Percy Ernest Hurst came from a respected Eastbourne family. He was born in Eastbourne on 21st July 1865. His father Edward operated the windmill at Ocklynge which was known as Hurst Mill.
The family owned and lived in Ocklynge Manor in the High Street, one of the oldest buildings in the town.
Percy was a vegetarian and a campaigner against blood-sports. He was an opponent of the annual bird-shoot at Hampden Park to quell the numbers of rooks.
In 1901 Percy married Emily Ann Ellis, the daughter of John Ellis who lived at the Lawns, a grand house to the north of the parish church. By the way, it is worth noting the occupation of his father-in-law. He was a lawyer.
Percy first appears in the local papers in 1913, writing to complain about the proposal for the local council to purchase Devonshire Park and Baths which he worried would increase the local rates. That same year the council attempted to purchase some of Hurst’s land on the corner of Ocklynge Road and Willingdon Road. He thought that £180 was a fair price but the council refused his offer. When he established that the council had recently purchased land at Star Road for £900 and Lamb Corner for £500 he suspected that he was being unfairly treated.
Things came to a head in 1915 when Percy refused to maintain a nine-foot wide pathway known as ‘Ocklynge Avenue’ which ran from opposite Ocklynge Road north to Mill Road. (It was previously called Sparrows Lane – and is now the south end of Selwyn Road). As a result the council resurfaced the track and billed Percy £47.13s for the work. He would not pay and was sued by the corporation. During the subsequent court case, a lot of interesting historic information emerged as old residents gave evidence about their use of the path. The court decision was that the path had been in use by the public since 1836 but the cost of repair fell on the owner. He appealed, first to Lewes Assizes and finally at the High Court in London. On each occasion he lost his appeal and had to pay costs.
One of the solicitors used by the Eastbourne Corporation was Arthur Chester Hillman who later became a Eastbourne Town councillor. When Percy appeared at Eastbourne Police Court in 1916 one of the magistrates to hear the case was Arthur Chester Hillman! No wonder Percy was not convinced of the openness and honesty of Eastbourne council. Percy had a house in Croydon where he lived most of the time (and complained about the noise from the airport) but returned to Eastbourne twice a week. Whenever he was mentioned at council meetings he was referred to as ‘Mr Percy Hurst who is not a resident of Eastbourne’ however he rightly said that if not a resident, he was certainly a ratepayer.
He spent the rest of his life being irritated by the council (I am sure the feeling was mutual) and campaigning for more openness in the justice system.
Percy owned a large amount of land around Ocklynge and made a considerable amount of money with the development of estates in the King’s Avenue area. He owned property elsewhere in East Sussex and in Surrey. He owned blocks of flats in Willingdon Road and the whole of Ocklynge Parade where he kept a shop which he ‘kept for the purposes of propaganda’.
He would always refuse to pay the rates for the shop which would mean he would be annually summonsed to appear at Town Hall Court. This would give him the opportunity to air his many grievances with the court knowing that his rants would be reported in the local press. He once turned up in court with a cape on which was painted ‘NEW MAGISTRATE NEEDED’ but was marched out by police who told him that his clothing was inappropriate. On another occasion he paid his fine to the Council by paying with a five-pound-note on which he had written “Still no auditor for Eastbourne!” but it was not accepted by the clerk as it had been defaced. Percy pointed out that most notes in circulation had owners signatures or bank-clerks initials on the back and that they were legal tender. The note was reluctantly accepted.
Percy believed that many councils were ‘cooking the books’ and pressed government to appoint an national auditor to check the accounts of local councils. He was an Eastbourne candidate in the 1929 General Election standing as an ‘Independent Unionist’ with an agenda for making local councils more open and accountable. He received 2,277 votes (6.2% of the total vote.)
To gain publicity for his cause Percy would march up and down Eastbourne promenades wearing a bizarre uniform that consisted of a black cape with the words “BEWARE OF LAWYERS” painted on the back and black stove-pipe hat topped with a weather vane which turned around a revolving sign which read… yes you have guessed it! Sometimes however the message changed to read ‘’ARBITRATE – DON’T LITIGATE’ or ‘GOVERNMENT AUDITOR WANTED’. He also regularly picketed the Law Courts in London dressed in similar attire.
His shop in Ocklynge Parade was decorated with dozens of cartoons which depicted lawyers as snakes, blood-suckers and money-grabbers. There was a large banner “BEWARE OF LAWYERS” and a metal revolving shark on the roof with similar wording.
During the 1930s Percy campaigned against the building of the new bandstand, again because he considered that it would add to the Eastbourne rate which was over £1 more than that of nearby Hastings. Devonshire Park and the bandstand turned out to be boons for Eastbourne and over the years the council were able to recuperate their outlay. Percy however was not without his own ideas to increase tourism, one of which was to build a large Sussex tower windmill in the centre of the Redoubt Fortress! Not surprisingly the scheme was rejected.
In 1935 he published a book of his drawings ‘50 Original Cartoons on Law and Lawyers’ and there was even a poem about him in Punch Magazine in 1936.
The Eastbourne Herald called him ‘a man with a bee in his bonnet’ and that is certainly a good description of him; he was definitely a thorn in the side of Eastbourne Corporation.
Percy died on 2ndApril 1938 aged 76. His post-mortem was conducted by the famous pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury who had been involved in many high profile murder cases including Crippen , George Smith (the brides in the bath murders). He was the pathologist for several Sussex crimes including the Brighton Trunk Murders and both Crumbles murders in Eastbourne.
The Eastbourne Gazette called him a ‘ kindly, well-informed crusader’ and cited the good old Sussex saying ‘WE WONT BE DRUV’.
Percy left a will in which he wanted his estate (worth nearly £44,000) to be divided between his widow, Emily Ann and regular payments to 11 people and organisations including his own ‘Law Reform Association’ and a Mr Bassett of Ocklynge Parade who he described as the ‘quickest scissor-man he ever knew’
The will was contested by family members and the matter came up before Mr Justice Bennet at the Chancery Court in London in March 1939. The court was told that the will was not made out correctly and that the Law Reform Association was not an organisation that could benefit from the will. You can imagine the smirk on the face of the judge when he told the court……
“It is a pity that this gentleman did not consult a lawyer
before making his will” !!