Sussex Skulduggery

By David Dennis

Our challenge: Can we really hope to connect Hastings, Bexhill, Pevensey, Lewes, Brighton, Uckfield, Crowborough, Virginia Woolf, Sherlock Holmes, the Pope, Shakespeare, some fairies and a sea serpent in one feature?

Certainly, dear reader, if you hark back to an England ruled by King Edward the Seventh, when amateur scientists abounded and to be a Fellow of the Royal Society would guarantee you wine, women and song.

How to be an Edwardian celeb?

You could move to Hastings as a young boy, live in a posh six-floored house in St Leonards, train as a solicitor, form a legal partnership in Uckfield and be appointed as Clerk to their magistrates.  From there you could go off to explore the fields and farm lanes at Fletching, Piltdown and Sheffield Park, discovering amazing skull fragments. In Edwardian days status was everything and the desire for a knighthood and the post nominal letters FRS ate at the very soul of one Charles Dawson, who went on to make some amazing ‘scientific’ discoveries.

When the pangs of love drove Dawson to resettle in Lewes in 1904, he bought Castle Lodge – previously used by the Sussex Archaeological Society since 1885.  He issued a notice for them to quit and fiddled the legal papers so they could not buy it back. He married widow Postlethwaite in 1905 and by 1908 he had manufactured a false dungeon in the old wine cellar, made stones look ancient by rubbing cow-poo on them and fitted manacles to the wall, claiming the dungeon was part of Lewes Castle. Oh, and he became Provincial Grand Swordbearer of the Uckfield Freemasons’ Lodge.

Dawson was a man with many friends who were interested in spiritualism, destiny and the secrets of the universe. What was the ultimate destiny of Man? Was he really descended from apes or was the Roman Catholic Church right to say that Man was created by God alone and Women from Adam’s rib? If Darwin (1809-1882) was right, then where was the Missing Link?

Luckily, Dawson, with the help of Hastings resident and Jesuit priest Teilhard De Chardin, found it in a Piltdown field that would be forever England. So, there they had the answer – Man did indeed evolve from apes – just as William Blake of Bognor Regis (1757-1827) hinted in his prescient double-entendre poetry ‘and did those feet in ancient times..?’

Just as in spiritualism, if you can’t make it work naturally you have to fake it (in some people’s opinion), if it doesn’t exist but you think it should, then you have to manufacture it. The more you study how to fake it, the better you become at fooling people and the more gloss you add to your reputation – unless you are discovered as a charlatan. If that doesn’t happen until you’ve been dead for forty years then why worry?

So, let us look at the amazing discoveries of Charles Dawson in Sussex, our incredible county where anything is possible.

First of all, there is the ancient Bexhill hybrid boat, the eerie and horrific Loch Ness Monster-like Bexhill Sea Serpent and the unique Roman tile found at Pevensey Castle, proving without doubt that the Emperor Honorius had supported the Saxon Shore Fort. What about the superb discovery at Hastings Beauport Park? Among the iron slag of a Roman mine they found the only Roman cast iron statuette ever discovered. Then there’s the teeth of the vital hybrid between reptiles and mammals – called Plagiaulax Dawsoni, of course. Not to mention the strange shadow people on the wall of Hastings Castle, the toad found embedded inside flint at Brighton and the Iron Age Bulverhythe Hammer. No wonder the Sussex Daily News named him as ‘The Wizard of Sussex’.

Was anyone helping him to fake these things? Much speculation has surrounded the Jesuit priest De Chardin, whose written thoughts were suppressed by the Pope, much in the same way as the theories of Galileo. Teilhard, to the Pope’s chagrin, thought that Old Testament Book of Genesis was just an allegory and that it was likely that Man really did descend from apes – and he was certainly digging with Dawson in that Barkham Manor field at Piltdown.

Then there’s Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Doyle – middle name Conan, living at Crowborough, who believed in spiritualism so much that when Houdini revealed that his remarkable tricks were just sleight of hand and eye, he refused to believe him. What did he and Dawson share? It has been speculated that because he and Dawson were Freemasons, Doyle faked the fossil skull to get back at the scientists who mocked his belief in spiritualism and the Cottingley Fairy photographs.

After the original pieces of the ‘skull’ were ‘handed’ to Dawson by ‘workmen’ digging at Barkham Manor another possibly suspicious character appears – Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, FRS (who died at Haywards Heath on 2 September 1944) was an English palaeontologist and world expert on fossil fish.  As curator of the Geology Department of the British Museum of Natural History, he helped Dawson to dig for further bone fragments – but only Dawson found any.

Piltdown Man (1)

Piltdown Man

Another find was made ‘from a second skull’ at Sheffield Park. Woodward confirmed the finds as the Missing Link and Sir Arthur Keith FRS from the Royal College of Surgeons was so convinced that Dawson was right that he erected a stone at Barkham to commemorate Dawson’s brilliance:

‘Here in the old river gravel Mr Charles Dawson, FSA found the fossil skull of Piltdown Man, 1912–1913, The discovery was described by Mr Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1913–15.’

We now know that these bones were a combination of human skull fragments and orang-utan jaw, with filed-down teeth.  But back then the findings fitted with the prevalent idea that human brains evolved due to orthogenesis, in which our special universe filled with hydrogen and dark matter was in some way alive and trying to create something even more special – and oh wow – we humans were it. This is the ultimate selfie or limpid mirror of Narcissus, in which we look at ourselves as the pinnacle of deliberate creation, instead of just the natural random outcome of the nuclear mechanisms of second generation stars producing non-gaseous elements.

Piltdown Man Fake Skull (3)

Piltdown Man Fake Skull

Indeed in the Second Quarto of 1604, Shakespeare causes Hamlet to declare:

‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving,
how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension,
how like a god!’

 To add to the mystery, a trunk found in storage in 1970 belonging to Martin Hinton FRSA, a zoologist of the Natural History Museum back in 1910, contained animal bones and teeth carved and stained in a manner similar to the Piltdown finds. Just how many people were dying to prove that dear old England gave birth to the human brain?


The Piltdown Gang

So, having covered every other part of our challenge, where does Virginia Woolf come in?

Enter stage left William Horace de Vere Cole, full of pranks and poems, who got Virginia Woolf and other friends to dress up as Abyssinian diplomats and fool the Royal Navy into getting aboard the warship HMS Dreadnought. He also put horse-droppings onto the paving in St Mark’s Square Venice, and tricked a gang of workmen into digging a great hole in Piccadilly Circus. He was notorious for the dangerous trick of putting a gold watch secretly into an MP’s pocket and then after challenging him to a race – calling out: ‘Stop Thief!’.

He was obviously capable of a hoax, alone or with Dawson, but modern scholarship now points unerringly at a legal eagle with an office in Uckfield and a mock dungeon in Lewes. And as for skulduggery – well that turns out to have been a Scottish word for sexual misdemeanour – not the meaning it has now.

Perhaps St Matthew is right to say in the New Testament:

‘many false prophets will appear and deceive many people…’

If you found this article interesting you can read these two books by Dr Miles Russell, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bournemouth:

Piltdown Man: the Secret Life of Charles Dawson (2003)


The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed (2012)

Let us know what you think – did you guess how our challenge would be met?



  1. Interesting summary but you’ve got the wrong photo of Charles Dawson. He is the balding one standing just in front of the painting on the wall. I just discovered this article while searching for more information on Charles Dawson. I am his great-great niece and have read both the Miles Russell books.

    • That is fascinating! Thank you so much for the feedback – we will amend that asap. Really pleased that you found the article of interest and very good luck with your research. It would be interesting to hear how you get on.

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