St Mary-in-the Castle in Hastings is one of the finest English churches I have visited and although it is now a thriving performance venue it is full of ecclesiastical interest.
Strangely the best place to get a good view of the exterior of the church is on Google Maps as it is set back into the cliff face. (although my Pevsner’s Guide suggests it is best viewed from the sea!) It has an imposing classical front and a huge round nave – now an auditorium.
The church is now accessed from the esplanade and via a rather good café. Although now much truncated this was originally a grand sweeping shopping arcade. Indeed it was only the second shopping arcade to be built after the Burlington Arcade in London. Once there were shops on either side with counters facing the centre. The arcade was lit from above and today when you sit in the café you can look up and see the original entrance to the church.
Being set back into the cliff-face there was no space for a graveyard so the church has vaults for the parish dead. The vaults were once accessed via a coffin-lift (which is still in place but much modernised) The rough bare pink brick-built vaults are extensive but have now been cleared for use as an exhibition space. One however has been retained and can still be accessed via a glass door.
On either side of the dark, cold vault are dozens of small square memorials which plugged the coffin spaces. The occupants were clearly the gentry of Hastings who died in the 1820s and 1830s. Many were merchants from London who either relocated their businesses or retired to the south coast. Apparently all but three have now been removed from the vaults.
Leaning against are walls were a couple of memorial slabs which have obviously been moved from other parts of the church. One remembers Sir Frederick Francis Baker, his wife Harriet and their baby, who the marble memorial quaintly records died at the age of ‘8 months wanting 3 days’. On 1st October 1830 Sir Frederick and his wife went for an ride in their fly (a small horse drawn cart). At Fairlight Down they decided to clamber up to the first stage of a windmill to take in the view but the miller unaware of his visitors started the machinery in motion. One of the sweeps (for in Sussex windmills have sweeps and not sails) bashed poor Sir Frederick on the head, knocking him unconscious. He was taken back to Hastings where a visiting London surgeon, Mr Travers used ‘the most scientific surgical aids’ to operate on him but to no avail.
The second memorial is for Martha Mary Jemima the wife of the local brewer Thomas Breeds and is sadly cracked. Thomas was a merchant and also ship-owner. I believe he was responsible for bringing coal into Hastings direct from the Northumberland collieries.
A narrow staircase leads up to the main part of the church which is unexpectedly huge. Just to the left of the entrance is a marble memorial to Henry Pelham the 3rd Earl of Chichester who was man who gave the land and sponsored the building of the church. His was known as Lord Pelham and the memorial records that he was a long standing judge and Lord Lieutenant of Sussex. At the top of the memorial is a coronet above the family crest – the buckle which is carved onto many of the Sussex churches he built or restored.
The original church of St Mary was actually in the castle which dominates the town. It had Norman origins but by the 18th century was unusable. The new church of St Mary in the Castle was built between 1825 and 1828 at the same time as the shopping arcade and the short terraces of houses at either side of the original church entrance. The architect was Joseph Kay (1775-1847) who was also responsible for many of the buildings in Greenwich.
The horseshoe shaped nave/auditorium is vast and is lit from windows set into the roof. Although the pews in the nave have been removed the original box pews in the galleries remain and have been lovingly restored. I suspect this is one of the largest ranges of box pews in Sussex. The galleries are supported with grand acanthus topped columns
Around the back of the auditorium are alcoves which are now used as theatre style boxes but still retain dozens of fascinating memorials dating from the 1830s to the Great War.
One of the memorials is for churchwarden Richard Idenden who was also a long-standing councillor who turned down the role of Mayor because of his deafness. He died at Hastings Town Hall in 1909 whist waiting to attend a funeral.
Our tour guide Charlie was excellent; clear of voice, knowledgable and enthusiastic. One of the most interesting rooms was the baptistry which now doubles up as a store-room for the bar. The room is hewn into the bare rock from which spring water seeped in order to fill the font. The font was difficult to see as the mechanism for an old clock has been plonked on top of the large tiled font built in 1929 for total submersion. I don’t think I have seen one of these in a parish church before. I understand that at one time the spring water not only provided for the font but for a drink-cure too.
The small bar is set into one of the alcoves and sadly obstructs the Great War memorial. It would be good to see the memorial moved in future in order that it can be properly appreciated but I understand that the venue has other priorities in maintaining the structure of the church.
Our guided tour also took us into one of the terraced houses which was once occupied by Muriel Matters (1877-1969) a prominent suffragette. In the early 1900s women were not permitted into the public gallery of the House of Commons however there was a ‘Ladies Gallery’ separated from the commons chamber by a series of metal grills. On 28th October 1908 Muriel chained herself to one of the grills and disrupted proceeding by yelling slogans about the enfranchisement of women. Muriel (and the grills) were removed by a blacksmith. By the way there grills are regularly seen on television as they were relocated to the Central Lobby where the BBC now conduct their interviews.
At the State opening of Parliament in 1909 brave Muriel hired an airship from which they dropped thousands of handbills from a rickety wooden frame suspended under the balloon. Sadly the wind was not favourable and it never reached Westminster. As an accredited tour guide for the Palace of Westminster I was disappointed to be told that Muriel was the “first woman to speak in the House of Commons” which is not quite true – I don’t think heckling counts! That accolade of course goes to Nancy Astor, however the importance of the campaigning work of Muriel Matters should not be underestimated.
Today the altar and brightly painted reredos are hidden behind a huge cinema screen but when the sun shone the war- memorial stained glass window was projected onto it which was unexpected and delightful.
Tours of this amazing church and art centre are free although a donation towards the upkeep of the building would be gratefully received. The tours are on the last Wednesday afternoon of the month starting in January 2020. For more information visit the website www.stmaryinthecastle.co.uk
Buildings of England (Pevsner 1965) (Antram 2012)
St Mary in the Castle Interpretation boards.
Old Town Walk (Old Hastings Preservation Society 1997)
National Newspaper Archives