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The project begins

Thomas Pitman Vicar of Eastbourne wrote to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners at Millbank, London.on 28th February 1865…


'A Gentleman wishes to build a church here in consideration of his having the perpetual right of presentation – and which we are quite willing to concede to him – at present no steps beyond this have been taken it is proposed that the Church shall cost from £5000-£7000 and hold around £1200. That at least 1/3rd of the Sittings shall be free and appropriated for ever. That a parsonage house be built and conveyed with the Church to the Commissioners –The Duke of Devonshire has kindly offered to give the sites of these.'

The Rev Henry Robert Whelpton wrote to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners on 27th April 1865, requesting an interview. A few days later he visited Millbank to discuss Eastbourne's proposed New Eccle.District. This was written on a form N°375 handed to him when he enters the building to describe his business that day. It is retained in the Church of England archives. A meeting with the Secretary, which from the records, appears to be concerned only with the Parsonage House is unfruitful. During the next nine years there was further correspondence and visits to London to discuss the same subject. No central church funds are forthcoming for a parsonage and it is eventually paid for by the Whelpton family on the site allocated by the Duke of Devonshire. The house and site is then transferred to the Commissioners valued at £3,900 in 1876. From this the church derived an endowment of £15 a year.

George, his elder brother Robert, who lived in Hove, and younger brother William who had remained in Derby after the family moved from Lincolnshire, had significant investments in banking and railway shares. They would have been seriously affected by the ‘Overend Gurney’ banking crisis of may 1866 during the building of Saint Saviour’s. (No similar event happened until the Northern Rock crisis of 2007.)

The banking problems may explain the decision to consecrate the church bare of most ornament, although some of the items to furnish the chancel were awaiting installation in store. There was some controversy about these. The consecration was delayed from Advent 1866 ostensibly as the Bishop was not available. By July 1885 George Whelpton, then resident in Wellington Square Hastings, agreed to pay the Duke’s legal fees on the transfer of the land to the Commissioners. He is styled ‘The Founder’ (a title by which after this time he will always be known) in a covering letter from his son who was then living with his wife Catherine and family at St Leonard’s Villa (a rented house opposite Holy Trinity Church in a part of Seaside Road now known as Trinity Trees). The Duke had provided two acres of land as a gift. Initially a site was suggested slightly further west on land now including of Furness Road. However, a site was already designated for a church building on the land for the New Town. Although the overall plan was substantially modified the church was finally constructed very close to the originally proposed site.

Henry Urling Whelpton remarks at a parish meeting many years later that he had visited the site with his father. It was planted with turnips at the time and it was marked out by an estate worker.

From spring 1863 to the end of the visitor’s season in 1866 a temporary 'iron' church stood at the corner of present day South Street and Hardwick Road, opposite the churchyard amidst cornfields. Both Saint Saviour’s and the temporary building were in the long established Trinity District. While the church was being built, the incumbent designate preached occasionally at Holy Trinity church, a short walk from his rented house opposite that church. He ministered there during 1865 and 1866. Visitors to Eastbourne had increased substantially in these two years and the 'iron' church building provided for the overflow of worshipers from Holy Trinity.


Henry Whelpton became involved in local affairs, including supporting the winter soup kitchens (when seasonal employment was difficult to find) and made his detailed plans for the district – a future parish with many outreach activities. Chambers relates that Henry Whelpton described himself as an ‘out of work curate’, when he was chosen to respond to a toast made to the Bishop and clergy of the diocese at a dinner to mark the start of works on the pier in 1866. He was a governor of the local provident dispensary, providing medicines for poorer people and became involved as a governor for many years with Eastbourne College (which was founded shortly after his arrival in the town).

There was much demand for seats in all churches during the summer and early autumn visitors’ season. Pew rents had been controversial in the early nineteenth century. Church rates had been abolished in the 1860s before George’s church had been a definite project, but church funding worried Thomas Pitman. At the new church a compromise was reached permitting seats to be reserved on a long term basis, without payment, but encouraging regular attendance and donations. This system continued until 1914. (Seats not taken ten minutes before a service commenced could be taken by anyone).  Collections provided the main source of income for the church and the wealth of the Whelpton family meant that funding clerical stipends was not an issue.

An unmarked foundation stone was laid at midday on 17th October 1865 by William Thompson Whelpton in the presence of about 100 people. The proceedings were led by the rev. H R Pierpont of Holy Trinity. The local choral society performed throughout the proceedings. Building work commenced whilst the Vicar, Canon Pitman and Mr Pierpoint were working on boundaries for the new district (described officially as

‘New District' to be taken out of the District Chapelry of Holy Trinity which said Chapelry was taken out of the Parish of Eastbourne’).

The boundaries remained unsettled for several months. It was discovered that, by including the Meads area, George Whelpton would have the right of presentation to any new living established there – an event soon to occur. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners were persuaded by Thomas Pitman to exclude Meads. The church of Saint John, Meads was opened in 1869.

Builder James Peerless was the town’s largest employer in the1860s and a member of the Local Board of Health, the precursor of the incorporated borough established in 1888. He was responsible of the construction of several private and public buildings in the town including the Town Hall.

The Architect

George Edmund Street (1824-1881) is of international importance. He was born on 20th June 1824 at Woodford Essex beginning a 40 year career at the age of 17. His first church was at Par in Cornwall in 1847, and his largest project the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London is often considered a masterpiece of secular building. It remained unfinished when he died in 188, as did his most expensive church project now the American Cathedral in Paris.

Street had become architect to the Oxford diocese in 1852, where about a third of his output was created. He traveled widely in Europe in the 1850s, from which time he was influenced by French, German and Italian Gothic all of which are reflected in the design of Saint Saviour’s. Street was both a critic and an advocate of the High Victorian style and encouraged the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was also to become diocesan architect at York, Rippon and Winchester. He received the fellowship of the Institute of British Architects and its Gold Medal in 1874. Street was elected president of the RIBA in1874 and after his untimely death was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The rise of the Oxford Movement

There was a large demand for new churches and the restoration and remodeling of others. These activities were a key feature of George Edmund Street’s career. He was a churchwarden at All Saint’s, Margaret Street, London the model church of the Ecclesiologists. The Ecclesiological Society had been founded as the Camden Society at Cambridge University in 1839. It formulated guidelines for church architecture, furnishings and internal arrangement. The Society advocated the revival of one period of Gothic ‘the middle pointed’ or decorated. Saint Saviour’s is heavily influenced by this approach. It remained the preferred style by many architects for the next 50 years. In1850 Street wrote On the Proper Characteristics of a Town Church. Saint Saviour’s is such a town church.

Although many of Street’s ideas did not agree with those developed by the Ecclesiologists, his views soon became part of an approved style. The young architect made several tours in Europe at this time. His first major church project was All Saints, Boyne Hill, Maidenhead. A group of parochial buildings in polychrome brick built at the same time as William Butterfield’s All Saints, Margaret Street. His first London church was Saint James the Less, Westminster. Like several of his church’s the interior of the nave roof is decorated and by comparison the Eastbourne work is incomplete. Street cared as much for the interiors of his buildings as the outside, believing that the architect should design all parts to achieve a coherent whole. In 1856 he was appointed superintendent of the Ecclesiological Society plate scheme. His embroidery designs shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, attracted widespread interest. Plate of his design was used in Saint Saviour’s from the earliest days and a Street altar cloth was worked by Mrs Catherine Whelpton. He was a member of the Plain Chant Society, so was aware of the need for a church roof to be constructed with fine acoustic properties. These principles apply in his Eastbourne church.

When commissioned by the Whelpton family to design Saint Saviour’s, Street was diocesan architect at Rippon. He was responsible for improvements at the church of Saint Saviour, Leeds founded anonymously by Dr Pusey in 1844. This building was probably the first practical expression of the teaching from the Tracts. Saint Saviour became a popular title for Tractarian Churches. It was used for the Anglican priory within the large parish of Shoreditch, in east London, where the young Mr Whelpton served his title as deacon at the District Church of All Saints, Stonebridge, before moving to Slough.


The delayed consecration at Eastbourne took place on Thursday 31st January 1867, only a few days after the reopening of its namesake in Leeds. Street was then very busy. The designs for the Law courts had to be submitted in January 1867, just as the Leeds and Eastbourne projects were ready. It seems likely that he was at his London office at the time, rather than being involved in local projects. His movements and practice in attending openings is not known, as there are no available records yet available to clarify the position.

There was a delay in consecration by the Lord Bishop of Chichester, Gilbert whilst some changes were made in the initial furnishing of the chancel and apse.  A carved reredos and seats for officiating clergy with a chair for a visiting bishop were part of the design and were intended from the start. Engravings from 1867 although some interpretations show a gothic reredos in place. Initially there were boards displaying the Lord’s Prayer and the ten Commandments at the East End.

Street’s design focuses on the celebration of the Eucharist – very important to the theories of the Oxford movement. The design principles of the Ecclesiologists and the ceremonial of the ritualists all of which were well in place nationally by 1866 (not yet in Eastbourne), but viewed with considerable concern by Thomas Pitman.

For two days after the building was opened, a committee dealt with the allocation of seats which was indicated on notices available in the building. It is probable that there was a special committee to assist the incumbent designate; if so they would have been busy. By the end of the 1866 visitor’s season the 'iron' church had been taken down. The planned date for the consecration of the permanent building was 17th November 1866.

Events in Brighton

There was concern in Eastbourne that some aspects of ‘extreme’ ritual and ceremonial experienced in Brighton, London and several other places might arrive in Eastbourne. On 29th September 1866 the Rev. John Purchas held a service in Saint James proprietary chapel, Brighton. The choir wore scarlet cassocks under their surplices. Three officiating clergy took part clad in vestments with Mr Purchas wearing a claret coloured cope, whilst he carried a biretta. The servers were dressed in very Roman attire and incense was used. There was an immediate outcry in Brighton. The town was not far from Eastbourne with regular train services. To many people, High Church meant Roman Church and Henry Robert Whelpton had been labelled the former. Controversy centred upon the six points of ritual observance – important to those who were anxious to bring outward signs of doctrine to the intellectual ideas of the Tractarian theorists. Henry Robert Whelpton was a moderate theorist.


The points were :

Altar lights

The eastward position at the Eucharist

Use of the mixed chalice

Wafer bread for communion

Incense and vestments


All these matters were highly controversial in the second half of the 19th century and first few years of the 20th. Little controversy would have been raised by practice at Saint Saviour’s where the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer were closely followed.

The service for Consecration of a Church for use in the diocese of Chichester dated 1882, notes that the Bishop was to be at the north end of the Holy Table for the celebration of the Holy Communion. This order of service was used for the consecration of Saint Peter’s daughter church of Saint Saviour’s in 1897. The order thirty years earlier would have been similar.

The Eastbourne Gazette reporting on the 31st January 1867 consecration states that 'the Bishop was at the north end of the Holy Table' – many in the congregation would have called this the ‘altar’ as today. Perhaps noting the position of the Bishop was to emphasise and reassure those with concerns about ritualistic tendencies that they would not be in place at the new church. The church relied on dignified choral services, modest ceremonial in accord with the Book of Common Prayer, coloured frontals to the altar and hangings in the chancel, a reputation for superb floral decorations and increasingly elaborate permanent decorations in mosaic and glass. All was intended to enhance Tractarian teaching.

It is possible that a more flamboyant style might have been practised incrementally, but for the very large congregations. Financial support might have been affected by worship of a more 'Brighton’ style. Controversy continued to rage there until the early 20th century. Anglo-Catholicism became dubbed ‘London Brighton and South Coast religion'.

Eastbourne remained on an ecclesiastical branch line, where the moderation of the Whelpton and the views of Thomas Pitman had a profound influence.

In the parish magazine October 1869 concern was expressed at the relatively lax arrangements for the foundation stone laying of Saint John’s church Meads, by the stone laying of All Saints, Carlisle Road in 1877 and  the modernising influence of practices at Saint Saviour’s were evident. In a photograph, Canon Pitman is attired in a surplice together with attendant clergy – a modern development. The ‘Cathedral style services’ were a significant attraction. A musical tradition was established from the start, with a choir of men and boys who were soon in surplices – a mark of high church.

Funds had to be raised for the first organ. Initially one was hired. On Consecration day it failed, so emergency arrangements were made with a harmonium. Just in time for a congregation of 1000. Between 1867 and 1878 there were five organists W Ewing was the first. A competent choir was soon formed the boys being paid a small weekly sum, whilst the choir men were entirely voluntary. Two large scale choral concerts were held in December 1876 and April 1877 in aid of school building funds. Schools were an important feature of life in the town, (with several of them using the church as a place of worship for their pupils), but the schools were almost exclusively private enterprises. As the town grew, more were established including Eastbourne College (contemporary with Saint Saviour’s). Henry Robert Whelpton was a governor for many years. His son attended the school.

The first 30 years of life at the church were ones of constant expansion, reflecting the success of the town in attracting residents. The parish was fully built up by 1900. Large congregations were still the norm, but social conditions were greatly changed by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Many of the large houses which catered for seasonal visitors staying for several weeks were being converted into flats. A separate parish was created in 1892 soon after the death of Canon Pitman. A new freedom was available. For example fees due for marriage and funeral services now went directly to church funds rather than to the vicar of Eastbourne.

Upon the death of the first incumbent, Henry Urling Whelpton continued the work of his father. There were minor changes to the liturgy. Ceremonial was enhanced and vestments began to be worn, but the introduction of incense is not recorded.

A small boarding school with some day places was established to beneath fluttering bunting lent by the Coastguard which was strung across the roadway. Providing a supply of boys for the choir, it was successful in this respect, but suffered like many private schools in the town from the varying degrees if prosperity. Eastbourne relied on visitors and its wealthier residents to provide employment. The school was closed for a short time at the end of the 19th century when boys from the National School in Furness Road, strongly supported by the church, provided help to the men of the choir. Saint Saviour’s choir school was reopened as a day school, remaining so until closure mainly on economic grounds in 1937.

The steeple of St Saviour's was part of the original design. It was delayed until 1872 funded by a substantial donation from the Duke of Devonshire and locally raised funds. William Thompson Whelpton paid for the weathercock, which fell down soon after it was put in place after topping out by his brother at Harvest Festival 1872. As this task was being completed the choir sang, 'Pleasant are thy courts above' beneath fluttering bunting lent by the Coastguard which had been strung across the roadway.

The Bells

From the 1867 consecration until 1876 there was one small bell above the vestry. Once the tower was built, bells were acquired. The 25cwt tenor was given by the Duke of Devonshire. Bells were given in memory of George Whelpton and Elizabeth Whelpton his first wife. A third was by subscription. In the late 1870s a mechanism was installed so that all three could be chimed by one person. Later a silent practise apparatus by Seague of Exeter with small bells was installed to imitate the sound of its parent whilst its clapper was lashed. How successful this was is not recorded, but by 1888 noise nuisance from practice was the subject of a letter in the Eastbourne Gazette. Ellen G Woodgate gave a bell in 1878. Another was given in memory of Marsden Radcliffe Whelpton, infant son of the first vicar. A further three were given by Adam Bayly, sister in law of the Rev. H Jameson an assistant curate later to become the first vicar of St Peter’s church who wrote under the name of Edna Lyall. The bells are named after characters in her novels Hugo, Erica and Donovan. The eight bells were rung together for the first time on the morning of Easter Day 1876. In 1986-87 Eyre and Smith of Derby repaired and refurbished the bells replacing the wooden frame with one of steel. Two treble bells from the Netherlands were later added.





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