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Cuckfield featured in and launched Shelley's career: New York Public Library

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Marshall's Manor, Cuckfield High Street.

Thanks to detective work by Elizabeth Denlinger of the New York Public Library, Cuckfield Connections has learned for the first time that Cuckfield featured in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry and that one of its residents was crucial in progressing his writing career.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was as controversial and divisive individual as in his poetry. But he did not achieve full recognition for his literary work during his lifetime, but this grew steadily after his death and would influence future poets such as Browning, Swinburne, Hardy and Yeats.

Cuckfield's attraction to the poet comes about through a resident Captain John Pilfold, who has featured in Cuckfield Connections before. Now please bear with me - because these inter-family relationships get complicated!

Field Place, Broadbridge Heath, Shelley's family home

Captain John Pilfold, had a sister, Elizabeth who was married to Sir Timothy Shelley. On 4 August 1792 at their home called Field Place, in Broadbridge Heath, near Horsham (sometimes inaccurately described as Warnham) Timothy and Elizabeth welcomed into the world a son they called Percy Bysshe - who would become the famous poet.

Growing up in Sussex

Shelley’s early childhood was sheltered and mostly happy. He was close to his sisters and his mother, 'who encouraged him to hunt, fish and ride'. He was educated at Eton which he hated, rebelling against authority, and through his antisocial behaviour became the target of bullying. His violent rages earned him the nickname ‘Mad Shelley’. At this time he developed an interest in the occult and science and showed a talent for imaginative and scurrilous writing. He penned ‘Zastrozzi’ there which was published later when at university in 1810.

In the holidays, Shelley enjoyed visiting his uncle Captain Pilfold at his home Marshalls Manor in Cuckfield High Street. He shared and discussed his wild imaginings and his vision of a Utopian world.

There is an amusing story that a 19 year old Shelley later recounted to close friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. The captain had been reading Shelley’s pamphlet that he had written with Hogg ‘The necessity of atheism’ which was published in 1811 (when at Oxford University) and in a letter the poet wrote:

‘I am now with my uncle; he is a very hearty fellow, and has behaved very nobly to me, in return for which I have illuminated him. A physician named Dr J--- dined with us last night, who is a red-hot saint; the captain attacked him, warm from The Necessity … and the doctor went away very much shocked.’

Expelled from Oxford

Shelley became increasingly politicised under Hogg's influence, developing strong radical and anti-Christian views. Such notions were dangerous in the reactionary political climate prevailing during Britain's war with Napoleonic France, and Shelley’s father warned him against Hogg's influence. Shelley refused to answer questions from college authorities over the authorship of the pamphlet - and this led to his expulsion in March 1811, along with Hogg.

It's clear that Shelley built a close bond with his uncle John in Cuckfield, who seemed to relish and share his atheist views. By contrast the young man, who had become unwelcome at home after his college expulsion, his father grew increasingly hostile towards him. With his academic future in tatters his prospects appeared to be much diminished. One of his cousins John Grove managed to negotiate, on his behalf, an allowance from his father - although Bysshe had to eat some humble pie to earn it. The outcome was a very begrudging £200 a year.

No sugar thanks

The Pilfolds must have observed Bysshe’s fads, some of which we learn from 'Glimpses of our ancestors in Sussex' by Charles Fleet, 1878:

‘To all sensual pleasures,’ writes his widow, ‘Shelley was a stranger. His usual food was bread, sometimes seasoned with a few raisins; his beverage was generally water; if he drank tea or coffee,

he would take no sugar with it, because the produce of the cane was then obtained by slave labour ; and the unanimous voice of those who knew him acquits him of any participation in the lax habits of life too

common among young men.’

Friar’s Oak, spies and a smuggler

Another influence on Shelley at this time was Elizabeth Hitchener, a 28 year old unmarried schoolteacher who lived with her father who was landlord of the Friar’s Oak in Hassocks (yes the very same that we know today!).

Through letter-writing and while Cuckfield was with the Pilfolds, Shelley had built an intense platonic relationship with Hitchener, whom he called the ‘sister of my soul’ and ‘my second self’. She became his confidante and intellectual companion as he developed his views on politics, religion, ethics and personal relationships. In ‘The Highways and Byways in Sussex’, by EV Lucas (1904) we learn some fascinating facts about Miss Hitchener, and how she was at this sensitive time of Napoleonic threat was kept under observation. In 1812 when Shelley, was in Ireland, he sent a …

‘… box of inflammatory matter which the Custom House officers confiscated - copies of his pamphlet on Ireland and his “Declaration of Rights” broadside, which Miss Hitchener was to distribute among Sussex farmers who would display them on their walls. These were the same documents that Shelley used to put in bottles and throw out to sea, greatly to the perplexity of the spectators and not a little to the annoyance of the Government.

'Miss Hitchener, as well as the revolutionary, was kept under surveillance, as we learn from the letter from the Postmaster-General of the day, Lord Chichester “I return the pamphlet declaration. The writer of the first is son of Mr Shelley, member for the Rape of Bramber, and is by all accounts a most extraordinary man.

'I hear he has married a servant, or some person of very low birth; he has been in Ireland for some time, and I heard of his speaking at the Catholic Convention. Miss Hitchener, of Hurstpierpoint, keeps a School there, and is well spoken of her Father keeps a Publick House in the Neighbourhood, he was originally a Smuggler and changed his name from Yorke to Hitchener before he took the Public House. I shall have a watch upon the daughter and discover whether there is any Connection between her and Shelley.”'

Harriet Grove's hair, kept in Shelley's diary.

Shelley proposed that Hitchener join him, and Harriet Westbrook (his wife to be) with her elder sister Eliza in a communal household where all property would be shared.

A short while later Shelley’s elopement with 16 year old Harriet to marry in Scotland further fuelled the hostile relationship with his father, who felt that a tavern and coffee house owner's daughter as a partner for life would not be suitable for his son.

Shelley later wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener about the Captain’s part in helping them return from Edinburgh to the safe haven of Cuckfield and then paying expenses for him to move to York: ‘My Uncle is a most generous fellow, had he not assisted us we should have been chained to the filth and commerce of Edinburgh.’

Bysshe continued to spend time at Cuckfield. To show how embedded the poet had become in Pilfold’s family home in a letter to Hogg on May 26 he wrote: ‘I take the opportunity of the old boy’s [His father's] absence in London to persuade my mother and Elizabeth (his sister and sometimes co-writer) to come to Cuckfield; because there they will be three, or more, days absent from this killjoy, as I name him.’

Recent research spotlights Cuckfield

The importance of Cuckfield in the Shelley saga has come to light thanks to the acquisition of a very rare work in 2014 by the New York Public Library. Elizabeth Denlinger, curator of a collection of papers ‘Shelley and his Circle’ was delighted when the rarest of his works came into her hands - and then found some intriguing annotations supported by letters to confirm that the theme was centred on Cuckfield.

One of the rare copies of 'Victor and Cazire'

It is one of just four known remaining copies of a poem ‘Victor and Cazire’ written at a time when Shelley was desperately keen to get his name established and to make a mark. It also demonstrated his need to collaborate when writing. In the title ‘Victor’ was Shelley and his younger sister Elizabeth was ‘Cazire’. Now here some relationships need explaining:

A cousin of Shelley, Harriet Grove and Elizabeth Shelley (Shelley’s sister) were great friends, and Harriet was close enough to Shelleys' mother, Elizabeth Pilfold (née Shelley), that they, too, corresponded.

Harriet’s sister, Charlotte Grove, was smitten with Colonel Warden Jefferson Sergison of Cuckfield Park (who leased Marshalls to the Pilfold family). He was a Colonel in the Horse Guards and served as high Sheriff of Sussex in 1786. This romantic interest was the subject of much speculation within the Grove, Shelley and Pilfold families. The Library's curator has now realised that it is this relationship that features, albeit anonymously, in the ‘Victor and Cazire’ poem.

During a 10 day visit to London the Grove/Shelley families engaged in the amusements proper to their class: they went to shops, exhibitions, the theatre, the opera, held dances at home, and went walking in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

On leaving London, Charlotte Grove who was aged 35 went on to Cuckfield to visit widower Colonel Sergison. As a measure of her interest in the Colonel her visit to Cuckfield lasted three months, but she did not marry Sergison, who died at the age of 46 the following year in July 1811. Previously Warden was married to Mary Anne Kerr (in Northampton 1792) but she died on 11 September 1804 aged 37 and was buried in Cuckfield Churchyard and there is a fine memorial in the church. Charlotte, at the age of 44, married the rector of Berwick St John.

While she was in Cuckfield the two Shelley siblings worked on their joint volume of ‘Victor and Cazire’ poetry. You get a picture of Charlotte disappearing out of the front door - and the pens and paper coming out as the two conjured up the wording together - no doubt accompanied by much merriment. But their amusement was short lived as it contained the damning lines:

So __ [Charlotte] is going to __ [Cuckfield] you say,

I hope that success her great efforts will pay

That the Colonel will see her, be dazzled outright,

And declare he can't bear to be out of her sight ...

Percy Bysshe Shelley

[In the New York Library copy has the two blanks filled with the initial ‘C’, for ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Cuckfield’.

They must have proudly sent a copy to the Grove sisters in Wiltshire. But they were far from pleased. Harriet wrote in her diary on 17 September 1810: ‘Received the poetry of Victor and Cazire, Charlotte offended and with reason as I think they have done very wrong in publishing what they have of her’.

According to Elizabeth Denlinger, to whom Cuckfield must be indebted for her thorough research, they were angry enough, in fact, to erase ‘the Colonel’ from their copy [now part of the Ransom Centre's collections].

Delinger adds in her blog, 'Historian of the Grove and Pilfold families, Desmond Hawkins, saw in this tactless gift the first cause for the Groves breaking off the Harriet and Shelley relationship, although the most explicit reason was given much later by Harriet's brother, Charles, that Harriet "became uneasy at the tone of [Shelley's] letters on speculative subjects, that is to say, on religion".'

‘Victor and Cazire' was specifically written to launch Shelley’s career and this was first published volume of poetry. Unfortunately it included one poem ripped off from another poet ‘Matthew Gregory Lewis’ without credit or permission. While the poet blamed this on Elizabeth it is more likely that Bysshe was responsible. The publication was withdrawn from sale by Bysshe - and that’s what has made it so rare.

Influence of Cuckfield on Shelley

It’s clear that Shelley spent a lot of time with the Captain and his family in Cuckfield (1806-13), this would have been when the young writer was between the ages of 19 and 26. It’s very likely that other well known works were penned locally.

Shelley is recognised not only for verse but also prose fiction and essays on political, social, and philosophical issues. Much of this was not published in his lifetime, although some appeared in print at thee time in abridged form, due to the risk of prosecution for political and religious libel.

From the 1820s, his poems and political and ethical writings became popular in Owenist, Chartist, and radical political circles and later drew admirers as diverse as Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, and George Bernard Shaw.

Generous benefactor though the Captain was, he may not have acceded to all of his nephew’s requests. In 1817, Bysshe had commented on the Captain’s coolness towards him, but the outcome of a request for financial help is not recorded. Shelley’s father had agreed in 1815 to increase his son’s allowance to £1,000 a year (with £200 intended for his wife) but despite this the young poet’s debts had spiralled. According to biographer Roger Ingpen:

‘Among his creditors was Captain Pilfold, who had evidently failed to obtain payment of a debt due to him from his nephew, and who had applied to Sir Timothy Shelley for it. The nature of the obligation does not appear, but it may have been that the Captain had gone surety for Shelley, who was unable to meet the debt.’

Captain Pilfold

Desmond Hawkins relates in his biography of Captain Pilfold that at the time the Captain was rebuilding his next home in Lindfield, and perhaps also increasingly alarmed at his nephew’s profligate ways. There is some evidence that Pilfold had a cash flow problem of his own was temporarily withholding payments to his own debtors.

It's notable that he had also expressed an urgency in handing back the keys of Marshalls to the Sergison Estate, or to sublet it as a school. Could he have been considering an approach from Elizabeth Hitchenor perhaps? So maybe the cool response to the young debtor was more to do with his own commitments.

Shelley's life was marked by family crises, ill health and a backlash against his atheism, political views and defiance of social conventions.

Mary Shelley

Harriet, estranged and pregnant, took her own life and drowned in the Serpentine in London in 1816. A totally irrelevant aside is that second wife, Mary Shelley, was the author of 'Frankenstein'.

The sad ending

Just three years later Shelley, who was now exiled to Italy from 1818, was tragically drowned on 8 July 1822 in a severe storm off the coast between Livorno for Lerici. His body was washed ashore at Viareggio (just north of Pisa) 10 days later.

The Shelley story has a long inter-related cast list. Here we skirt past most of the complex web of intrigue and and havoc that this man created. Despite all this in his relatively short life Shelley made his mark on English literature and society.

Our legacy

Captain John Pilfold clearly liked the young Shelley and recognised his prestigious talent and wanted him to build a successful writing career. Through his naval career and financial reward from Trafalgar he became a generous benefactor and supporter. The poet’s literary output was generated over a span of just 12 years between 1810 and 1822.

The combination of Cuckfield, Captain Pilfold and his hosting of the key players together in his home must have played a significant part in the poet’s formative years of 1810/12. Bysshe's relationship with the Pilfolds will have been built up as he grew up, and he would have been welcomed to the new home at Marshall's in Cuckfield from 1806. Without the Pilfold’s philanthropic support and nurturing some of ‘finest poetry of the Romantic period’ might never have gained sufficient traction.

I am no expert on the life and works of Shelley, but through this research I have come to realise that there is extensive correspondence stashed away in collections with some published online. And it seems to me that, if someone is so inclined to pursue this, further facts may be revealed. We might learn of further associations with Cuckfield and local people and add further colour and interest to this fascinating story.

Horsham rightly celebrates the man’s birthplace and upbringing, and there is an excellent display in the museum in The Causeway. But perhaps Cuckfield can claim a significant influence on the poet's productive output, both directly and indirectly, and helped mould his radical thinking.



‘The life and times of Captain John Pilfold, CB, RN born at Horsham and baptised there 1769’ by Desmond Hawkins, Horsham Museum Society 1998.

Part of the text from ‘Victor and Cazir’:

If you want to buy a copy of 'Victor and Cazire' Amazon has a copy for £11.25 Click here

'History of Cuckfield', Rev James Hughes Cooper.

'Glimpses of our ancestors in Sussex' by Charles Fleet, 1878.

'The Highways and byways in Sussex', by EV Lucas, 1904.

'Shelley In England' vols 1 and 2, Roger Ingpen, 1917.

Do read the following two links for further detail on Elizabeth Denlinger's 2014 discovery at:

Portrait based on the frontispiece from ‘The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley’ by Francis Holl (1897) Public domain image.

Field Place illustration from 'Shelley, the man and the poet', Arthur Clutton-Brock, 1868-1924, Public domain image.

Portrait of Mary Shelley (1797-1851) by Richard Rothwell.

Wikipedia ‘Zastrozzi’

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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