St John’s: The Forgotten School


Last month’s article about Rev Francis Sewell explained that in the early 1850s, he developed a master plan to facilitate his return to Lindfield, from Lancashire, and to increase his influence and standing in the parish.  One element of his plan was the building of a new church school and school master’s house.

Despite having been influential in establishing the National School on the Common in 1851, Sewell found its building objectionable, inadequate and remote from the parish church and the religious guidance questionable.  He decided a new church school was needed to meet the religious education of local children, with good facilities close to the church.  He clearly had a desire to exert his influence on the education of children from the labouring classes and additionally extend this to the middle classes.

His plan required sufficient land to build the school building and master’s house ‘contiguous to the church’, together with land for a rectory house.  This was achieved by his purchase of Townlands Farm, in the first years of the 1850s.  The farmyard, fronting onto the High Street almost opposite the northern churchyard, provided adequate space for the school buildings.

He commissioned the architect, J Clarke of 13 Stratford Place, Oxford Street, London, a noted Architect of Schools, to design both the school buildings and master’s house in the Gothic style. The school was required to provide space for 100 boys, 100 girls and 70n infants in separate rooms and be appointed with modern facilities.

On 13th May 1856, the Bishop of Chichester, amid much ceremony, laid the foundation stones naming the school St John’s Parish School.  Sewell explained the scheme was not ‘to earn to himself any reward, but to fix the affections of the children upon their God.’  The cost of the school building and master’s house was estimated at £1630. Sewell contributed £630 and provided the additional funding which was to be reimbursed by donations.  Replacement of his funding would enable him ‘to convey them to the parish.’

Constructed in fine stone, by Mr Constable of Penshurst, the school was inaugurated on the 19th October 1856.  The National School on the Common closed and some hundred children transferred to the new school.  Under Sewell’s patronage, he wanted his school to be self-supporting and conduced on the principles of the Church of England, without the aid of the National or any other society.  In addition o being a day school for Lindfield and surrounding district, it also served as a Sunday school.

In spring 1857 the school buildings and master’s house were the first properties in Lindfield to be illuminated by gas.  Sewell had installed a small Hansor’s Gas manufacturing plant and tank on his land.

A newspaper report in August 1861 commented that the school was ‘among the finest educational structures in Sussex.’  It further noted, ‘at a merely nominal charge’ the education was ‘not only to the children of the poor, but also to those of the middle class.  For this purpose a certificated master, of long experience in large schools, an infant mistress, a governess and a pupil teacher have been engaged.’  In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, the curriculum included geography, surveying, drawing and bookkeeping.

Every year since the opening of the original National School and then St John’s Parish School, Sewell had organised and funded an elaborate school fete.  Sewell was an enthusiastic attendee and participant with the children, even when living in Lancashire he would travel by train to Lindfield to attend.  The fete in August 1861 was another similarly lavish event.  140 children marched through the village to a field, adjoining The Welkin, where ‘most plenteous sources of amusement were provided; kites, swings, traps, donkey riding, etc.’  Before tea, a ‘kite, life size, representing a Life Guardsman, was flown to a height of 300 yards,’ and repeatedly pulled a light carriage with a child on board across the fields!  After tea, the children watched a ‘succession of electrical and galvanic experiments’ conducted by Sewell and as darkness fell the marquee was illuminated by gas lights.  The event closed with the firing of the evening gun, ascent of fire balloons and the National Athem.

Three months later in November 1861, an advertisement appeared for St John’s Middle-Class Grammar and Mathematical School under the supervision and control of the officiating Minister of St John’s Church, Lindfield.  The boarding house with home comforts was in a ‘commodious private residence’, and pupils were to be prepared for ‘the Middle-Class Oxford, Cambridge, and the Civil Service Examinations’.  Annual fees for boards were £32 and non-boarders £8 – £12.  Sewell was clearly moving the school upmarket with the aims of the original National School to educate the ‘labouring, manufacturing and other poor classes of the parish of Lindfield’ no longer fitting his vision.  Presumably he intended to leave their education to others.

Sewell retained ownership of the school buildings and never conveyed them to the parish as his stated intentions, presumably because the desired contributions form residents to replace his initial funding were not forthcoming.  After a short illness, Sewell died in October 1862 and shortly afterwards the school closed and never reopened.

On the instructions of the High Court in Chancery, the buildings were put up for sale by auction in September 1863.  They were advertised as, ‘Lots 3 and 4.  the newly-built premises, St John School, consisting of boys’ and girls’ lofty school rooms, infant school rooms, offices, and schoolmaster’s cottage and garden’.

What became of the school building? Mrs Julia Sewell, acquired the buildings and in 1866, they were recorded as ‘now possessed by Mrs Sewell, the widow, and used on Sundays by Dissenters’.  The Sunday school run by Miss Trevatt resumed meeting there in the mornings and afternoons, and in the evening the London City Mission conducted preaching services.  The building became known as St John’s Mission.

Upon Mrs Julia Sewell’s death the property passed to her close relative, miss Dent, and she subsequently offered the building to the London City Mission, but they were not allowed to own property outside London.  Miss Dent approached the Country Towns’ Mission, and on their agreeing to send a resident missioner to Lindfield, she endowed the local mission, and it became the Sewell Memorial Mission in October 1909.

By 1937, the Country Town’s Mission had become increasingly uncomfortable with their premises being directly opposite the parish church.  It was decided to sell and use the money for the erection of a more suitable mission building in Lewes Road; this is today the Lindfield Evangelical Free church.  the old missions it was purchased in July 12937 by the parish church authorities with the intention of erecting a vicarage.  However, after three separate sets of plans were prepared, it was found that the premises were not suitable either for demolition or conversion.  Miss Maud Savill of Finches purchased the buildings in 1938.

During World War II the premises were used by evacuees and the military. Today all the buildings are occupied as private dwellings.


Published in Lindfield Life August 2017


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