The story of Damaris Richardson, of Brede, has been mentioned several times in Sussex Life over the years, but the full story never really told.


Ill-Fated Lovers

The story of Damaris Richardson, of Brede, has been mentioned several times in Sussex Life over the years, but the full story never really told.

Damaris was an orphan, who lived with a cousin in Rectory Road at Brede, and worked at a local residential school. She fell madly in love with a young man named Lewis Smith, eldest son of David Smith, a wealthy landowner at Brede. He lived in Church House, adjoining the village church and they would meet, in secret, ‘over the wall,’ she in the churchyard, he in the grounds of his father’s house. They decided to become engaged, unofficially, keeping this and their whole relationship secret.

But their clandestine meetings were observed and word got back to Lewis’s father, who angrily forbade any further trysts and stated that if the relationship continued, any inheritance would be forfeit. Young Lewis must have agreed to this as there was one last meeting before they parted forever. Damaris, they say, died of a broken heart at the age of just 22 and was buried near the wall, in September 1856. The grave was unmarked until Brede’s vicar, Ernest Aylward, who was once a pupil of Damaris, set up the cross, seen in the picture here, to commemorate the meeting place of the ill-fated lovers. As for Lewis, he never married, inherited the family home, and there are stories of him walking alone and sad looking, in the garden on his side of the wall. He died in February 1896 and was interred in the Smith family tomb inside the church.

Why did Lewis’s father react in the way he did? Recent research has shown that Damaris and Lewis were actually related – he was a second cousin of hers, so his father thinking that she was beneath the station and class of the family - usually the reason given - is possible, but not probable. Perhaps, for whatever reason, he didn’t want intermarriage within the family.

Further tales of Sussex history, anecdotes and folklore on the subject of romance by Chris Horlock

Rock solid marriage

A strange ritual, relating to weddings of the past, and involving a loaf of bread, was recalled by a contributor to West Sussex Within Living Memory. Published in 1993, the compilation of memories from members of the West Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes included this interesting gem:

On St Valentine’s Day, 1899, my grandparents, Frances and William Mant, were married. The following Good Friday, ‘the only day the Devil is not on earth,’ a small loaf was baked for them at Birdham Stores, at that time owned by my great aunt Emily. Superstition has it that this loaf must never be destroyed or bad luck will follow and the marriage will be unhappy. I still have the loaf and although rock hard, it has never mildewed.

Naked Love

An even more curious ritual, which isn’t well documented, but is fascinating to think happened, relates to a woman remarrying following the death of her husband.

If he died heavily in debt should she pay what was owed? Here, what was known as a ‘smock wedding’ might take place, with the belief that the woman would shed her debts if she shed her clothes.

Accordingly, with witnesses in attendance, a woman might arrive at the altar barefoot and dressed in only a smock, nightdress or even just a sheet. If she comes into the marriage with only a single piece of clothing, she cannot possibly be pressed to pay her previous husband’s arrears. Well, that was the belief and may well have had some small legal standing, in the distant past. A variation on this was the bride walking naked from her old home to that of her new husband.

The Sussex Weekly Advertiser of November 1794 gave the following account of a couple still hoping the ritual would absolve them from paying up:

On Tuesday last, Mr. F. Hollingdale, of Barcombe, was married to a widow of the same place named Ford. In order to get rid of some pecuniary obligations, it was judged expedient by the above couple that the bride should cross the High Road in a chemise only, in the presence of three male witnesses. Three neighbours were accordingly sent for, without being informed of the occasion, before whom the widow performed the curious ceremony; but as one of the witnesses was so confounded by what he saw as to render him incapable of swearing to particulars, ‘tis doubted whether the stratagem of the newly-married pair will prove successful.

Sadly, it doesn’t say whether they actually got away with it or not!

Great British Life: Chris Horlock's book Ruins, Remains and Relics SussexChris Horlock's book Ruins, Remains and Relics Sussex (Image: Chris Horlock)

Chris Horlock’s new Sussex book, Illustrated Tales of Sussex Ruins, Remains, Relics; Sussex, published by Amberley, is full of quirky tales of the county, similar to those in his ‘An Eye on the Past’ column. Available from local bookshops or online.