The Fall of the Church Tower in 1785

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St Swithun’ Church

The Fall of the Church Tower in 1785

A picture was recently sent to St Swithun’s church. It is a copy of a painting by James Lambert, showing the south side of St Swithun’s church, dated 1785. There are some pretty figures and a small dog, looking like characters from a Jane Austen novel. This picture is very important as it shows us the church before the fall of the tower later that year. The tower collapsed on November 12th, 1785, and destroyed much of the old 14th and 15th century building, and at least four medieval brass monuments were lost.

Fortunately, nobody was killed. There had been a wedding in the church that morning, and the ‘Masters and scholars’ had only just left. The schoolroom, as well as much of the church, was destroyed. Just over a hundred years before, in 1683, the church tower had been struck by lightning and set on fire. It is thought that the rebuilding was badly done, leading to the collapse in 1785. Rebuilding after 1785 took a long time. The date 1789 can be seen over the west door, but the date 1813 can be found in the belfry. The cost of rebuilding was about £30,000- a huge sum. James Wyatt (1746-1813) was the architect. The tower was designed by JT Groves, after the death of Wyatt, and the brothers Inwood supervised the building work. Mr Speaker Abbot lived in Forest Row - then part of this parish- at Kidbrooke and wished to be able to see the tower from his house. The last 25 feet of the tower are said to have been very expensive. There is a monument to Speaker Abbot on the south wall of the church.

Before the rebuilding was complete, one particular couple were married, either in the church ruins or in the church porch, in 1790. Spencer Perceval married Miss Jane Williams by special licence. The bride’s father considered Spencer Perceval to be an impecunious lawyer, the second son of a second marriage and therefore a man with no prospects. Jane Williams stayed at The Hermitage, the home of Thomas Wakeham (1728-1803), a local lawyer, before her marriage. The marriage appears to have been very happy and the couple produced six sons and six daughters. Perceval and his wife were both deeply religious. Spencer Perceval in fact became Prime Minister in 1809, and held this office until his assassination on 11 May 1812, in the lobby of the House of Commons. The assassin, John Bellingham, had a grudge against the government because he had been wrongly imprisoned in Russia and the government refused to help him or pay him compensation. Bellingham was hanged. Spencer Perceval has the doubtful distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. There is a monument to him in Westminster Abbey. We have no monument to his marriage in the ruins of St Swithun’s church.

There were two Sussex artists called James Lambert, who were uncle and nephew. James Lambert senior lived from 1725-1788, and his nephew from 1741-99. They both signed their work ‘James Lambert’, and both worked on some pieces. Sometimes the uncle added foliage, trees and detail to buildings sketched by his nephew. This may be the case with our picture. They produced over 600 pieces, including 269 watercolours of Sussex churches, abbeys, castles and country houses, commissioned by Sir William Burrell, antiquary, and now held in the British Library. These pictures were intended to be for historical record, rather than artistic pictures, so Lambert junior used a ruler and square to record the buildings.

There is a great deal of history linked to this important picture recently given to our church.

You can read more about the fall of the Tower, on the St Swithun’s website, and Lynn Ellis has written about Spencer Perceval.


PJ Jupp ‘Perceval, Spencer (1762-1812)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


J.C. Stenning, ‘Notes on East Grinstead’ Sussex Archaeological Collections (1868) 132-174

Caroline Metcalfe Page 08/11/2017

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