Nevill History > Early History of the Nevill Estate
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Detail from Ordnance Survey map of Lewes, 1911 1 (Click to enlarge)
It would have been fascinating to eavesdrop on a meeting held on the 13th October 1835, years before this Ordnance Survey map was published in 1911. The new Lewes Board of Guardians was considering alternative sites for a new Workhouse for the poor in Lewes after the Poor Law Amendment Act. One possible site was “To right of road leading from Spital to Spital Mill” but it was considered “too keen for the aged from its elevated situation and being exposed to the northerly winds.” 2 (Minutes of Board of Guardians Aug 1835 – Mar 1839 G/6/1a/1 ESRO at the Keep)
To those of us who frequently walk down the hill from the Nevill into Lewes this observation is perhaps not surprising. There was still no building on the Nevill site by 1911 though housing had crept up the hill and along the Nevill Road since the 1830s and an isolation hospital at St Mary’s had been built.
However by 1920 the Council was considering places to build new housing on this elevated, windy site as you can see from the local newspaper 3 (left, click to enlarge). By this time the local worthies were arguing that the excellent views, the contours of the land, the ease with which sewers could be connected and the accessibility of water and gas mains made this an excellent site to develop.
The fact that the station was only a mile and a quarter away and that three elementary schools were in the neighbourhood were additional advantages. Western Road (the first Council School in Lewes accommodating 160 children aged 9 to 12) had opened amidst great excitement in 1915. St Pancras had shared the site of the Roman Catholic Church in the High Street from 1866 and St Anne’s C of E infant school was close to Baxter’s Field. It was also noted that there were Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches nearby and that the main bus route between Lewes and Brighton passed the end of Nevill Road.
So why the change of mind? The provision of housing had become a central issue in the late 19th century because of the impact of industrialization. Local councils were given powers to clear slums within their boundaries and to re-house at least half the people displaced by slum clearance. This had not resolved the problem of poor housing in the centre of Lewes. The 1919 Addison Housing and Town Planning Act at the end of the First World War also recognized the need to build “Homes Fit for Heroes”. Local authorities were promised government subsidies to help finance new housing and rented accommodation where it was needed by working people. The 1923 Chamberlain Housing Act soon reduced the housing subsidy to local authorities but the Borough had to secure mortgages to pay £75 subsidies “in respect of affordable houses built by private enterprise”.4 The first brief Labour Government in 1924 increased the subsidy for council housing again. This lasted until 1933 when the subsidy for encouraging local authority housing construction was abolished.
The Lewes Borough Minutes (DLD 1/5 ESRO at the Keep) tell us how councillors reacted to the 1919 legislation. In April 1920 the Borough Council agreed to the Housing Committee’s (Alderman Every in the Chair) suggestion they should purchase Abergavenny land and request sanction for loans from Ministry of Health. “for the purposes of Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890.” Trustees acting on behalf of the Marquis of Abergavenny were selling off 39 acres of his land. (I believe this was necessary to pay death duties.) As you can see from this document he was unable to act for himself.
1938 copy of the agreement made in 1920 between the Abergavenny Estate and the Borough of Lewes 5
The Borough bought 39 acres of land on 5th November 1920 for £1,700 (Between £46 8s 10d and £81 an acre – compared with £1000 acre which was the going rate in the Paddock area, £600 for Wallands and £1,400 for St Swithuns.) 14 ¼ acres were to be “used immediately for the purposes of housing and the remaining sum of £1138 for the purchase of the remaining 24 ½ acres of the said land to be eventually used for the purposes of the said Act or for such other purposes in connection with the Housing of the Working classes as may hereafter be determined.” (17/4/20: “On motions by Alderman Every. (Chairman of Housing Committee)6 . The land had been farmed by Mr. Brown. Every congratulated him on the “splendid manner” with which he had cooperated with the committee. It seems from the Sussex Express September article above that the Council was in a hurry to build the housing even before the land had been finally purchased. On Monday August 30th Mayor Rudd had borrowed a spade to turn “the first sod on the Nevill road site on the spot pegged out for the first two dwellings” in a ceremony attended by Alderman Every and his deputy, other members of the housing committee, Mr Baxter the Town Clerk, and an architect.
The same article tells us that only the white part of this map (above) 7 received a government subsidy as a Government inspector thought the pink part would not get its proper share of sun-shine. The Council bought the lot because otherwise they wouldn’t have got such a good price.
The journalist points out that “on Monday it was positively bathed in sunshine!”
It seems that the first houses were begun on Nevill Road – or perhaps Nevill Crescent. The street directories 8 tell us that people were living in numbers 1 -11 Nevill Crescent and in the houses round the corner in Nevill Road by 1922 but it is not clear where the “First sod” was dug. Each house was to cost a maximum of £900. The council had originally planned eight houses to an acre but the Government had insisted there should be ten, still leaving ample room for gardens. All the houses were to have bathrooms. “The accommodation in some instances comprises parlour, living room, scullery and three bedrooms, whilst in others four bedrooms will be provided.”
It was not long before there was an argument about who should get the credit for the new Lewes Housing Scheme. A month after the ceremony, on the first of October, a row broke out in the Sussex Express. A Labour candidate for the forthcoming local elections, Mr S.E Plummer, claimed that the Trades and Labour Council and Labour Councillor Tiller on the housing committee had to push the new housing scheme forward at a time when the “capitalists” on the Town Council thought it was not necessary.
Sussex Express 1 October 1920 9
Click to enlarge
A week later on the 8th October the Chairman of the Housing Committee, Alderman Every of the Phoenix Ironworks retorted that the Committee “did not lose one single minute in setting to work” on the new Housing Estate and that there had been complete agreement on the committee. Another member, Councillor Patrick, said they had done it because it had been a pleasure to do it, and because the Act of Parliament and the regulations stated they had to do it, and if they did not do it the work would be taken out of their hands and done at their expense.
Sussex Express 8 October 1920 10
Click to enlarge
Whatever the politics of the situation a mixture of council and private properties had been built on the new Nevill Estate by 1930 – perhaps all originally intended to be houses for “the working classes”, but early on the estate became home to people from different social backgrounds. Council and private housing alike was built on generous plots.
Ordnance Survey map 1930 13 (left) Click to enlarge
Street directories 11 show people living in Nevill Crescent and Nevill Road from 1922, North Way from 1922, South Way from 1924, Middle Way from 1927 and Cross Way from 1927. In fact they were probably in residence considerably earlier than this. Planning records (DLA/25) 12 and conveyancing documents show, for example, that planning permission had already been granted for bungalows on the south side of South Way in 1921 (number 8) and 1922 (number 10). Indeed Charles Pannett, who lived for a time at number 10 and owned a building firm, was involved in the planning application and presumably the construction of numbers 2-6 Middle Way in May 1924.
South Way and Nevill Crescent, probably taken in the mid 1920s. 14
(Left) From John Kay’s collection
North Way, probably early 1930s. 15 (Below) From Bob Cairns collection
Planning records show that Pannett and son were probably the most active builders in the early years of the estate. But in June 1927 there was a fuss about the construction of twenty council houses on the East side of North Way. “The Committee were reminded that the erection of the houses on the site selected would seriously disturb the allotments there, a considerable portion of which was under active cultivation.” (Borough Minutes 15/6/27) 16 The Borough Surveyor had to give up his holiday to help sort this out.
Furthermore a tender to build them out of brick made by Pannett was accepted by the Housing Committee under the chairmanship of Miss Fowler-Tutt but then rejected by the Council in favour of concrete construction which was cheaper. Two years later councillors asked that the housing committee meet urgently to deal with “defects in these houses.”
Middle Way and Cross Way 17
From Bob Cairns collection
In February 1932 ‘Lewes Chat’ in the Sussex Express 18 was reporting that “the Housing Committee have made remarkable progress in the last year or two and the housing estate has become quite a little town with people clamouring for more.” It was a while before road construction caught up with the building. The road at the top of South Way, for example, was not finished until the middle of the 1930s when numbers 34 to 54 were still to be built. A generous gift by Alderman Every, of the Phoenix Ironworks, a recently retired member of the Council and Mayor between 1903 and 1905, was the incentive for its completion. Every had been chair of the Housing Committee in the planning stages of the Nevill. The Sussex Express 19 said he had given “33 years of unstinted and unselfish service to the council and the inhabitants of the borough”.
In May 1935 he presented six beech trees to the estate as a Jubilee Memorial. At this time the Council for Preservation of Rural England was urging local authorities to celebrate the Jubilee by the preservation of open spaces and the planting of trees so that “All classes will be benefited.”
The people of the new Nevill Estate would have been very much involved in the week-long series of events that celebrated the King George V’s Jubilee on May 6th 1935. The children of Lewes gathered for a “demonstration of loyalty upon the Dripping Pan”. They were given a bag of cakes, a bag of sweets, an orange and a free trip to the cinema. The elderly were entertained by the Rotary Club. There were thanksgiving services and broadcasts of the king’s speech from Buckingham Palace. Gabriel, the town bell, was rung and a torchlight procession through the town ended with a bonfire on Race Hill. You can read all about it in the Express and the Sussex County Herald.20
It was decided that Mr Every’s gifts were to be planted on a green space at the junction of Middle Way and South Way. “Conveniently arranged steps” were to be constructed and a fence was to be erected around the trees. The Borough Council agreed that this was to be paid for out of the housing budget. By New Year’s Day 1936 the Borough Surveyor reported 21 that he had “carried out works of making up South Way to the terminus of the Housing Estate, paving footways, and the construction of an island garden 37 feet 6 inches in diameter.” The memorial tablet was to be fixed to the new fence. The original trees did not survive unfortunately. A local man who was brought up in South Way remembers this corner in the 1950s as “a scruffy place – rather unkempt and overgrown with small shrubs and bushes – and fouled by dogs and other animals. Hardly a plantation fit for a King!” New trees have been planted even since this photograph was taken in 2015. 22 It is to be hoped that they survive.
By 1935 the Sussex Express reported that the new Nevill Downs Estate, north of the original Nevill Estate, was “the area which is seeing the greatest expansion of the borough as regards building developments in recent years.” The Ringmer Building Works, founded by John Christie of Glyndebourne, was responsible for the construction of much of the Nevill Downs Estate as well as some of the houses in the earlier part of the Nevill. This firm was also busy building garages and garden sheds all over the estate. 23
Left – Highdown Road with shops, from the Bob Cairns Collection
Right – Hamsey Crescent, from the Rendell Williams collection 25
(click to enlarge)
A number of the houses on the estate were built to house police officers and their families. Elizabeth Broadbridge 26 remembers a happy childhood on the Nevill living with her parents William E Kilborn and Annie Kilborn at 61, Firle Crescent from 1938 to 1948, then at in a larger house at 3, Crossway from 1948-1951 and later at 22, Windover Crescent between 1954 and 1958.
“Does anyone remember the lamplighter? A small man who came, on a bicycle, every evening and morning to turn the street lights off and on. He had a long pole that he hooked on to a chain that activated the bulb. The milkman delivered milk in bottles, on a cart pulled by “Jingles” his horse. Jingles’ droppings were much prized by the residents for their gardens. Occasionally a French onion seller would come round, on a bicycle, with strings of onions round his neck. I always wondered how he managed to bring them all over from France on a bicycle. Summer days were spent playing in the fields next to the Motor Road up to the racecourse. After harvest we used to make camps out of the straw bales. In those days children played out on the estate and it was not uncommon to go out after breakfast, come home for lunch and go out again until teatime. Mum knew we were somewhere around.”
There are many people on the Nevill with stories to tell. Brian Beck has lived on the estate, mostly in Highdown Road, for very many years. The picture below shows him as a young child standing outside 7 North Way.
He has written and spoken a great deal about the history of the Nevill. 29 “Most of the everyday needs could be bought in the shops on the estate, there was Vinalls grocers and the sub post office at the bottom of Southway by the green, Tompsetts in Middleway grocer, tobacconist, confectionery and important to us Tizer. The three shops in Mount Harry Road were on the left Stapleys newsagent, tobacconist and confectionery, the middle shop Walkers was double fronted butchery on the left and greengrocery to the right, the other shop whose name escapes me grocery.”
“We had our own world where nobody could control us, whether there were the dangers that worry parents today we didn’t know so we wandered from the Nevill beyond the race course to the “Squares and Brakey Bottom” camping and eating charred potatoes from our camp fire, to the chalk pits and the slope “Bonnie Scotland” down to Offham our sledging venue with iron runners for snow and polished wooden ones in the summer when the ground was hard and the turf smooth.”
One of the urgent housing needs that was often referred to in the Borough Minutes was for housing for Prison Officers. Some of the houses in North Way, Middle Way and Hamsey Crescent seem to have been intended for them. Chris Field wrote from his home in New Zealand 30 “My parents were Hubert George Field (Bert) and Mary Ann Field (Moll), and we lived at 23 North Way until 1938. Dad was a warder at the Prison – as were some of our neighbours I believe, so perhaps No.23 was a “Prison House”. We moved in to 3 Hamsey Crescent on 22 Sept 1938.”
More houses were needed. By 1936 the Lewes Prison Commissioners were planning to build staff quarters on the forecourt of the Prison. 31 The Borough Council offered to assist in acquiring an alternative “site in the vicinity suitable for the purpose” instead. This eventually led in February 1939 to the acquisition of more land by the council from the Abergavenny Estate and the building of new houses in Hawkenbury Way.
Sussex Express 15 November 1935 (Click to enlarge)
South Way residents were very upset. They lost their beautiful view towards the sea. So they were compensated. The houses on the south side gained substantial plots. Number 20 bought theirs (shaded pink on the plan below)32 on the 18th May 1939 for the princely sum of £14 17s. The upkeep of the shaded (green) part of Hawkenbury Way became the responsibility of South Way residents until it was taken over by the Home Office and then the Council.
In fact the Second World War delayed the building of the new houses until 1947. Alan Fennemore, 33 the one remaining prison officer living in Hawkenbury Way, now retired, arrived there in 1973. He bought his house just before the Council House sell off in the 80s. Prison Officers had heard that coastguards were being allowed to buy their houses so asked to do the same.
The houses were exactly the same as those built for officers (including his father) to Home Office specifications at Wandsworth Prison. He also confirmed that German prisoners of war were involved in the building of the houses. He found a signature on an old water tank in his loft. “Ludwig Zoz Odenheim/Brachsal Germany (Baden) P.O.W” scratched his name there on the 27th February 1947.
Image © Alan Fennemore (click to enlarge)
The prisoner of war would have walked across the land between the prison and the new development. This land was also used for many years as a Sheep fair.
Image of sheep fair in front of Lewes Prison, courtesy of Karen Tillstone and Lewes Past Facebook Group 34 (click to enlarge)
The prison officers had a clear view of their place of work until 1983 when the other side of the road was developed. There were more complaints but at least some of the prison officers appreciated the shelter the new houses gave them from the prevailing winds across the Downs.
Hawkenbury Way before 1983 when houses were built on the southern side of the road
Detail from Ordnance Survey map 1938 36 (click to enlarge)
House building was interrupted by the war. The Borough Council spent £29,096 building Bomb Proof shelters, most of which was paid by central government. 35 According to Ralph Elliston’s book, Lewes at War, three of the communal concrete shelters, designed to house 150 people, were built at the rear of South Way in the extra plots of land sold to the residents in 1939. These were half buried under the ground. Excavated soil formed protective banks on the roofs and the sides. Five concrete steps led past brick flank walls to the entrance doors and gas curtains. The remains of one of these can still be seen in the back garden of number 20. The concrete structure has become the base of a pond. Five such shelters were built in Highdown Rd, one behind the Church Hall, one to the side of number 29 and three on the downs behind the houses. Seven more were in roads backing onto the downs, two on Nevill Green and one in the garden of 49 Middle Way. According to the Borough minutes 110 Anderson shelters were distributed on the Nevill and Downs Estates by May 1941.
A picture of men digging air raid shelter on Nevill Green included in Elliston’s book 37 suggests construction had already started in September 1938. Brian Beck remembers the shelter: “in the Rec (Nevill Green), the construction was the same for all of them including the ones at all of the schools. A long trench about 6 to 7 feet deep and 6ft wide was excavated, this was lined and roofed with precast concrete sections and had wooden benches along the length and the excavated earth covered the shelter as was the case of the family Anderson shelter. Over the entrance was a rolled up blanket impregnated with some mysterious chemical which in the event of a gas attack would be let down to provide some protection, fortunately neither the shelter nor the blanket were ever “used in anger” throughout the war.”
The council minutes on 12 June 1940 complain about “continued misuse of public shelters” and the need to construct doors. Beck’s memoirs cast some light on this. “As we got older they became an ideal trysting place. The only casualty was my friend and next door neighbour, at eleven he was a pipe smoker using a miniature “sherlock holmes” with which he would smoke any fagend he could get, one day these were in very short supply so he tried a piece of the blanket which had two outcomes he was as “sick as a pig” and the other he became, like me, a confirmed non smoker for life.”
There are other memories of this period. Chris Field 38 writes: “Air-raids whilst at school were not common, but we all sat in the big concrete shelters, singing songs such as “Rule Britannia” and “Roll out the Barrel” with great gusto – hoping that the Germans would drop a bomb on to the school, but they never did.” Brian Bodle 39 remembers Anderson shelters. “I was born in ‘39 and I distinctly remember going in them. My older sister Eileen would never get out of bed. She would never go in them. And Mrs Feast who lived next door to me, I remember this distinctly, I couldn’t have been more than three or four. She used to bring sandwiches out and we use to muck in you see. I can remember the bombers going over and I also remember distinctly the doodle bug noise, you know once they stopped you knew you were in trouble. I remember that was an eerie, terrible noise.”
For the adults living on the Nevill the Second World War was no doubt an anxious time but these memoirs suggest that the children continued to enjoy themselves. Chris Field was lucky to survive without injury. “During the war years we were not really interrupted much in our fun-seeking, in fact loved seeing the flashes in the sky over London during the Blitz. One day a Jerry plane crashed just up on the hills behind Nevill Estate- we had to be restrained from hurtling up there to view it of course, and several Hamsey Cres men took off with sticks and spades to grab the Jerries. Another interest came when an army group did pre-D-Day training up near the race course. They left some bullets and a mortar shell by accident – Peter Welfare and I carried them home to his garden, much to his mother’s annoyance. Within a short time Constable Harman from East Way was there to admonish us, and a squad of soldiers soon arrived to remove the dangerous goods. Brian Beck was out on the Downs too at that time. “We saw the battle mostly over August and early September, our gang would go up on the hill above the chalk pits where we could see the vapour trails of the planes and see where any plane was crashing. We would jump on our bikes and hope that it was German and get to the crash site in the hope of getting souvenirs.
One day we were able to get to a Me 109 fighter that had crash landed near the road past Houndean Rise near where the Kingston roundabout now is.”
There is much more to be written about the Nevill both before and after the Second World War. Conversations with present and past residents of the Nevill Estate make it clear that there is a great affection for this area of Lewes and a strong sense of community. New contributions, pictures, memoirs welcomed.
Ann Holmes 2018
Grateful thanks to John Kay and Bob Cairns, Rendel Williams, and Rosemary Page for the use of pictures from their collections
Grateful thanks to Brian Beck, Brian and Jacqueline Bodle, Elizabeth Broadbridge, Alan & Isobel Fennemore and Chris Field for extracts from their memoirs.
Chris Field sadly died in October 2017. His wife, Liz tells us: “Chris’s ashes were scattered on the Downs above where he lived and where the Battle of Lewes took place in 1264. A fitting farewell for an ardent lover of his hometown Lewes.”
- Ordnance Survey 1911: Lewes Library
- Minutes of Board of Guardians Aug 1835 – Mar 1839 G/6/1a/1 ESRO at the Keep
- Sussex Express 3 September 1920: microfilm Lewes Library
- Lewes Borough Minutes (DLD 1/5 ESRO at the Keep)
- 1938 copy of the agreement made in 1920 between the Abergavenny Estate and the Borough of Lewes: Deeds 20 South Way
- Lewes Borough Minutes ibid
- Map showing which parts of Nevill estate received Government Housing Subsidy: Deeds 20 South Way
- Pike’s Directory for Lewes, Seaford & Newhaven Lewes Library
- Sussex Express 1 October 1920: microfilm Lewes Library
- Sussex Express 8 October 1920: microfilm Lewes Library
- Pike’s Directory for Lewes, Seaford & Newhaven ibid
- Lewes Borough Council building control plans (DL/A/25 The Keep)
- Ordnance Survey 1930: Lewes Library
- Photo of South Way & Nevill Crescent. Probably in the mid-1920s. John Kay collection
- Photo of North Way. Probably early 1930s. Bob Cairns collection
- Lewes Borough Minutes ibid
- Photo of Middle Way and Cross Way. Bob Cairns collection
- February 1932 ‘Lewes Chat’ in the Sussex Express: microfilm Lewes Library
- Sussex Express Lewes Chat 5 July 1935
- Sussex County Herald May 3 1935: microfilm Lewes Library
- Lewes Borough Council Minutes ibid
- Photo of corner of Middle Way and South Way. Ann Holmes
- Lewes Borough Council building control plans (DL/A/25 The Keep)
- Aerial photo of the second part of the Nevill Downs Estate under construction in the mid-1930s. Image supplied by Robert Cheesman
- Photos of Highdown Road with shops and Hamsey Crescent: Bob Cairns, and Rendel Wlliams collections
- Memoirs of Elizabeth Broadbridge
- Photo of Firle Crescent: Rendel Williams Collection
- Photo of Windover Crescent: Bob Cairns collection
- Memoirs of Brian Beck
- Memoirs of Chris Field
- Sussex Express 15th Nov 1935 and Borough Minutes (ibid)
- Plan showing extra land sold to South Way houses 1939: Deeds 20 South Way
- Interview with Alan Fennemore recorded 2012
- Image of sheep fair in front of Lewes Prison, courtesy of Karen Tillstone and Lewes Past Facebook Group
- Ralph Elliston, Lewes At War 1939–1945, SB Publications, 1999
- Ordnance Survey 1938 revision of 1930 map: Lewes Library
- Ralph Elliston, ibid
- Field memoirs, ibid
- Memoirs of Jacqueline Bodle