Sussex and the US: Closer than you think

JOINT FLAGSIn the final instalment of our American-themed blogs to celebrate Independence Day, we are looking at the many and varied connections between famous faces in America’s history and the county of Sussex.

Founded in the 17th and 18th centuries, thirteen British colonies on the east coast of North America declared independence in 1776 and formed the United States of America. However, long before the War of Independence, Sussex men and women were travelling to the colonies and making their mark. Two of these thirteen states, Delaware and Pennsylvania, were actually named after founders with links to Sussex!

Baron De La Warr
Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr

You may not think that a seafront pavilion in Bexhill has much in common with an entire mid-Atlantic state in the US, but they are both named after an English politician who set sail for the colonies in 1610. Appointed the first governor of Virginia, and later lending his name to the state of Delaware, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr (1577-1618) had strong ties with Sussex. Various De La Warr monuments still exist throughout the county, after De La Warr spent much time here, and eventually married Cecily Shirley, the daughter of Sir Thomas Shirley of Wiston, West Sussex.


De La Warr was not the only emigrant to claim parts of the colonies in his own name, as early Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) founded the state of Pennsylvania. Penn too had Sussex connections, living for a time in Warminghurst, West Sussex, and worshipping at the Blue Idol Meeting House. Known to hold Quaker meetings at his home Warmington Place, when Penn returned to England in 1684 to William Pennsettle a boundary dispute with Maryland, the magistrates at the Arundel Court of Quarter Sessions ordered that he be apprehended for hosting such meetings (QR/W173, M.31).

While De La Warr and Penn may have founded cities and states, another Sussex local, John Harvard (1607–1638), sowed the seeds of learning and culture that to this day continue to bear fruit across the continent. Prior to founding the first American university, Harvard emigrated to New England in 1637, shortly after marrying Ann Sadler (1614–55) of Ringmer at St Michael the Archangel Church, in the parish of South Malling, Lewes, East Sussex. His connection to the area came through a Cambridge classmate, John Sadler, whose father was rector at Ringmer. Harvard University remains one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, and excitingly now has further links with Sussex through the research being conducted by Harvard academics into the ‘Sussex Declaration’.

Shared cultural interests also intrigued Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond (1701-1750), and grandson of King Charles II, who was a leading patron of botanical expeditions to North America, and did much work to improve the grounds of Goodwood House, near Chichester, with specimens brought back from the colonies. His son, the 3rd Duke of Richmond (1734/5-1806), took a leading part in American affairs in the House of Lords during the War of Independence. It was during this war that the Royal Sussex Regiment, whose archives West Sussex Record Office hold, fought in major engagements, including Bunker Hill, Brooklyn and White Plains.

Perhaps the most well-known connection between Sussex and America is that of Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who lived at Bull House on Lewes High Street. Later travelling to

Thomas Paine
Sign at the White Hart Hotel, Lewes

Philadelphia on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, Paine became one of the leading propagandists for the American cause, notably through his Common Sense (1776), in which he advocated separation from Britain. Its publication had an immediate and profound effect in stirring up support for the American cause and the Declaration of Independence.


Even the first President of the independent United States of America, George Washington, was originally of Sussex stock! His path to becoming founding father and signatory of the Declaration of Independence started in 1588, when Lawrence Washington, who had family in Petworth, married Margaret Butler of Tyes Hall in Cuckfield. It is their grandson Lt. Col. John Washington, who first emigrated to the colonies. During the English Civil War, John’s father, the Rev Lawrence Washington, had been removed from his benefice as Rector of Purleigh in Essex by a Parliamentary Puritans. This ill treatment of his father by Cromwell’s forces is said to be a factor which led to the eventual emigration to Virginia of John Washington in 1656. Tobacco-plater, soldier, and later politician, it is this John Washington who became great-grandfather to George Washington, who gave another city, and another state the name of another Sussex family! George Washington copyright free

In the light of recent research and media interest surrounding our early parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence, it has been fascinating to examine the role Sussex has played in the history of the US, and many ways this is reflected in the written record. Through Record Office collections, it is possible to trace a connection that spans American history, both pre and post-independence.  The archive certainly shows us that we are closer to our American cousins than perhaps first thought!

Lauren Clifton

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2 thoughts on “Sussex and the US: Closer than you think

  1. I remember reading Thomas Paine went to France and became a member of the government. Before they wanted to execute him and he ended up in New Rochelle New York buried in a cemetery. An Englishman hoping to make money on exhibiting his bones around England had him exhumed and took his bones to England. Where it turned out they seemed to not be the hit of the show he put on the road and not money making.

    Liked by 1 person

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