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1929: The Cuckfield Place fraud recalled

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

THE TRUE STORY OF A WICKED WOMAN

Sussex County Magazine January 1929


The article on Cuckfield Place, which appeared in the Sussex County Magazine of November last, brought to mind a famous cause celebre of 1820 in which certain members of the Sergison family played a prominent part. The story which is retold below, is compiled from the annual register and contemporary newspaper reports.


The Sergison family, of Cuckfield Place, has been one of many tragedies. Indeed, the legend attached to the famous "Doom Tree" in the grounds, which is said to shed a branch before a death of a member of the family may be supported by certain events that have occured in the family. Cuckfield Place is the "Rookwood" of Harrison Ainsworth, who made effective use of the legend in that novel:


‘For when a bow is found, I trow, beneath its shade to lie,

Ere sun shall rise thrice in the sky a Rookwood sure shall die!


Miss Cynthia Sergison, who married captain Sir Basil Brooke, Bt. M.C. late of the 18th hussars, in 1913, lost both parents within a few weeks. Captain Sergison, who was a well known Scots Guardsman, died in January 1911, and in the following November her mother, one of Lord Sudeley’s daughters, died through an accidental dose of veronal. Some years before there was another tragedy in the family, two misses Sergison's being burnt to death.


The Sergisons are a very old line. The first member of the family to settle in Sussex was Charles Sergison, a Commissioner of the Navy and member for Shoreham, who bought the Cuckfield estate about 1690.


In the year 1806 there lived in Dublin a certain Colonel Francis Sergison. Although his means were reduced to the half pay of a retired officer of his rank, Colonel Sergison had not been without fortune; But this had been dissipated, and indeed, he was so fallen in circumstances that he became heavily in debt and was eventually cast into the debtors prison in Dublin.


Entrance to Cuckfield Park c 1890 (colourised)

The early history of Colonel Francis Sergison is not without interest. He was the second son of the late Francis Jefferson, of the county of Yorkshire. Francis Jefferson had married miss Sergison, heiress of Cuckfield Place, Sussex and upon his wife coming into her fortune he had secured the family arms and name. Their eldest son, heir to the estate, was named Warden. Their second son, Francis, was a man of ability in the profession of arms, and in due time he became Colonel of the 62nd regiment of foot. He had married earlier in life, but while he was in the debtors prison in Dublin his wife died.

II

In the prison in which Colonel Sergison was confined was a widow named Cronin, who was also confined for debt. She had been the wife of a journeyman coach builder, Ann was a woman of many attractions. She was, physically, a fine, handsome creature; morally, she was disreputable and had born 2 illegitimate children, born after the death of her husband.


In spite of this fact, Colonel Sergison on meeting her in the Dublin prison, became so enamoured of her that he proposed marriage. Her second illegitimate child was born on March the 18th 1836; On the 30th of the following month Colonel Francis Sergison and Mrs Cronin were married in Dublin Gaol, only a few weeks after the death of the colonel's first wife.

III

A few weeks after their liberation, Colonel Sergison and his wife were for some time in pecuniary difficulty, and dwelt in different parts of Dublin. He had frankly accepted his wife's illegitimate offspring; Therefore when one day she asked him to visit one of them at Drumcondra he agreed, and shortly afterwards set out on the journey. On his return, his wife informed him that during his absence she had borne him her daughter and as he considered that he had sufficient reason to believe the lady, he took the baby girl his wife presented to him to his heart, called her Eliza Ann Harriet, and forthwith began to bring her up as his heiress. It should be understood that Colonel Sergison expected to inherit the Cuckfield Park Estate from his elder brother, Warden Sergison, should he die without a child. It was with his understanding that the Colonel educated the little girl which his wife had presented to him.


In 1808, about a year after the birth of Eliza Ann Harriet, Colonel and Mrs Sergison and the infant left Ireland to take up their residence in England. Three years later his older brother, Warden Sergison, died without issue, and Colonel Francis Sergison found himself the inheritor of the Cuckfield Park Estate. With his wife and daughter, he immediately took up his residence at Cuckfield; But his enjoyment of the property was all too short, for he died in 1812.


At the time of her father's death the future of the little Eliza Ann Harriet was bright and full of promise. Not only was she the heiress to Cuckfield Park, but she would also inherit an excellent fortune on the death of her grandmother. Both she and Mrs Sergison did, in fact, enjoy the advantages of money and position until the little girl had reached the age of 13 years.


IV

At this time there lived a certain Mr Pritchard, a clergyman of the Church of England. He had married a younger sister of the late Colonel Francis Sergison, and by that marriage becoming possessed of estates to the amount of £8,000 a year, had taken upon himself the title of the family. If Colonel Sergison had died without issue, Mrs Pritchard, as the next representative of the Sergison family, would have inherited the Cuckfield Estate. The birth of Eliza Ann Harriet in Ireland had, however, altered the prospects of Mrs Pritchard in this respect.


One day an extraordinary story reached the ears of Mr Pritchard and his wife. It concerned certain episodes in the life of Colonel Sergison's widow, and so strange were the circumstances of the narrative that Mister Pritchard determined to make inquiry in Dublin. The investigation was duly made and on its completion Mr Pritchard had good reason to believe that the real heiress to Cuckfield Park was his own wife, and not little Eliza Ann Harriet Sergison, as the world at large believed. Legal advice was sought, and presently upon the direction of the Lord Chancellor a trial was ordered at the court of Queen's Bench to determine whether Eliza Ann Harriet Sergison, who had been made plenty of, was the daughter of the late Colonel Francis Sanderson, or whether she was a suppositious child imposed on the family by the contrivance of his wife. Obviously in the latter event, Mrs Pritchard, the late colonel's sister, was the true heiress to his fortune.


Mrs Sergison, the Colonel's widow, was more than indignant at the allegations preferred against her, but declared that she had every confidence in being able to prove her daughter's claim to the inheritance when the case came to court. In due time she appeared before the Lord Chief Justice and a special jury in the Court of Queen's Bench with every appearance of an injured woman. She swore that Eliza Ann Harriet was her daughter by the late Colonel Francis Sergison, and she produced a whole army of witnesses, some of whom swore to her pregnancy, and others to being present at the birth, among them being a accoucheur, a man named Fitzsimmons. So far those who had listened in court believed that Mrs Sergison's case was already proved.


It was not long, however, before a totally different complexion was put on affairs. In his opening statement, counsel for the other side soundly declared that Mrs Sergison's statements and those of her witnesses were nothing more or less than a tissue of lies. He then read a number of letters which Mrs Sergison had written to witnesses for the defence begging them to keep out of the way during the hearing of the case. He called these witnesses: a certain Mrs Gibson, a woman named Ann Magin, who had been a servant at her public house in Dublin, and Fitzsimmons the accoucheur.


Between them they told a remarkable story to this effect. In January, 1807, Mrs Sergison had induced her husband to visit one of her illegitimate children at Drumcondra. During the colonel's absence his wife went to the witness, mrs Gibson, an old friend of hers, and informed her that she had expected to give birth to a child, but that she had found she had been mistaken, and she dreaded her husband's anger and disappointment when he discovered her mistake. The two women had then discussed how best to avert the Colonel's wrath, and during that discussion they sought the advice of another woman, named Nellie Cunningham, who was servant to Mrs Gibson. Nelly Cunningham informed the other women that she knew a servant at a public house, named Ann Magin, who a few days previously, had given birth to an illegitimate daughter. It was then proposed that Ann Magin should be induced to part with her child and that the infant should be presented to Colonel Sergison on his return as his own. Magin was persuaded to part with her infant for seven shillings and six pence.


But the mere act of presenting the suppositious child to Colonel Sergison on his return to Dublin was not considered by these three scheming women sufficient proof that she was indeed his daughter. More positive evidence was certainly advisable. They therefore sent for Fitzsimmons the accoucheur, who after some persuasion on the part of Mrs Sergison, agreed to play the role assigned to him in the fraud. A sleeping draught was then given to the infant, Mrs Gibson placed it in her mouth and she and Mrs Sergison drove off to the latter's lodgings.


Arrived at her apartments, Mrs Sergison went to bed with the child by her side. Presently Fitzsimmons, the accoucheur, arrived, and it may be surmised that his visit was intended to prevent any possibility of suspicion arising in the mind of the woman who owned the lodgings. All events followed as they had been planned. Colonel Sergison always looked upon little Eliza Ann Harriet as his own child, and until the day of the trial she was regarded by the majority of people who knew the Sergisons as the true heiress to the Cuckfield Park Estate.


The hearing in the lower courts proved otherwise, and it also proved that the woman Nelly Cunningham, who had died before the hearing of the case, had received an annuity from Mrs Sergison as the price of her silence.


It was also proved by viva voce evidence in court that when the Colonel's widow learned that a trial was inevitable she had taken every means in her power to suborn the witnesses. She had visited Dublin in 1819 with her supposed daughter, in order to induce her old acquaintance, Mrs Gibson to go to America, and at the very moment of which this interview took place the real mother of Eliza Ann Harriet was selling apples at the corner of the street in which they were! To other witnesses she had promised money as the price of false evidence; In other cases, she settled the evidence that witnesses were to give, and arranged the manner in which her own attorney was to be deceived as to the means she was taking to support her story in court.


The Sergison estates were eventually transferred to the rightful heiress; and Cuckfield Place is in the possession of her descendant at this day.

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