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The Late Riot at Lewes
by John Mason Neale

The Times, London, November 23, 1857, page 10.

To the Editor of the Times.

Sir,—It was my earnest wish not to have been compelled to take any public notice of the disgraceful riot which occurred at Lewes on Wednesday last on the occasion of the funeral of a Sister of Mercy. A very incorrect account, however, having appeared, I am sure I may trust to your sense of justice to permit me to state the facts as they really occurred.

It pleased God to take to himself one of the Sisters at St. Margaret's Home, East Grinstead, on Friday the 13th. She died from the effects of scarlet fever, caught from a case which the sisters were nursing. On her death bed, having appointed the Superior of St. Margaret's and myself her executors, she expressed a wish to be buried in the family vault in the churchyard of her father, the Rev. John Scobell, incumbent of All Saints, Lewes, and that her funeral should be conducted in the way which she considered most Christian.

On mentioning these wishes to her father on his arrival (which did not take place till after her death), he immediately acquiesced in both, expressed his willingness that she should be followed to the grave by the other Sisters, and charged himself with all the arrangements at Lewes, including the preparation for their reception; he also engaged that the bearers should be respectable and trustworthy men. Contrary to what would have been our wish, and much to our inconvenience, he asked that the funeral might take place in the evening. It was therefore fixed for 5.30 p.m. On our arrival at Lewes the usual procession was formed—i.e., lest anything extraordinary should be thought to have been attempted—the bier preceded, myself and the Sisters followed; the only thing beyond an ordinary funeral being a wreath of white flowers carried by an orphan child from St. Margaret's (unless, indeed, I need mention a white pall, but so trimmed with black as to be perfectly inconspicuous in the twilight.

The churchyard lies, I should think, about a hundred yards from the station. Before reaching it we were joined by Mr. Scobell himself and three members of his family, who proceeded to take their places between ourselves and the bier. The service in the church was read by Mr. Hutchinson, of West Firle; the uproar, hooting, and yelling in the churchyard—almost evidently preconcerted, and that with considerable skill—being quite alarming. With some difficulty we made our way to the vault; it is not attached to the church, but is hollowed out of a kind of bank on the north side of the churchyard. Mr. Hutchinson entered the vault, and the service was there concluded; the mob every moment growing fiercer and more threatening. They made way, however, for Mr. Scobell and his family, as well as for Mr. Hutchinson. As the former was passing I stepped up to him and said, "Mr. Scobell, you see how threatening the mob is; will you not protect the Sisters?" He bowed, and passed on; and that, be it remembered, when his daughter had died in their arms only five days previously. While this was passing the lights were either extinguished, or so flashed in our faces as to make a confusion worse than darkness. There was a cry of "Do your duty!" "Now the performance is come off!" and a rush was immediately made upon us. The impression of all of us is that some at least of the bearers and light-men were the ring-leaders of the mob. But the strangest part of all was that men, certainly in the garb of gentlemen, could stand by and see ladies dashed this way and that, their veils dragged off, and their dresses torn, and, far from rendering the least assistance, could actually excite the dregs of the rabble to further violence. I was myself knocked down, and for a moment, while under the feet of the mob, gave myself up for lost. We were borne along into the street, Mr. Scobell having quietly gone home, and taking no further interest in the matter.

Some of the sisters took refuge in the schoolmaster's house; some, with myself, in a little public-house called the King's Head. Round this inn the mob soon gathered. At last, by the advice of the police, I made my way across gardens and over walls to the station. A larger force having been now got together were sent back with a fly to the King's Head; and thus, after some hard fighting on their part, we were enabled to return to East Grinstead by the next train, the rabble besetting the station to the very last.

Now, Sir, your readers may draw their own conclusions as to the constitution of the Lewes mob—a mob only too notorious in the annals of lawlessness. A lady who had actually laid down her life in the cause of the poor is buried, according to her own wish, in the church of her father, with that father's full acquiescence; is followed to the grave by her executors and by the ladies in whose arms she died; no demonstration is made which could excited any popular feeling, and the result you have seen.

It is only right that I should mention the great promptitude and kindness of the schoolmaster, and also of the railway officials—a kindness which the Sisters of St. Margaret's on their errands of nursing have invariably experienced.

I see it stated in a paper of yesterday that I had attempted at the vault to read some additional prayers at the conclusion of the service. This is absolutely and totally false. There is not a shadow of truth in it; and I should have been the very last to have for one moment contemplated so very indecent an interruption.

I remain, Sir, your obedient servant,

J.M. NEALE, Warden of Sackville College.

Sackville College, East Grinstead, Nov. 21.

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