Superstitions, old wives’ tales and the Devil: haunted histories at Brighton’s Preston Manor

[This story was published on September 2 in the Brighton and Hove Independent. Read the original story at brightonandhoveindependent.co.uk/superstition-haunted-histories-preston-man]

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Preston Manor’s current exhibition, Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain, is a suitable showcase for a place considered the most haunted in Brighton.

Featuring a unique display of artefacts, manuscripts and documents from the Doreen Valiente Foundation, this exhibition explores the folklore and county cultures which shape the heritage of Sussex. Altarpieces, witch beads, and jars containing ‘live curses’ are also brought together to tell the story of the Brighton witch Valiente.

Venue officer Paula Wrighton, at a recent event at the house which explored domestic rituals, beliefs and old wives’ tales both thriving and extinct, spoke about Preston Manor’s position within this local history of spectral presences and ancient customs.

Revealing an antiquated ledger, Paula told the story of the Kent family who had contacted her after being terrorised by years of bad luck and spirit visitations whilst in possession of this book, which was discovered behind a wall. The 100-year-old ledger holds the records of the East Street store Shorland Fooks, which was demolished after closing in 1984.

The ledger hit the headlines after the family, adamant that the book must return to Brighton, sent the record to Preston Manor, where it is kept today. It was donated by Josephine Benyovits – who now lives in Maidstone but grew up in Hove – and discovered by her father Tony Benyovits in 1988, when he was demolishing the Shorland Fooks shop. Having taken it home, the father and daughter believe they suffered a number of spirit visitations.

Paula Wrightson with ledger at Prestin Manor
Paula Wrightson with ledger at Preston Manor

Josephine said that images appeared in her rug, including a group of men, woman and children and a soldier with a horse. She says that one of the spirits told her that the ledger must be returned to Brighton for the centenary of its first entry.

Paula said: “At first we weren’t sure whether we’d take this apparently ordinary, 100-year-old shop ledger – until the family impressed on us quite how scared they were of having the book in their keeping. I had the family deliver the book to Preston Manor, which they did immediately from Kent, and it sat on my desk for a couple of weeks. During that time I had a meeting with a spiritual medium who was taking part in an event here, and she said she felt the book had ‘bad things’ emanating from it. For me personally, the most interesting aspect of the book is that the entries show what was sold in the shop exactly 100 years ago – but it remains to be seen whether there’s more to it than that.”

Imposing estates such as Preston Manor have long been the centre of superstition, Paula explained, and in times gone by servants were often more superstitious than the owners. Crossed knives were considered bad luck, one must never speak while a clock is chiming, and a hollow in baked bread represented a coffin in the future.

Manor Brighton fishermen often carried lucky charms while out at sea, and shepherds would often own a good luck talisman known as a Shepherd’s Crown, a type of fossil which can be seen at Preston Manor’s Folklore, Magic and Mysteries exhibition, which continues until November.

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For visitors interested in learning more about the city’s haunted histories and Brighton mysticism, there are a variety of events taking place over the next couple of months.

On September 8, a tour will explore the Preston Manor Dog Cemetery, and a day of talks and readings from the works of Doreen Valiente will take place on September 17.

The manor’s expert will ask ‘What is a ghost?’ at a pre-Halloween tour on October 22, and the ultimate gothic horror story will be brought to Preston Manor with a new version of the Bram Stoker classic Dracula from October.

To find out more about the events at Preston Manor, visit: brightonmuseums.org.uk/prestonmanor.

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