Through the years that I have been writing this column I have occasionally described a single individual who made a significant contribution to the town. All were either born in the town or moved here. In this article I want to describe a man who had a relatively brief association with the town yet he achieved national fame and was involved in some activities which brought national figures to the town.
Paul Endersby explains for The Wealden Eye…
Captain Robert Barclay known simply as Captain Barclay was born on 25 August 1779, in Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland. He was a member of an ancient Scottish family, who amongst other achievements founded Barclays Bank.
Robert’s father, also Robert, was widowed but he remarried Sarah Ann Allardice, a descendant of Robert II of Scotland and of the Earls of Airth, Menteith and Strathearn. In recognition of the nobility of his wife’s family Robert Barclay Snr. thereafter took the surname of Allardice.
Robert Snr was a noted pedestrian, who once walked 510 miles (820 km) from Ury (the family home) to London in 10 days. He died in 1797 leaving Robert Junior and his siblings effectively as orphans, their parents having divorced four years earlier. Robert returned home from boarding school in an attempt to take over the family estate. However that responsibility was with the twelve guardians appointed by his father until Robert reached his majority.
Regrettably Robert Snr had left substantial debts and in attempt to repay the debts and retain the family land and possessions his son turned to the task of pedestrianism and was later involved in prize fighting. Robert developed into an outstanding athlete and won considerable sums through walking prizes as well as side bets. His feats included walking 110 miles in 19 hr 27 min in a muddy park in 1801. In 1802 he walked 64 miles in 10 hours and in 1805 72 miles between breakfast and dinner. This was followed in 1806 when he walked 100 miles over bad roads in 19 hours and then in 1807 78 miles on hilly roads in 14 hours.
However his most notable feat and the one for which he is best remembered took place between 1 June and 12 July 1809 at Newmarket, during which he walked 1000 miles in a 1000 hours, to win a wager of 1000 guineas.
So what of the Hailsham connection? On 3 February 1804 Robert was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 23rd Regiment of Foot, The Royal Welch Fusiliers. Due to threat of invasion by Napoleon, troops were stationed along the South coast. In May, Robert was sent with his regiment to Langley Camp, Eastbourne where the soldiers were engaged, day and night in digging an enormously long ditch, ten feet deep, to stop the progress of the enemy’s artillery when they landed. They were still waiting for the invasion in the autumn! The soldiers therefore had a considerable amount of time on their hands which Robert used to his advantage. Whenever he was off duty he covered countless miles along the Downs and life became one long training session.
Robert was always fussy about his accommodation so in October 1804 following a suggestion by James Gearing, his barrack-sergeant, he moved into new lodgings namely the front sitting room of Gearing’s mother’s drug shop in Hailsham. It was an old family business in which the knowledge of drugs salves and ointments had passed down by word of mouth from earlier generations. In Hailsham Robert was remembered as a good tenant and a churchgoer, with a manly presence and a gentlemanly demeanour. Whilst living in Hailsham he was promoted to First Lieutenant.
Living nearby, also in Hailsham, were Fletcher Reid, a close friend and associate from Scotland, and Bill Warr another friend and former prize-fighter. In October 1805 Robert assisted Fletcher Reid in organising a fight in Hailsham between Hen(ry) Pearce, known as the ‘Game Chicken,’ and John Gully, both Bristolians. Arrangements had to be made to get Gully out of the debtor’s prison so he could participate! The fight, which was for a stake of £600, ended in the 64th round and the Game Chicken was declared the winner. Prize fighting was a brutal affair and whilst the boxers wore gloves (called mufflers) to protect their hands during sparring, the actual fights were bare-fisted. One consequence of this was at the end of this fight both men were nearly blinded in each eye. A vast crowd came to Hailsham to witness the fight including George ‘Beau’ Brummell, and William, Duke of Clarence, one of the Prince of Wales‘s younger brothers who later became King William IV who watched the fight on horseback.
There was a second boxing match at Hailsham that day between Tom Cribb and Bill Richmond, or The Black Terror as he was known, a black boxer and former slave born in New York in 1763. Cribb, another fighter from Bristol, eventually beat Richmond. Bill Richmond was brought to England as a young man by Lord Percy, the Duke of Northumberland, an enlightened man who encouraged him to set up in business first as a cabinet-maker and then as a prize boxer.
Other events took place in Sussex, notably at Brighton racecourse. These included Abraham Wood who accepted a wager to run 20 miles in 2¼ hours, and won by ten minutes. A few days later he accepted a wager to run 440 yards in a minute. He won that too! In addition to walking, Captain Barclay was active in the financial backing and training of bare-knuckle fighters. The most celebrated fighters that he trained were Tom Molineaux and Tom Cribb, (Champion of England). The Sussex connection continued when in 1807, what was in effect a training camp, was set up by Captain Barclay in East Dean where he supervised the training of John Gully for his attempt to win the Championship of the Prize Ring. This fight was the most important wager of Captain Barclay’s life. The fight was won by Gully who later became an MP.
As the years passed Captain Barclay continued to live a varied and colourful life. He was a partner in a stage coach company in Scotland. He fathered three children with Mary Delgano, a young servant girl half his age whom he eventually and very reluctantly married. Likewise he fathered another child with Ann Angus a women young enough to be his daughter. He made strenuous attempts to prove his right to take the titles of Earldoms of Airth, Menteith and Strathearn. This was an expensive venture which virtually bankrupted him and was ultimately unsuccessful.
At the end of April 1854 Captain Barclay was out in a field trying to break a pony when it kicked him in the head. Initially it appeared he had suffered no ill effects. However on 1 May he was suddenly taken ill, and whilst a doctor was sent for he was too late and Captain Barclay died at 9.15 am on 1 May 1854.
By Paul Endersby
The Duke of Clarence – the Future William IV
Robert Barclay, aged 19
Captain Barclay, aged 64 Beau Brummell
Hen Pearce, The Game Chicken John Gully MP