In the mid-eighteenth century Brighton, or Brighthelmstone as it was then known, was little more than a fishing village with a population of just 2000. The earliest fishing settlement was a humble assortment of dwellings strewn along the foreshore below the cliff and high water mark. These were mostly destroyed in the early part of that century by high tides and severe storms. It was on such a night that one of Brighton’s most famous apparitions was to make its final dramatic appearance.
A relentless storm raged in the Channel, floundering through the waters like a wild serpent. Boats spun helplessly about in the swirling waves as fraught sailors struggled to bring their boats ashore. The skipper of one such vessel was a local fisherman named Swan Jervoise. He had known many a blustery night at sea, yet had never encountered one such as this. The mounting waves caused him to fear the worst, yet, with dogged determination, he stood steadfast at the helm of his boat, somehow managing to keep her on an even keel.
Although within just a mile of shore the situation looked hopeless. Huge waves pounded the deck and driving rain blurred visibility. The vessel’s mainsail was reduced to forlorn rags that flapped helplessly in the ferocious wind. It seemed only a matter of time before the storm-battered boat would be drawn into the foaming vortex. Suddenly, out of this fraught situation, hope shone upon Jervoise and his crew. The welcoming glow of the town fire basket, a huge brazier ignited with fuel, used for guiding ships safely into port, could be seen through the torrential rain.
Buffeted by the huge waves, Jervoise struggled desperately to keep the boat’s ragged mainsail on a leeward tack. Then, as safety seemed to draw near, the little vessel was hoisted high atop the crest of a mountainous breaker and flung headlong towards the shore. Sounds of splitting timber and roaring surf rent the air as the boat became scuppered broadside against a bank of cobbles. As the crumbling wreck began to keel over the shaken crew leapt for their lives. Moments after scrabbling ashore, the bedraggled men watched helplessly as the tidal undertow sucked the stricken boat back into the foaming mouth of the angry waters.
As the crew sat wearily mulling over their ordeal, Jervoise became distracted by curious flashes of light bursting from the slumbering darkness of the town. He then realised the dazzling lights appeared to be coming from the direction of the Rising Sun Inn, a place he knew well. The tavern sat at the southern end of East Street and was a rather lowly hostelry where rowdy fishermen came to slake their angry thirsts. Its cellars were often awash with seawater following high tides, coupled with seepage from the Wellesbourne River, which, at that time, ran through the Old Steine. This perpetual leaching had caused stalactites to form in the cellars, which had subsequently come to resemble a dank and infested cavern. There had been terrible stories about the place and how it was supposedly haunted by a hideous, giant spectre known as Old-Strike-a-Light. He was claimed to be more creature than man, standing some seven feet in height and of awesome appearance. Many of the barmen said they had seen him sitting astride a beer barrel, down in the cellar, wearing a bizarre conical hat, all the while jingling a gold coin in a pewter dish. Jervoise had always been amused by these tales, but considered them little more than fanciful bar talk.
Although exhausted from his ordeal, the dishevelled fisherman set out to investigate. As he dragged himself wearily towards the tavern, he was alerted by some rather strange scraping noises coming from within the building. It sounded like the striking of flints. He immediately wondered why anyone would be attempting to spark a fire at such a late hour. He was about to peer through the windows when he found himself literally thrown from his feet by a dazzling burst of light coming from the windows. As he began scrabbling to his feet the doors were suddenly flung open to reveal the colossal silhouette of a man. The monstrous form stood motionless, towering menacingly above the terrified fisherman. Jervoise then realised the tales of Old-Strike-Light had not been fanciful bar talk after all. The frightened fisherman fell to his knees as a cold tremor of fear drained what little strength he had left. Then, with a slow, lumbering gait, the hulking beast suddenly turned away and stumbled off into the night.
Picking himself up, Jervoise made for the safety of the inn. At which moment the innkeeper, having been awakened by all the commotion, arrived at the door with a lantern. Seeing the terrified looking fellow stumbling about in a state of distress, began ushering him inside. Once inside the innkeeper immediately tried to determine what was wrong, but could make no sense of the man’s ramblings. After pacifying him as best he could, he sat him in front of the glowing embers of the fire. Jervoise gazed blankly into the hearth, still mumbling senselessly to himself. As the innkeeper was leaving the bar to fetch a blanket, he was suddenly brought to a halt on hearing Jervoise utter the words, “Old-Strike-a-Light”.
Consumed by visions of the hideous creature, the troubled fisherman then went into a frenzy and was about to flee the place. Just as he made for the door, however, the beast reappeared and stood blocking his exit then, raising one arm, pointed a wavering finger towards the hearthstone. Overcome with fear, the frail and terrified fisherman fell into a faint.
On his return, the innkeeper discovered Jervoise convulsing on the floor. He quickly wrapped him in a blanket and propped him in a chair beside the fire. Jervoise suddenly became delirious, jabbering frantically about the colossal spectre that had pursued him. Showing concern for the man’s tortured state, the innkeeper sent his wife to fetch Father Anselm from the nearby Priory of St. Bartholomew. The kindly priest listened intently as the fisherman continued to stammer obsessively about the events that had befallen him. In the following minutes he became hysterical, haunted by the menacing vision of the spectre. His eyes began to bulge manically from their sockets and, venting a cry of unimaginable horror, froze, transfixed in the agony of death as the lifeblood drained from him.
Sometime later, both the innkeeper and father Anselm reflected on where the spectre had been pointing. They seemed to agree that perhaps his appearance had not been to terrify the living but, moreover, to alert them to something of importance. They therefore decided to remove the old hearthstones. To their astonishment an old oak casket was discovered, crammed with Spanish doubloons.
From that day onward no more was seen or heard of Old-Strike-a-Light. It seemed he was finally at peace having alerted the living to his hidden cache.