ANNA SEWELL IN LANCING
By Roger Sutton
This article was originally published in the April 2011 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Anna Sewell (1820 – 1878) was the author of ‘Black Beauty’. It is claimed that ‘Black Beauty’ was once the sixth highest selling book in the world. By 1995 its worldwide sales were estimated at 40 million compared with 50 million for Charles Dickens entire works. The purpose of the book was to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses. Anna first mentioned that she was writing ‘Black Beauty’ in her journal on 6th November 1871. ‘Black Beauty’ was published at the end of 1877 and Anna lived just long enough to hear of its success since she died in April 1878. By 1894 it had sold over 100,000 copies.
Details about Anna’s life are difficult to find, mainly because so little of it was recorded. ‘Black Beauty’ was the only book that Anna wrote and it was only in the last four months of her life that she became well known. Anna’s story of a black horse and the injustices he witnesses and endures transformed attitudes, captured hearts and excited tears. It would inspire sequels, movies, television series, comic, spoofs and figurines.
Anna Sewell had poor health and never married. She always lived with her parents, Isaac and Mary, both of whom outlived her. Norfolk was the county of Anna’s birth, death and heritage, but she and her parents lived in many parts of Southern England, including Brighton, Lancing, Haywards Heath and Chichester.
The Sewell family were living in Brighton at the time that the London to Brighton railway line opened in 1841. The opening of the railway had a dramatic impact on Brighton, with an enormous increase in the number of visitors and residents in the town. Mary Sewell had always lamented the lack of rural vistas. It is likely that this prompted the family’s move to Lancing in 1845, perhaps together with the thought that Lancing might be better for Anna’s health.
It is possible that the Sewell family first moved to a house in Alma Street or East Street, South Lancing, but the exact location is not known. According to the biography of Anna Sewell by Adrienne Gavin, published in 2004, the Sewell family moved from Brighton into Miller House in North Lancing.
Miller House had been built for Thomas Miller around 1801 and was in the hands of his widow’s executors when the Sewells became tenants. It was a substantial property and was later known as Fir Cottage and then Fir-Croft. In the 1930s, as Fircroft, it operated as a guest house with riding stables. Fircroft Guest House was still shown in Kellys Directory of Lancing in 1953; but it was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the housing estate known as Fircroft Avenue. *
*(Note: In December 2020 Michael Kent conracted us with the following comment: Looking at this story of Anna Sewell in Lancing, I wish to draw you attention to an error. Paragraph 6 of the story states that Fircroft Guest House was demolished in the 1950's to make way for housing estate known as Fircroft Avenue. This is wrong as I lived in Fircroft Avenue from 1946 onwards. Fircroft was built during the 1930's when my grandparents bought a bungalow there. My mother worked at the guest house late 1940's. The guest house was demolished to make way for housing estate known as Greenoaks not Fircroft Avenue. Regards. Michael Kent)
The house stood on its own amidst open fields, back from what is now known as Manor Road which at the time was a main route from Arundel to Brighton. What remains today is the stable block which is now a small private dwelling at 66, Manor Road. For what seems to have been the first time in Anna’s 25 years, the Sewells owned their own horse, presumably housed in the stable block. It was probably at Lancing that Anna’s love of horses developed.
In the morning Anna drove Isaac in their pony-chaise into Shoreham where he caught the train into Brighton where he worked in a bank. Presumably she followed the route east along the Old Shoreham Road, past the Sussex Pad Inn, a reputed haunt of smugglers, across the toll bridge over the River Adur and on into Shoreham. In the evening she collected Isaac from Shoreham station. On 24th November 1845 the Shoreham-to-Worthing section of the railway line opened, including a station at Lancing. So Anna’s role as her father’s driver may only have lasted a few months; but Anna continued to drive her mother and herself wherever they needed to go.
Anna’s regular activities while living at Lancing were sewing, reading, household tasks, riding and driving, tending to plants and animals, letter writing, painting and drawing and observing nature in all its forms. Anna would have seen her many cousins and other relatives and friends. She may have taught at local schools, which were probably run by Lancing parish church also in Manor Road. On 27th May 1845 Anna wrote in her journal: ‘Mother went to Brighton and I stayed to attend to the planting of seeds in the garden. My feet were very weak, and I prayed that they might be strengthened sufficiently for me to attend to what was necessary’
From time to time Anna’s brother Philip visited Lancing, sometimes with his fiancée Sarah. The years at Lancing seem to have been a happy time for the Sewell family. Many years later, after the deaths of both Isaac and Anna, Mary longed for music and dreamed of Lancing days when Anna, Philip and Sarah had sung together.
Although Anna was happier in herself during her late twenties and thirties, these years were much occupied in a weary search after improvement in her health. These included spas or water cure centres. It was at one water establishment that Anna met the poet Alfred Tennyson. Both Anna and Mary were passionate about poetry. But the secrets of Anna’s heart remained just that, and there is no evidence of correspondence between Tennyson and Anna.
After Philip’s marriage to Sarah in 1849, Anna became closer than ever to her mother. Isaac was away in Brighton all day. It is thought that he did not much care for the books that Mary and Anna read, although he was not the sort of man to impose his own tastes.
Lancing days came to an end in March 1849 when Isaac resigned from the bank in Brighton. The Sewell family moved to Haywards Heath where Isaac entered into business as a brewer. The move was probably prompted by hopes of improving their own economic situation.
Dark Horse. A Life of Anna Sewell by Adrienne GAVIN, 2004
A History of Lancing. By R.G. P. KERRIDGE, 1979
Lancing: A Pictorial History, by George SHAW, 1982
Kelly’s Directory of Worthing and Neighbourhood 1953
The Sole Society