The Legend of Jack Upperton
Just off a lonely bridleway about a mile from the village of Warningcamp, stands a pole with a wooden plaque on it bearing the legend ‘J U 1771.’ This unexpected discovery puzzles all those who come across it, unless of course, they are familiar with the legend of Burpham Highwayman, Jack Upperton.
In 1770, Jack Upperton was a farm labourer, aged over sixty: not the typical profile of a highwayman, who tended to be young and urban. These ‘wild young men’ sought escape from poverty by holding up stage coaches and other travellers at isolated spots along ‘The King’s Highway’. Emboldened by the legends of Claude Duvale and Dick Turpin, young men revelled in the fame and notoriety that followed in the highwayman’s wake. They became wealthy very quickly, and were caught, tried and executed with similar speed. Most were under 25 when executed after a career lasting no more than a year. A tiny minority, such as William Davis, ‘The Golden Farmer,’ managed to evade capture for decades, but he worked with no accomplices, committed robberies far from where he lived, and spent his ill-gotten gains cautiously, so as not to arouse suspicion. His neighbours in Hampshire just thought he was a very clever and successful farmer, hence his local nickname.
Poor Jack was neither clever nor successful. He had reached an aged when he was becoming too old to continue heavy farm work and he had no family to look after him. All he had to look forward to was a life of destitution. At his age and station in life he knew death was not far off. So perhaps it was the inevitability of his fate that convinced him he had nothing to lose by carrying one, audacious crime.
In those days, the post boy, on his way to Arundel would follow the old London Road that came over the tops of the downs, passing by Burpham and Warningcamp, winding its way down to the Arun Valley. Jack assailed the startled lad, whether with a real firearm or a pretended one, we do not know; but the boy was terrified and gave up his mail bag to the robber. The haul was not spectacular: one account claims Jack made £5 out of the crime – another £20 – at least £500 to £2000 in today’s money. But a poor man needed little to live on – ten shillings (50p) was more than enough to feed a man such as Jack for a week, and still have enough in hand for a couple of beers in the local inn, The George and Dragon.
For about six months it seemed that Jack had got away with the crime. He had disguised his face, and the boy (we may guess a lad of about 14 – 16 years) was too much in shock to offer a good description. No one was looking for a man aged over 60 (apart from Jack, the oldest highwayman I have come across in my researches over the years, was 40 – most were far younger). However, one night, the worse for drink, Jack shared his guilty secret with his drinking companions, one of whom at least, must have informed the authorities. He was arrested and, in his home, were discovered some of the stolen letters.
Jack was taken to Gaol. Some subsequent accounts, say Lewes Gaol, but that was not built in 1771, so it was more likely he was taken to the House of Correction in Midhurst, or possibly even to the lock-up in Arundel. Lawrence Graburn (1881 – 1965), a Wepham farmer, recorded many of the stories about Jack Upperton, told to him by old men in his and neighbouring villages. It should be remembered that even a man of ninety, telling these stories to Graburn when he was a young man, wouldn’t have been old enough to remember Jack Upperton, so this information needs to be seen as more folklore than historic fact, but it is testimony to the impact that Jack and his crime had, that people were still talking about it well over a hundred years after he died.
It was said that the Vicar of Burpham went to visit Jack in gaol and said how sorry he was to see him in such a serious situation, to which the old man replied nonchalantly, “it as a scrambling sort of turn-out,” by which he meant it was a messy or muddled business. Today, a man in such a plight might expect legal aid and some representation in court, but Jack had none. He told the judge he ‘meant no harm,’ but the judge wasted no time in donning the black cap and sentencing the old labourer to death. In those days the punishment for highway robbery was execution, followed by ‘gibbeting,’ meaning the body was welded into an iron frame (usually described as ‘chains’) and hoisted up on a stout pole, and there left to rot. This was supposed to act as a terrible warning to others passing on the road who might be tempted to take up a life of crime themselves. It also meant there was no burial and therefore no hope of resurrection on the Day of Judgement – for the flesh would rot and be pecked out by the birds, and the bones would eventually loosen and fall to the ground, to be carried off by scavenging animals.
Jack met his end at the Horsham Hang Fair, where crowds of people would turn out to see the latest batch of felons being hanged. It was a day out for all the family. There were all types of amusements laid on. People expected the condemned men and women to give a good speech from the gallows, and booed if this didn’t happen. Sometimes the crowd showed sympathy for the condemned person by uttering groans and moans. Jack said little and the reaction of the crowd is not recorded. After his death, a blacksmith was engaged to weld his body into the gibbet cage.
It is said that the people of Burpham and the surrounding villages turned out to see Jack’s body hoisted up into position, whether out of curiosity, to pay their respects, or even to gloat, we can but wonder. One old shepherd, leaning on his crook, sighed, “Oh Jack, you wouldn’t be ‘anging there now if you had gone straight.” It is not difficult to imagine what an awful and horrific spectacle the gibbet must have presented for many years. By the 1850’s, the post had entirely rotted away, leaving a large hole. In about 1868, one of the riders in Lord Leconfield’s hunt was thrown from his horse when the animal galloped into the hole. After this the hole was filled in. Then, over the years, trees grew around the site, and less and less people could remember where the gibbet had stood.
The exact location of the gibbet would have been lost forever, had not Graburn decided to erect a replica post and plaque on the spot of the original one. By the 1980’s, this too had been lost, so a member of the Upperton family erected another one to the memory of their notorious ancestor. Then, with time, this too fell or was vandalised or stolen. Now, within the last year or two, yet another replacement has arisen on the site – perhaps also erected by members of the Upperton family? The post is by a footpath that runs through the wood known as ‘Gibbet Piece.’
Within living memory, the legend still circulated, that on dark and windy nights, like the one when Jack committed his robbery, his ghost would appear, still rattling in chains. Others say that the ghost would even offer words of advice to those who asked. My informant, Nobby Kinnard (see article on ‘rough music’) and his friend, Vic Jacobs, told me in 1988, of an amusing anecdote connected with this legend. They said, back in the 1920’s or 30’s, when they were boys or young men, a group of ‘Bertise Wooster types’ from London turned up in the Norfolk Arms in Arundel. They went to the bar, and there was an old Sussex man, rich in the dialect of his county, with his reddened old face, framed by ample grey whiskers. The ‘bright young things’ amused themselves by making fun of the old man and his way of speaking, until in anger and frustration, he blurted out, “Ye be less a smilin’ if ye went up t’ gibbet post, an arsked ‘ol Jack a thing a two….” This, of course, only increased their merriment, and on offering the old man a drink or two, he told them of the legend and of how to find the gibbet.
According to Nobby and Vic, slightly older friends of theirs, who were also in the bar and were overhearing the conversation thought it was time the ‘lununers’ were taught a lesson. They left the bar and got on their bikes and rode up to Gibbet Piece. Eventually they saw the headlights of the old man’s tormentors approaching as they slowly drove up the road to Blakehurst. When they could drive no further, they stopped their car, and walked up the path into the woods. Befuddled by drink, chatting and laughing, one of them sauntered forward, and addressing the long-dead highwayman, asked, “Well how are you tonight then Jack?” Great indeed was his shock when a voice loudly replied, “Oh, I be wet an’ cold, wet an’ cold!” Nobby told me, with a chuckle, “ they was last seen headin’ out t’ Chid-ester, a ‘undred mile an hour!”
Further research has shown that Jack committed his robbery of the post-boy on 26th September 1770, and he was executed at Horsham on 6th April 1771, with the gibbeting taking place, presumably, very soon afterwards.
The last men gibbeted in Sussex were the Drewitt brothers of Midhurst in 1799. Like Jack, they were also convicted of highway robbery. The last gibbeting in England took place in 1832, with the practice finally being outlawed in 1834.
Jonny Mott of the Duck Pond Sailors, who grew up in Warningcamp (the nearest village to the Jack Upperton gibbet), has written this evocative song about the sad tale of this aged highwayman –