On this day in history : 20th February 1757 – The birth of John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller – Squire of the hamlet of Brightling, Sussex. An MP, philanthropist and builder of follies….
John Fuller, who was better known as ‘Mad Jack’ preferred to be called ‘Honest John’…. Was he mad? No, just eccentric….
Many associate Fuller with his follies – of which he built several which can be seen around the village of Brightling ~ ‘Folly: foolish and useless but expensive undertaking’….
However, there was so much more to the man…. He was born in Stoneham, Hampshire – but his father, the Reverend Henry Fuller, died when the young Fuller was just 4-years-old…. After he had finished his education at Eton he embarked on a military career – by the age of 22 he was a captain of a light infantry company in the Sussex Militia. In 1776 he was appointed High Sheriff of Sussex – a post lasting a year…. 1798 saw him as a captain in the Sussex Gentlemen and Yeoman Company….
To discover how he came to be Squire of a hamlet in Sussex we need to wind back to when he was 20-years-old…. It was on the death of his uncle that he inherited the Rose Hill Estate (now Brightling Park) – along with a plantation in Jamaica…. Fuller was a staunch supporter of slavery – having slaves on his inherited plantation…. He notoriously once claimed ‘West Indian slaves lived in better conditions than many people in England’….
Fuller was elected to parliament at the age of 23 and served as MP for Southampton until 1784 and then for Sussex from 1801 to 1812 – when he retired from politics. Fuller was rather fond of his drink – leading to a series of incidents in Parliament – one in particular involving the Speaker….
But there was also a very generous and charitable side to him…. In 1822 he endowed to Eastbourne its first lifeboat and in 1828 financed the building of the first Belle Tout Lighthouse, off of Beachy Head (a temporary structure, replaced by a permanent granite building in the 1830s). Also in 1828, on the 18th of September, he purchased Bodiam Castle at auction for 3,000 guineas – to save it from destruction….
Among his other notable projects was the building of the Observatory of Brightling – designed by Robert Smirke….
Perhaps one of his most generous bequests was to the Royal Institution (founded in 1799 and devoted to scientific research and education) of which he was a supporter. Initially given as a loan – but later written off – he donated £1,000 – over £100,000 in today’s terms…. In 1828 he established the Fuller Medal of the Royal Institute and in 1833 founded the Fullerian Professorship of Chemistry and later the Fullerian Professorship of Physiology….
Fuller never married, although at the age of 33 he did propose to Susannah Arabella Thrale, the daughter of politician Henry Thrale and authoress Hester Thrale – but his proposal was rejected…. He died on Friday the 11th of April 1834 at his London home – 36, Devonshire Place….and he was buried under one of his own follies…. He had built ‘The Pyramid’ in 1811 in the churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket Church in Brightling as a future mausoleum….