Highdown Hill

On the slopes of this hill, just west of Worthing, stands the isolated table-tomb of a certain John Oliver (or Olliver), a miller who died in 1793. Many years before his actual death he had persuaded the owner of this land to allow him to erect it there and to build a summerhouse alongside; there he would go every day, allegedly to meditate on death and to compose pious verses. He is said also to have kept his coffin under his bed, storing bread and cheese in it. Local opinion, both then and now, is sharply divided about him. Some take his piety at face value, but many regard him as a rogue who was in league with smugglers; they say he used the hill as a lookout post, the mill as a means of signalling, and the tomb itself as a place to hide contraband and/or the money he made from it. Some believe his wealth still lies somewhere near, and that the copious verses he composed and had carved on the tomb contain clues to its hiding-place.

Two stories are told locally about the tomb, and have been known to one of the present authors since the 1930s. One is that John Oliver arranged to be buried upside down because he believed that on Judgement Day the earth would turn topsy-turvy, and he wanted to be the only person facing the right way. By this, most people mean that he is head down, not merely lying on his face. Curiously, there would have been an opportunity to check whether this is authentic oral history or fictional legend in July 1982, when drunken vandals smashed the tomb with a digger, and it was suggested that before repairing the superstructure the contents could be examined; however, Oliver’s remaining descendants refused permission. But the silence of contemporary documents makes it almost certain that the story is not true. There is, for instance, a long, mocking press report of his eccentric funeral, involving a white coffin, white-clad bearers, and a little girl reading the service and giving a sermon; the reporter would hardly have failed to mention such a ludicrous detail as upside-down burial if it in fact occurred. Even more telling is the silence of John Oliver’s will, drawn up only two years before his death, which makes provision for the upkeep of the tomb but leaves no instructions about any special positioning of the coffin. So we can assume this is a rumour which grew up later; it may have been stimulated by what actually happened at Box Hill, Surrey, where Major Peter Labellière was indeed buried head downwards, at his own request.

The second story is that if you run round the grave seven times, the miller’s ghost will jump out and chase you; again the verses on the tombstone are said to threaten this, though of course they do not. There is, however, a carving on the west side, now much weathered, which might well have set the story going; this shows a skeleton holding a spear, pursued by another figure which clutches its shoulder and is possibly meant to be Time, though it has no hourglass. Below are lines of versified dialogue, in which the first speaker must be the living visitor to the tomb and the second could be either the dead miller or a personified Death:

Death, why so fast? Pray stop your hand

And let my glass run out its sand;

As neither Time nor Death will stay,

Let us employ the present day.

Why start you at that skeleton?

’Tis your picture that you shun;

Alive it did resemble thee,

And thou when dead like that shalt be.

Clearly, John Oliver was aware of the long tradition of memento mori funerary art and verse, even if his rendering of it was somewhat eccentric. He certainly succeeded in being remembered and discussed long after his death; generations of Victorian sightseers from Brighton and Worthing would visit the tomb, take tea at the miller’s former home, and admire the fine view. And to this day people argue about whether John Oliver was a pious believer who expected a literal Doomsday, a rebel against Church orthodoxy, a smuggling rogue, or a joker.



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