I enjoyed the ‘Memory Lane’ article concerning the Royal Oak public House at Wivelsfield (Middy 29.10.15) but must respectfully draw to your attention some slight inaccuracies in the account.
Jacob Harris (whose actual surname was Hirsch) was not a highway robber as described, but a travelling pedlar who frequently lodged at the Royal Oak whilst working in the area. The landlord, Richard Miles, suspected him of being a thief as items of clothing had gone missing on previous occasions during the pedlar’s visit. Because of this he kept a close eye on his guest and on the day in question discreetly followed the man to the stables where he caught him red-handed in the act of stealing his best riding cape.
Furious at being discovered, Hirsch drew out a knife and repeatedly stabbed the landlord. Disturbed by the commotion, a servant girl by the name of Dorrity went to investigate, only to become Hirsch’s second victim.
Miles’wife, who was obviously aware that something terrible was happening, barricaded herself in the bedroom, but to no avail. The pedlar located her and smashed down the door and stabbed her to death.
In the meantime and despite being fatally wounded, Dorrity had managed to crawl out of the stable and raise the alarm, whereupon Hirsch, in the words of the contemporary ballad:
‘...thought there was no time to delay; But took his horse and rode away’
His capture at Selsfield House is correctly described. However what was not mentioned was that he was then immediately escorted back to the Royal Oak to be confronted by Miles, who although close to death, was still able to identify the pedlar as his assailant.
Evidence for the court was presented in the form of dying declarations. The pedlar stood accused of committing three murders and also of stealing Richard Miles’ cape, a garment valued at ten shillings. There was no reference to any other property, cash or otherwise.
With regards to the photograph showing the remains of was described as the original tollgate, I do not think it was ever that. It was surely a former cattle gate. There were four in all and they were used to prevent livestock from straying off the Common. The others were located in Folders Lane alongside the Spoil Bank; Folders Lane East, close to City Cottages and on the Ditchling Road near Halletts Farm (now the Oaks Poultry Farm).
The Folders Lane gate was still in use in the early 1950s. Motorists were obliged to open the gate themselves, drive through and then close the gate behind them. It was a welcome source of pocket money for children, who, operating the gate, scrambled for pennies lobbed out by the grateful drivers.
Not surprisingly, traffic was light in those days for the cows on the Common were free to roam wherever they chose. I am sure that many of your senior readers can recall the chaos caused by these infuriating beasts gathered on the railway bridge and refusing to budge. When I was a small boy, excluding the Southdown buses, I could count the number of vehicles that passed by in the course of a single day on the finders of one hand.
A fuller history of Ditchling Common is included in my book ‘The Old Century’, volume 1, published by Mid Sussex Books.
Ditchling Road, Wivelsfield
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