It’s easier to be a larger-than-life character if you are rich… and Jack Fuller was both. At more than 22 stone, it was not surprising that one of his nicknames was “Hippopotamus”, but the most common one used by his fellow MPs was “Mad Jack” because he was coarse and colourful in his language, and irrepressible in spirit and deed. And his family was wealthy, which is a great help if you want to live your own life in your own way …
Fuller’s parents were cousins. His father, Henry, was rector of South Stoneham, in Hampshire, and his mother was Francis Fuller, daughter of Thomas Fuller, of Park Gate, Catsfield, in Sussex. Jack was born in 1757 but his father died when he was only five. At the age of 10, he was sent to Eton, where he remained until 1774, but he did not progress to university. His “education” was continued, however, by going on a grand tour of Europe which young men from wealthy families did in those days.
Fuller inherited a big estate in Sussex when he was 20 from an uncle whose father had changed the name from Brightling Park to Rose Hill in honour of his wife, Elizabeth Rose, whose family were wealthy landowners in Jamaica. Along with this chunk of Sussex farm and woodland came a local iron works, as well as sugar plantations in Jamaica. His financial fortune was boosted in the following year when his mother died and left him more property and money.
If you were well-off in the 18th century, you could use your money to gain influence. Fuller was first elected an MP in 1780 for Southampton, and to be closer to the House of Commons he bought a grand house in London’s Wimpole Street. As a significant landowner in the county, it was no wonder he was High Sheriff of Sussex for a year in 1796. In 1801 he returned to Parliament as a Tory MP for Sussex, a position he gained partly by paying the “travelling expenses” of supporters; all he lacked was a Conservative battlebus.
His obstreperous behaviour earned him the reputation of court jester in the House of Commons. He had a loud and booming voice which he used to great effect in the chamber. He had several rows with the Speaker, once calling him “an insignificant little man in the wig” (Fuller, too, wore a wig and underneath he sported a pony tail). At least twice, Fuller had to be ejected from the House. During one dreary debate, he thought he would liven things up by booming out the joys and glories of living in Sussex. There were all sorts of stories about him; one was that he drove a coach and six into a crowded House of Commons.
William Pitt, the Younger, offered him a peerage, but Fuller declined the honour, telling the Prime Minister that: “I was born Jack Fuller and Jack Fuller I’ll die.” For this he earned a third moniker – “Honest John”.
Fuller’s parliamentary career came to an end in effect during a stormy and acrimonious debate on February 28, 1810. The confrontation concerned a military expedition which had gone badly wrong. A force of 40,000 British troops had been sent to the Continent to destroy Napoleon’s base at Antwerp and to raise a Dutch revolt. It failed on both accounts and ended so disastrously that of a garrison of 15,000 troops, 7,000 died of malaria and 3,000 were so ill they couldn’t even fight.
Fuller was so incensed by the debacle that his colourful language became foul and he took to insulting many around him. Increasingly agitated, the Speaker ordered the Sussex MP to leave the House. At first Fuller complied, then struggling free from the Sergeant at Arms, he burst back into the chamber “causing great commotion”. This was too much for the Speaker and he ordered Fuller to be forcefully removed and placed in one of the cells in the Palace Yard to cool down.
The next day Fuller made profuse apologies to the House upon his release but after that his passion for politics began to wane. He retired as an MP in 1812 and became increasingly interested in the arts and sciences. Among visitors to his Sussex estate were the artist J.M.W. Turner and the architect Robert Smirke. Fuller commissioned Turner to paint a number of Sussex scenes and he asked Smirke to design the six follies which still today can be seen in and around Brightling.
Follies are generally the indulgences, the whims, of rich people, often with no practical purpose, merely to amuse. Of the six which Fuller had built (at a time of great unemployment he provided work for many locals for years), the Observatory was the only practical folly as he filled it with the most sophisticated equipment, including a camera-obscura so that he could indulge his hobby of astronomy.
One of the follies, the Sugar Loaf, is supposed to have been built so that Fuller could win a bet – that he could see the spire of St Giles, the Dallington Church from his estate. When he sobered up and found he couldn’t (there was a hill in the way), he had a folly built in the shape of a cone which grocers used to deliver sugar at the time. The edifice some 35 feet high and 15ft in diameter is supposed to have been constructed under cover of darkness in one night (it consists of stones with an infill of earth so this story may well be true). From the top Fuller could now see the church tower which enabled him to claim the bet.
The folly known as the Rotunda Temple was built with Doric pillars in the Grecian style. There were several stories regarding its use, among them that it was a place for the squire to entertain his lady friends. Another that it was somewhere to store smuggled goods, as the early 19th century was still very much in the heyday of “that infamous traffick” otherwise known as the “free trade”.
Brightling Needle is thought to have been erected in 1815 to celebrate the British victory at Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon. It is very similar to Smirke’s Wellington Memorial in Phoenix Park, Dublin, but unlike the latter, it has no inscription.
Fuller was a philanthropist both locally and nationally. He wanted to be buried in a 25ft high pyramid-shaped mausoleum in Brightling churchyard. He struck a deal with the vicar who wanted a new church yard wall – Fuller said he would have it built at his expense in return for permission to build his last resting place. For many years after his death, village rumour had it that the local Pharaoh sat propped up at a table in his mausoleum with food and a bottle of claret within reach. The floor was spread with broken glass to deter the devil, who would cut his hooves if he approached. Like many stories about Fuller, it was a complete fabrication. Some years ago the rotting wooden door was taken out and replaced with a metal grill. The squire was not at a table but in a coffin in the base of the pyramid, interred in the conventional manner enjoying a prolonged snooze.
The Brightling squire also funded a peel of eight church bells to celebrate Wellington’s final victory over Napoleon and gave the church the largest barrel organ of its kind in Britain. In preparation for a visit by the Bishop, he paid for the church’s refurbishment (in doing so some extremely rare wall paintings were covered up and were not re-discovered until 1966).
Other good works included saving Bodiam Castle (a Hastings company was going to buy it and demolish it to use as a source of building material). So the squire stepped in and bought the castle, lock, stock and moat and then had it renovated. It was said at the time that he monitored this work from another of his follies, the 35ft two-story Tower. Other acts of philanthropy included paying for Eastbourne’s first life boat in 1822, two years before the National Institute for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (later the RNLI) was started. He founded and funded the Royal Institution of Great Britain with premises in Albermarle Street, its purpose being “the promotion, diffusion, and extension of science and useful knowledge”. He set up two professorships which he described as his “only two legitimate children”. In 1803, he donated £50 for the institution reference library, and in 1819 he gave it a volume of Views of Sussex by Turner, followed in 1826 by four patent globe lamps. He also donated his portrait painted by Henry Singleton. In gratitude, the Royal Institution put a bust of Fuller on the premises. The inscription read: “John Fuller who gave £10,000 for the promotion of science in the Royal Institution’’.
Fuller never married. He proposed marriage to Susannah Thrale, an attractive socialite, in 1790 when he was 33 and she was 24. She turned him down. He reacted with bad grace and paid for a prostitute to slag her off by following Thrale around Tunbridge Wells, where she had gone to take the waters. The locals were predictably outraged. It was an unfortunate, mean-spirited episode in an otherwise colourful life of great generosity which came to an end in 1834 at the age of 77; he had his follies, but was no fool.
Few, if any, have left their mark quite so visibly on Sussex. But how mad was he? Chris Mccooey investigates