The Miller's Tomb - Highdown Hill 1908

The Miller’s Tomb – Highdown Hill 1908

 

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.

MILLER’S TOMB

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.

The-Millers-Tomb-Highdown-Hill

The-Millers-Tomb-Highdown-Hill

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.

close-up-of-skeleton-on-Millers-Tomb-Highdown-Hill

close-up-of-skeleton-on-Millers-Tomb-Highdown-Hill

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.

tomb on Highdown hill

tomb on Highdown hill

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

About Wendy Hughes

Wendy turned to writing, in 1989, when ill-health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Since then she has published 26 nonfiction books, and over 2000 articles. Her work has appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British, and Guiding magazine. She has a column in an America/Welsh newspaper for ex-pats on old traditions and customs in Wales. Her books include many on her native Wales, Anglesey Past and Present, The Story of Brecknock, Brecon, a pictorial History of the Town, Carmarthen, a History and Celebration and Tales of Old Glamorgan, and a book on Walton on Thames in the Images of England series, a company history and two books on the charity Hope Romania. She has also co-authored two story/activity books for children. Her latest books are: Haunted Worthing published in October 2010, a new colour edition of The Story of Pembrokeshire published in March 2011, and Shipwrecks of Sussex in June 2011 and Not a Guide to Worthing in 2014. She is working on a book entitled A-Z of Curious Sussex which will be published in 2016 Wendy also works with clients to bring their work up to publishable standard and is currently working on an autobiography with a lady that was married to a very famous 1940’s travel writer. Wendy has spent many years campaigning and writing on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a progressive genetic connective tissue disorder from which she herself suffers. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raises awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession, and produces the group’s literature, and has written the only book on the condition, Stickler The Elusive Syndrome, and has also contributed to a DVD on the condition, Stickler syndrome: Learning the Facts. She has also writing three novels, Sanctimonious Sin, a three generation saga set in Wales at the turn of the century, Power That Heal set in the Neolithic period entitled Powers that Heal, and a semi biographical book entitled New Beginnings which deals with two generations coping with blindness and a genetic condition. She has also had a handful of short stories published, and in her spare time is working on several at the moment. She also gives talks on a variety of subjects including Writing and Placing Articles, Writing Local History, Writing as Therapy, Writing your first novel, etc, and runs workshops on the craft of writing – both fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and a member of the Society of Authors.