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Brightling Mausoleum, East Sussex

Above the village of Brightling is a landmark visible across the Weald. Neither church tower nor folly, this pyramid is a mausoleum built in 1810 in the churchyard of St Thomas à Becket to ensure the immortality of Jack Fuller of Brightling Park. Funds from the Historic Houses Foundation will repair the failing mortar and spalling stonework of the building.


Pointing to heaven


The idea of achieving a measure of immortality by way of a pyramid has a long history dating back to the Pharaohs. From Nicholas Hawksmoor’s 1728 Pyramid for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard in Yorkshire to the contemporary pyramid built by Antony Jarvis at Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire in 2017, the idea of a monument that points to the heavens is appealing. Unlike either of the former, the pyramid designed by Sir Robert Smirke for Jack Fuller of Brightling Park was always conceived as a tomb. Now it is a much loved landmark for locals in the area and an adornment in the churchyard of St Thomas’.


Patron, builder and philanthropist


The fact that Jack Fuller (1756-1834) earned the nicknames “Honest Jack” and “Mad Jack” gives us a hint of this Regency gentleman’s colourful character. The novelist Fanny Burney met him in Brighton in 1779, “He is a Young man of a very large Fortune, remarkably handsome, and very gay, sensible, unaffected and agreeable.” The family fortunes were founded on the Wealden iron industry, earlier generations of the family having made armaments for the Tudor and Stuart monarchy from locally mined and smelted iron ore. When the sugar plantation fortunes of Jack’s great aunt, Elizabeth Rose, were brought to the family in 1703, his inheritance was a fine one indeed.


The house, now Brightling Park, was then called Rosehill in honour of Elizabeth Rose.  Taking on the family estate at the age of 20, Jack proved himself a man of taste and first set about creating a fashionable landscape park.  He commissioned the young Robert Smirke, an architect passionate about the Greek Revival, to embellish the park with a series of follies all strategically placed on the skyline as eyecatchers on the outer limits of his land.  These include a Hermit’s Tower, Observatory, Obelisk, Pillar, Sugar Loaf and, as part of the group and the wider designed landscape, the Mausoleum. Smirke would go on to a successful career, designing the British Museum and a series of London churches and country houses. Pleased with his new park and the alterations Smirke had also made to his house, Jack Fuller commissioned a series of watercolour views from another young artist, J M W Turner.


When severe unemployment benighted the countryside after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Jack Fuller stepped up his building works, to provide jobs for the poor. Apart from his folly building, he commissioned a four-foot-high, four-mile-long wall around his estate and another around the churchyard at St Thomas à Becket at the cost of over £10,000. In later life, Jack Fuller purchased the romantic ruin of Bodiam Castle to prevent its dismantlement and decay.  He spent considerable sums restoring and stabilising the ruin apparently watching the work from another of his follies, the Tower.


“God damn me Sir, I have as much right to be heard as any man”


Jack’s public career also reflects his character. The archetype of an old school Tory, he had something of a reputation as a drinker and a tendency to be outspoken.  When he took his parliamentary seat he showed a talent for getting into wrangles with his fellow members where he was accused of a “characteristic coarseness” and a “vulgar bluntness”.  His House of Commons career took a dive in 1810 when the Speaker (whom he had described as “the insignificant little fellow in the wig”) put him in custody for swearing during a debate.  His obituary claims that when Prime Minister Pitt offered him a peerage he declared “I was born Jack Fuller and Jack Fuller I will die”. His egalitarian appeal to modern generations is offset by the fact that he was, of course, a fierce anti-abolitionist, maintaining that his West Indian slaves lived better lives than the poor of his home country.


The Stuff of Legends


Plenty of stories have grown up around Mad Jack.  The Sugar Loaf folly, a round tower in the shape of an old fashioned loaf of sugar, was supposedly flung up when Jack rashly bet with a friend that he could see the spire of Dallington church from his windows.  He couldn’t but St Giles, Dallington has a spire of a remarkably similar shape to the folly.  The Mausoleum was long supposed to contain the body of Jack Fuller upright and fully dressed in a top hat with a roast chicken and a bottle of claret but this was disproved when his remains were discovered traditionally buried beneath the monument in 1982. Instead this legend belongs to Sir James Tilley of Pentillie House in Cornwall.


Elegy for Mad Jack Fuller


On a plaque in the Mausoleum is recorded a verse of Thomas Gray’s mediation on death, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.


“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Await alike th’inevitable hour;

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”


The repair of Brightling Mausoleum will restore not just a local landmark, but also a fitting memorial to a man whose larger than life reputation has survived down the centuries.  Perhaps the construction of a pyramid does convey a little immortality after all.