St Mary’s, Hailsham Parish Church (HPC) stands in the heart of the town centre and is built on the highest point of the town, about 90 ft. above sea level. The earliest reference to a church in the town was in 1229.
Paul Endersby writes for The Wealden Eye magazine…
In “Hailsham & its Environs,” Charles Robertson suggests that “such a church of this date was almost certain to have been partly or wholly Norman, as part of the intense building activity the Conqueror’s men put into effect over most of England.”
It is likely that the present church was built during the years 1425-1450 although there have been regular changes and upgrades through the centuries. By 1513 the Church had fallen on evil times and it was listed as one of the “Priories and Churches impoverished by damage to their lands and possessions by inundation, fire, etc.” It suffered again later in the century, when the minutes of the Privy Council, dated 29th March 1559 referred to,” an heinous disorder lately committed by the inhabitants of the towne of Halislesham, of the said county, in spoyling the Parishe churche…”
The present building is of the Perpendicular style and was referred to by Bradshaw (made famous in recent years by the travels of Michael Portillo), as “a pinnacled church of Edward III’s time and rather handsome.” The tower is some 70 feet in height, and topped with battlements and a pinnacle at each corner, each with a weather vane. The main vane rising from the tower bears the date 1801 and the initials W. H. and W. K. are those of William Hilder and William King the churchwardens at that time.
During Victorian times the church underwent considerable renovation, although the usefulness and purpose of these changes has been questioned. The writers of The Stringtown comment that in many instances these “improvements” were “typical of late Victorian destruction.” Richard Marks made a similar point in (Sussex Churches and Chapels, 1989) when he referred to “Sussex churches which suffered from the heavy hand of the Victorian restorers.” Notwithstanding this between 1869 and 1877 the south aisle, porch, north chapel and south chapel were extensively restored. At the same time the arches between the north chapel and north aisle and chancel were opened up. In 1878 the chancel was restored, the old box pews were removed and the church renewed without a central aisle. It is likely that the old double pulpit was also removed at this time.
More extensive alterations took place in 1889 when the arch in the tower wall between the belfry and nave was reopened. The floor of the chancel was placed on the same level as the nave, and the pews replaced. During the twentieth century further restoration work took place, mainly to strengthen the foundations and replace rotten and flaking stone work and in 1985 the lounge was built on the north side of the church.
Five of the peal of eight bells date from 1663, one being recast in 1768, and three from 1889. The earlier bells were cast by John Hodson, the lighter were recast and the four heavier retuned. They were rehung in ball bearings very probably at the place now called Bellbanks. In 1951 the bells were taken down. The four lighter were recast and the four heavier retuned.
Francis Howlett, the first schoolmaster in the town lies in the Churchyard under a wooden memorial inscribed with the appropriate quotation from Oliver Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”. He had many abilities and skills and at different times was a comedian, schoolmaster, post master, tax collector, vestry clerk, printer, travelling librarian, musician and general referee.
Up to the time of the Civil War the property in the High Street adjoining the Churchyard belonged to Charles I. They were sold off by Oliver Cromwell. The Queen Victoria Memorial Gates were erected in 1902. The pillars are made of Portland Stone. Prior to the gates the site was occupied by Austen’s Gun Shop with a narrow twitten leading from the High Street to the churchyard. The gun shop burned down in 1894 and was not rebuilt. The land was later purchased by the church.
The present clock was installed to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Until that time the tower had a single diamond shaped clock face which had the distinction of having only one hand, the intervals between the numerals being divided into four quarters instead of five minutes.
The church suffered significant damage in 1943 when a bouncing bomb landed behind the then post office in North Street and exploded nearby. With the exception of just one window, the Faith, Hope & Charity window in the north wall, all the stained glass windows were destroyed.
The first organ, a small barrel organ was installed in the 1800’s. Prior to that the music was supplied by a choir of violins, oboes and bassoons. The first pipe organ was installed in 1906. This was followed, in 1955, by the installation of a second organ which was previously in the ownership of the Royal School for the Blind in South Norwood, London. More recently (2018) this instrument, which was in need of expensive repairs, was replaced by a very fine digital organ. The space left by the removal of the pipe organ has been utilized to install additional seating to cope with larger congregations and provide level access to the church through the West Door. In regard to the music this is now provided once again by a wider range of instruments. This has followed other recent changes when the pulpit was removed and many of the pews replaced by chairs, giving greater flexibility in the use of the building and by the installation of a modern AVA system.
Through the centuries there have been many vicars called to lead the church. Space limits a look briefly at just three. During his time of imprisonment and awaiting trial, Charles I was regularly visited by Brian Duppa the vicar of Hailsham. Duppa subsequently became tutor to the young Prince Charles, later King Charles II. Following his time in Hailsham, Duppa became Bishop of Chichester. Some three years later he moved on to become Bishop of Salisbury and even later he became Bishop of Winchester. He died in 1662 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. The other two notable vicars were George Gayton Harvey who came to Hailsham in 1842 where he remained for the next twenty five years. George G Harvey was then followed by his son, Francis Clyde Harvey who continued as vicar until his death in 1922, a total of fifty years. The Harveys, father and son, therefore led the Parish church for 75 years.
Today the Church continues to flourish and serve the people of Hailsham.