Revolution man
Sussex Life|November 2020
Lewes’ most famous resident Thomas Paine may be the greatest propagandist who ever lived. But how did a humble customs and excise officer ignite the touchpaper for revolution in not one but two countries?
Chris Horlock

Lewes has many claims to fame: its riotous 5 November celebrations; Harvey’s Brewery; the imposing Norman castle of 1107; Anne of Cleves’ House; even the worst avalanche in British history.

But ask any local who they consider its most celebrated past resident to be, and they will not hesitate to name Thomas Paine. A statue of him stands outside the library, his portrait adorns the town’s bank notes and there’s a mural painted in his honour in Market Passage. One of the pubs – The Rights of Man – is named after one of his publications, and there are guided tours of his home, Bull House, in the High Street, at various times throughout the year.

And all this is just in Lewes. There are monuments and memorials to him across the world, particularly in America and France. There’s a whole museum in New York dedicated to his memory.

So who was Paine exactly, and what did he do that took him to such giddy heights of fame?

Thomas Paine hailed from Thetford, Norfolk, and originally worked as a rope manufacturer, then a schoolteacher. His father was a Quaker, his mother Anglican and his first marriage ended tragically when both his wife and child died during childbirth. The move to Lewes in 1768, where he worked as a customs and excise officer, would prove a turning point in his life. He was so infuriated – to put it mildly – with the pay and conditions he had to work under that he published a lengthy pamphlet airing his grievances and exposing corruption within the service. Unsurprisingly, this led to his dismissal. Pamphlets were the preferred way for people to let off steam about issues at this time. Newspapers didn’t welcome lengthy, controversial articles from the public, and books had long lead times as well as being prohibitively expensive for most people. Pamphlets could be run off quickly in large quantities and sold cheaply, rapidly disseminating whatever message the author wanted to bring to public attention.

‘His complaints about his job were to light the fuse on a whole powder keg of issues’

Paine wasn’t, as far as is known, a particularly political man before coming to Lewes, but his complaints about his job were to light the fuse on a whole powder keg of issues and establish him as one of the most radical social reformers of the modern world.

In Lewes, he lived at 92 High Street, and married Elizabeth Ollive, his landlord’s daughter, in 1771, but the marriage didn’t last. A move to London in 1774, with just £45 in his pocket, led to a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin, soon to become one of the founding fathers of the United States. Franklin suggested that Paine could seek his fortune in America, still embryonic in its development and made up of 13 disparate colonies, all firmly under British rule but agitating for independence.

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