Of Graves and Ghosts

A background to the Ghostly happenings in Sussex

The most ancient visible graves in the county are, naturally enough, the prehistoric burial mounds here and there on the Downs, some being Neolithic long barrows, and others Bronze Age round barrows.

In a few cases, folk tradition has preserved an awareness that such mounds were burial-places, but it is always wildly astray in its ideas as to who was buried in them, when, and why. It may think of them as graves of giants who lived 'once upon a time', or of men killed in some relatively modern battle.
Ghosts Ahead

For instance, the barrows on Mount Harry, near Lewes, are said to cover those who fell in the battle between Henry III and Simon de Montfort in 1264; and two separate groups of barrows at 'Uppark' are said to contain, one the men, and the other the horses, killed in a minor fray during the Civil War.

Many ghost legends reflect the potted version of history, both national and local, which has survived in the communal memory.

A Sussex list would include the following, besides the Danes of Kingley Vale: a Roman centurion haunts the Castle Inn, Chichester; at Chanctonbury Ring, one can raise Julius Caesar and his army by counting the trees, or see an old white-bearded man variously explained as a Druid or as a Saxon killed at the Battle of Hastings; on the site of this great battle, the ground runs red with blood after every shower of rain, and the ghost of the first man killed rides across the field on the anniversary.

Famished children that beg in the streets of Bramber are said to be the grandsons of the medieval Baron William de Braose, who were starved to death while held hostage at Windsor by King John; at the former Priory of the Hospitallers at Poling, now a private house, one can hear ghostly organ music and Gregorian chant; at Winchelsea, George and Joseph Weston, notorious local highwaymen hanged at Tyburn in 1782, now haunt their former haunts; in the attic of the Red Lion Inn at Hooe, phantom smugglers still mill snuff from contraband tobacco.

Doubtless many others could be added to the list. But ghosts of historical personages, interesting though they are, are not usually very striking in their manifestations, nor do they seem ever to have caused much fear.
animated ghost

Some purely local ghosts are described far more vividly, and seem to have once caused considerable alarm; even if only within a few miles radius. Early in the nineteenth century, for example, there was said to be a most unpleasant spectre in St Leonard's Forest; it was a headless phantom which would lurk among the trees at dusk waiting for some horseman to pass by, and would then spring up behind him, wind its skeletal arm round his neck, and cling to him in spite of all his struggles and pleadings until he reached the further side of the Forest.

Howard Dudley, the first writer to mention the ghost, 1836, says it was locally called 'Squire Paulett', and Lower suggests, very tentatively, that this name may refer to a Captain William Powlett who died in 1746. Lower also notes that genuine belief in the ghost was fading in his time (1861), and so we may safely assume that although this spectre continues to live on in guide-books, it is many generations since it was a real cause of fear to travellers in the Forest.

The prize for the most fantastic ghost in Sussex ought, I think, to be equally divided between Rye and Crowborough.

The Rye story concerns an oddly-named street, Turkey Cock Lane, near the site of a former monastery. Long ago, it is said, one of the monks fell in love with a girl living near by, and charmed her by his lovely singing; they ran away together, but were caught, and he was buried alive beyond the town walls, whereupon she died of a broken heart. Their ghosts still meet in the lane, and he still tries to sing to her - but his punishment continues in the afterlife, for his fine voice has turned into a turkey's gobble.

As for Crowborough, there was a story current there late in the nineteenth century that ]arvis Brook Road was haunted by (of all things) a spectral bag of soot. On certain nights the bag would appear and pursue people walking in the road; once it chased a blacksmith who had defied it all the way to his own home.

A story from Cudfield has several points of interest. It concerns a member of one of the wealthy local families, Mrs Ann Pritchard Sergison, who died in 1848 at the age of 85. She had been a redoubtable old lady, notorious for her vindictive temper, which came out in bitter feuds with her tenants and even with her own son; indeed, she was locally known as 'Wicked Dame Sergison'. Soon after her death, rumours began:

The country people said she was too wicked to rest in her grave, and ghost stories about her grew up. Carters on the road from Cuddield to Ansty declared that their horses shied at the sight of her ghost swinging on the oak gates at the entrance to Cuckfield Park, and people became afraid to travel on this road at night.

Finally three clergymen, the vicar and curate of Cuddield and the vicar of Balcombe, are said to have held a service of exorcism in Cuckfield Church at midnight. Gossips reported that they had caused the ghost to drown in the font. However that may be, the ghost stopped haunting the highway, and soon after her son replaced the oak gates by iron ones with spikes. This story is more shapely than most, beginning with some indication of the type of character to whom the haunting is attributed, and ending with the laying of the ghost.

Many traditional tales, especially in the west of England, end with the exorcism of the ghost to some lonely pool, or far away to the Red Sea; the mention of a font for the purpose is unusual, and is perhaps an echo of Catholic belief in the efficacy of Holy Water. Other incidental details show authentic folk-beliefs, for instance in the well-known power of iron against all evil spirits, and in the ghost's choice of a gate for its manifestations; gateways and stiles often figure in folklore as haunted spots, the idea probably being that boundaries and points of intersection are places where supernatural forces may more easily break through into the normal world.

Ghostly animals are a common theme in folklore, the most usual being dogs and horses, plus the occasional calf. It is not always clear whether such creatures are thought of as ghosts of dead animals, as purely otherworld creatures which had never walked this earth in flesh and blood, or even sometimes as ghosts of human beings reappearing in animal form.


The best-known Sussex tradition of a ghostly dog dates from the nineteenth century and concerns the road between Alfriston and Seaford; it was said that a white dog used to appear there on Midsummer Eve every seven years, and brought death or disaster to anyone who saw it. The story is associated with the discovery of a man's skeleton at the roadside when the road was widened early in the nineteenth century; it was alleged that this was the body of the
'long-lost heir' of one of the local families (which one is not clear) who had been murdered by robbers, together with his faithful dog, some time in the eighteenth century. Some versions of the story stress the man's ghost, which haunted his rightful home; others that of the dog, which is said never to have appeared again after its master's body had been found.

The Alfriston dog was visible to men, but it was also once commonly believed that 'the ghosts of dogs occasionally walk abroad, unheard, unseen, except by their own species', and that if dogs bark inexplicably and persistently, it is a sign that they are disturbed by the sight of their ghostly counterparts.

On the other hand, the black dogs which Lower declares were once to be found in every unfrequented corner are classified by him as demons, not as ghosts; there is still a vague tradition of a headless black dog haunting Black Dog Hill, on the road between Ditchling and Westmeston, but there is nothing to cast light on its nature or the reason for its presence.

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