LEWES. A Story Round Every Corner

Lewes Castle

Lewes, the County Town of Sussex, has a long, colourful history, dating back through many centuries, and including burnings, murders, ghosts, plagues, and an avalanche.

Even Jack the Ripper has connections here!

Outside the Town Hall is the Martyrs’ Memorial in the middle of the road. Strangers to the town often think wrongly that it’s something to do with the war. They couldn’t be more mistaken. It marks the spot where Protestants were burnt to death when Catholic Mary was Queen.

Most of them were imprisoned in the Town Hall and tortured, awaiting their gruesome fate.

A good executioner could show mercy and strangle the victim before they were burnt, or he could make a burning last two hours to entertain the crowd.

Imaging saying nowadays, ‘There’s nothing on the telly tonight. Let’s go and see some people being burnt, then we can get a takeaway!’

Every Bonfire Night, the 5th November, 17 burning crosses are carried through the town to commemorate the 17 Martyrs who were burnt to death.

There is a long parade through the town with all the Bonfire Society Members dressed in amazing colourful costumes and bands playing. Well worth seeing!

Up the hill and along Fisher Street is the Lamb Inn.

My parents met here on the day the War ended. My Dad was in the Commandos and posted to Lewes. My Mum was only 17, and shouldn’t have been in the pub, although they weren’t being too strict about checking ages that day. She told my Dad that she was older.

A ghost floats up the cellar steps in the Lamb. It is said that he’s either a soldier who deserted, or a French refugee. He was either hacked to death, or he loved living there, and died a happy man.

Two very different stories, so you can choose which one you prefer to believe.

Many years ago, Lewes had seven churches, and nine breweries.

At the bottom of the road is the old Police Station, which is haunted by a policeman in the storeroom on the 3rd floor, and he has been seen clearly several times, or his presence has been strongly felt.

In his 40s or 50s, he’s dressed in a uniform from the 1950s, with three stripes on his epaulettes, which shows that he was a Chief Inspector.

Lewes Police Station was the only police station in the country where the police felt safer outside in the street in the early hours!

Down the road and turn right, and you can see St John Sub Castro in front of you. It was outside the Lewes town walls. Sub Castro means outside the walls.

53 Finnish prisoners are buried in its grounds. They were prisoners from the Crimean War and they died in the old Lewes Prison.

Their graves were looked after by the Russian Embassy for a long time.

In the church is a monument to Magnus, who was an anchorite; a walled-up hermit.

He was bricked up in the church walls, with just a small gap for food to be passed to him. He’s apparently still there in the walls somewhere.

Back at the end of the road is the Elephant and Castle. A man has been seen walking through a wall and out the other side.

The area’s known as Gallows Bank, because it was where public executions took place.

Oh, they’ve never been short of entertainment in Lewes!

Most criminals are unrecorded. But the most famous is Sara French who poisoned her husband by lacing an onion pie with arsenic. She told the chemist that she wanted the arsenic to get rid of mice. She was hanged in 1854.

It’s not known what happened to her husband.

Up the steep Castle Banks road, you pass a house that was owned by Virginia Woolf, then you walk along to Lewes Castle.

Before you get there, on the left is a field which used to be where the joustings took place, when the castle and the surrounding area were occupied in Medieval times.

A monk has been spotted, strolling along the perimeter, his rope belt swinging to and fro. Then he disappears.

Past the Museum and back on the High Street, turn right and walk up to St Michael’s Church in the Bottleneck, where the road narrows.

Many skeletons from the Civil War were dug up when work was carried out on the road outside the Church.

Lewes used to be a port, although it’s been silted up for centuries. Ships used to moor and unload in Landport, where the River Ouse flows along.

The black rats came ashore off the ships there, and it was them who brought the Bubonic Plague to Lewes in the 1600s. The plague victims are buried in the churchyard. So are the smallpox victims from the 1700s.

Lewes was one of the first towns to be vaccinated then. And it seems to have worked.

Typhoid was the next disease, at the end of the 19th Century. It was so rife that Bonfire Night was cancelled!

In the early 1920s it was the Asian Flu, probably brought to Lewes after World War l from Europe and the Far East.

Just across the road is the 15th Century Bookshop. The ghost in there is so solid and real that he’s been asked about books!

We walked slowly down the steep, cobbled Keere Street to the left of the old bookshop.

Apparently the Prince Regent galloped a coach and four horses down it for a bet.

He lived in the Brighton Pavilion.

At the bottom, across the road, is the Grange. It was built of stones pilfered from the Priory that was destroyed by Henry Vlll, and a monk has been seen in the gardens.

He was seen during the Lewes Floods, walking casually through the water!

In Southover High Street is Anne of Cleves House. She was given an old table as part of her dowry when she married Henry Vlll.

When the knights murdered Thomas a Beckett, they threw their bloody swords and armour on the table and the table rocked around and threw it off!

Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones used to own a house further along the road.

In the other direction, past the station, we turned right into Friars’ Walk.

There are a lot of connections with monks and friars in Lewes, because of the old Priory.

All Saints Church, now a Community Centre, has several ghosts in the graveyard.

And further along is where the Medieval Faeries would gather. People used to throw a piece of iron, which was usually a pin, down a well, known as Pinwell, for good luck.

Up another steep lane, we came out again just below the Martyrs’ Memorial.

W.E Baxter’s printing works was there for years, even after being nearly destroyed in a terrible fire in the 1960s.

Baxter had three sons in the 1800s. Wynne Edwin Baxter had no interest in the printing trade. Instead, he became a Coroner, and examined three of Jack the Ripper’s victims.

About Annie Chapman, he said;

“The body had not been dissected, but the injuries had been made by someone who had considerable anatomical skill and knowledge. There were no meaningless cuts. The organ had been taken by one who knew where to find it, what difficulties he would have to contend against, and how he should use his knife so as to extract the organ without injury to it….The conclusion that the desire was to possess the missing abdominal organ seemed overwhelming.”

He also examined Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.

This was just a short leisurely walk, taking 1½ hours. But it barely touched on the many things that have happened in Lewes.

I spent most of my childhood in Lewes and I’m still discovering unknown facts about it.

It’s a fascinating town to spend a day, with a huge choice of places to eat and drink.

And the avalanche? That happened at the bottom of the town in 1836. After a terrible winter, tons of snow fell off the cliff, burying a row of houses.

There is an area and a pub which is known as The Snowdrop.


  • Lyn Funnell

    Lyn is the co-owner of Unknown Kent and Sussex. She lives in Sussex. Lyn has been writing for most of her life, both Fiction & Non-Fiction. She loves cookery & creating original recipes. She's won a lot of prizes, including Good Housekeeping Millenium Menu & on BBC The One Show as a runner-up, making her Britain's Spag Bol Queen! She has had nine books published so far. History, Travel & Restaurant Reviews are her main interests.

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