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On this day 1834…the man buried with claret

On this day in 1834, the folly builder, philanthropist, MP and noted drunkard, ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller died and was buried in a pyramid on his Sussex estate with a bottle of claret – so the legend goes.

John Fuller was the squire of the little hamlet of Brightling in Sussex which he inherited from his uncle, Rose Fuller, along with a plantation in Jamaica* and, as a result, considerable wealth at the tender age of 20 in 1777.

As was distressingly common for the period, possessed of a dependable and sizeable annual income Fuller quickly began the steady process of drinking it away – growing fat and gouty in the process and earning him the nickname ‘hippopotamus’.

A solid three bottles of Port-a-day sort of man he was also partial to claret and despite being a Member of Parliament on two occasions (for Southampton in 1780-1784 and then Sussex from 1801-1812) was clearly unconcerned that it was contraband smuggled in from an enemy state.

His drinking landed him in hot water in parliament on 27 February 1810. Hansard records that during a House inquiry into the disastrous Walcheren Expedition of 1809, Fuller (who was very likely drunk though Parliamentary discretion prevents such flagrant accusations from being recorded) was accused of disturbing the proceedings with “profane oaths”.

Told to behave himself, Fuller tried to excuse himself but, “in the doing of which he gave greater offence, by repeating and persisting in his disorderly conduct.”

The Speaker then ordered Fuller to leave the chamber. Fuller appeared to go quietly but not long after the Speaker had retaken his seat to continue the inquiry Fuller was back! “in a very violent and disorderly manner” and had to be ejected by the Serjeant-at-Arms.

When he wasn’t rampaging around the House of Commons, Fuller also pursued the popular pastime of the rich and shameless of folly building.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was a craze for building antiquated and/or ‘romantic’ (usually medieval) style buildings around the grounds of stately homes.

As they served little to no purposes other than as the settings for parties and plays and to appeal to the romantic-neo-classical tastes of contemporary society (this is of course the era of Byron, Keats, Shelley etc) they became known as ‘follies’.

Fuller built several. Those standing today are the Brightling Needle – a 20 metre high obelisk (Ancient Egyptian paraphernalia was also very much in vogue) – The Sugar Loaf; The Tower (a 10.6m high tower in a field for no discernible purpose); The Temple or Rotunda in a neo-classical Greek style and The Observatory.

Although he never married, Fuller reportedly liked to entertain women at The Rotunda which was also the repository for his smuggled claret- apparently.

In rather more practical and philanthropic moods he also sponsored the first lifeboat at Eastbourne and the building of the Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head (presumably to help the smugglers bring him claret….).

He also donated enormously to the Royal Institution, sponsored the young Michael Faraday and bought Bodiam Castle to save it from destruction.

Fuller’s best folly however was the pyramid in the graveyard of Brightling churchyard in which he was buried.

The building of the pyramid necessitated the moving of the local pub, or, rather, the vicar saw it as an opportunity to remove temptation from his flock in order to focus their Sunday activities on the church rather than the tavern.

The Green Man, as it was then, was moved half a mile down the road and was eventually renamed the ‘Jack Fuller’. It closed in 2004 and is now a private home.

Legend has it that Fuller was entombed inside his mausoleum sitting at a dining table, dressed for dinner with a roast chicken and bottle of claret laid before him; the floor around the table was covered on broken glass to prevent the Devil taking him away.

Nice as it is to believe in this final eccentric flourish it is not true as restoration work in 1982 revealed.

Fuller is more likely to have been intrigued by the supposedly mystical preservative power of pyramids.

Still, how long before some fabulously wealthy, yet eccentric, wine collector chooses to take their extravagant collection with them into the afterlife rather than offering it up to the auctioneer’s gavel?



*Lamentably though perhaps unsurprisingly this made him a staunch supporter of slavery and anti-abolitionist.

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