by Hanna Prince
Thomas Paine laid the pathway to American Independence, but as Hanna Prince found out, the seeds of his revolutionary thinking may originally have been sown in Lewes.
When Thomas Paine arrived in Lewes during the spring of 1768, he was yet to accomplish anything remarkable. His early life had been spent drifting between jobs – privateer, corset maker, teacher – and he only came to Sussex through an assignation as an excise man.
Ensconced in Bull House at the top of the High Street, Paine quickly began to assimilate himself into local life. He joined the town’s governing body, took on membership of the local parish vestry and married his landlord’s daughter, Elizabeth Ollive. In any other place he might have dwindled into respectable middle age – but Lewes was different.
The town had a history of radical thinking. It had opposed the monarchy and housed republican thinkers since the 17th century. The local Sussex Weekly Advertiser published editorial infused with a distinctly revolutionary bent. And, during Paine’s residence, liberal member of parliament John Wilkes was welcomed by cheering crowds and pealing bells.
Lewes was also home to a society of intellectuals who met regularly at the White Hart Hotel to engage in political and philosophical debate. It seems likely that Paine’s revolutionary theories were honed through the conversations he had here (the society reformed in 1987 and is still active today). We do know that he published his first political work while living in Lewes – a 12-page article called The Case of the Officers of Excise, which appealed for higher wages for his fellow workers.
It was this text that ultimately led to Paine’s leaving Sussex. He spent too much time away from his post campaigning for the cause of excise officers, a failure that led to his dismissal. His tobacco shop flopped, his marriage failed, and he emigrated to America via a brief stint in London. It was here that he established a lasting place in history by authoring works such as Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.
Take a stroll around Lewes today and you’ll find traces of Paine everywhere. There’s a beautiful mural by Julian Bell in Market Passage, a statue outside the library and a discreet brown plaque on the wall of Bull House. You can see the tilting ground in the castle precinct where he used to play bowls and drink a pint in the bar where his debating society once met.
It isn’t just the architecture that remembers America’s founding father, though. With its political activism, progressive ideals and off-beat intellectual culture, Lewes is still a town after Paine’s own heart.