THE END OF THE OLD ST JOHN’S
At the end of the eighteenth century the church stood in an isolated position near the former Town wall, with open fields and only a few houses between it and the town. But there now followed a period of unparalleled growth in the town of Lewes as a whole, and especially in St John’s parish. The so-called ‘New Town’ was built in the area running outwards from Market Street and Fisher Street, including roads such as Sun Street, Abinger Place and New Road. The population of the parish rose from a mere 659 in 1801 to over 2300 thirty years later.
St John’s Church, however, seated only 260 people, and must soon have become overcrowded. Plans were drawn up in 1818 to enlarge the church and provide an extra 180 seats, but for some reason they were never carried out. By 1838 the continuing growth of the population ruled out the possibility of simply extending the existing church. Peter Guerin Crofts decided there was no alternative but to build a new church. In a press announcement it was stated that ‘this parish is the most populous in Lewes’, its inhabitants being ‘chiefly mechanics and labourers’. And so, in May 1839, in what we should regard in our day would regard as an act of appalling vandalism, the 800 year old church was demolished.
THE NEW CHURCH
The new church was to seat over 1000 people, making it much larger then any other Anglican church in the town. It had to be built to the south of the old church, and the adjoining ancient burial mound on the site had first to be levelled. Because space was limited, It was built not east-west, as was usual with a church, but north-south.
The architect was George Cheesman from Brighton, where around this time he also built Christ Church, Montpelier Road, and St John the Evangelist, Carlton Hill. It was ‘convenient and well-arranged’, according to the local newspaper. However, Gideon Mantell, the geologist, called it ‘an unsightly edifice which I fain would have passed by unnoticed’, while Mark Anthony Lower, a young antiquarian who a few years later was one of the founders of the Sussex Archaeological Society, described it as ‘a hybrid structure, half castle, half barn’. Inside, it was oblong in shape, with a flat ceiling, and a short extension to form a truncated chancel. On three sides were galleries, supported on cast iron pillars, manufactured in Brighton, not (as might have been expected) at the recently opened Phoenix Ironworks in the parish.
The corner-stone was laid in June 1839, and the church was consecrated one year later, on 3rd June 1840. The cost of £3,300 had been full paid by that time – a remarkable achievement, especially since (as a board in the porch records) three-quarters of this came from voluntary local contributions. An attractive feature, mentioned in the the sermon at the consecration, was that over half the seats in the church were free, no pew rents being charged. Moreover, unusually for those days, many of these free seats for ‘lowly occupants’ weren’t in the side aisles but in the middle of the nave.
Some relics from the past were incorporated into the new structure. The Saxon doorway, as has been mentioned, was set in the outside wall on the far side, with the 1635 stone above it and the old coffin lid inside the arch. The inscribed stones from the entrance to the anchorite’s cell were nearly discarded, for the second time in their history. They were rescued by the same Mark Anthony Lower. Like the Saxon arch, they were set in the outside wall, in this case on the eastern side, together with another 13th century coffin lid (not that of Magnus) which for many years stood underneath it. The three bells, dating from 1734, were re-hung in the new tower. The font, which dated probably from the thirteenth century but had a base of later date, was also brought from the old church, as were the picture of Jesus and the children, and a number of wall monuments to the Crofts family and others. The church plate going back to the eighteenth century continued to be in use.
Several of the Crofts family graves had been inside the old church, and it was presumably at this time that their remains were moved to a new family vault on the site of the chancel of the old church. Peter Guerin the Younger was also buried there when he died in 1859. A paved platform still marks the spot, although the railings which once surrounded the vault were removed in the Second World War and never replaced.
A measure of the strength of St John’s in this period is provided by the national Religious Census of 1851 (the only one ever taken) in which the average Sunday attendance at the church is given as 800.
The story of St John’s is continued in the post St John’s from 1880 onwards
Click The Story of St John sub Castro Church to see the complete story in one post, together with Sources, Bibliographical notes and List of Rectors.