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Saturday, 28 August 2010


The Verralls of Lewes in Sussex are a respectable old family. In time they became doctors and solicitors, but they began (at least so far back as I’ve been able to trace them) as shopkeepers and innkeepers. For at least two generations in the eighteenth century they kept the White Hart Inn in the town and in around 1734 Richard Verrall, a son of the White Hart landlord, was invited by the local toff the Duke of Newcastle to set up a coffee house.

The White Hart Inn, Lewes

Coffee houses arrived in Britain in 1650. Charles II  considered them "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers" and they were hugely popular. When the New Coffee House opened in Lewes, there were about 550  coffee shops in London alone, many affiliated to a particular profession or political persuasion. The Duke of Newcastle set Richard Verrall up in business in order to give the Sussex town’s Whigs a meeting place and talking shop. As one French visitor to London put it, coffeehouses, "where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government," were the "seats of English liberty."

When Richard died young only eight years later, his brother Henry (my great aunt’s 3x great grandfather!) took over the running of it. Henry kept the coffee house for over 40 years, and must have been at the centre of the town’s gossip and political debate, hosting the radical movers and shakers of the day in his shop. One such radical was a certain Tom Paine, an excise officer from Norfolk who was posted to Lewes in 1768.

Tom Paine’s house in Lewes, 1768-1774

Thomas Paine involved himself in local politics, and also campaigned for a pay-rise for his fellow excise officers – he himself had to pad out his income by running a tobacco shop in Lewes. Henry certainly knew him, and it is reported that one day, after a game of bowls, they repaired to the White Hart for a bowl of punch. As the drink flowed Verrall quipped, in reference to Frederick II of Prussia (with whom Britain had been allied during the recent Seven Years’ War), “the King of Prussia was the best fellow in the world for a King, he had so much of the Devil in him.” Paine apparently subsequently reflected that “if it were necessary for a King to have so much of the Devil in him, Kings might be very well dispensed with.”

Memorial plaque on the wall of the White Hart Inn, Lewes

In 1774 Paine was sacked from his job in Excise and met Benjamin Franklin in London, who suggested he emigrate to British colonial North America. There he became known as the father of the American revolution because of the radical ideas he published in a pamphlet called “Common Sense” in 1776. He returned to Britain in 1787, and in 1791, on the eve of the French revolution, published his masterpiece, “The Rights of Man.”

A descendent of Henry’s (the writer Edward Verrall Lucas, not me!) was thus able to claim that Thomas Paine, the driving force behind the two greatest political events of the age, had been inspired by a casual remark over punch in the pub by Henry Verrall. Although that may be a little unlikely, it does seem a distinct possibility that Paine’s ideas were honed in the talking shop that was Verrall’s New Coffee House in Lewes. 

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