In 1771, a certain Jack Upperton of Burpham, together with another man, attempted to rob a post-boy who was carrying mail across the Downs from Steyning to Arundel, in Blakehurst Lane on the outskirts of the village of Burpham. Upperton was the only one caught, though local tradition has always maintained that he was the less guilty of the two; he was hanged in Horsham, and the judge added, ‘and afterwards let him be hung in chains on the most convenient spot on Burpham New Down in the parish of Burpham, nearest to the gate at the end of Blakehurst Lane’. The corpse was duly brought home and hoisted in chains on a gibbet. On the following Sunday, the whole village came out, children and all, to view the spectacle.

By the 1850s, not only the skeleton but the gibbet itself had crumbled away, though its stump could still be seen; trees were beginning to invade that area of downland – a process which has continued to the point where nowadays the site of the gibbet is hidden in impenetrable woods. A post and plaque bearing the inscription ‘J. U. 1771’ was erected by Lawrence Graburn, a local historian who wrote under the pen name Newall Duke, in 1951; it has since been vandalized, lost, and replaced on several occasions.

Even in the twentieth century the site was reputed eerie, and Jack’s spirit was thought to walk there; people were said to get hopelessly lost if they tried to go that way at night. However, the only fully developed narrative is a humorous one, showing how the locals played tricks on strangers. In 1959, ‘Newall Duke’ wrote:

A Burpham man told a story which took place about eighty years ago [i.e. about 1880]. After his day’s work, he was cutting wood for himself near the gibbet, of a March evening between the lights. He had just finished when he heard several people approaching, and stood still in the underwood. A little party of men and women stopped close to him, and an elderly man said, ‘Somewhere just near here is where the last highwayman was hung in chains, and it is said his ghost walks these paths at night.’ Whereupon the man shouted, ‘And here he is, too!’ Never before had he seen a party bolt so quickly.

Such a tale is too good to be dropped. A later historian, Chris Hare, was told it again in 1999, this time set in the 1920s. Two smart young Londoners were challenged by the locals to visit the gibbet site on a dismal October night; arriving there, rather drunk, one of them inquired, ‘Well, how are you tonight, Jack?’ ‘Wet and cold! Wet and cold!’ replied a hollow voice, at which the Londoners fled, and were last seen ‘heading for Chichester at a hundred miles an hour’. At least they did not go mad, as the victim of a similar trick is supposed to have done at Winterborne St Martin, Dorset.



Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008

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