted Freemason. Baxter died in London in 1920 but is buried in Lewes. In his seventies he was still conducting inquests and as Coroner for the City of London had responsibility for the Tower of London. One of the last inquests Wynne Edwin Baxter conducted was for Karl Lody, the German spy.

Today Wynne Baxter’s name is still remembered as the firm (now Mayo Wynne Baxter) is a leading solicitor with offices in Lewes, Seaford and across Sussex.