Many infamous criminals have been tried at Lewes and many met their end on the hangman’s rope, writes Robert Stevens.
Sarah French of the ‘Onion Pie’ murder at Chiddingly, who poisoned her husband with 3d worth of arsenic bought in Horsebridge, near Hailsham, was the last woman to be hanged in Lewes in front of thousands of people in 1852. Almost 135 years ago this week Percy Lefroy, who committed the murder of Mr Gold on the Brighton Line in the Balcombe Tunnel, was on November 29 1881 led out in the yard “at the end.. facing that where the vegetables were grown, and closest to the corner of the prison, were two objects which forced themselves upon the view.
“In the right-hand corner as we looked upon them rose a couple of thick black posts, with a huge cross piece, from which dangled a staple and a long, thick rope; in the other, about 10 yards distance, an open grave.” quoted the Telegraph.
There were two prisons. Firstly the House of Correction which later became a Naval Gaol in North Street and then in 1850-1854 the new prison was built.
The new prison has held a variety of famous crooks from Reggie Kray to the then to be Irish Premier Eamon de Valera after the Easter Uprising in Dublin.
What is strange is one character has decided to stay, not quite a life sentence but as a ghost a life after death sentence.
I was told one of the corridors in the prison used to connect the women’s and men’s prison in Victorian days and it now just leads to the prison chapel.
Two prison officers at one time were allocated a shift in the early hours of the morning, a particularly uninteresting time when they would just sit in the guardroom and regularly walk around the dark corridors checking the doors and security gates were locked, looking through inspection holes at intervals into the cells and confirming all was quiet.
Midnight had melted into the early hours when they were both making one of their inspections.
Turning the corner to the corridor, to their sudden shock, there was someone walking down the passage ahead of them.
It could only mean one thing, someone had got out of a cell.
They reacted quickly, no time for nerves, as the man with long hair was walking away.
“Hey mate stop, who are you?,” they shouted as the sound of their boots echoed down the empty space.
The “escapee” was oblivious or ignoring them but there was no evading capture as one of the officers went to grab the shoulder of the man.
Just as his hand was about to pass through thin air the “man” turned half round but it was a woman with long hair and what looked like a cape.
She paused and then silently disappeared into the bricks of the wall. Needless to say the two officers rapidly returned to the guardroom and locked themselves in till the next shift.
But who is the ghost? Some say its the wraith of a Victorian lady who visited one of her relatives and was so shocked at the conditions she fell down dead.
Another version is that it could be the haunting of a female prisoner who was hanged after being found guilty of giving poisoned sweets to children.
Maybe the answer lies in the small courtyard of gravestones for those who saw their last morning here.
But does it matter if there are more ghost stories than ghosts?
When the heavy doors clang shut there can be little worse than being locked in with the ghost.
Further details of ghost walks and books on www.sussexguidedwalks.co.uk
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