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Saturday, 3 December 2011


My great aunt Helen’s ancestors, the Verrall family from Lewes in Sussex, were a prominent lot, at the heart of Lewes life for many generations through their inn-keeping, auctioneering and racing interests.

When I started to read descriptions of John Hubert Verrall as “a Lewes ne’r-do-well” and “the black sheep of an illustrious Lewes family” my ears pricked up. The more I looked into his life however, the less I thought those pejorative labels were justified. He faced a series of setbacks in later life from which, because of his character and upbringing, he was ill-equipped to bounce back. But I don’t believe he was as wilfully disreputable as those tags suggest.

John Hubert Verrall (1845-1909)
dressed for drill

Hubert was the sixth of seven children of John Verrall the auctioneer. The eldest, Frederick, was in line to take over the business and Hubert, with no responsibilities now or in the future to worry about, spent his time breeding and exhibiting exotic birds – canaries, parrots and so on. He lived with his parents, and like other reputable gentlemen of the time, he did his patriotic duty by enlisting in the local Volunteer Militia.

This carefree existence was powerfully shaken from early 1874 onwards when first his mother and then over the next three years his father, sister and eldest brother Frederick, died. Hubert, still living at home with his brother Marcus, never really rcovered from these losses. While Marcus stepped up to take over the running of both the family home and the auction house, Hubert turned to drink.

It quickly became apparent that he had a problem. In 1879, when his younger brother George (of whom I’ve written before) was getting married and beginning a successful career in racing administration and entomology, Hubert wrote in his diary:

Walking all day, did not eat or drink, only tea, all day, by doctor's orders … I am of a strong suspicion that I have been a trifle insane ever since Tuesday through drinking whiskey every day last week and eating and walking too much … From this day I intend trying to be if possible an abstainer from beer and spirits and have not tasted beer of any description since 14 June 1878.

Lewes Union Workhouse

Worse was to come. Marcus died, unmarried, in 1895. Hubert was in no fit state to take over the reins, and the business and the family home were both sold up. Hubert became homeless. I’m not sure what happened next; perhaps he moved into rented accommodation. Certainly he carried on drinking, and on 20th March 1902, having presumably run out of money and the ability to look after himself, he was admitted to the Lewes Union Workhouse. His brother George paid for his maintenance there – George, who shared with Hubert a passion for the natural world, had made a rather more successful career of it as an authority on British insects.

In 1907 Hubert moved in with his niece, but on 17th May 1909 he was admitted to the County Asylum at Hellingly “in a dying condition,” suffering from enormous enlargement of the liver and from the dementia which he had foreseen 30 years earlier. He died there of liver cancer three days later.

Hellingly Mental Asylum is abandoned now,
an unfortunate name and the subject of a moving photo essay by Joe Collier at

The bare bones of Hubert Verrall’s life make for a pretty sorry tale. Perhaps in his alcoholic final years he did build a reputation around Lewes as a ne’r-do-well (as the East Sussex Archives rather bluntly describe him).

But we know that he continued to enjoy, and take part in Lewes events at least until his entry into the workhouse. Hubert kept a diary, every day of his life until that date, which now forms an invaluable record of Victorian life in East Sussex. Hubert records local news, reports his service in 1890 on jury duty and describes the high days and holidays of his time – the Lewes races, Guy Fawkes Night and so on.

The diaries are preserved; they formed the basis for an exhibition of local history in October 2007, and were the subject of a BBC programme, Inside Out in 2008. So Hubert Verrall has in a way left the best legacy of all his brothers for the town his family made such a mark in.

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