Wendy’s Wanderings The A to Z of Curious Sussex
This week has been a very busy week for me, as I continue to research and discover all sorts of fascinating snippets for my new book The A to Z of Curious Sussex. Sussex is such an interesting county cramped full of legends, larger than characters, unusual stories, odd historical events, smuggling, ghost stories, crimes murders and scandals to name just a few. Over the coming weeks I hope to tell you about some of discoveries, which will take me right across the county but where better to start than with a story about a eccentric miller who was also a poet and a reputed smuggler and the story is virtually on my doorstep.
Goring’s most eccentric and famous character must be John Olliver who was an 18th century miller and poet. There are so many mysteries surrounding him that it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction. He was reputed to have been a smuggler and used his mill for signalling the all-clear to ships arriving with illicit goods. What we do know is that in 1765 at the age of 50 he began building his own tomb on Highdown Hill, which was a challenging walk for me, but I was rewarded with a view of the surrounding area. The hill was owned by William Westbrooke Richardson, and the land had once been the site of an Iron Age camp, a Roman bath house, and a pagan Saxon Burial Cemetery. Olliver is alleged to have visited the tomb every day where he would sit and meditate with his bible on his knees. The inscription on the tomb lid dated 1766 confirms that it was built 27 years BEFORE he died, and legend informs us that if you run around his tomb twelve times at midnight, John Olliver’s ghost will jump out of the tomb and chase you away. I decided not to try this out. The tomb is elaborately engraved with many verses, although most are now very worn and unreadable. One of the verses he penned is as follows:
My tomb on a lofty hill doth stand,
Where I sit and view both sea and land;
With iron palisades I am surrounded in,
The expense of it I value not a pin.
For in my own works I take great delight,
And prise my MAKER day and night;
When death doth call then I must go
With him whether I would or no,
And leave my mill and all behind,
In hopes a better place to find.
It is said that John Olliver is buried upside down because he believed that at the Last Judgement the world would turn ‘topsy-turvy’ and when it happened he wanted to be the first to be facing the right way.
John Olliver was born in Lancing to the east of Worthing in 1709 and worked the old mill there before moving to Goring. In 1750 he took over Highdown mill from his father Clement Olliver, and prior to building his tomb he kept a coffin under his bed, so that is was ready for use if he needed it, and it is claimed that he had written the following lines on his coffin:
Beneath my bed my coffin stands,
On four wheels swift it runs,
I am always proud to show the same,
And why my neighbours do you me blame.
Some say that the coffin was used as a hiding place for his smuggled goods, and his spacious tomb on Highdown Hill was another store for his contraband. Others claim that the verses inscribed around the tomb are merely elaborate codes revealing where the miller had hidden the proceeds of his illegal activities. Cashing in on his death his wife established a tea chalet near the tomb, which became popular with visitors to Worthing. Sadly in November 1982 vandals badly damaged the tomb and destroyed many of the inscriptions on it. There is no burial entry in the Goring register for John Olliver, but on 26 January 1812 there is a footnote which reads: ‘John Olliver of this Parish, Miller, was buried under the Tomb on High Down Hill, April 26 1793, aged 83. On this occasion the funeral service was read and a sermon preached at the tomb by Ann Street, his granddaughter who used to read to him before his death, his eyesight having deteriorated in old age. His funeral drew a crowd of thousands and his body in its white painted coffin was brought from his house by young maidens all dressed in white and carried around the field. The sermon, read by his granddaughter Ann Street, was said to have been written by John himself, but it was actually taken from a printed volume of sermons, written by the Church of England Clergy.
A more recent haunting appears to have occurred in July 1983 and was reported in the Worthing Gazette and Herald on 29 July 1983. Two schoolboys from Durrington High School reported to the local press that they were camping on Highdown Hill and having heard the story about running around the tomb twelve times, decided to set their alarms and at midnight actually ran around the tomb. Nothing happened but as they were walking away they heard footsteps and turned to see the ghost of John Olliver! One of the lads who was only 10 yards away said, ‘He was a very old man with a pale face, and I think he had a moustache. He was losing his hair and was very short.’ Whatever the truth we will never know, but Highdown Hill continues to be a favourite spot for families to picnic, and the tales of John Olliver will live on, and on.
Photos by Conrad Hughes