The Reverend Francis Sewell Part 1

By Richard Bryant

This article was published in the August 2018 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society

This is article is based on a paper by the Lindfield History Project Group and we are grateful for their permission to print it.

Francis Hill Sewell was born in India in 1815, the second son of Major General Robert Sewell and Eliza Serena Sewell.

He was educated at Brighton under Rev Dr Proctor, formerly Headmaster of Lewes Grammar School, who established a Young Gentleman’s Academy in the town in 1832.  Destined for the military profession, Francis attended The College of Douay, France, ‘but the gentleness of his disposition and his own earnest wishes induced a change’, resulting in him being admitted to Bonville and Caius College, Cambridge graduating in 1839 with a BA, and subsequently awarded an MA in 1846.

He was ordained as a deacon in 1839 but there is uncertainty as to the date of his arrival at Lindfield as a priest. However, he was definitely in Lindfield in 1841  since in the parish rates and land tax returns, he is recorded as living at Pear Tree Cottage from mid 1841/mid 1842 until mid 1847/mid 1848.  The Tithe Survey, completed in c1848, shows Rev Sewell as the occupier of Plot 695, a ‘house and garden’ known today as Pear Tree House, at the junction of High Street and Lewes Road.  His landlord was Edward Humphreys, who had built this attractive house in about 1834.

Taking up residence at Pear Tree Cottage appears to have coincided with Sewell’s marriage, as on 16 July 1841 at St George’s, Hanover Square, London, he married Julia Dent.

Pear Tree Cottage today, where Francis Sewell lived after his marriage to Julia Dent

Pear Tree Cottage today, where Francis Sewell lived after his marriage to Julia Dent

She was the daughter of John Dent MP, an old Westmorland family.  John Dent born in 1761, was the son of Robert Dent a partner in Child & Co, a London Bank and owned part of the Manor of Cockerham, Lancashire.  John Dent, like his father, was also a partner in Child & Co, and in 1800 married Ann Jane Williamson.  They had five sons and five daughters.  He was an active MP, for Lancaster 1790-1812 and Poole 1818-1826 In Parliament he was a determined opponent of slave trade abolition and proposed Bills prohibiting the use of hair powder and the taxing of dogs, which earned him the name ‘Dog Dent’.

It is thought that Francis and Julia Sewell’s marriage did not result in children, as no children are specifically named in his Will (1849) and Codicil (1850). In both documents he refers to ‘my dear Wife’, although Julia Sewell appears to have been largely invisible in his life.  Her name did not appear in newspaper articles relating to his activities, nor recorded with him in the 1851 Census return.  In the 1861 Census she was recorded with Robert and Emma Trotter (nee Dent) at 26 Thurloe Square, Kensington.  Robert Trotter was Julia Sewell’s cousin and Emma was her sister.  Neither Sewell’s marriage nor his wife is mentioned in his obituaries.  However, Julia Sewell does appear after his death as a defendant in a case in Chancery.

In August 1849, Sewell accepted the position of Vicar at Cockerham, Lancashire, a living worth £700 per annum compared with £30 for Lindfield, presumably arranged by the Dent family.  Despite moving away he remained very much involved in Lindfield, returning many times during the 1850s.  It was almost as if he had never left as he purchased property, pursued interests and planned good works within the village.

After eight years he resigned the Cockerham living returning to Lindfield in October 1857, and lived at The Welkin, which he had built, until his death.

Following a short illness, Francis Sewell died in Lindfield on 9 October 1862 at the age of 47 years.  The family swiftly removed his body from Lindfield for burial on 29 October 1862 at All Saints, Kensal Green. This action appears to have been met with some disquiet in Lindfield.

Francis Sewell and Lindfield

Francis Sewell’s time in Lindfield needs to be placed in the context of Lindfield parish, the village and parish church in the early-mid 19th century.

This rural parish with a population of about 1900 was dependent on agriculture.  Consequent upon the decline of the agricultural economy, by the early 1800s there was much poverty among those reliant on the land for work.  The situation started to improve after the century’s early decades.

At the heart of the parish was Lindfield village that comprised little more than the High Street.  As evidenced by the 1829 survey commissioned by the Earl of Chichester, the 1841 Census and 1848 Tithe survey, the High Street contained many substantial properties and a multitude of trades.  Many of the properties had stood for centuries and remain standing today.  A School of Industry for boys and girls had been established by William Allen in 1825.

Lindfield village, in the years prior to Sewell’s arrival, was not as bleak as his obituary writer’s statement that ’the streets were but a few years since scattered lines of miserable dilapidated hovels’.

However, it is true to say the church was in a poor state.  During the 18th century the parish church had been in decline and in a poor state of repair, and this continued into the 19th century.  The problems stemmed from the living being a ‘peculiar’ in the arch-diocese of Canterbury. The tithes had long been owned by a lay impropriator, who had retained most of the £600 per annum tithes, with only £30 a year going to the living.  Without money the church fell into decline and decay and had problems securing a permanent minister.

Lindfield High Street today, with All Saints in the background

Lindfield High Street today, with All Saints in the background.

Image Nigel Freeman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Lindfield Parish Church

In the years immediately before Sewell’s arrival there had not been a resident minister. The last temporary curate had left in December 1836 and an advertisement for a curate in February 1836 appears to have been unsuccessful.  During the first seven months of 1837 services had not been held on eight Sundays, and services were performed by ‘such charitable ministers as the churchwarden and others, with great difficulty, were enabled to obtain’.  There were also difficulties and delays in arranging baptisms, weddings and funerals.  This situation continued until Sewell’s arrival.  He was the ideal incumbent being from a wealthy family and, having benefited from his deceased elder brother’s estate, was not reliant on the stipend.

Immediately upon his arrival in Lindfield, Sewell set about re-establishing the church and providing a full calendar of services on a regular basis.

In the 1840s there was an enthusiasm for churches to reflect the architectural style of the 13th and 14th centuries, with the Cambridge Camden Society being influential in this regard. [Ed: A society which advised church builders on their blueprints, and promoted a return to a medieval style of church architecture in England. During its twenty-year span, the Society and its journal almost single-handedly reinvented the architectural design of  parish churches.]  It is quite likely that Francis was a member of the Society, as its journal, The Ecclesiologist, in 1847 said of Lindfield church:

The whole was in a most wretched condition and the only wonder is that in the miserably peculiar circumstances of the parish any restoration should be attempted at all.  All that is at present done, which is merely a restoration of the greater part of the windows, is done well; the horrible arrangement of the church is at present not touched.

In 1848, the churchwardens, no doubt prompted by Sewell, appealed for funds for the restoration of the church.  Sewell ‘fired by his own enthusiasm and by that of his Cambridge coterie,’ donated £650 towards the estimated cost of £2,000, despite not having received his stipend for some eight years.  The restoration, under the supervision of architect, John Henry Taylor, involved major works and a return to the favoured 14th century style with many historic features being destroyed.

This restoration was subsequently described as being:

in accordance with the barbarous taste of the period’.  Mr Lower, a respected Sussex antiquarian, noted ‘Those repairs were carried on without the smallest regard to propriety or respect for antiquity.  Some of the most beautiful fragments of fourteenth century glass I ever saw were removed from one of the south windows, and a brass plate to the memory of Richard Chaloner, which I remember in situ on a stone on the floor, now lies before me.  It bears the date of 1501.  Beautiful wood carvings were also removed from the Church; in short, there was a general spoliation of nearly all that was ancient.  A particular altar tomb has been removed, and the brasses of a slab, representing a man, woman, and seven children, have also been taken away.

During the work a medieval wall painting was discovered and destroyed.

Francis Sewell had lengthy correspondence with the Incorporated Church Building Society regarding the provision of new pews designed to accommodate 567 people.  The Society made a grant of £200.  Amongst other matters considered was whether the upper-class members of the congregation should be provided with hatboards, on which to place their top hats.

The work took place between 1848 and 1850, but donations did not cover the cost of the work.  Perhaps residents having paid their tithes felt disinclined to fund the restoration of the parish church, particularly as it had involved the destruction of ancient features.

In August 1849, while the work was in hand and funds required, Sewell accepted the position of Vicar of Cockerham, Lancashire, and moved away from Lindfield.  However, Sewell retained his position as the incumbent of Lindfield parish and funded the employment of an ‘assistant’ minister.  Despite living away he remained closely involved with the parish and returned on many occasions.

A public vestry meeting, held in 1852 for the purpose of making a Church Rate of six pence in the pound to help fund the restoration, was met with considerable opposition.  By November 1857, a ‘pew rent’ was being considered, to enable the Churchwardens to clear the remaining deficit.

Interestingly, extracts from an architect’s report, regarding a later restoration started in 1882, and published in the Mid Sussex Times, indicated that the roof was in a dangerous condition at the time of the earlier restoration, as ‘the walls are parted from the rafters which are but temporarily secured to them by nails only’ and ‘the tower and that part of the church exposed to the south-west need attention and repair’.  This second restoration was necessary as the 1848-50 work had been more concerned with bringing the church in line with the Camden Society’s pronouncements on style than fully remedying structural defects.

Sewell retained control of the parish, with the Brighton Gazette, 2 August 1855, reporting the departure of Rev Lloyd and the arrival of Rev Hazleden, saying ‘the newly appointed assistant to the Rev F H Sewell has arrived.  The latter gentleman will preach on Sunday next, in Lindfield Church.’

Francis Sewell returned to reside in Lindfield in October 1857 and resumed the role of vicar, which he duly fulfilled until his death on 9 October 1862.

Welkin, the house Francis Sewell built for himself in Lindfield

Welkin, the house Francis Sewell built for himself in Lindfield

Establishment of a National School

From 1833, Parliament made grants available to build schools for the education of the poor. The Church of England, through its National Society for Promoting Religious Education, was anxious to extend its influence and was active in setting up National Schools.

Reflecting the perilous state of the parish there is no evidence that a National School existed in Lindfield during the 1830s.

At that time the village had one proper school, founded in 1825 by William Allen, a Quaker philanthropist.  This was the School for Industry on Black Hill for the children from families of the labouring classes living in the parish and nearby villages.  The school was open to all and had separate rooms for boys, girls and infants.  Although there were daily Bible readings, teaching was non-denominational and the children were expected to attend every Sunday the place of worship to which their parents belonged.  Following Allen’s death in 1843, the school continued on the principles of the British and Foreign Schools Society supported by the Congregational Chapel, and so it would have been regarded as a dissenter’s school.

According to Gregory in his book, Mid Sussex Through the Ages, in 1849 a National School was being ‘conducted in the old disused Workhouse at the top of the village’.  Presumably this had been established a few years earlier by Sewell as part of his work to
re-establish the influence of the parish church.  There was undoubted rivalry between the two Lindfield schools, as Gregory notes, ‘The British Schools continued to flourish in spite of every effort made to depreciate and lessen their popularity by the National School’s Committee’.  Some 175 children were attending the British School in 1851.

In that year, a new National School was built on the Common adjacent to Lewes Road.  The Earl of Chichester, by Deed of Trust dated 25 August 1851, gave the land ‘to the Minister and Churchwardens of the parish upon trust to permit the erection of buildings for the education of children and adults or children only, of the labouring, manufacturing and other poor classes of the parish of Lindfield’.  The managers named in the deed were ‘the incumbent ex officio, his curate, if appointed by him and four other persons’, these were the Earl of Chichester, Messrs Jollands, Noyes (junior) and Compton.  The ‘incumbent ex officio’ presumably was intended to refer to Sewell and the words ‘if appointed by him’ would indicate Sewell wished to have a controlling influence despite being in Cockerham.  He was described, in an 1854 newspaper article, as ‘the founder of this valuable institution’.

The 1854 newspaper article also reported the school’s annual fete held in the grounds of Lindfield House, saying ‘the pupils mustered in strong numbers and proceeded forthwith through the town from the School to a meadow, where a spacious marquee was erected to receive’.   They were met at the gate by Rev Sewell, who had travelled to Lindfield by train, and Rev Lloyd, afterwards ‘the rev gentlemen proceeded to distribute ….. cricket bats and balls, trap-bats, kites, air-pops, books, etc’.  A plentiful meal was provided for about 140 children and later for 40 visitors and teachers. A brass band performed and at seven o’clock ‘a splendid balloon rose in majestic style’ signalling the end of the event.  This school treat was presumably mainly funded by Sewell as he journeyed to Lindfield to spend time with the children.

Another similar school treat was held in 1855, and the events indicate the National School was thriving. The teachers at this time were a Mr & Mrs Sanders.

However by 1856, Sewell was describing the National School Room as objectionable:  ‘1st, In respect of site, being on a low level.  2ndly, As to locality, being at a great distance from the Church.  3rdly, In respect of internal accommodation, there being no class-room exclusively for Infants, no means of separating the Boys and Girls for specially distinct exercises, no lavatory, no master’s residence, &c’.  To address these problems he announced the building of a new school opposite the church.  Having been involved in establishing the school on the Common only five years previous, he was now the school’s fiercest critic.

When Sewell’s St John’s Parish School opened in October 1856 (see  photo below) the pupils transferred to the new building and the National School on the Common closed.  After his death in 1862, St John’s School closed and the recently constructed building put up for sale.  Unfortunately it was not possible for the school to revert to the original National School premises on the Common as this ‘had been given up to the Dissenters for the use of their Sunday Schools’.  Repossession was obtained in 1863 by Rev F Mills, the new incumbent, and following repairs the school reopened in January 1865.  Unfortunately, it did not thrive and with fewer than 30 children, plus an atmosphere of great dissatisfaction and refusal by contributors to provide funds, the school closed finally in March 1865.

The Mission Room in Lindfield which was formally St John’s Church

The Mission Room in Lindfield which was formally St John’s Church