Notable People – Brightling, East Sussex – village website

John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller

Beneath the unmarked pyramid in the Brightling churchyard lie the bones of John Fuller (1757-1834). Known as Jack, or Mad Jack, he was the son of a Hampshire clergyman, becoming squire of this parish in 1777 on the death of an uncle. He was variously a soldier, politician, sponsor of the arts and sciences, slave-owner and local benefactor. He was also known for his eccentricities, of which the pyramid, built as a mausoleum twenty years before his death, is an example.

The estate he inherited – Brightling Park, then called Rose Hill – was in those days large and productive. Along with the house, land and ironworks, he also inherited (through his grandfather’s marriage) profitable sugar estates in Jamaica, worked by 290 slaves. His annual income was about £6,000, of which the Jamaican estates contributed £2,700. He never visited his estates – it’s not clear that he ever left these shores – which were run in his absence by Scottish overseers.

He was educated at Eton, acquiring an early and life-long reputation for generosity, later donating to the college a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. In 1778 he joined the Sussex Militia, formed because of threatened invasion by France. He served in various units until retiring as lieutenant-colonel in 1805. Meanwhile, in 1780 he had also entered Parliament, initially representing Southampton and later Sussex

Although never offered (he probably never sought) ministerial office, he was soon known as a forthright, rumbustious, humorous and sometimes facetious speaker. He was a big man with a loud voice and Walter Scott, who knew him, called him ‘the standing jester of the House of Commons.’ He was a prominent member of the West India Lobby, a group representing the interests of the West Indian planters. On their behalf Fuller opposed successive attempts to abolish slavery. Along with other oppositionists, he argued that the lives of West Indian slaves were better than those of the labouring poor in Britain and that abolishing slavery would be financially ruinous for the colonies. When the slave trade with Britain and its colonies was eventually abolished in 1807 he continued to support the economic and security interests of the planters, arguing for generous compensation in the event of the abolition of slave ownership. This happened in 1833 but Fuller received no compensation because he died four months before the act came into force the following year.

He left Parliament in 1812, two years after a disturbance resulting in his forcible removal. He was speaking in support of an enquiry into the Walcheren Expedition, a military disaster, while also calling for a general ban on sinecures. Frustrated and probably drunk, he was reproved for using un-parliamentary language, refused to withdraw and was removed by the Sergeant-at-Arms. He then barged back into the chamber, calling the Speaker ‘an insignificant little fellow in a wig’. He was removed again and held in a cell for two nights, where he was pleased to be told he could entertain friends to dinner. When he finally left politics he thanked his supporters and forgave his opposers.

In his London house he hosted frequent dinners and musical evenings, while in Sussex he was a popular squire known for his generosity which included providing annuities to poor widows. He spent over £10,000 ‘in the Employment of the Labourers and Mechanics of his village who would have been otherwise often unemployed,’ much of it in building projects. These include the four-mile wall around the centre of his estate, about half a dozen follies and, of course, the pyramid. He also paid for the first Eastbourne lifeboat, helped fund the Belle Tout lighthouse, re-cast the five Brightling church bells and added three more, installed the 1820 barrel organ and bought and restored Bodiam Castle.

Probably his greatest passion in the arts was for music. He arranged performances, as a close friend and patron of the composer William Shield and supported a family of London musicians. He also appreciated sculpture and painting, commissioning studies of Brightling and surroundings by Turner. Above all, however, he took a great interest in science, supporting scientists such as Faraday and becoming an early, possibly a founding, member of the Royal Institution. His donations to this body were very significant, even formative; he paid off its early debts and established a gold medal for chemistry and two professorships. He was also founder member of the Royal Astronomical Society, presenting them with a theolodite that later helped prove the shape of the earth.

No-one examining Fuller’s life can fail to be struck by the contrast between his support for the needy, and for good causes and his simultaneous efforts to preserve the practice of slavery. He would surely have known leading abolitionists such as Wilberforce and Pitt and presumably would have heard their arguments. Whatever his motives, his continuing support for slavery must represent at the very least a failure of moral imagination. He clearly had sympathy for those whose sufferings he could see, or knew of, but his sympathies seem not to have extended to those he never met and who lived in far off places he never saw.

He refused a peerage, saying ‘I was born Jack Fuller and Jack Fuller I will die.’ He never married and had no children, describing the professorships he endowed as ‘my two children.’ Despite early flirtations and many friends, it is not clear that he ever had a significant intimate relationship. However, his will made very general provision for his housekeeper, Sophia Foley, while she named him her executor and sole beneficiary (she died first).

Following his death the estate passed to a nephew and eventually out of the family. His tomb beneath the pyramid was intended to accommodate friends and family who wished to join him; so far no-one has.

For a much more in-depth study of Jack Fuller, read Annette Lloyd Thomas’s book “Mad Jack”. See Books and Publications for details of how to buy a copy.

Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon

Born in 1827, Barbara Bodichon was an artist and life-long campaigner for the rights of women. She co-founded Girton Ladies College, Cambridge and was the driving force behind many projects working for reform, especially in the spheres of education and political rights for women. She had Scalands Gate (now Scalands House) built on the family estate in Brightling where she entertained friends such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Elliott and landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll. She is buried in the churchyard.

Benjamin Leigh-Smith

Barbara Bodichon’s brother, Benjamin, is also buried in the churchyard. Born in 1928 he lived at Glottenham Manor, moving later to ‘Scalands’ in Brightling. He was one of the most intrepid explorers of the 19th Century, leading five expeditions to the Arctic and surviving for 10 months after his ship was crushed between two ice floes.

Cold Comfort Farm

The 1995 BBC adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons was filmed in Brightling, including Great Worge Farm and Brightling church.