Stileman, Richard (1787 - 1844)

by Malcolm Pratt

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The kind of nervousness which Richard displayed in the presence of the wig affected him too when he visited The Friars, Winchelsea's leading property which was eventually to become his home. There he would see 'the solitary figure of a beautiful eagle' perched in a window of the medieval Greyfriars Chapel which stood in the grounds. The eagle, he said, 'added a real terror to the awe which pervaded the precincts of the chapel. When, from a position of perfect stillness, he thrust his head forward, spread his wings and ushered a shrill cry he made one's young heart jump and one took care to keep at a respectful distance.'

Freed of parental influence Richard enjoyed considerable freedom to roam the town and the surrounding area. Despite being the son of Winchelsea's leading family he took every opportunity to associate with other boys. Indeed, he took the lead in that association and described himself as 'the colonel of the regiment of boys'. From this company he thought that 'except for a few vulgar words and a few dirty tricks' he came to little harm. His view of servants, however, was less generous. As a result of his contacts with men in his family's service he concluded that they were 'bad instructors'.

We do not know whereabouts in Winchelsea the Stilemans lived in the days of which Richard was writing. He described his home as having been adapted from 'three or four separate dwellings' and said that a remote part of it was inhabited by Widow Holt and Richard's greatest boyhood friend, her son Dick. Despite this modest description, surviving records show that only seven properties in the town were more highly rated. Dick Holt' s late father had been a smuggler and was drowned while involved in 'the trade'. Her late husband's associates continued regularly to supply Widow Holt with secret stores of 'good Hollands, tea and tobacco' which she in her turn handed out to neighbours.

Commenting on the relationship between smugglers and excisemen in the Winchelsea area in those days Stileman recalls it as being very relaxed. An exciseman, he says, would receive 'two or three tubs' from a run cargo and, for appearances sake, would then be 'seized, laid on his back and hands tied in a friendly way'. By the time his reminiscences were being written that situation had completely changed for those were the days of the naval Coast Blockade whose officers had a beached headquarters vessel The Enchantress near Winchelsea at Rye Harbour and whose enforcement of the law regarding contraband frequently led to considerable violence. We do not know, however, whether Dick's late father's death occurred during an earlier such incident or was accidental.

Stileman describes his friendship with Dick Holt as being very close, this despite their vastly different circumstances and social position for the Stilemans were wealthy and Richard Holt and his mother are both recorded as having received poor relief from the parish. Dick was, nevertheless, sometimes invited to the Stilemans' home and Richard spent a good deal of time with Widow Holt and her son. In his youth he thought that this situation would never change but, inevitably, it did. The boys grew up and Widow Holt was required to leave her home so that it could be used by the Stilemans' 'good old gardener and his wife'. Dick, as soon as he was old enough, went to sea and, by the time he was fifteen in 1803 Richard is recorded as being 'at school in Chelsea'. No doubt this schooling had been arranged by Uncle Bob who had, like Richard's parents, died comparatively young the previous year.

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