The Lewes Street Stories Initiative>>Chapel Hill>>Old Chapel and Middle Section
Old Chapel and Middle Section of Chapel Hill, by Shân Rose
We do not know when Chapel Hill became known as ‘Chapel Hill’ but there was definitely a chapel there. It was located approximately half way up the hill, on the left hand side, where Nos. 12-16 and a garage are today. The photo to the left shows Nos. 14, 15 and 16 and also a glimpse of the garage with No. 12 behind (on the left hand side of the photo).
The Chapel was built by public subscription in 1775 on land leased by fifteen chapel trustees from Thomas Davey, a local surgeon. The Lease was for 40 years, at a rent of 20 shillings per annum.
The first public map to show the Chapel is William Figg’s Map of 1775, published just after the Chapel had been built. (Yellow colouring has been added to identify Chapel Hill.) The number 9 indicates the position of the Chapel and this is defined in the map’s key (not shown) as the “Countess of Huntingdon’s Meeting House”.
The Chapel was subsequently shown on James Edwards’ Map of 1799 by the letter M. The key for this map defines M as “Independent Meeting” (as in ‘Independent Meeting House’).
The best public map of the Chapel is the 1873 Ordnance Survey Map. (Yellow colouring has been added to show the Chapel.) The map shows the parish boundary going diagonally through the site (shown by a dashed line). You can also see from the map that the Chapel building was very substantial.
After the Chapel opened, it was reported that it had seating for 600 people. The Rev Thomas Horsfield and Gideon Mantell confirmed this some fifty years later in their 1824 book ‘The History and Antiquities of Lewes and Its Vicinity’. They also said that nearly two hundred children were attending the Sunday School “for instruction”. Even in 1851, on what was called ‘Census Sunday’, 388 adults and 150 children were recorded as attending services at the Chapel that day.
Unfortunately, we do not know what the Chapel looked like. We have not found any pictures or photographs, which is perhaps rather surprising because the Chapel was there for just over a hundred years. The only eye-witness account we have found so far is one provided by the Rev Thomas Horsfield and Gideon Mantell in their 1824 book. However, they did not seem very impressed with the Chapel because they said its “outwards appearance has nothing striking in it”. However, they added that: “the interior is neat.”
There still exists an account notebook in the County Records Office from 1775 which includes bills for building the Chapel, including glazing, carpentry, bricklaying, smithing and even “mowing the ground”. According to that notebook, the overall cost was just over £215. There is also a bill from a Thomas Riddell for cleaning the Chapel later on in 1802. He claimed that he and another workman had spent some five days doing the cleaning work and that they had used two “heath brooms”, soap and “5 potes of beear” (presumably the beer was for the workmen rather than for the cleaning!). After all this sprucing up, Thomas Davey’s family sold the Chapel to a Richard Braughton, a cooper from Lewes. He then sold the Chapel to the Chapel Trustees in 1814, just before their 40 year lease expired.
The people using the Chapel
What is probably the most interesting thing about the Chapel is the history of its occupants, and also how they went on to found a number of other chapels in Lewes.
The Chapel Trustees had to register the Chapel with the Archbishop of Canterbury before it opened. This was done through the local Registry of South Malling Deanery. The applicants stated that the building was: “intended … as a Meeting House for a Congregation of Protestant Dissenters under the denomination of Independants [sic]”. Thomas Davey’s Lease of the site in 1775 also said that the building was: “intended for … the public worship of Almighty God … upon those principles and tenets which are commonly called Calvinistical”. Interestingly, no mention was made of the Countess of Huntingdon, even though she was instrumental in setting up the Chapel.
So, who was the Countess? Well, she was certainly a formidable lady. Here is a picture of her. She converted to Methodism in the 1730s and she went on to found 64 chapels around the country. She even set up a college in Wales to train her ministers. Her sect later became known as ‘The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion’. The Connexion still continues today, with local chapels in places such as Eastbourne, Hailsham and Wivelsfield, and even places abroad, particularly in Sierra Leone.
The Countess founded her first chapel in Brighton in 1761, followed by Bath in 1765 and Tunbridge Wells in 1769. She then turned her attentions to Lewes. Her nineteenth century biographer, J. K. Foster, said that the Countess obtained a pulpit for one of her ministers, Mr. Romaine, in early 1775 but apparently “his preaching gave great umbrage [to the local rector] … Her Ladyship [then] … obtained … a pulpit for Mr Madan and Mr Fletcher [two of her other ministers]. [Apparently] the clergy opposed them violently [too] …”
Even after the Chapel had been built there were problems. A report in 1776 said that those frequenting the Chapel had been: “disturbed in their religious worship by disorderly persons, who made a practice during Divine Service of besetting the said meeting-house and, with indecent noise and clamour, and by flinging stones and bricks against and through the walls thereof and lighted-combustibles into the house, interrupt[ed] the congregation in their devotions and [put] them in fear of their lives.”
The Chapel continued to court controversy and turbulence throughout its history. There were regular falling-outs between ministers and different parts of the congregation. Here are some examples taken from Jeremy Goring’s book ‘Burn Holy Fire – Religion in Lewes since the Reformation’:
- In 1777, many of the congregation defected to All Saints or St Thomas’ Church because they preferred the preaching there.
- In 1784, some of the congregation were unhappy with the views of their then minister, Joseph Middleton, that only adults could be baptised. When things came to a head, he left with some of the congregation for a vacant meeting house in Foundry Lane. This building is no longer there but the congregation went on to found the Baptist Church in Eastgate Street.
- The views of the next minister, the Rev Jenkin Jenkins, became increasingly outspoken after he heard The Redeemed Coalheaver, William Huntington, preach (no relation to the Countess). The Chapel Trustees therefore decided to terminate the Rev Jenkins’ appointment in 1805 and he left with a number of the congregation to found the Jireh Chapel in Malling Street (which is still there).
- Although things started out well with the next minister, Joseph Kirby, problems began to arise in 1816, possibly due to political differences. Some of the congregation, who belonged to the Whig party, left to join the new Tabernacle chapel, roughly where Superdrug is today in the precinct.
- There was yet another dispute in 1852, when half the congregation left to join a chapel in a ‘Mrs Adams’ warehouse’.
After the next minister left in 1860, the Chapel went into gradual decline with just the occasional occupant. For the last ten years of its life, it remained empty.
The demise of the Chapel
The Chapel Trustees were compelled to call a public meeting in January 1878. They reported that the building had become “extremely dilapidated” and they no longer had any money to repair it. They subsequently applied to the Charity Commissioners for an order that allowed them to sell the Chapel at public auction. The buyer was William Whitcomb, a hotelkeeper from Cliffe, who bought the Chapel for £200.
Even at the end of the Chapel’s life, there was yet another dispute. The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion claimed that they were entitled to the sale proceeds. However, as mentioned earlier, the Countess was not referred to in the original trust arrangements for the Chapel. The Charity Commissioners therefore ordered that the sale proceeds be divided equally between the two local “Calvinistical Dissenting Chapels”, that is, the Jireh Chapel and the Congregational Tabernacle. As mentioned previously, the Jireh Chapel still exists in Malling Street and, although the Tabernacle was pulled down in the 1950s, the congregation moved to Prince Edward’s Road to form the United Reform Church, which is now known as Christ Church.
So, what did William Whitcomb do with the Chapel after buying it? According to a local newspaper report in 1879, he knocked it down and built three cottages and a workshop there.
Properties built on the site of the old Chapel (Nos. 12-16)
The properties built by William Whitcomb are shown on the enlarged version of the 1899 OS Map to the right. The workshop is coloured in green and the three cottages are coloured in orange. Although the newspaper report only mentions three cottages, we think that William also built another cottage on the site of the old Chapel – No. 12. This extra cottage is shown in purple, tucked in behind the workshop shown in green.
As regards William’s original workshop, it seems to have been very substantial. As you can see from the 1900s photograph below looking up Chapel Hill (from the Bartlett collection), the workshop (indicated with a green arrow) was of a similar size and architectural style to William’s three cottages next door. In the 1891 Census for South Malling, the workshop was called “Whitcombe’s Coach House”, and in a 1909 Conveyance it was: “[A] coach house with workshop over-built thereon”. A previous resident of No.12 recalls being told that a wheelwright had used the building and she was also shown a metal track in the concrete floor where the wheelwright had tested his wheels.
The coach house was subsequently included in Pike’s Street Directory as 13 Chapel Hill. George and Edward Hoey, and later George Hayward, who lived in Chapel Hill, used No. 13 for their plumbing, or painting and decorating, businesses, certainly up until 1951. In 1954, a fire broke out in the upper storey of the building, causing significant damage. By the time of a 1961 conveyance, the building had just become: “[A] garage, formerly known as 13 Chapel Hill”, and there was a planning application in 1965 to knock down part of the garage. Although the original coach house no longer exists today, there is still a gap in the numbering of Chapel Hill where No. 13 used to be.
There is now just a single-storey garage belonging to No. 9 on the site of the old coach house. You can see this garage in the photo on the right, set back from the road behind a brick forecourt. This photo also shows a brick-paved pathway on the left hand side which provides access to No.12 (and also to No.9). The porthole window to No.12’s studio can also been seen at the end of the pathway.
Properties that existed behind the Chapel (Nos. 10&11 and also a workshop)
Three other properties lay behind the Chapel but these were in separate ownership to the Chapel. They are shown on the 1873 OS Map to the right (the Chapel is outlined in yellow for reference). The property coloured in blue was a workshop and, according to an 1886 Conveyance, it was “formerly a Meeting house or Chapel School room”. So, perhaps a separate building for the Sunday School was added to the back of the Chapel and this was then used as a workshop after the Chapel fell into disuse. As regards the other two properties, coloured green and purple, these were two semi-detached cottages later known as 10 and 11 Chapel Hill.
According to the Census records for 1851-1881, the tenants of No. 10, for at least thirty years, were the Yeomans family. Levi Yeomans was a Maltster’s Labourer [that is, a labourer in the malt-making or brewing industry], and his wife, Lucy, was a washer woman and laundress. Their house had four rooms in which they brought up their five children. No.11 next door was tenanted by the Briggs family for at least twenty years, and Thomas Briggs was an Iron Foundry Labourer. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had three children.
The 1900s photograph below shows tantalising glimpses of the roof of the substantial workshop (blue arrow) and part of the roofs of the cottages at Nos. 10 and 11 (green arrow). We know from later OS Maps that the properties were still there well into the twentieth century. However, by the 1960s, they had been pulled down and the land on which they once stood was used to make some small back gardens for the adjoining properties. Despite Nos. 10 and 11 no longer being in existence, there are still gaps in the numbering of Chapel Hill for where they used to be.