By John Mills and Richard Bryant

Lindfield being a rural parish escaped the changes brought about by the industrial revolution, although onefactory was built early in the Victorian era.  It stood where Lindfield Medical Centre stands today.

In 1840, Thomas Durrant a wood turner, from a prominent Lindfield non-conformist family set up a piano business.  He soon established the Sussex Pianoforte Manufactory in a workshop next to his home, Broomfields, (54) High Street. His first employee, Alfred Steibler, a piano maker, came from London to make pianos. 

The Victorian values of hearth and home with a family’s entertainment centred on music making, created considerable demand for pianos.  His business quickly expanded and by 1851 he was turning out ‘cottage pianofortes’ and other types at a rate of 100 per year.  Some were transported to London and Brighton for auction with the ‘commendation of several first-rate professional men and dealers in England and Scotland’. To expand the thriving business and accommodate a growing workforce, Thomas Durrant needed much larger premises.

Around 1852, he bought Milwards, an old freehold property, opposite on the western side of the High Street.  Shortly after, Durrant demolished the old property and in its large back garden in 1854 built a new factory with a wide gated entrance and an extensive forecourt.  Unusually for Lindfield, it was a three storey building with a high roof and large windows necessary for good lighting.  Within 10 years he contracted P Jupp to install gas lighting: the gas being supplied by the Lindfield Gas Works, situated at today’s Chaloner Close.   The factory was described as a ‘modern, well-lighted and heated, clean, spacious building, specially built for the purpose for which it was used’.   Pianos were made on a ‘production line’ with each man performing a specific task.  Alfred Steibler was said to be the only Durrant employee who could make and construct an entire piano.

Anecdotally, it has been said villagers nicknamed this fine establishment ‘The Piggery’ because the workers were dubbed ‘the pigs’ on account of drinking so much beer at the end of the week in the Stand Up Inn.  

In addition to making and carrying a stock of new pianos for sale at the factory, the business also proudly advertised its Repairing and Regulating Department, ‘where every care is bestowed’ and a tuning service.

In 1860, the factory employed over 30 men and during the next two decades established sales branches in London and Birmingham.  By the 1880s, British piano making was in decline due to imported pianos made in Germany having taken a large share of the market.  The decision was taken in 1881 to close the manufacturing department.  Thomas Durrant retired in early 1882, selling surplus stock and other items, handing the business to his son, Richard Durrant.  Consequently the name was changed from Sussex Pianoforte Manufactory to R Durrant Piano Warehouse, advertising piano, harmonium, American organs tuned and repaired, in addition to sales and hire.

As the nature of the business had changed there was no need for such a wide gated entrance to the forecourt.  This was narrowed, to the current width of the walkway, to the Medical Centre and car park, by building two houses with shops, today Tufnells Home and Kitchens by Hamilton Stone Design. 

The Piano Warehouse under Richard Durrant’s management continued to be advertised in local directories until 1887, when he relocated his pianoforte business to Rugby.  He remained in business until his retirement in 1924.

Piano production having ceased less space in the building was required, as the Pianoforte Warehouse occupied only part of the ground floor thus freeing up the remainder of the premises.  The Durrants rented the spare space to G F Eastwood, who engaged a Lindfield builder, Charles Andrews, to convert the space into the New Assembly Rooms.  The Assembly Room was on the first floor with a Mission Room below.  Lindfield was in need of a larger entertainment and meeting venue as the only function rooms, at that time, were at the Bent Hotel and the Reading Room in Lewes Road.

The Mid Sussex Times reported at considerable length the opening of the New Assembly Rooms on 15 May 1883.  The rooms were complimented for being light, airy, very neat and tastefully presented.  There were ‘16 windows, letting light on the subjects, whilst from the ceiling there are two handsome gas pendants.  There is a balcony at the entrance end and a stage at the other, and seating arrangements for about 220.’  A grand curving staircase led from the ground floor entrance.  The Rooms were regarded as providing a ‘valuable acquisition to the town.’ 

The New Assembly Rooms were managed by a ‘committee of gentlemen’ with G F Eastwood as the Secretary and Josiah Durrant as Acting Agent and Booking Manager.

Until the opening of the King Edward Hall in 1911, the New Assembly Rooms were the centre of social life in Lindfield with regular events ranging from the Music Society concerts to harp recital and Captain Acklom’s Elocutionary Entertainment to Chrysanthemum Exhibitions.  Perhaps its most noted event was in 1884 when Oscar Wilde delivered a lecture on ‘The Value of art in modern life’.

In contrast to the entertainments upstairs, the Mission Room was the centre for the local temperance movement by the Church of England and Gospel Temperance Union promoting alcohol abstinence.  Meetings and lectures were held weekly and a lending library was provided, also occasional appropriate entertainments including ‘Mr & Mrs Brown and Miss Skelton the Singing Negro Evangelists’ and an ‘appearance by Wah-Bun-Ah-Kee (Red Indian)’; he was quite famous.

Following the relocation of the Pianoforte Warehouse, the New Assembly Rooms were enlarged.  Some of the ground floor space was taken by Edward Durrant as a showroom and store for his High Street shop; and was described in December 1888 as providing ‘baskets, aprons, wraps, cushions, pottery and lace goods’.

The opening of King Edward Hall and the Great War signalled the final decline of the New Assembly Rooms building.  Reputedly it was used as a rabbit farm to assist with food shortages during the war.  During the 1920s and 1930s it was used for furniture storage and became derelict, but was requisitioned by the military in World War 2 for an unknown use.

In the early 1950s, the building was brought back to life, returning to its manufacturing roots when Herbert and Paul Christian trading as O H Christian Ltd used the premises for their clothing manufacturing business.  They specialised in making good quality skirts for leading brands, hence locally being known as the Skirt Factory.  On the first floor was the fabric store with Paul Christian making the patterns and doing all the cutting.  Downstairs was the machinist’s area with many Singer sewing machines and the finishing and pressing department.  The factory employed around 20 local women, who enjoyed the perk of ‘overs’ being sold cheaply.

At the beginning of the 1970s, O H Christian Ltd went into receivership and the property became empty again.  Shortly after the building was demolished making way in 1974 for Lindfield Medical Centre and Toll Gate car park. 

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