The author whose Beetle had more bite than Dracula. . .

Richard Marsh
Richard Marsh

Crawley has been home to many talented people over the years, from England manager Gareth Southgate to pop legends The Cure.

One innocent-looking house in Three Bridges was home for almost 20 years to a Victorian author who produced some of the best horror tales of his age.

Arts Council plaque dedicated to Richard Marsh

Arts Council plaque dedicated to Richard Marsh

One of them – The Beetle – was published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and continually outsold that classic until 1940.

The author was Richard Marsh (1857-1915) and he lived in New Street between 1891 and 1910.

Country Books has republished one of his most well-known works, The Goddess: A Demon, 117 years after it first hit the shelves. It includes an introduction by Shaun Cooper which details plenty of information about Marsh’s links to Three Bridges and other parts of Sussex.

Richard Marsh was born Richard Bernard Heldmann in 1857 in St John’s Wood, London. He started writing adventure stories for boys in about 1882, becoming co-editor of the Union Jack story magazine late that year. As Shaun Cooper’s introduction described, the job didn’t last long, with Marsh straying off the straight and narrow and landing himself 18 months’ hard labour in Kent gaol.

The Goddess: A Demon has been republished

The Goddess: A Demon has been republished

The young author – using the name Bernard Heldmann – had assumed several false identities and issued a number of cheques which were either forged or could not be honoured because he had no money. He spent more than £1,000 – a huge amount in Victorian times – swindling his way through England and France before returning to Kent on December 8 1883.

Mr Cooper’s introduction said: “Then, still swindling people with his dodgy cheques and false names, he went to Deal, Tonbridge Wells, Exeter, Souhport, Liverpool, Warrington and Llandudno, in that order, with the Kent police tracking him all the way.

“They caught him in the last week of February as he stepped off a train back at Tonbridge Wells again, and it was about then that more of the public became aware of the scoundrel, as reports of his escapades and later his arrest, appeared in various newspapers up and down the country during that month.”

If ever anyone turned over a new leaf it was young Heldmann. He married Ada Kate Abbey when she was 19 and he was 30. When the couple moved to New Street, Three Bridges, they had two children – Harry and Mabel – who were soon followed by Madge, Conrad and Bertram.

Under his pen name of Richard Marsh he wrote the bulk of his work while living there, including The Crime and the Criminal, which was set around Three Bridges and features a murder in Tilgate Park.

While their father made his mark as an author, his sons Harry and Conrad were also becoming well known, with a newspaper article in February 1915 describing them as being “of great assistance to the local football and cricket clubs”.

Richard Marsh died peacefully at home in Haywards Heath on August 9 1915. Harry was killed at the Battle of Loos on September 25 1915.

In 2014, Crawley Arts Council placed a blue heritage plaque at the house in New Street in recognition of Richard Marsh’s work.

It was unveiled by then mayor Cllr Bob Burgess and thriller writer Julia Crouch.

The Goddess: A Demon, with a new introduction about Richard Marsh, written by Shaun Cooper, has been published by Country Books and available from www.countrybooks.biz and www.sussexbooks.co.uk .

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