It’s easy to complain about the rain – and we often do – but if it wasn’t for a sudden downpour in 1734, a multiple murderer may have escaped justice.
Jacob Harris was a highway robber who attacked Richard Miles – landlord of the old Royal Oak pub, in Wivelsfield – on May 26, after learning the pub had taken the princely sum of £20 that night.
The greedy rogue, determined to steal the money, slashed poor Richard in the neck and ran for the till. But a serving maid who saw him also fell victim to his greed, as did the unfortunate innkeeper’s wife – Dorothy – who did no more than call out in alarm from her sick bed upstairs.
After ransacking the inn, Harris fled empty handed, unaware that the dying landlord had managed to raise the alarm.
He was sheltering with his ill-gotten gains at The Cat, in West Hoathly – a well-known smugglers’ haunt – where he heard the hunt for his capture was on. He moved on to Selsfield House, at Turners Hill, where he hid in the wide parlour chimney.
But for a chance shower of rain he might never have been found. The officers hunting him called at the house and lit a fire in the parlour to dry their uniforms.
The smoke was too much for Harris who soon fell, spluttering, into the room. After a fierce struggle, he was captured.
Meanwhile, Richard Miles, his wife and the serving girl, had died from their wounds and Harris was now a multiple murderer.
He was duly tried and, on August 31 1734, was hanged at Horsham gaol. In keeping with the policy that justice should be seen to be done, his body was returned to the scene of the crime for public contempt. His corpse was hanged from a gibbet near the Royal Oak and left to disintegrate.
The gibbet was dubbed Jacob’s Post and soon became an object of local superstition. It was said to be haunted, and slivers of the wood were prized for their curative powers.
It was said that to touch the post would cure any ailment and any ‘believer’ who visited the pub would find a small part of the original gibbet – with its ‘curative powers’ – hanging on the wall close to the bar.
So many slivers were sliced off that the post was reduced to a stump and replaced at the end of the 19th century by a wooden post bearing an iron rooster with the fatal date.
This rooster was itself replaced by a copy made by pupils of Uckfield Comprehensive School, and the original was given to the care of Ditchling Parish Council.
Many might think that would have been the end of the tragic tale of the Royal Oak murders – but it was said the voice of the serving girl could sometimes be heard in the rear corridor of the pub, screaming “Mr Miles, Mr Miles...”.
Rumour has it the poor lass still stokes the fire in the main bar, and some of the older regulars say the innkeeper’s wife has been spotted upstairs.
Speaking to the Mid Sussex Times in 1989, landlord John Perkins said: “It intrigues the customers and is always a great talking point. I am quite happy to have some history to the place, even if it is a bit gruesome.”
A contributor to the website Ye Olde Sussex Page (www.yosp.co.uk) shared part of a rather long ballad which was written after Jacob Harris was hanged.
Titled ‘A dreadful murder done at Eventide in Ditchling just by the Common side’ it concludes:
“And where he did the crime they took the pains / To bring him back and hang him up in chains / That there he might be seen by all that passed by / I wish all people who will cast an eye / It is a dismal sight for to behold / Enough to make a heart of stone run cold / So to conclude I hope you will take care / And of all willful sin, I pray, beware / Let’s serve the Lord with all our might / And he will guard us day and night.”
The contributor added a tale of alcohol-fuelled daring, which left one Royal Oak punter trembling.
He wrote: “Jacob’s Post is supposed to be haunted and has since been the basis for many tales of dreadful happenings.
“Local folk were not keen to pass it after dark and always gave it a wide berth if they had to pass by it, even in the daylight.
“One night a drinker at a local pub was dared to go and stand by the memorial at midnight. Unknown to him, one of his mates had slipped out first and hidden himself nearby.
“When the decidedly nervous hero got to the spot, he did his best to keep up his courage by talking to the ghost ‘Hello Jacob, how are you tonight?’
“From the shadows came the reply ‘Very wet and cold’.
“The poor quivering man turned and ran, and didn’t stop until he had reached the safely of the bar parlour and was again surrounded by his friends.
“When the joke was explained to him, he failed to appreciate the humour of it - although it kept the regulars at the pub entertained for weeks.”