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Saturday, 4 June 2011


I was writing here a while back about George Vernon the actor, born George Verrall, and made some poor jokes about the profusion, and confusion, of George Verralls in that branch of my family tree. But the Georges were part of an orderly line of Verralls who were prominent citizens of the Sussex town of Lewes, in their capacity as auctioneers.

Verralls were auctioneers for five generations

It was George Verrall (1716-1801), brother of William Verrall the chef, who founded the auction house. It remained a family business until at least his great great grandsons’ generation. From George it passed to his son, also George (1750-1825), and son George passed it on to his son, Plumer Verrall. To quote from the recent bulletin (no. 10, 6 May 2011) of the Lewes History Society, “Lewes auctioneer Plumer Verrall sold anything he was asked to – estates, individual houses, business stock in trade, wine, investments, standing timber and crops, livestock, farm equipment and furniture. He sold whole households, or individual items such as beds, chairs and pianos. He and his son often bought and sold items in the sales on their own account.”

The bulletin mentions an occasion on 10th November 1838 when Plumer snapped up a valuable property within the precincts of Lewes Castle when the bidding stalled. Not only did he pick up a bargain, but he sold off the contents at auction a few weeks later for a tidy sum. I suppose it is one of the perks of being the auctioneer! Clearly no one thought any the worse of him for it, and on 21st March 1842 he was presented with a gold auctioneers’ hammer, “to commemorate the triumph of integrity.”

One of the reasons for the high regard in which he was held was an extraordinary event six years earlier. The winter of 1836-37 was exceptionally harsh. Snow began falling heavily in the south east of England on Christmas Eve 1836 and continued for several days. On 27th December a large overhanging cornice of snow on the steep chalk cliffs behind the town of Lewes, sculpted by the high winds of the blizzard, gave way and crashed down onto a row of houses below.

The Lewes Avalanche (unknown artist)
a painting now hanging in the Anne of Cleves House Museum 
in the town

Seven houses were destroyed and eight lives lost, although a further seven people were pulled from the avalanche and survived. The Lewes Avalanche of 1836 remains the worst such natural disaster in British history. A pub named the Snowdrop Inn, built soon afterwards on the site of the demolished houses, still stands and trades under that name. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Plumer Verrall was one of several prominent figures in the town to establish a fund in support of survivors and the families of the deceased. His charitable generosity must have earned hm widespread respect.

The Snowdrop Inn, Lewes,
beneath the chalk cliffs from which the snow fell

Plumer’s son William Richard Verrall (born in 1812, the only boy of nine children) took over the family business, by now known as Verrall & Son, when Plumer died in 1852. Richard acknowledged in advertisements “the very extensive patronage his Great-grandfather, Grandfather, Father and Himself had enjoyed for upwards of a century, and trusted by punctuality, perseverance, and prompt settlement of accounts to maintain the high position of his predecessors.” Sadly it was not to be. On 27th May 1855, Richard was found near the locks of the Ouse Navigation, drowned, with his throat cut.

The business passed to Richard’s cousin John Verrall (1805-1874) brother of George Verrall/Vernon the actor. John's son John Marcus Verrall (1839-1895) inherited the golden hammer and the family business. But when JMV died unmarried aged only 56, I think it was the end of the line for the Verrall auction house. But not for the hammer of for Verrall auctioneers. The hammer passed to JMV's brother George Henry Verrall (1848-1911). 

George was a remarkable man, of whom I will write in a future article. Both brothers were very much involved in the sport of kings, in several capacities including Clerk of the Course at Lewes and elsewhere. Maintaining a tradition begun by Plumer Verrall of striking a golden blow only when lots fetched a thousand guineas or more, George is reputed to have used the golden hammer for horses sold in the ring at Newmarket. I don’t know where the hammer is now!

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