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1917: Sergison scandals and hauntings recalled

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 02 January 1917

There is an extraordinary similarity in the records of Sussex county families to the remarkable Slingsby baby case which has been so long occupying the law courts.

The account of it is contained, as is pointed out by the Rev. A. P. Cornwall, of Chichester, in the late Mr. Charles Fleet's "Glimpses of our Ancestors," a work published in Brighton in 1878. The case, which the antiquarian author describes in a chapter on "Sussex Tragedies and Romances," came on in the Court of Queen's Bench in 1820 before the Lord Chief Justice and a special jury. The question was whether the plaintiff, Elizs Ann Harriet Sergison, was the daughter of the late Colonel Francis Sergison, or whether she was a supposititious child imposed upon the family by the contrivance of his wife."

Colonel Sergison was the son of a Yorkshire gentleman, who had taken the name and the arms of the Sergison of Cuckfield Place, Sussex, on marrying the heiress of that family, and also of the Wardens. In the year 1806 he was living in Dublin on half-pay, having, we are told, dissipated the greater part of his fortune, and being, in fact, so reduced in circumstances that he was thrown into Dublin gaol for debt.

There he met a widow named Cronin, "a woman of posh personal attractions, but not of the most reputable character." He married her, in 1805, a few weeks after the death of his first wife. Soon afterwards the couple contrived to gain their liberty. They lived for some time in Dublin, and during this period the events occurred which were the subject of the trial in 1820.

During the temporary absence of Colonel Sergison, apparently sent out of the way by design, Mrs. Sergison represented that she had been confined, and presented him on hie return with a girl child as his own offspring. The child was accepted by him without suspicion, and was brought up as his heiress.

In due time the Colonel came in to the fine family property of his former wife at Cuckfield, and lived there till his death in 1812. Not only was the girl acknowledged as his heiress, but she inherited a considerable fortune by the death of her mother. The proceedings in 1820 were instigated by the Rev. Mr. Pritchard, who bad married a younger sister of the Colonel, and who, by the Colonel's death, became the only surviving representative (if the Colonel left no issue) of the Sergison and Warden families.

Exactly how suspicions of the child's legitimacy arose does not appear, but when the case came to trial, an elaborate network of perjury on the part of Mrs. Sergison and her witnesses broke down completely on the reading of a number of letters from her to various witnesses, inciting to conspiracy and bribing to silence.

These witnesses were themselves called, and a clever fraud was proved, by which the new-born child of a Dublin public-house servant bad been introduced as that of Mrs. Sergison, for a payment to the mother of 7s. 6d.

A dramatic incident in the evidence was a description of how, when Mrs. Sergison went to Dublin with her supposed daughter, shortly before the trial, to try and induce one important hostile witness to go to America, the real mother of the child was at that very moment selling apples at the corner of the street in which they were.

The jury had no difficulty, under the direction of the Lord Chief Justice, in finding a verdict which established the illegitimacy of the child, and transferred the Sergison and Wardens estates to the rightful heirs, the Pritchards, by whom the surname and arms of Sergison were forthwith assumed, and by whose descendants they continued to be borne.

What became of Mrs. Francis Sergison and the poor girl who was made the innocent instrument of her fraud, history does not say.

Some local legends featured in this 1900 acrostic poem/postcard including the Cuckfield Place 'Doom Tree'

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 09 January 1917


To the Editor of THE MID-SUSSEX

Dear Sir,—l was very interested in reading your account of Mrs. Sergison. I should like to know if there is any truth in the legend that after Mrs. Sergison was buried her ghost was supposed to have haunted the neighbourhood of Cuckfield, and that a Mr. Osborne, a Sussex yeoman. of Newtimber Place, and a bit of a sport, would not believe the story until one night he was riding home when his horse stopped suddenly and reared, and his rider thought he saw the apparition, and, dismounting, led the animal some distance before remounting and continuing his journey.

After this happened it is stated that a special meeting of the villagers was held at midnight, when the burial service was read backwards to lay the ghost.

Richmond Place, Brighton,

Yours faithfully,

January 5th, 1917.



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