Local history: From crime to stories of the unusual, Lewes’s first newspaper carried them

A copy of 'The Sussex Advertiser' of 1799 is superimposed on a painting depicting Lewes from the top of Chapel Hill, site of the town's golf course. It is the work of Victorian era British-born artist Edmund H. Niemann. The 'Advertiser' was the first-ever Sussex newspaper and by 1799 had incorprated the rival 'Lewes Journal'. SUS-190219-104354001
A copy of 'The Sussex Advertiser' of 1799 is superimposed on a painting depicting Lewes from the top of Chapel Hill, site of the town's golf course. It is the work of Victorian era British-born artist Edmund H. Niemann. The 'Advertiser' was the first-ever Sussex newspaper and by 1799 had incorprated the rival 'Lewes Journal'. SUS-190219-104354001

The first provincial newspaper produced in Sussex was the “Sussex Weekly Advertiser” which first appeared in Lewes in 1745.

Extracts from the early publications give an insight into issues perceived to be in the public interest. It will be no surprise to find that stories of crime and the consequences of crime featured regularly.

Right: Rough justice. Hogarth's depiction of 'The Bench' ridicules preoccupied or dozing 18th Century judges set ready to sentence miscreants to transportation to Australia (left) for the flimsiest of charges. SUS-190219-104333001

Right: Rough justice. Hogarth's depiction of 'The Bench' ridicules preoccupied or dozing 18th Century judges set ready to sentence miscreants to transportation to Australia (left) for the flimsiest of charges. SUS-190219-104333001

19th January 1789: “John Morris for running away and leaving his family chargeable to the Parish of Cuckfield was adjudged a rogue and vagabond; ordered to be privately whipped.”

16th April 1790: “Abraham Carter was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing one bushel of wheat in the chaff, from the barn of John Coppard of Cuckfield. He was 22 years old, of previously good character, had a wife and one child and another daily expected.”

23rd January 1792: “Last Saturday, William Ready and Samuel Vulgar, convicted of petty larceny at our last Sessions, were publicly whipped, according to their sentences, at the market post in Lewes. The former received 160 lashes, the latter 60.

“Vulgar, after he had received his punishment, was taken into custody by a Sheriff’s officer, who under the authority of a Judge’s warrant, attended for that purpose, the prisoner being charged with violently assaulting and beating an officer of the Customs at Arundel while in the execution of his duty.”

In that same edition almost as much coverage is given to a drink-drive incident: “A few days ago a gentleman’s servant fell from behind his master’s carriage, on the turnpike road, near Ashcombe Toll Gate, where he was found by some persons, who ran to his assistance, lying motionless and was feared dangerously hurt. A surgeon was immediately sent for, who, on his arrival, suspected the man’s fall and the alarm occasioned had proceeded from one and the same cause, namely, intoxication, which soon after proved to be the fact.”

The cost of fuel for ovens was also highlighted: “The exorbitant price of faggot wood has induced Mr. Figg, baker of Lewes, to resolve on heating his oven in future with coal. By this he will experience a very considerable saving and perform his business equally well. Should the generality of bakers in this and other Sussex towns, where 20 or 30,000 faggots are consumed by them yearly, adopt the same change, it would cause a great reduction in price, and consequently give great relief to the poor.”

The “Advertiser” was always keen to report the unusual. 2nd March 1789: “Last Monday the wife of Mr. Streater of North Street, Brighthelmstone, was delivered of a female child that has eight distinct toes on her left foot. The other foot has no supernatural distinction.”

Some three decades later on 23rd October 1820, Brighton (as the town is by then known) features again: “A sad accident happened to Captain Tweedale at about 12 o’clock on Wednesday night as he was returning home from a party where he had spent the evening, to his house in Gloucester Place. On crossing Marlborough Place he was knocked down by one of two empty carriages driving at a furious rate and was run over by the other. One of his legs was so dreadfully fractured that it was feared amputation would be necessary. Some unfeeling villain, while the captain remained bleeding and in the utmost agony on the ground, picked his pocket of a Morocco leather case containing three £10 notes. The drivers, servants of persons of fashion, regardless of the accident continued their mad career and being unknown have escaped punishment.”

In 1795 the first known newspaper mention of Lewes Bonfire celebrations appeared in the “Sussex Advertiser”. Four years later it was reported that on 5th November the rowdy excesses of the participants got out of hand and a boy and a servant girl were “dreadfully burnt” by having lighted squibs thrown at them. The authorities were castigated by the “Advertiser”: “Surely it is disgraceful to the Police that such acts of wantonness and cruelty cannot be restrained.”

Seemingly shamed into action, as a consequence the Police enforced a law that imposed a penalty of £5 upon the vendor of squibs and of £20 on the persons using them. It seems to have had the desired effect for by 1808 the newspaper happily noted that the “Bonfire Boys” had “let off their crackers etc with great cheerfulness, and without annoyance to anyone”.

Nevertheless the newspaper regretted that so many trees had been felled or lopped to supply fuel for the fires: “The juvenile perpetrators of these depredations we are inclined to think do not know that every such offence is a felony and subjects the party committing it to the danger of transportation.”

By the mid-19th Century the rival “Sussex Express” newspaper had positioned itself as a good friend of Bonfire.

In 1855 it lauded the “loyal Bonfire Boys of the Loyal Borough of Lewes” and praised the many thousands of spectators who turned out to view the proceedings.

By this time “The Sussex Advertiser” had set itself against the ardent Protestant tone of the celebrations. However, in 1852 the newspaper’s Editor, Peter Bacon, found himself considered to be an “Enemy of Bonfire” who was portrayed in the effigy of a pig labeled “Peter the Papist”.

After this episode comments critical of the Bonfire tradition were evidently greatly reduced in its pages!