Local history: This tale of murder and kidnap has a happy ending … for now

A character from Beverley's fictional book is portrayed as being present at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 where Admiral Horatio Nelson was wounded and lost his right arm. The main painting depicts Nelson's fleet attacking Tenerife. SUS-190327-172528001
A character from Beverley's fictional book is portrayed as being present at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 where Admiral Horatio Nelson was wounded and lost his right arm. The main painting depicts Nelson's fleet attacking Tenerife. SUS-190327-172528001

We recently hosted a Japanese student for a month in our Lewes home. Welcoming visitors from overseas is something we have done regularly and when we do we always take pride in showing them the attractions in and around our county town.

On his penultimate day with us we made a visit to the delightful hamlet of Southease to view the 1,000 year-old church dedicated to Saint Peter. We went inside to look at the partially uncovered wall paintings, some dating from medieval times.

Two paintings of Georgian Lewes by James Lambert. On the left is Malling Deanery and to the right is the old Cliffe Bridge over the River Ouse. Inset is the cover of Beverley Elphick's latest book 'Retribution' which is largely set in Sussex in the late 18th Century. Published by Matador (ISBN 978-1-78901-2). SUS-190327-172445001

Two paintings of Georgian Lewes by James Lambert. On the left is Malling Deanery and to the right is the old Cliffe Bridge over the River Ouse. Inset is the cover of Beverley Elphick's latest book 'Retribution' which is largely set in Sussex in the late 18th Century. Published by Matador (ISBN 978-1-78901-2). SUS-190327-172445001

Now young men and ancient buildings are not necessarily compatible. So I was pleased (and relieved) to read in a very nice “thank you” letter left by a homebound Takenori how “… I was not interested in history before I came to Lewes but now I see how old buildings can be so beautiful.”

As it happens, Southease Church had figured in my thoughts for some time. It has one of the unique “Three Round Towers” that feature in Beverley Elphick’s book of the same name published a couple of years ago. Recently she brought out a sequel novel called “Retribution”.

This second book continues the story of Lewes lass Esther Coad. Set in the 1790s, the background is the Napoleonic War between Britain, France and Spain. Set on life as a midwife assisting disadvantaged women, Esther has the misfortune of seeing her new husband shot and mortally wounded in church on their wedding day in an act of revenge by her malevolent aunt, Tilly, who blames Esther for causing the death of her two sons.

Esther is guardian to little Beth, illegitimate daughter of her best friend Becca and the cruel and bullying farmer who had forced himself upon her. Becca had drowned herself in the River Ouse rather than live with the shame of what had occurred.

Aunt Tilly’s vengeance seems complete when she has Beth abducted and forces Esther to join a convict ship bound for Australia. Suffice to say there is a happy ending to “Retribution” but be aware Beverley is already working on a third book!

I’ll say no more of the plot other than that Beverley weaves an intriguing tale full of twists and turns. The reader also gets a real feel for life in Georgian Sussex where extreme wealth and poverty exist side by side and disease is no respecter of social class.

In the background there is the shadowy world of smuggling as inhabited by the likes of the Hawkhurst Gang.

I must also tell you of an extraordinary coincidence occasioned by Beverley’s book. Late last year my wife and I enjoyed a cruise from Spain to the Caribbean. Our holiday reading included “Retribution” which Barbara opted to read first.

En route the ship called at Tenerife. Strolling ashore I picked up a leaflet highlighting places of interest. I noticed there was a museum near the docks that housed the very cannon that took off Admiral Horatio Nelson’s arm during the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797.

The museum is located in the cellars below where the city’s fortress once stood and sure enough, there’s an impressive cannon down there that apparently did indeed fire the very ball that maimed Nelson. I had never heard of the battle but I now know it was one of the few fights in which our most famous sailor came off second best.

Back on our cruise ship Barbara resumed her reading of “Retribution”. Startled, she suddenly exclaimed, “David, you won’t believe this.”

Barbara had just commenced Chapter 18. Astonishingly it places a key character in the book, Doctor Grieve, aboard a vessel supporting Nelson’s flagship, HMS Theseus, at Tenerife.

Beverley’s description of the conflict is gleaned from a letter penned by the fictional medical man. I quote: “Nelson was wounded and lost part of his arm in the battle … it was amputated and the discarded part was thrown into the sea for the fishes to eat.” I subsequently learnt that this was customary naval practice back then.

Later in the same chapter, Esther Coad speculates on the Gallic threat to England: “The men in power are convinced that the French are about to invade us and they are building a lot of strange tower-like places all along the coast for defence … Parents invoke the name of Napoleon Bonaparte to frighten their children to bed. ‘Go to sleep, or Boney will come and get you’ is a thing I have heard said recently.’”

Beverley most certainly did her research. So I’m not surprised that she is to be guest speaker at the Lewes History Group’s meeting on Monday 8th April when she will discuss the question of when it comes to writing historical-based fiction, what comes first – research or imagination? I understand she has some fascinating drone-derived footage of the Lewes environs to underpin her presentation. The event is being held at The King’s Church building in Brooks Road, Lewes. Doors open 7pm.

To conclude here’s a final “Nelson Touch”. In 1987 my brother Robert got married to bride Marina in Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Marina’s father, Bill Denman, was a recipient of the British Empire Medal (BEM), an honour that allowed for the Crypt to be his daughter’s wedding venue. I witnessed the ceremony just inches away from the tomb of “armless” Lord Nelson!