30 May 2017

It’s a sign: Lewes, 1

Judging by the number of signs on its buildings, I think it’s fair to say that the small East Sussex town of Lewes must have had more famous people per capita living within its boundaries over the centuries than any other town in Britain. And what an interesting assortment of people they have been.

First off, Albion Russell (1821-1888), who opened a boot and shoe shop in Lewes in 1861. He was joined by George Bromley in 1873 after Bromley married Russell’s daughter Elizabeth, and, if you know your shoe brands, then you’ll know the rest. Together they formed the now-famous and still highly successful high-end footwear-manufacturing partnership of Russell and Bromley.

Portrait of Richard Russell by Benjamin Wilson, in public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Next, there’s Dr Richard Russell F.R.S. (1687-1759) (I wonder if he was related to the bootmaker). In 1750, he was the author of a dissertation that prescribed the drinking of sea water as a cure for diseases of the lymphatic glands, and he further recommended that people should try the waters near Brighton, both for drinking and for bathing. The popularity of his ideas contributed to Brighton becoming a fashionable bathing resort, and there is also a plaque for him in Brighton.

Here’s another famous Lewes-born doctor, Gideon A. Mantell F.R.S. (1790-1852). 

The son of a shoemaker, Mantell was apprenticed to a local doctor in 1805 and was later awarded his diploma as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. 

In his spare time, Mantell was a keen amateur geologist and he and his wife Mary would take long walks collecting fossils. 

It was on one of these walks that Mantell discovered the fossilised bones of a prehistoric reptile he later named the Iguanodon (though rumour has it that Mary made the actual discovery!).

[Image of Mantell's Maidstone fossil Iguanodon, 1840, via Wikimedia Commons]

Thomas Matthew was a generous man. A Presbyterian and a woollen draper, in his will of 21 December 1688 he bequeathed his house, St Michael’s Court on Keere Hill, for the use and benefit of the poor (chiefly poor widows) of the parish of St Michael-in-Lewes. The local County Court later ordered that the building ‘should be used as a residence for six deserving poor widows or poor single women not less than fifty years of age’, and it continued to function as an almshouse until 1960. Nowadays, this early 18th-century flint building contains two substantial and rather expensive private houses.

At 12 Keere Street, there once lived an author called Eve Garnett (1900-1991). She wrote The Family from One End Street, thought to be based in Lewes, which won the Carnegie Medal for Best Children’s Book in 1938 (beating Tolkein’s The Hobbit) and is still considered a classic. Garnett was also an accomplished artist, illustrating many children’s books, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and exhibiting at The Tate and the Lefevre Gallery. One of her paintings, ‘Lewes Gasworks from South Street’, is in the collections at the Barbican.

And last but most certainly not least – in fact, this last was a man of international fame, the man who wrote Common Sense and The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, the man who has been hailed as the intellectual inspiration behind the American war of independence, the great Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Just to be clear, Paine wasn’t born in Lewes but he did live in a house here, now called Bull House, from 1768 to 1774, at which time he was a plain old tobacconist and exciseman. Paine married Elizabeth Olive, the daughter of the owners of Bull House, in 1771 but then he left her in 1774, moved initially to London and subsequently to America to stir up revolution.

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