Rights of man

BULL HOUSE STANDS on the High Street immediately beneath the remain of the castle that dominates the Sussex town of Lewes near Brighton. Its neighbour is an older, half-timbered edifice that now houses The Fifteenth Century Bookshop, a supplier of second-hand books, which was unfortunately closed when we passed it on a Sunday morning.

In the year 1768, the owner of Bull House, a tobacconist named Samuel Ollive, and his wife Esther, took in a lodger, who had arrived in the town. This man was an excise officer aged about 31. His name was Thomas (‘Tom’) Paine (1737-1809). 1n 1771, Paine, already a widower, married Elizabeth Ollive, daughter of Samuel and Esther. At of that time, he became involved in the Ollive’s tobacco business as well as the administrative affairs of the town of Lewes. A year later, as part of a campaign to improve the remuneration of excise officers, he published a pamphlet. “The Case of the Officers of Excise”. Tom enjoyed lively discussions and debates at the town’s ‘Headstrong Club’, which met at the White Hart Inn on the High Street. This hostelry can still be seen today.

The year 1774 found Tom in trouble. He had been accused of being absent without permission from his position as excise officer. Also, his marriage failed, and he separated from his wife Elizabeth. To avoid a spell in a debtors’ prison, he sold all his possessions. He left Lewes and went to London, where he was introduced to the revolutionary Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who recommended that Tom should emigrate to North America. Tom set sail from England and arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774.

The pamphlet that Paine wrote in Lewes was followed by many more published writings. Amongst these is his best known, “The Rights of Man”, published in 1791, in London, England, where Tom had returned in 1787. This work is described in a guidebook to Lewes as “…the bible of English-speaking radicals.” Whether Tom ever returned to Lewes after his first excursion to what is now the USA, I do not know. If it ever occurred, it is not mentioned in my guidebook, and I have not found any reference to it.

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