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150 years of St Saviour’s Church, Eastbourne

The national and local background as the Saint Saviour’s project takes shape


Religion in the nineteenth century almost always meant Christianity. It was a major topic of everyday conversation and report in the media of the time – local and national newspapers, pamphlets, magazines and books. Little has changed today except for the kind of media involved, but the focus has moved away from the Church of England.

Some 800 new Anglican places of worship were opened in England between 1861 and 1871, the majority of which had new ecclesiastical districts assigned. The Chapelry District of Saint Saviour within the ancient Parish of Eastbourne was one of them. It was an important matter.

In the 1860s there was much anti Roman Catholic feeling in most of the United Kingdom. It was strong in Sussex where folk memories of the Protestant Martyrs at Lewes were reinforced by the 5th November bonfire celebrations, which in the 1860s and 1870s (the foundation years of Saint Saviour’s District), were celebrated in Eastbourne with almost as much enthusiasm as at the county town of Lewes.  Anything which suggested ‘popery’ was to be resisted.

The Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 had removed most of the remaining restrictions on Roman Catholics particularly in permitting participation in public office. Civil society was changing, however suspicion remained strong. There was much speculation about the rather elaborate church building planned for the centre of Eastbourne’s new town. To some commentators, like local historian George Frederick Chambers, it seemed rather ‘Roman' and ‘foreign in style’.

At the end of 1862, Church of England worshipers in Eastbourne were served by the ancient parish church of Saint Mary in the original 'downland' village area of Eastbourne.  This area was increasingly being called ‘Old Town’ – a description was used to distinguish it from the ‘New Town’ planned on behalf of a major landowner the Duke of Devonshire. The Gilbert Estate was the other major land owner. The District Church of Holy Trinity (1836) was built as a chapel of ease for the parish church which was becoming rarher far from the new centre of population by the sea. Christ Church had also been built as a chapel of ease for Holy Trinity serving the poorer ‘east end’ of the expanding town. Methodists and Independents including Baptists had also established worshiping communities and built chapels as the town grew.

From the Eastbourne Gazette 16/04/1862

A new dissenting place of worship, it is anticipated, will shortly be erected in this town. The independent denomination, at present meeting together at the Assembly rooms, considering it expedient that a separate building should be devoted to Divine Worship have commenced subscribing towards the furtherance of the erection  of a chapel, and the aid of the public is respectfully solicited. It is stated that the ground has already been decided upon, but we are not as yet aware of its locality. £2000 to £2500 will be required. We believe that the accommodation in Eastbourne, during the season, for those who wish to “praise their maker”, is very deficient: consequently, The opening of another place of worship – to attend to which no objection beyond being Independent could then be raised – will be considered a benefit by many of our visitors. Methodists and independents were building new places of worship and attracting large congregations possibly outperforming the Established Church.


‘Free church’ developments appeared to take place with relative ease avoiding, lengthy and bureaucratic procedures which could be the case with the Established Church. The package of a fully equipped church paid for by the Whelpton family was difficult to resist when the vicar of Eastbourne Thomas Pitman heard of the possibility.

There was a high demand for places at church on Sundays and a temporary church was erected.

From the Eastbourne Gazette 12/8/1863

A new iron church is, we understand, to be erected in the field opposite South-terrace, consequent upon the great influx of visitors, many of whom are unable to get accommodation at the churches. Trinity schools are also open for worship during the autumn.  A small group of Roman Catholics were served by a visiting  priest from the St. Leonard's Mission in the 1850s and 60s before a chapel was opened in 1867 in Ceylon Place (a few months after Saint Saviour’s was conecrated). This commumity moved to a Stella Maris church on a site in Junction Road now built on by the Beacon Centre. This subsequently became the Our Lady of Ransom Parish with its church building opposite the Town Hall.

The New Anglican Church

Seaside watering places like Eastbourne provided a wide range of worship opportunities particularly in the summer for temporary residents who often stayed for several weeks. Visitors were important to the local economy, but the permanent residents gained too from the choices available. Henry Currey, agent and architectural adviser to the 7th Duke of Devonshire would be aware of church architects 'of ability' and their potential to design a church building for the prestigious New Town planned for the Duke. George Edmund Street (1824-1881) was chosen, but it is not clear how this came about, although (he would have been well known to Currey). Henry Robert Whelpton the son of a wealthy father George ‘pills’ Whelpton could afford to commission Street. He was an assistant curate at Upton-cum-Chalvey, Slough – a parish where Street had designed a school. This may have some influence on the choice of an architect acceptable to Eastbourne planners and to the family providing the money. An item from family papers found its way to the Getty Library in the USA. It is a letter from George Edmund Street to Henry Robert Whelpton son of George describing a large church which would become Saint Saviour’s. In the 1831 census Eastbourne’s population of 3,000 was spread among four hamlets. The original ‘East-Bourne’, Meads, South (where Saint Saviour’s was to be built) and South Houses (the area now near the later pier). The railway reached the town in 1849. This was important to the success of the development process, allowing much easier access than hitherto, to what was becoming an outstanding resort.

When the new church was being planned the population was about 10,000. This was to double between 1871 and 1876. Eastbourne was a much smaller town than Brighton which had a population of 65,000 at the time.    Eastbourne had developed as a seaside resort much later than Brighton; achieving the status of 'The Empress of Watering Places' by the Edwardian era and Saint Saviour’s had become a fashionable church for visitors and local people.

George Ambrose Wallis, who became a founding churchwarden, had serious ambition. He was in partnership with his brother Charles Lumb Wallis, a builder. G A Wallis became the first Mayor of the new Borough of Eastbourne at its incorporation in 1888. His involvement in the decision making process and detailed planning of public works as a civil engineer, is important, as he combined duties for the Duke with his official duties. This close arrangement was not without criticism, but he did achieve good results for the town. Eastbourne was clearly the Duke’s town, but William Cavendish was not often in residence. It was perhaps more appropriately Wallis’s town. Builder Charles Lumb Wallis also worshipped at the church and like his brother was to become a churchwarden in due course. The scheme required that the benefactor’s son should be the first incumbent, who when the ecclesiastical district was established, would take over full responsibility from the Vicar Canon Thomas Pitman, Vicar of Eastbourne. Although legally ‘Perpetual Curates' District Clergy could by the end of the 1860s style themselves ‘Vicar’, they were not as independent as the courtesy title might indicate. There was only one Vicar of Eastbourne. Pitman had arrived in 1829 as a young man and was involved in many aspects of local life both ecclesiastical and administrative.

Henry Robert Whelpton moves to Eastbourne

Local resident, barrister, amateur astronomer and historian, George Frederick Chambers refers to  correspondence with the Rev HR Whelpton at Salisbury about the possibility of his father funding much needed additional church accommodation. He claims a significant role in the negotiations after a similar scheme failed in the early 1860s. Chambers’ and Pitman’s  initial concerns about the perceived high church sympathies of the assistant curate from Salisbury were soon overcome when an offer arrived which could not be refused. There had been a high church party within the Church of England, with varying degrees of success, for a long time but the Oxford Movement was a relatively new development which created the suspicion that it intended to move the Church of England to Rome. The Movement was principally concerned with order and dignity in church life – free from the influence of secular power. It took its name from Oxford University, where initially at Oriel College there had been informal discussion within a group of fellows, as early as the 1820s, on the condition of the church. It was a time of reform in many aspects of national life including government, Poor Laws and the church. There was a fear that the church might be disestablished and lose its special role in national life. A series of ‘Tracts for the times’ were published. They came to end with Tract Ninety in which John Henry Newman defended the Thirty Nine articles of the Church of England – the doctrinal position, as capable of a catholic interpretation. This caused an outcry. Newman left the Anglican Church after this difficulty. Leadership passed to Edward Bouverie Pusey Professor of Hebrew at Oxford. Inevitably the term ‘Puseyism' gained currency. This was the beginning of  Tractarianism the first generation of Anglo Catholic practice characterised by a doctrinal position, rather than ceremonial, in worship which became gradually commonplace. Henry Robert Whelpton might be considered of this persuasion whilst his son Henry Urling Whelpton (the second incumbent) was more advanced in the externals of worship by the end of the nineteenth century.


The Bishop of Salisbury in the 1860s had Tractarian sympathies. Mr Whelpton was an assistant curate at Saint Edmund’s Salisbury, which was a cause for suspicion.  Intellectual discussion on the tracts had been going on for twenty years or more before the first appointment at Saint Saviour’s. However the subject of Public Worship regulation was a major issue, with clergy being prosecuted for extremes in worship and ceremonial. These matters were current during the foundation and formative years at Saint Saviour’s.

The centenary of the Oxford movement in 1933 was celebrated with enthusiasm in the Chichester Diocese where it had profound effects on church life (not the least that an Archdeacon of Chichester Henry Manning became a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church).

Eastbourne and the Whelpton Family

George Whelpton had no obvious connection with Eastbourne through family or residence. The decision to fund the building of a large church is curious.  He did, however know the Manbys. Mrs Harriot (sic) Barbara Manby of the local Willard family, was born in the town. She was both resident in Eastbourne and in London where she probably met George. Mrs Manby had inherited wealth from her first husband. Her second husband Charles Manby (who died in 1885) was a civil engineer like George Ambrose Wallis and came from Lincolnshire like the Whelptons. Charles Manby had been sometime Honorary Secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The Manbys were well aware of business opportunities in Eastbourne particularly in building construction, so encouragement to Henry Robert Whelpton was probably an important influence on him deciding to resign his post in the Salisbury diocese and move to East Sussex where the family wealth might be deployed. Mrs Manby entered enthusiastically into life at Saint Saviour’s from the earliest days. She provided substantial funds for the decoration of the church interior for more than 20 years which is her enduring memorial. Sadly her fortune was progressively reduced towards the end of her life, but kept on spending. She has been described ‘as literally pouring money into the church’. Her large house in Old Town ‘The ‘Greys’ was sold after her death to clear debts. Mrs Manby is buried next to the Whelpton family vault at Ocklynge cemetery, Eastbourne.

Whelpton, George

George Whelpton was a Wesleyan Methodist from Lincolnshire. His three sons William, Henry and George were baptised in the Methodist Church. He became an active local preacher in the 1830s later joining the ‘Millerites’ at Louth Walkergate Chapel a secessionist group opposed to a plan to setup a college to train ministers. George and family moved to Grimsby around the time of the 1841 national census and soon afterwards to Derby. They lived initially in a house in St Alkmunds Churchyard before occupying St Helen's House, a large Palladian mansion near the town centre, which still stands. Here they rented space to manufacture the pills (the basis of his fortune) which were increasing in popularity. The family firm did well. A move to London was next. They rented a large fashionable house near Regent’s Park. George and Henry worshiped at the Anglican church of St Mark’s Regent’s Park, but William remained a staunch Methodist. It is unclear if this was a total break for George, but it was for Henry who was confirmed in the Church of England. Young George died from illness whilst the family lived in London.


Whelpton, William T.

William T, an English layman, was an early convert to God, and became an earnest worker in Methodism. He gave himself to works of practical philanthropy and employed his ample means in sustaining all the funds of Methodism. Wherever a new chapel was to be built, or an outlying mission encouraged, he was ever ready with hearty counsel and contribution – the children’s home, the army and navy work, the foreign missions, every form of home evangelisation, all of them always had his prompt and generous support. He died of typhoid fever, at his home near London, in 1876, aged forty six.

(From the Cyclopaedia of Methodism, fifth revised edition, Philadelphia 1882)


The Famous Pills

George Whelpton’s wealth derived from the invested profits of Whelpton’s Pills. According to advertising material  the pills were  marketed from 1835. He was fortunate in the Railway Mania years of the 1840s. Derby was a centre for this. George’s money was invested in banking shares and property management. His experience in the latter, may have been the encouragement by the developers of Eastbourne to relocate to East Sussex in later life.

An 1861 advertisement states that the pills were in use at a major county hospital. Proprietary medicines like the pills with potentially dangerous formulations, were widely available in the 19th and 20th centuries – particularly until the advent of the National Heath Service in 1948. They were the successors to the nostrums of earlier times providing self medication for a wide range of afflictions before qualified medical care became widely available. Regulations in the 20th Century revealed Whelpton’s Pills to be at worst totally harmless and at best a mild laxative. A ‘Healing Ointment’ and milder ‘Stomach Pills' were added to the range, perhaps devised by Dr Edward Smith Whelpton (nephew of the first vicar of Saint Saviour’s). In the 1870s the firm passed out of direct family control and a lion trademark was used from this time.

Details of Whelpton’s pills were included in Martindale’s Pharmacopeia as late as the 1940s. The firm was based at Crane Court, Fleet Street an address which appeared in advertising for many years. There was plenty of competition for ‘Universal Pills’. Beechams and Holloways were  probably the best known. Holloway had an ointment which was paralleled by Whelpton. There was much competition. For example, a few doors along in Crane Court was Parrs Life pills depot.


William Thompson Whelpton, brother of Henry and the continuing strong Methodist connection in the family, died at the age of 46 from Typhoid contracted in Italy. It is probable that he visited Venice with his brother Henry on a quest for the mosaic decoration for Saint Saviour’s. George Whelpton endowed almshouses at Horncastle, Lincolnshire in memory of his wife Elizabeth.


Saint Saviour’s was sometimes known as the ‘Pills Church’, a connection which may be related more to the name Whelpton (that of two local clergymen father and son and later grandson a local Boy Scout Leader) than knowledge of the financial arrangements for the foundation of the church. Pills advertisements appeared in Gowland's Eastbourne Directory as late as 1912. The firm, not then controlled by the family, published Whelpton’s Almanack widely distributed until 1914.

In the brief histories of the Parish published during the 20th century, George was described as ‘a devout London businessman’. In later years he lived with his second wife Margaretta in Hastings and then at a newly built villa at St Leonard’s. Failing health probably explains his absence from the foundation stone laying at the church in 1865 – this is not marked. William Thomson Whelpton deputised for his father.


He probably had little to do with the project. A clue to this is in the obituary published in the Eastbourne Gazette reprinted in the parish Magazine. There is no known comment by Henry Robert Whelpton about his family background. George was a successful ‘quack’ medicine proprietor. The Vicar of Eastbourne, Thomas Pitman was the brother of Henry Pitman a physician at the top of the mid Victorian Medical establishment. Victorian doctors’ view of quack medicine might explain Henry Robert Whelpton giving up his post in Salisbury and becoming involved in civil society in Eastbourne under the scrutiny of Thomas Pitman, before the church project went ahead.


From the Eastbourne Gazette reprinted in Saint Saviour’s Magazine March 1873.

...This gentleman {George Whelpton} although personally unknown to most of us has associated his name with the interests of the town in a manner to call forth a cordial recognition of his munificence S.Saviour’s Church first founded by him . Then obtaining liberal response from others towards its completion will remain for generations to come a proof of his zeal for the house of God and his large-hearted desire to forward the interests of his fellow churchmen. We believe that we are correct in saying that Eastbourne was chosen by him on account of it being near to his own place of residence. And therefore also be with a view to him seeing and fostering the work which would thus be begun. It is a matter of great regret that he subsequently found himself unable to follow up the first gift by personal presence and interest in the work which has since gathered round the new Church.

William Thompson Whelpton (1830-1876) prominent within the Wesleyan Methodist community laid the foundation stone of his brother’s church and paid for the weathercock which fell down soon after it was fixed. It has now been replaced.



Iron Church.jpg
George Edmund Street
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