The Girl Soldier, The Poet and the Highwaymans Mother

 

Pheobe was born in Stepney in 1713.  At just 15 years of age, she enlisted herself into the Fifth Regiment of Foot (Now the Northumberland Fusiliers) so as to remain with her lover Samuel Golding who also served with this regiment, and for the next 17 years they remained with the regiment – her disguised as a man – posted to battle across the East Indies and Europe. Asked – in later life – how she had kept her secret for so long, Phoebe replied

“You know sir, a drunken man and a child always tell the truth. But I told my secret to the ground. I dug a hole that would hold a gallon, and whispered it there.”

After her true identity was discovered/revealed, they were discharged from the forces, married and lived happily for 20 years until Golding died.

Phoebe also outlived her second husband, Brighton Fisherman William Hessel, and life with and without him was hard, with frequent recourse to the parish for support of one kind or another. As a widow once more, Phoebe scratched a living pedalling goods at the surrounding villages, and it was in one of these trips that she came across James Rook at the Red Lion Public House at Old Shoreham. From his conversation she perceived that he had to do with a highway robbery of the mail horse at Goldstone Bottom which had recently taken place. Phoebe informed the authorities of her suspicions and Rook was taken in and subsequently found – with accomplice Edward Howell – to be guilty of this act.

Both men were sentenced to be executed at the spot where the robbery took place and – Pour encourager les autres – their remains were to be left suspended within an iron cage at the scene of their crime for a year. According to Erredge (History of Brighthelmston)

“The disgusting sight of their decaying bodies remained some time a terror to the timid, but a mark of recreation to the reckless and thoughtless, who were accustomed to throw at them and practice many revolting tricks”

As the bodies decayed, bones dropped through the iron bars and onto the ground below – many collected as morbid relics by locals. Erredge reports of a Brighton Alderman in proud possession of a tobacco stopper made from a finger bone of Rook.

Sinister curiosity was not the only motivation for acquiring their bones. Rooks mother – devastated by the loss of her son and the manner of his end – took to gathering as many as she was able, and when the grizzly remains were finally lowered, she buried them in secret in the grounds of Old Shoreham Churchyard. Her story caught the attention of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson who used it as the basis for ‘Rizpah’ which is so compellingly illustrated at the start of this post.

Phoebe continued life in Brighton, becoming – due to her great age – even more of a local character. Not wholly pleased, she complained “Other people die – I cannot”.

Phoebe died at Brighton aged 108 and is remembered with a headstone at the ancient ground. Also commemorated at her birthplace in Stepney where she was sometime remembered as the  ‘Stepney Amazon’, adjoining streets Hessel Street and Amazon Street, and nearby Golding Street were named to celebrate to her long and unusual life.

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