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Cuckfield Park is a private Elizabethan house that was the seat of the Bowyer and then the Sergison family. It was the inspiration behind William Harrison Ainsworth’s (born 1805- died 1882) famous romance novel Rookwood and was said to be reputedly haunted by the ghost of Wicked Dame Sergison.
Cuckfield Place (original name) was built around 1575 by Henry Bowyer (died 1589) an ironmaster, who acquired the property from 4th Earl Derby in 1573. Henry and his wife Elizabeth demolished the existing medieval manor house and replaced it with Cuckfield Place which remained in his family until 1693 when it was purchased by Charles Sergison (died 1732) Commissioner of the Navy and Clerk of Accounts. In 1806, Anne Sergison died and Cuckfield manor passed through each of her children in turn. Warden Jefferson Sergison died in 1811 without an heir, so his brother Colonel Francis Sergison inherited Cuckfield but subsequently died in 1812. Following a court battle in 1820, the manor eventually passed to his sister Anne Sergison, wife of Reverend William Saint Pritchard. Rev Pritchard adopted the name Sergison and his wife was known as Anne Pritchard Sergison or the Wicked Dame Sergison. Dame Sergison was by all accounts disliked and had several noted ongoing feuds with her family and neighbours. I have come across sources that describe her as having a foul and vindictive temper and claims that she also treated her tenants harshly.
Perhaps one reason for her foul mood was the manner in which she had fight in court for her inheritance following the death of her brother and realisation that the girl she thought was her niece and her brother’s heir was in fact a fake. This would have caused quite a scandal and the story of the case actually appeared in Glimpses of Our Ancestors in Sussex by Charles Fleet (1878).
‘In July, 1820, a trial came on in the Court of Queen's Bench, before the Lord Chief Justice and a Special Jury, upon the direction of the Lord Chancellor, to try whether the plaintiff, Eliza Ann Harriet Sergison, was the daughter of the late Colonel Francis Sergison, or whether she was a supposititious child imposed upon the family by the contrivance of his wife.
The Colonel Francis Sergison in question was the second son of Francis Jefferson, Esq., a native of Yorkshire, and who had taken the name and arras of the Sergisons of Cuckfield Place, Sussex, on marrying the heiress of that family, and also of the Wardens. His second son Francis entered the army, and must, in those active times, have seen some service, for he rose to the Colonelcy of the 62nd Regiment. But in the year 1806 he was residing in Dublin upon half-pay, having, we are told, dissipated the greater part of his fortune, and being, in fact, so reduced in circumstances that he was thrown into the Dublin Gaol for debt. Here he met with a companion in misfortune a widow named Cronin a woman of great personal attractions, but not of the most reputable character, for it was admitted that since the death of her first husband, a journeyman coach-builder, she had borne two illegitimate children, one of whom had been born on the 1 8th of March, 1806, as her marriage with Colonel Sergison took place, within the walls of the Dublin prison, on the 3oth of April following! The Colonel's first wife, too, had only died a few weeks previous to the ceremony, so that little else is needed to bear out the statement made on the trial that Colonel Francis Sergison was a hasty, passionate man, very fond of having his own way !
The newly-wedded couple soon after contrived to gain their liberty, but lived for some time in embarrassed circumstances in Dublin ; and it was during this period that the events took place which were the subject of the trial at the Court of Queen's Bench in 1820 13 years afterwards.
During the temporary absence of Col. Sergison sent out of the way, it would seem, by design, on a visit to one of his wife's illegitimate children Mrs. Sergison represented that she had been confined, and presented to him, on his return, a female child as his own offspring. It was, to all appearance, accepted by him as such without suspicion, for he had believed his wife to be in the family way, and the child was brought up by him as his heiress. In the following year, 1808, the Colonel and his wife came to live in England, and in 1811, by the death of his elder brother, Mr. Warden Sergison, of Cuckfield Park, without issue, he came into the fine family property at Cuckfield, Sussex. And here he lived, with his wife and his reputed daughter, Eliza Ann Harriet, up to the time of his death, in 1812, Not only was the girl acknowledged as his heiress, but she also inherited a considerable fortune by the death of his mother, the hieress of the Wardens and Sergisons. For some years the widow of the late Colonel must have continued in the enjoyment of this, for the trial to decide the question of birth did not, as we have said, take place until July, 1820, when the child must have been nearly 13 years of age. How long the proceedings lingered in Chancery, whence they issued by the writ of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon (not the most expeditious of Judges!) we do not know; but they were instigated at the instance of the Rev. Mr. Pritchard, who had married a younger sister of the Colonel, and who, by his death, became the only surviving representative of the Sergison and Warden families, that is, in case of no issue being left by the Colonel. The legitimacy, therefore, of Eliza Ann Harriet Sergison became a vital question to the family. Doubtless some suspicious rumours had got abroad, which had reached the ears of the Pritchards, and caused them to set enquiries on foot in Ireland. And these at length ripened to a point which justified legal steps, and brought about the trial in England. They must have been conducted with great ability, for Mrs. Sergison, the pseudo-mother of the girl who was made plaintiff in the case, went into Court with the greatest confidence, and her cause, as it really was, was conducted by the Solicitor-General of the day. Mrs. Sergison, described as being a very fine woman, swore positively that the child was hers by her late husband, Colonel Francis Sergison, and appealed to the testimony of several persons who were present at the birth ; naming one Fitzsimmons as the accoucheur. Several of these persons were called as witnesses, and swore, some to the pregnancy of Mrs. Sergison previous to the birth, and some to the actual birth of the child.
But, at the very time these witnesses and Mrs. Sergison were thus giving their evidence, the most conclusive proof was in the hands of the opposite party of its falsehood, and not a small portion of this proof was furnished by the acts of Mrs. Sergison herself.
Mr. Scarlett (the first Lord Abinger), who conducted the defence, began his speech by telling the Solicitor-General that he (the Solicitor-General) was not aware of the case which he supported and that the lady who had sworn so firmly before the Court had perjured herself in every word she had uttered. He proceeded to prove this by reading letters from Mrs. Sergison to witnesses on the other side, imploring them to go abroad or otherwise keep out of the way, and to communicate with her for that purpose, un- known to her solicitor. He then called these people, including a female a Mrs. Gibson whom Mrs. Sergison had called in to aid and assist her in the fraud also the accoucheur, Fitzsimmons, and the real mother of the child, one Ann Magin, a servant at a Dublin public-house. From their statements it appeared that in January, 1807, whilst Col. Sergison was away, his wife went to Mrs. Gibson, with whom she had previously been acquainted whilst the wife of Cronin, and said she had supposed herself to be with child, and dreaded the Colonel's violence when he should discover her mistake and his disappointment. She had, therefore, in conjunction with her servant, Nelly Cunning- ham, formed a plan for imposing a supposititious child upon him. This plan she disclosed to Mrs. Gibson, and they proceeded to put it in execution. It had been previously ascertained, by Mrs. Sergison's servant, Nelly Cunningham, that a servant at a public-house, named Ann Magin, had been delivered four days before of an illegitimate child, and this woman was induced to part with the child a female one, with black eyes and dark hair for three halt-crowns. It was taken by Nelly Cunningham to a house in Angier-street, where Mrs. Sergison and Mrs. Gibson were waiting for it ; and there Mr. Fitzsimmons, an accoucheur, was sent for, and, after a conversation with Mrs. Sergison, consented to play his part in the deception. The child was then taken by Mrs. Sergison and Mrs. Gibson in a coach to the lodgings of the former in Parliament-street, and was carried upstairs by Mrs. Gibson in her muff ; something having been given it to make it sleep. In half-an-hour after Mr. Fitzsimmons came. Mrs. Sergison then went to bed, and the child was laid on the bed by her. The trick was never suspected by Colonel Sergison, who looked upon the child as his own, and died in that belief. In all respects it was brought up and treated as the heiress of the Sergison family. Yet, as Mrs. Gibson told Mrs. Sergison in 1819, when the latter went to Dublin with her supposed daughter, in order to induce her (Mrs. Gibson) to go to America, at that very moment the real mother of the child was selling apples at the corner of the street in which they were !
In addition to this viva voce evidence, letters were produced from Mrs. Sergison to Nelly Cunningham (dead at the time of the trial) to show that Nelly was acquainted with the secret of the so-called Miss Sergison's birth and extraction, and that she received an annuity as the price of her silence. In fact, there could be no doubt of the fraud, and the jury had no difficulty, under the direction of the Lord Chief Justice, in coming to a verdict for the defendant, the effect of which was to establish the illegitimacy of Eliza Ann Harriet Sergison and to transfer the Sergison and Warden estates to the rightful heirs, the Pritchards, by whom the surname and arms of Sergison were forthwith assumed, and by whose descendants they are now borne.
What became of Mrs. Colonel Francis Sergison and the poor girl who was made the innocent instrument of her fraud, we are not able to say. In all probability, the former had a provision for life, as the widow of Colonel Sergison, and no further proceedings seem to have been taken against her, for perjury or fraud. The child of the Dublin applewoman was, it is to be hoped, either maintained by her or some provision made for it by the Sergison family. The escape of the latter from being made the victims of a cunningly-devised scheme was a narrow one ; if successful, it would have been a singular, but perhaps not unique, mode of keeping up the line of descent of two ancient families!’
Anne Pritchard Sergison was 85 years old when she died in 1848. Soon after her death and according to tradition, her apparition started to make an appearance and the story of her haunting became a popular tale. She was said to haunt the corridors and the main staircase of Cuckfield Park and also the avenue outside leading to the house. One tale of the haunting has her appearing at the wedding reception of her daughter in 1890. Anne Pritchard Sergison did not have a daughter. However, her granddaughter, Editha Elma Sergison CBE (born 1871 – died 19 April 1938) lived at Cuckfield Park and married Joseph Henry Russell Bailey, 2nd Baron Glanusk, CB CBE DSO on 6 August 1890, so perhaps it is this wedding her ghost was supposed to have attended.
I suspect that the haunting of Dame Sergison, who was thought to be too wicked to rest in her grave, is probably just Victorian ghostlore with no real evidence of an actual haunting. The stories would have her haunting the avenue upsetting horses as they approached the house and she would be seen swinging on the main gates to the estate. Eventually the local vicar held an exorcism service in the village church which some say ended in him drowning the ghost in the font. Other stories concerning the end of the haunting say it occurred when the wooden gates were replaced with iron ones.
Cuckfield Park was the inspiration behind the 1834 novel by William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) entitled Rookwood, a story based around the inheritance of an estate involving illegitimacy which seem somewhat similar to the problems faced by the Sergison family fourteen years earlier. The estate in question is that of the recently deceased Sir Piers Rookwood. Piers was married to Lady Rookwood ad their son Ranulph is heir apparent. However, prior to marrying Lady Rookwood, Piers secretly married Susan Bradley and they had a son named Luke who is technically th elegitimate heir. Luke intended to marry Eleanor Mowbray, heir to the estate of Sir Peir’s father, Sir Reginald Rookwood, but he was already engaged to a gypsy named Sybil Lovel. So he abandons Sybil for Eleanor. Sybil’s grandmother Barbara Lovel (Queen of the Gypsies) poisons Luke with a strand of Syil's hair. Ranolph marries Eleanor, inherits the estate of Piers Rookwood and his mother discovers a dagger used to kill an earlier Lady Rookwood thus ends a family curse. Other characters include Dick Turpin and Peter Bradley a sexton who is actually Alan Rookwood, the brother of Sir Reginald Rookwood in disguise. It was described by Stephen Carver in The Literary Encyclopedia as, "An elaborately plotted novel, a chaotic, wild and energetic narrative which combines claustrophobic, charnel-house gothic horror with the romance and adventure of the outlaw and the open road. The section of the novel devoted solely to Dick Turpin, 'The Ride to York', became so popular in its own right that it was often published separately; the well-known legend that Turpin rode from London to York in one night is in fact entirely of Ainsworth's invention"
In the preface to Rookwood, Ainsworth discusses the links Cuckfield Place and the family there. ‘The supernatural occurrence, forming the groundwork of one of the ballads which I have made the harbinger of doom to the house of Rookwood, is ascribed, by popular superstition, to a family resident in Sussex; upon whose estate the fatal tree (a gigantic lime, with mighty arms and huge girth of trunk, as described in the song) is still carefully preserved. Cuckfield Place, to which this singular piece of timber is attached, is, I may state, for the benefit of the curious, the real Rcokwood Hall; for I have not drawn upon imagination, but upon memory, in describing the seat and domains of that fated family. The general features of the venerable structure, several of its chambers, the old garden, and, in particular, the noble park, with its spreading prospects, its picturesque views of the Hall, its deep glades, through which the deer come lightly tripping down, its uplands, slopes, brooks, brakes, coverts, and groves, are carefully delineated.’ Ainsworth obviously knew Cuckfield Place and the Sergisons.