The Hand of Glory By Dr Bramwell
Cutting through the heart of Brighton is Grand Parade, a wide Georgian road which takes in the glass-fronted University Arts Building and Victoria Gardens before confusion sets in and it gets swallowed up by the Old Steine. It is along this road, one of the main arteries of the city, that visitors are swept towards the seafront and the pier. Here some head west in search of frappuccinos and flip flops; others venture east, to proffer themselves to the greedy hands of the predatory men who lurk in ‘the bushes’. Others still continue straight ahead to promenade into the iron-limbed no man’s land that straddles land and sea, where palms are crossed with silver and starlings pulsate in great clouds at sunset. They might deny it of course but what they’ve all really come for is the soft rhythm of water on stones, the unbroken horizon and that great mass of rolling blue-grey that soothes the soul, fires the heart and ‘washes away man’s ills’. There is, as they say, ‘something in the water’.
Down from Grand Parade at the Old Steine stands Victoria Fountain. Around the base lies a mass of broken boulders, discovered by workmen in 1823. These are sarsen rocks from the Avebury Hills, a dense hard sandstone used by Neolithic Man to build part of Stone Henge. Thousands of years ago these stones had been dragged to Brighton for the same purpose: the Goldstone Stone Circle once overlooked the grey waters towards France, for some arcane, sacred purpose.
The arrival of Victoria Fountain in 1846 came as a disappointment to the good people of Brighton; they thought it had deprived them of a good hanging. Public executions had long been held at the Old Steine on market days (to guarantee good crowds) but with the Capital Punishment Amendment Act just around the corner, the building of the fountain coincided with an end to these bloody-thirsty and riotous events. The previous year had seen record numbers turn up to witness the hanging of Owen Parsons who was to be executed for murdering his boss; Parsons had bludgeoned the man to death with a spade after a bitter disagreement over wages. On the day of the hanging a large crowd gathered, many of them armed with rotten fruit which they pitched at Parsons as he was led to the gallows. As his struggling body swung from the gallows, amidst the jeers and fermented missiles, Parsons breathed his last and the crowd emitted a huge cheer. The crack of his broken neck could be heard as far as old Brunwick Town.
After it was over the crowds dispersed, though not everyone had lost interest in the body. As Parsons lifeless body was cut from the noose, his left hand was savagely hacked off by the hangman, Matthew Comstock, and sold to the highest bidder of a small group of shady individuals. Its owner would take it home to be dried, pickled and transformed into a ‘Hand of Glory’. Such sinister charms were highly sought after in the 1800’s amongst thieves and burglars who believed that when burned as a candle, the hand could unlock any door that it came across and render the occupants of a house paralysed.
The belief in the power of the Hand of Glory was so strong that villains were even known to murder children or pregnant women and make candles from the arms of their unborn babies.
Underneath Grand Parade and the Old Steine, winding its way from London Road down to the seafront is the Wellsbourne, the city’s lost river that still flows deep below the soil and tarmac. Nowadays it only makes its presence felt in extreme floods but in 1850 the Wellsbourne wreaked havoc in Brighton. After a vicious storm one afternoon in May this raging torrent of water swept up brother and sister, Emily and Hector Gregs, who were playing by its edge and deposited their cold, drowned bodies by Victoria Fountain at the Old Steine. The children’s bodies were recovered after the storm had abated but their hands were never found. They had been removed and sold to the highest bidder.
This page was amended on 22/08/2012
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