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In June 1875, the Eastbourne Gazette announced that the 7th Duke of Devonshire was to give £1,000 towards the erection of a new church on The Marsh, a low-lying are to the east of the commercial heart of the town.

A new housing estate was being created to deal with the problem of a largely unplanned-for, burgeoning working class who had settled in the resort of Eastbourne where rows of small terraced houses would be laid in a neat grid pattern with mews for stables and workshops between the back yards.

The land lay with in the ecclesiastical Parish of Holy Trinity, a church whose pews were becoming overcrowded, for Eastbourne’s population was doubling every ten years.  Two elderly sisters, Dorothy and Emma-Tilney Long had owned a seasonal home in the parish. After Dorothy died in 1872, Emma approached the Rev. W. W. Pierpont Vicar of Holy Trinity about a lasting memorial that would enhance Christian work in the town; he suggested the building and endowment of a church at the centre of the proposed new housing estate. Emma Tilney-Long was in failing health and the cause was taken up their niece and companion, Lady Victoria Long-Wellesley, a great-niece of the Duke of Wellington, whose own fortune had been squandered by her reckless father.

Lady Wellesley resolved to realise the vision of a church that would be welcoming and free to all people which was expressed in the invitation of Jesus in Matthew 11:28 ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest’. Instead of giving £1,000 towards the building of the church William, 7th Duke of Devonshire, gave the land. Lady Wellesley chose A. P. Strong of Parr and Strong of London to be the architect and the builder was James Peerless of Eastbourne.  The Building Committee of the Town Board recommended approval of the plans in July 1880 and the parish was created in July 1881. The total cost of the work at the time of the building was £18,000 and was paid for by Lady Wellesley.

Strong prepared plans based on an early Romanesque church in Ravenna built in the Lombardy district of Italy during the latter part of the 6th century. The style of church that All Souls was based on is called Lombardo-Byzantine and has an interesting history.

It was found that the secure foundations on which the walls of the church would be erected needed to set on a bedrock which lay at least 20 feet beneath silt and wet clay. The floor of the church was a platform resting of a series of concrete vaults and to remove the risk of damp the church was double-walled throughout. The foundation stone was laid on the 14th June 1881 by Bishop Durnford of Chichester by which time the walls of the church were about 10ft high in places. The official party standing on the wooded platform could see the footings down to a depth of 20ft.

On Thursday 6th July 1882, a little over a year after the laying of the foundation stone, Bishop Durnford, who was nearly 80 returned to consecrate the church.

The church c. 1882

The building consists of Nave, North and South Aisles, Chancel, Chancel Aisles, Apse and Tower.  The Tower was connected with the Church by a short arcade which was originally open but is now closed to form the lobby. The external dimensions of the church are length 127ft, breadth 86 ft and 51 ft to the height of the Nave.  The chancel is divided from the Nave by an Arcus Triumphalis, 24 ft wide, and 37 ft high and measures 19 ft x 33 ft. The chancel is 19ft x 33ft x 38ft to the wooden ceiling and the apse beyond has a 12 ft radius and contains 7 windows with a spherical stone vault over and a reredos. The North Chancel Aisle is arranged as the Vestry, while the South Aisle contains the organ, an instrument by Bishop and Sons. Originally there was sufficient room in the church to seat 850 people.

Building materials were sourced from several areas in order to achieve the architect’s colourful scheme.  The exterior red bricks were fired at Keymer, but the buff ones came from Tamworth.  The interior walls are of Burnham brick, the reredos of Caen stone, while the spectacular arcading is of blue and white Corsham stone, sometimes known as Bath stone, cut by Farmer and Brindley of London.

On the reredos behind the Holy Table Italian craftsmen set the 23rd psalm in mosaics on either side of the stepped cross. Above each panel is a symbolic sign (a) Alpha (the first), (b) interpreted to mean ‘I am’, (c) monogram (Greek) ‘Jesus’, (d) Good Shepherd (Latin), (f) omega (the last).

On the 31st March 1898 six stained-glass windows in the apse were dedicated in memory of Lady Wellesley. The central light, showing Jesus as the Good Shepherd was given by Lady Wellesley ‘as a memorial to her beloved aunt, Miss Emma Tilney-Long, who derived much comfort from the 23rd Psalm. The other six windows were given by her executors and friends, the one on the extreme left given by her only godson, Captain Heskett-Smith, and the one on the extreme right given by four of Lady Wellesley’s god-daughters, each bear a verse from scripture, illustrated by relevant events from the life of Jesus, including the commission given to St Peter, ‘Feed my sheep’. The flowing nature of the foliage in the windows matches that of the Byzantine decoration above. The large stained-glass window 9-ft diameter over the west door was also given in Lady Wellesley’s memory.

A principal feature of the building is the complete architectural interior detailing with rounded features being used in much of the furnishings, the fine pitch pews and panelling being examples. The pattern of the arcade arches was achieved by using blue and white Horsham stone. There is precise and well-detailed stonework in the capitals of the pillars showing foliage and geometrical design which are matched pairs. The one over the pulpit is the Greek monogram for Christ – sometimes called ‘Constantine’s Cross’. The one on the opposite capital is a six-pointed star, the Star of David, also known as the Creation’s Star, the six points of the star representing the six days of creation. The lamp bowls in the nave and the conventional flowers in the band of the dome over the apse windows are Byzantine of the 3rd and 4th century. The chancel was originally fitted with a corona of 60 (gas) jets and in 1905 the church lighting was converted to electricity. The corona was removed in May 1961 during the re-wiring and re-lighting of the church and was not replaced.

The Memorials on the south wall commemorate the Old Contemptibles of the First World War and the Royal Engineers who served in Burma during the Second World War. The Royal Engineers have had a connection with All Souls since the early 1890’s. The Parish records show that ‘A’ Company, 1st Sussex Royal Engineers Volunteer Force was formed in June 1890 and initially used the Parish Rooms.

The First World War Memorial that had been unveiled and dedicated on Trinity Sunday 1921 was destroyed by indiscriminate bombing on the 3rd April 1943 during the Second World War.  Because finance was required after the end of the war for structural repairs to the church, it was not replaced at that time. It was not until the 28th December 1969 that a new war memorial window was dedicated.  The window honoured all those who had fallen in the two world wars, including those killed in air raids. Margery May designed the window and it was commission by Thomas Collett and his wife Emily Collett, long standing members of the church. On the brass tablet below the window are inscribed the names of a hundred men who were connected with the parish and congregation who were killed during the First World War.

The stained glass in the church is mostly by Heaton, Butler and Bayne. One of the windows on the North Aisle wall was installed in memory of Mrs Fletcher, wife of the first vicar of All Souls, the Rev. J. B. Fletcher. The one on the right is the central widow in the apse was given by Lady Wellesley as a memorial to her aunt Miss Emma Tilney-Long.  The window below is on the west wall in the creche and was given in memory of Harry Sutton who served as 23 years from 1882 as the first vicar’s warden.

Probably the most striking feature outside the Church is the free-standing Campanile or bell tower – 16ft square and 83ft in height, containing a clock with 4 faces by Dent and Co. It was originally provided with a peal of five bells in the key of G hung 60 feet above the ground, cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry by Mears & Stainbank in 1882. The tenor bell alone weighed just over 9½ cwt. Almost immediately it was found that the tower was too slender to withstand the vibration of the bells and they were not rung after 1906. In 1966 the original bells were taken away and a new cwt tenor bell, note C. was installed. The bell carries the inscription:

Installed 1966
‘Come unto me and I will give you rest’

Above the words ‘My HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER’ on the west door is an eye set in a triangle, which is the symbol of an all-seeing God. On either side of the words are the symbolic signs of Alpha (the first) and Omega (the last), a cross and the descending dove representing the Holy Spirit.

Soon after the church was open it became apparent that a separate church room or hall was needed, where meetings and social and educational work could be carried out. In the latter part of 1882, a Parish room was built at the north-east corner of the site, its construction paid for by the 7th Duke of Devonshire, whose lifelong passion was education.  Early in 1883 the All Souls Parish Library and Reading Room was opened and on the 16th April 1883 a day school for infants was started with 77 children. Continued population growth in the town saw the need for more school accommodation, but there was no room for expansion within the church site. Through the generosity of Lady Wellesley, the parish, and the giving of land in Bourne Street by the Duke, a new school was opened in March 1890. By 1893 All Souls was educating 300 infants in the Parish Room and 360 children at the mixed school in Bourne Street. In 1907 the infants’ school closed, the children and staff moving to the East street Council Infants School.  All Souls Mixed School continued until 1922.  All Souls then continued as a boys’ school.  The school did not receive pupils after 1940, and the premises were requisitioned during the war.  The school was officially closed around 1940.

In early April 1886, it was announced that Lady Wellesley intended to erect a vicarage on a site between the church and Longstone Road. Plans were drawn up by Parr & Strong. Built on the north-west corner of the site, the vicarage required the same extensive foundation work as the church and sat on a platform supported by brick arches.  By November 1887 it was ready to receive the vicar Rev Fletcher’s family and his two servants. A new wing was added to the vicarage in 1915.

Despite the considerable engineering feat of constructing the church on marshland, vandalism, problems caused by nature, the evacuation of the church, and considerable damaged caused by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, diocesan threats of closure and sale, All Souls still stands as a Christian witness in the town centre of Eastbourne fulfilling Lady Victoria Wellesley’s vision that the church should be a church for all, best expressed in our Lord’s invitation in Matthew 11:28 ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’

To arrange a visit please contact the Church Office on 01323 731366