Reverend Francis Hill Sewell

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During the 18th century Lindfield parish church had been in decline and in a poor state of repair, this continued into the 19th century. By the 1830s not only was the building unsound but in the absence of a resident minster services were occasionally not held and burials delayed. Without going into detail, the problems stemmed from the church receiving very little money, due to the tithes being in lay ownership. Further decline was inevitable unless a saviour could be found.

This arrived in the form of Rev Francis Sewell, who having graduated from Cambridge was ordained in 1839.  Without doubt he possessed ‘the ardent zeal of a sincere Christian and Churchman’ with a desire to do good, so typical of Victorian times.  He was born in India in 1815, the second son of Major General Robert and Eliza Sewell.  Over the previous 100 years the Sewell dynasty had become influential and wealthy, initially from the law and subsequently through military service, politics and landownership.  This notable and high achieving family further prospered through many ‘good marriages’ and for some from plantations in the West Indies.

Shortly after arriving in Lindfield, his elder brother died, which gave Francis Sewell ‘possession of a moderate fortune’.  In Sewell terms this meant benefiting from many tens of thousands of pounds and an estate bordering Ashdown Forest comprising several farms totalling some 600 acres and a large house at Twyford.

In 1841 Francis Sewell married Julia Dent, of an old and wealthy Westmorland family, and set up home at Pear Tree Cottage [junction of High Street and Lewes Road].  Sewell immediately set about re-establishing the church and repairing the building, firstly by repairing the windows.

He instigated a restoration in 1848, which south a return to the 14th century style favoured at that time.  This project saw the introduction of Sewell’s approach to funding; in essence he would make a donation to get a project started then expect residents to contribute the remainder.  He donated £650 towards the estimated restoration cost of £2000, the work was completed in 1850 but it took nearly 10 years for the church to clear the debt.

Having set the restoration in hand, in August 1849, Sewell left Lindfield to accept the position of  Vicar of Cockerham, Lancashire, a living in the gift of his brother-in-law worth £700 per annum.  This compared with £30 the Lindfield church received, although Sewell had not drawn his stipend.

However Sewell retained his position as the incumbent of Lindfield parish and paid for the employment of an assistant minister.  Despite living away he remained closely involved with the parish and pursued his good works, returning on many occasions.

His first good work for the village was to instigate the building of a National School, promoting the Anglican faith.  this opened on the Common in 1851.  At that time the village had a thriving non-conformist school, but Sewell wished to have a school through which to extend the influence of the Church of England on children of the labouring classes.

During the early 1850s, Sewell appears to have devised a master plan to facilitate his return to reside in Lindfield.  A core element of his plan was to purchase the Tithes out of lay ownership.  The aim was to use the money provided by the Tithes to fund his good works for the village.  In August 1854, the Brighton Gazette carried an announcement that Sewell had entered into an agreement to purchase the Tithes, worth £600 per year, using his own money.  A Tithes Restoration Fund was established to receive contributions, and when the purchase price had been raised he ‘would hand over the amount of Tithes so purchased to the use for ever hereafter of the resident and officiating Rector of the Parish.’  Two years later, the paper announced the redemption of the Tithes by Sewell.  However despite his belief he had acquired the Tithes, the transfer to his ownership never took place and they remain in lay ownership.

Notwithstanding the confused position with regard to the Tithes, Sewell pressed on with the other parts of his plan.  These were to close the recently built National School on the Common and transfer the pupils to a anew school under his control, close to the church.  In addition to building the school with a master’s house, the plan also included building a fine rectory as his residence.  By 1854, Sewell had purchased Townlands farmhouse, in the High Street, and it’s accompanying lands to provide the land for his planned buildings.

Construction work commenced in May 1856 on his new St John’s Parish School and Master’s House, being built on land previously Townland’s farmyard [to the north of the house].  Sewell funded the construction and sought contributions to repay his outlay, to enable him ‘to convey them to the parish.’  Work also started on his Rectory House [later named The Welkin], to which similar funding arrangements applied.

Sewell of his own volition, and seemingly without consultation, enthusiastically initiated these projects ‘for the benefit of the parish’ despite not having secured the Tithes required for the funding.  Throughout this time, while exerting his influence on Lindfield, Sewell remained resident in Lancashire as Vicar of Cockerham.

The newly built St John’s Parish School and Master’s House opened in October 1856; his Rectory House was completed a short time later. They were the first buildings in the village to be equipped with gas lighting. The gas was manufactured in a private gas making plan and stored in a tank in his grounds.

Subsequently Sewell arranged for Phinehas Jupp, the village blacksmith, to run a pipe under the High Street to take gas to the church, and to install the pipework for gas lighting.

In May 1857, ‘a good sprinkle of the principal inhabitants’ assembled at St John’s School to see the trial of Mr Hansor’s recently discovered olefiant gas [ethylene] installed by Sewell. The school buildings were the first in Lindfield to be lit by gas.  It was reported ‘The exhibition afforded a brilliant display, reflecting the highest credit on the scientific abilities of the patentee, Mr Hansor, who was present.’  Impressed by what they had seen the gathering adjourned to the Red Lion to discuss lighting the village with Hansor’s gas.  It was subsequently agreed to proceed, resulting in the Lindfield Gas Company being formed in June 1857 to manufacture and distribute the gas, thus bringing gas to the village.

Francis Sewell returned to live in Lindfield in October 1857 taking up residence at his partially finished Rectory House.

Sadly following a short illness Sewell died on 9 October 1862, aged 47 years.  The family swiftly removed his body from Lindfield for burial, on 29 October 1862, at All Saints, Kensal Green, London.  This action appears to have been met with some disquiet in the village.

At the time of his death, all the properties built by Sewell remained in his ownership, as he had not received sufficient contributions to enable their transfers to the parish.  On the instructions of the High Court in Chancery, in the case of Trotter v Harrison, all the properties and his land in Lindfield, were put up for sale by auction on 21 September 1863.  Trotter was an in-law relative of Francis Sewell and an executor of his Will.

Francis Sewell’s vision of lasting benevolence to the parish came to nothing, although he can take the credit for introducing gas to Lindfield.

 

Published in Lindfield Life

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