George and Dragon Pub in Shipley, Sussex, is full of tales of fear, hate, suicide and hauntings, says guest writer PETULA MITCHELL

In Sussex we have beautiful old country pubs tucked away in half remembered lanes. 

Few are as attractive as the George and Dragon, with the wonderful address of Dragons Lane, Dragons Green, Shipley. 

This was my mothers local when she was young, so we all grew up aware of the dark and sad story of Walter Budd, whose gravestone stands in the front garden of the pub. 

The tale of Walter Budd

On 12 February 1867, the landlord and his wife had a baby son. Walter was albino, white hair and pink eyes, plagued with ill health, including epilepsy. 

In this community of what were basically simple farming folk, the boy was becoming a social pariah and victim of fear and ridicule. One can only imagine how they would have viewed the conditions this unfortunate boy was born with. 

Epilepsy had long been thought to be caused by either demonic possession or sexual deviancy. There was also a connection in popular culture between the condition and criminality.

Prejudice against epilepsy and albinism

In the Victorian imagination, it went hand in hand with degeneracy and violence. Indeed, in some of Dickens stories the character of the epileptic is menacing,

For instance, Monks in Oliver Twist, who falls to the ground with a grand mal seizure on their first meeting. It was well into the 20th century before it became understood as a neurological disorder. Victorian doctors harked back to the days of bleeding with leeches, cold baths and cauterization. In the 1860s one doctor was recommending a trial with mistletoe to treat it.

People with albinism fared little better during this time. Some earned their living as exhibits in the travelling circuses and freak shows that were popular entertainment. The very early study of hereditary disease followed the incidence of the condition in family groups, so once again it became tied up in the popular imagination with incest and degeneracy.

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Consequently,  Walter would have spent his childhood being tormented either by the locals and most likely treated as a specimen for experimentation for doctors, assuming they could be afforded in the first place. This double affliction must have made his life very difficult, living as a perceived monster in the eyes of the villagers. 

Walter accused of petty theft

When he was 25 years old he was accused of petty theft. His parents at the time said he was of a sensitive disposition, so the lynch mob mentality along with the accusation weighed heavily on the poor young man’s mind and finally drove him to suicide. Walter left his tormentors behind three days before his 26th birthday by drowning himself.

Sad end for Walter

This was not the end of the torment for Walters parents either. They accused the locals of driving their son to his sad end, while in return the local people blamed his mother for treating him cruelly.

The truth of the matter lies beyond our reach, but the gravestone in the pub garden certainly displays the views of his parents for all eternity.

For while Walter was buried in the churchyard, his headstone is outside the pub, next to the road where it can be seen for all time. 

Memorial for Walter Budd at the George and Dragon pub in Shipley, West Sussex
Memorial for Walter Budd at the George and Dragon pub in Shipley, West Sussex

The incumbent vicar of Shipley in the 1860s took exception to the small plaque engraved with the words ‘May God forgive those who forgot their duty to him who was just and afflicted. ‘

He ordered that the memorial be removed from the churchyard, so Mr and Mrs Budd with the help of family members, put it in the front garden. As they owned the pub at the time they had every right to do so. 

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It has been suggested in some articles that this could in this age be classed as a hate crime. The bullying and accusations levelled against a person who is different or has a disability is quite abhorrent to us in the 21st century.

Unfortunately fear and the lack of understanding of Walter’s medical problems in Victorian England most likely fuelled the cruelty and prejudice he suffered. 

George and Dragon’s resident ghost

Where he was haunted by his condition and the bullying of the locals in life, it would appear young Walter remains in death where he haunts the bar of the George and Dragon, along with a couple of old shepherds.

If so, I hope that his spectral companions treat him with more kindness than people did when he was amongst the living. 

So if you are passing through this part of Sussex at any time, pull off the A272 near Shipley and have a pint at this lovely old pub.

But while you are there spare a thought and a kind word for Walter who had a short and unhappy life within those walls, as he may well hear you. 

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