The Russian Memorial in St John's Churchyard

Finnish Memorial in Churchyard (Photo by Andrew Goodwin)
Andrew Goodwin (Mackellar Schwerdt)

In St John’s churchyard there is a striking obelisk, 17 feet high, known as the ‘Russian Memorial’. It commemorates men who died as prisoners in Lewes during the Crimean War .

In the early part of the Crimean War Britain and France carried out a naval campaign in the Gulf of Finland, blockading the Finnish ports. In June 1854 they attacked the fort of Bomarsund and destroyed it, taking many prisoners. 200 of whom were brought to Lewes. They were brought to the Naval Prison (since demolished) close to St John’s Church. 

The NCO’s and other ranks, who were all either Finns or Swedes, were kept in the Naval Prison, where they were well treated, while the officers, who were Russians, were given parole to live outside in the community, and enjoyed social life with local society. The food in the prison was good: it included even chocolate for breakfast, and the Tsar sent each man sixpence at Easter to buy hot cross buns! There was a workshop where they could make wooden toys. These they sold to the townspeople, who came to see them in the prison in large numbers. Several of these toys are on display at Anne of Cleve’s Museum in Southover.

The people of Lewes viewed the prisoners with sympathy, viewing them (as the local newspapers of the time said) as “poor victims to the ambition and criminality of the Emperor of Russia.” When they left in April 1856 at the end of the war the streets were crowded to bid them farewell, and their Lieutenant Colonel made a speech expressing his gratitude to the people of Lewes.

But not all returned to Finland. During their time in prison 28 had died, mostly from pneumonia or TB. They were buried in St John’s churchyard, with a single gravestone. In 1877 the Tsar paid for it to be replaced by a memorial in the shape of a gothic-style obelisk, which records their names (all Finnish or Swedish) and their ranks. The monument was restored in 1957 by the Soviet Embassy, and again in 2013, when it was rededicated in the presence of the Ambassadors both of Russia and Finland.


This page was added on 28/06/2018.

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