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The Story of a Sussex Pub

A recent visit to the beautifully refurbished Red Lion got me thinking. Sussex pubs are such a central part of our local history and I was sure the Red Lion must have its fair share. So I caught up with our resident historian, who shared what he knew.

Sussex pub

“The Red Lion is the only surviving pub out of three that used to be found in Handcross and is believed to have been an inn since the 16th century. In the golden era of coaching in the years between 1780 and 1850, it was a proper “stage” with its ideal location on what was then the main road to Brighton. Stagecoaches broke their journey to change horses between Crawley, or Horley and Cuckfield.  In fact, the crossed hands on the sign represent the fact that it marks the junction of the Brighton route with the cross country road from Horsham to East Grinstead and beyond.

Red lion Handcross

There have been many rumours that Lord Nelson used this Sussex pub as a place to enjoy a tryst with his mistress Emma Hamilton (who danced on the tables of Uppark).  Whilst this is almost certainly untrue, there is a ghost of a chance that Lord Nelson might have called here once on his way to meet his lawyer who lived at nearby Slaugham Park.

What is more certain is that some years earlier, you might have come across one Jack Riddins at the Red Lion. He was a local highwayman who used to hole up in a cave in Nymans woods and caused much trouble to coach travellers. He was eventually hung and gibbeted opposite the Red Lion. Gibbeting involved a sort of body-shaped cage from which the dead or dying bodies of criminals were hung on public display to deter others.

Sussex pub

In a more relaxed period, during the 19th century, the landlord is said to have welcomed travellers on the threshold with a flagon of gin and homemade gingerbread … or perhaps the gingerbread had been sent on a coach from Horsham still famed for its gingerbread recipe which can be found in Horsham Museum. Travellers returning from Brighton would have been grateful indeed as they often had to walk up several hills on the approach to Handcross to relieve the horses.

Red Lion, Handcross

On a more sombre note, in 1906, the Red Lion was used as a coroner’s court and mortuary for the victims of the Vanguard Bus Disaster. This involved an early Charabanc outing which was taking a large number of off-duty firemen and friends on an outing from Orpington to Brighton when it crashed on Handcross Hill. The hill was steep, narrow and bendy in those days and many were killed.

During the rest of the 20th century, the Red Lion survived many owners and two serious fires. Bombardier Billy Wells was one such owner and also a well-known boxer and Stanley Ball was another who was a brewer and off licence owner from Crawley. During the 1950s, the Red Lion was a well-known stop-off point for the Red Rover, a restored coach from Southampton which was driven by a Mr Saunders Watney, a director of Watney Brewery that also happened to own the Red Lion at the time.

Sussex pub

In 1978, the Red Lion hit the headlines again, with the following extract from the local paper.”

Three people, including a naked 23 year old barmaid, jumped for their lives from a blazing Sussex hotel today…the 400-year-old former hotel, now a restaurant, was virtually destroyed…

For those that remember Watney’s beer, you might be interested to know it was once advertised by Michael Caine who has his own links to our area, having started his career in Horsham. And as I mentioned in my review of the refurbishment of the Red Lion, my grandfather used to be a patron here too and he in turn had his own links with Watneys Brewery having trained there in the early part of his career. Small world, you might say.

Contributed by Peter Benner

If you’re intrigued by this Sussex pub tale, you may be interested in:

Sussex Eating Destination: The Red Lion at Handcross

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