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Strange Tales of Old Sussex – Ghosts, Murder & Smugglers!

The following is an extract from the old Sussex County Magazine 1933 edition. It was submitted by an Eleanor Boniface with the forward, “Mrs Jolly, a bedridden old woman, who lived close to me in our Hamlet near Midhurst, often told me stories of her youth spent in this corner of West Sussex  – a youth that was devoted to a gallant and independent struggle against poverty, a struggle that caused her to become bedridden in her old age, but left her with a clear mind and a calm and determined outlook on life”.


A bit of background 

Apart from the fascinating stories and detail this account reveals, it also provides a wonderful insight into the Sussex dialect spoken by Mrs Jolly. The spelling and punctuation are the author’s and although she doesn’t tell us which hamlet she lived in, the reference to Chithurst, Rogate and Iping helps place these events about seven miles west of Midhurst.

There was an Eli Boniface living in that area at the time this was written – her parents having come from Trotton and Iping. She died in 1940, aged 88. There is also a Boniface commemorated in the Trotton and Iping WWI memorial: Harry John Boniface (aged 20) who may have been an illegitimate nephew of Eli.

A bronkiss or bronchitis kettle had a long spout and was used in the 19th and 20th century to help sufferers of bronchitis breathe. Panking meant to breathe heavily. A fag-hook is a short-handled tool a bit like a sickle and a Cise man is, of course, an Exciseman or taxman! You can’t help but wonder whether the Jolly Wood Cutter Inn was named after Mr Jolly’s ancestors.

A little research reveals that in 1757, a Rev. Denham was indeed murdered in a field not far from Chithurst. However, he was described as a well-liked man. Smugglers also killed two men near Rogate in 1748, although presumably not the man buried in Mrs Boniface’s cellar! There was also a Rev Richards (Rector of Terwick) – could he be Mr Rivers?

And finally, what on earth do we make of Miss Jetton? I haven’t found any reference to her “lil Pink Lady ghost” but my search is still young. And next time I visit the Midhurst area, I will be sure to watch out for ghouls! But enough from me. Here’s what Mrs jolly had to say!

A lost son

“Yaäs, they says the wagtail brings luck, but I doän’t know about that, for I remember one coming to the window the day my lil boy died and that weren’t luck. He was the one that come next to Bob, he was two year old, and he had the pneumonia and bronkiss, and I was alone in the house. I had to sit atween him and the four month old child in the cradle.

I sent a neighbour’s boy to the Big House for the loan of the bronkiss kettle – I knew they’d got three there – but the boy he never went. He was a terruble timeaway: he never come back, and I thought I’d goo mad, sitting there atween the two chillum; I couldn’t leave ‘em. At last I had to get up and leave ‘em to get some sticks for the fire – ‘twere a bitter cold winter, and as soon as I’d left the room my lil boy screamed out: “Marmy! Marmy!” like that – “Marmy”! and when I run back he kept pinting at the chest o’ drawers. I took lots o’ things off and handed ‘em to him, but he’d only shake his head, and kept a-pinting. He saw Someone there, Angels ‘twas I’m sure and that night he died. I doän’t know if the kettle would ha’ saved ‘un, but the boy he never went for it; he said after he was too froughtened to …But I doän’t expect the kettle would ha’ saved ‘un, for the Angels had come for him.

Miss Bridger, when she saw him said: “Oh tis a shame such a pretty lil thing should die! But the Angels have took him.” “Ah!” I said, “Ah, I knows that.” Her young son was a cripple, and he was a carpenter and he got him a box and he made him a coffin.; ‘twas the first he’d ever made. Oh, it was nice! And he’d got a text round the head and sides, “Suffer the lil children to come unto Me.”  No, I doän’t know whether it was painted on, or paper pinned on – like but ‘twas beautiful.

Tales of Old Sussex


In the old days. they’d bury people without any coffins, just dig a hole and stuff ‘em into the earth. I doän’t like that. There was a man who took his own life that they buried at the cross roads, nigh the turnpike – just put ‘un in a hole and druv a stake in a’top o’ him. They say he can’t rest, that he walks nights all round his grave, you can hear him come panking along, and going round and round! So would I, I reckon, if I had a stake druv through me.

The lil Pink Lady ghost 

Your recklecks what I told you about the lil lady ghost  over in the gar’ns at the Big House, and how Jolly he’d seen the footsteps in the dew in the early mornings? Waal, he happened to mention that to old Miss Jetton – you know she? She lives over Ironwood way, in a lil old house clost to Holly Rue Copse. You know her? Course you do! Her son he works for Farmer Lintott; and it seems she knows the true history of the lil lady ghost and once’t when she was a gal out early after mushrooms, she seed she! And she said she’d white hair done up high ‘top of her head , and a pink dress on over a crin-o-line. Twasn’t exactly a crin-o-line but more bunchy-like on her hips, and she went tottering along over the grass in shoes with heels like clothes-pegs, so thin and high they was, Miss Jetton she didn’t see where she goed, for she come over all faint-like, for her heart was beating drum drum up in her throat like a hammer, and she closed her eyes a minute, and when she opened ‘em again the lady was gone!

Strange Tales of Old Sussex

Miss Jetton says that when she got home, her mother told her that the lil Pink Lady was the daughter of a gurt grand family that lived at the Big House hundreds of years agoo, and they was all for having her married to some grand gen’man, a prince. I think he was p’raps, but she’d another lover she fancied, and she used to creep out when ‘twas dusk-like, and meet he, down by the ponds at the bottom of the lawns, and told her father and mother that she went to hear the nightingales, and they believed her, she being poetical minded, and all the while she was talking to this feller.

Old Sussex

And this went on dunnamany times, till one evening the grand gen’man followed her out, quiet-like, to see if ‘twas nightingales, and when he and t’other met they started fighting with swords, till somehow or other they both got killed, and died down ‘side of the ponds, and the lil Pink Lady run screeching away. Miss Jetton said that no one rightly knows what became ‘o she, but some says she hanged herself in the pigeons’ cove, for terror, and that the garn man heerd her and thought ‘twas pigeons cooing, but Miss Jetton doän’t rightly know ‘bout that. But she says the men have often been seen fighting in their shirts an’ breeches an’ the lil Pink Lady standing wringing her hands behind them. And she says you can hear the clashing of the swords quite plain if you stands quiet and listens. And Jolly he says he’ve often heerd a noise there nights just like someone smashing plates an’ crocks about, and he thought nawthing of it. That pigeon cove, pigeon cove? Why, what you calls doves’ cot, I think. That pigeon cove ‘tis a terrible queer old place, and such a size too, like a gurt barn ‘tis, with all lil square holes all the way up to the top -hundreds of ‘em. I can’t think what the gentry wanted with such a lot ‘o doves about, they makes such a mournful hollering and moaning, and they’re such dirty things!

Miss Jetton says that her brother met the Pink Lady oncet, same as she did, and she was walking along trip, trip acrost the grass, turning her head from side to side, and waving her hands about, and then she weren’t there at all! And he run home in such a sweat all over, that he’d to change he’s shirt, and his knees was shaking!

The Clergy ghost

And Miss Jetton she knows all about the Clergy ghost at Chithurst – she’ve seen he too! Oh, you knows that story, everyone does! The clergyman that was murdered by a man in his own medders? This clergy he was keeping company with one of the squire’s daughters and was very friendly with the squire. One afternoon, they come to dine with he, the squire, and his two daughters, and in the evening he went home with they, and stayed there a bit, and then come home at night, acrost that medder they calls Gorse Medder, because of the gorse hedge there is now. I don’t suppose ‘twas there then. As he was coming acrost, a man jumped out at he from somewheres, an’ hit him over the face with a fag-hook and slashed an’ slashed at him till he got he down and then he stabbed ‘un with a pitchfork. And they say the grass has never grown there since because there was so much blood poured out on it.

Strange tales of Old Sussex

Because the clergyman was gentry there was a gurt fuss made about it when they found ‘un, and when they caught the man what done it, and they asked him why he had done it, he said yes, he’d done it, “and I done it,” he said, “because of some crool words he spoke to me five years agoo. I’ve waited, and waited to kill ‘un and if I hadn’t killed’un with the eight stabs I give him with the pitchfork, I’d have gone on stabbing , an’ stabbing till I did!”

No, I doän’t know what the words was the clergy said to the man, but I expects they was hurtful, for he was a proud, haughty man, by all accounts, but ‘twas spiteful to wait all those years and then goo slasshing like that! And no one deserves such a death for a few crool words.

Miss Jetton she tells Jolly that they’ve been seen often nights, in the Gorse Medder; the clergy, so she says, is dressed in a black silk coat and knickerbockers, and a white lace tie like a woman’s, and a bald head because he’s wig fell off when he was struck. And t’other’s dressed in corduroys-like, and they sways and struggles together, and you sees metal flash, that’s the fag-hook I expects, and then woosh! It all goos black and they disappears.


You doän’t like gooing by your stable nights? Ah! Ah! I doän’t expect you does! Neither did I years agoo when I could walk; why, that’s where the smugglers had a saw-pit. You didn’t know that? Wal they did! They pretended ‘twas a saw-pit, and sawed and sawed wood, till ‘twas all shavings and sawdust and that’s what they hid their barls [barrels] in. Some spirits there was, but ‘twas mostly tea done up in lil barls an’ kegs, and dallops, which they tied on the back of dogs. The dogs they drew the things in lil carts too sometimes, they was rightly called “dog-carts!”. They’d come all over the Downs with ‘em, and some come from as far as Dorsetshire.

Tales of Old Sussex

Mr Rivers [a late vicar] he told me that; he knew a lot about ‘em, but I knew more’n he, though I never told him I did, no! You see, Jolly’s grandfather had some doings with them, though twasn’t generally known that he had, he kept dark and quiet about it all! Just as well he did, for what with the scrambling about the country, an’ being out in the darks, and hiding, with the ‘Ciseman after ‘em, and firing pistols at ‘em, there was a mort o’ trouble in it all.

Murder of a Cise man

Why! There’s a cellar to your house, though I doän’t suppose you’ve ever seen ‘un, for ‘twas bricked down years afore you come around here. That’s when your place was an inn, ‘twas called “The Jolly Wood Cutters” and it had a painted sign with the words –

“This sign hangs well and hinders none,

Refresh and pay and travel on”

And ah! Ah! If you was to dig under your lil greenhouse you might find something for they killed a ‘Cise man down by your stable and trundled his body up Rainbow Medder, amd buried him somewheeres clost to your lil greenhouse. I suppose you ain’t ever seen he? – for he walks! I reckon they all do, smugglers as well, for they was bad, sinful creatures, full of the love of money, and Jolly’s grandfather wasn’t none too good either!

My mother she seed one of they dogs onest when she was a tiny lil spark of a gal and they was living near Iping. She was standing at the gate of their cottage one evening – ‘twas getting dusk – and he come out of the copse opposite, and a man with him, an’ she hollers out: “Oo! Look at that pretty dog with the barl on he’s back!” and her father come along and give she such a clump ‘side of her head that she was stunned … You be quiet he growls at her, “you be quiet; you ain;t seen naun, do you hear?” She said p’raps she hadn’t, she was so giddy from the blow. But she rembered afterwards. She never seed anymore.

Tales of Old Sussex

Mr Rivers used to say that the smugglers were called ‘owlers’ because they come out in the dark, but I doän’t know about that. I’ve heerd that they used to goo to the Big House and were welcome there. We all knows that there’s an underground passage from there to the old chapel which is nigh the turnpike – aye! And there’s cellars in the chapel! I’ve been down. They’d want to get to the turnpike. They’d come over from Harting and along the deep lanes through Iping and Rogate, there’s a rue [rough lane] near Iping that some call ‘Smuggler’s Run’ even now.

The death of a tree and the end of an era

There use dot be a gurt tree on the hill over to Rogate which was called “Lone Tree”; ‘twas a sea mark – no! not a landmark, a sea-mark they said ‘twas : it could be seen for miles around; there was lots of mystery about ‘un, what it meant to the smugglers and more’n than that! It got rotten at last, with lots of toadstools at its bottom – what you calls mushrooms – so it fell. Old Ned Jacques foretold ‘twould fall, and said when it did there would be a gurt war and that the sandy lanes would run with blood.

Tales of Old Sussex

We’ve had the gurt war, though it comes years and years later than Jaques said, but we must be thankful that they lanes didn’t run with blood. I doän’t think they ever will now, though I used to wonder while the war was on.”

If any readers have more information about any of Mrs Jolly’s account, we’d love to hear about it! 

If you like this post about old Sussex, you may also like:

Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Place Names

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – The Sussex Dialect

Strange Tails of Old Sussex – Heroic Hounds

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