Sussex History - a different view

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all that is presently known about it?

There are more destroyed medieval churches and chapels in this locality than may be imagined. The causes range from village depopulation, to damage in the civil war as at Durrington, and the irresistible forces of nature, as when the sea destroyed whole settlements.

Amongst these buildings are some which survived long enough to be recorded by 18th century artists, or which still exist as ruins. Typical examples include Barpham, on the downs above Angmering, where only an unrecognisable ruin remain, and the foundations of East Angmering church next to the old school library. But Durrington and Heene chapels were recorded by Lambert in 1778, as fragmentary walls, and modern churches are now built on their sites [1]. Whilst the parish church at Middleton gradually succumbed to the waves in the early 19th century, but its external appearance is well known [2]. However, close at hand, the chapel at Kingston was lost far too early for any illustrators pen, and its watery site is the subject of legend.

Not being a romanticist, I will avoid dwelling on the Black Rock legend - more correctly rocks - that these are remains of Kingston Chapel, to be seen at neap tide south of Peak Lane or Kingston Street, and that on wild nights a tolling bell may be heard sounding from out the deep. Adding to the mystery, ancient pottery found there some years ago, is perhaps still kept at a well known house in that parish.

The earliest account of the legend, so far found, is by no less a person than William Hollis writing in 1916. “The Chapel at Kingston, is now beneath the sea. There is ample evidence, however, of the exact spot where it stood, and it is locally named as the Black Rocks. At very low tide it is possible to walk around these, and with the knowledge that there was once a church on this particular site, they form a very interesting study.” [3]

What a pity he did not adduce the evidence, but that is about par for popular history. One assumes old villagers had recounted tales heard in their youth, but it would have taken five generations of ancient men, living end to end, to have carried these stories forward from the mid 17th century. It is likely that honest detail of where the building stood, in relation to Black Rocks, became simplified by fading memory into their being the remains, or at least the site.

It is peculiar that those who have looked at the ring of rocks in recent years, recognise them as natural conglomerate stone, presumably ice age erratics. Nevertheless, one can imagine that in the unlikely event of part of these rocks having been visible above ground level, they might have attracted ritual significance long before Christianity, and this was handed on when the chapel was built.

As a village comparable in size to others locally, and a reputed haven for small ships, Kingston may well have had a chapel at an early date. Certainly it should have been built no later than East Preston church, about 1150 when Ferring Prebend was created, for around that date the Abbot of Tewkesbury was already presenting a cleric to serve there. But nothing is known about the building thereafter, until the 16th century.

The first mention of a chapel is not from diocesan sources, but the humble wills of ordinary parishioners. These Catholic testaments include that of Thomas Spring in 1555. “I will that a prest shall say masse for my sowle, and all Christen sowles in the Chappell of Kyngeston.” While others mention the “hy alter”. Very little more than a confirmation that a place of service existed [4].

Direct description of the building itself does not appear in surviving record until various churchwardens presentments, or reports, of the late 16th century - some years after Elizabeth had come to the throne and re-established a Protestant church. The past generation had seen the casting down of altars and ornament, their brief rearing up again, only to fall again, so that ordinary parishioners must have been shell shocked. No wonder many buildings had fallen into decay, especially where part of their upkeep was in the hands of people who probably knew little or nothing of the village.

Thus it was that in 1573 the wardens warned, “Our chauncell is in great ruyne and decay and lyke to fall downe in Mr Shelleys fault of Lewes”. The great tithes having been leased out to Shelley, he had taken over the prebendaries responsibility for the chancel, leaving the nave as always in the care of the parish [5]. In 1579 it is made clear that while most ceremonies and services took place at Kingston, burials were at Ferring. But when the rife was in full spate, villagers would have had the alternative of attending service at East Preston. Whether medieval burials took place in the church and its litten, such as the curates of Tewskesbury, is open to question. [6].

Nothing in any of the reports so far found, provides a clue as to the appearance of the chapel. Whether it had aisles and a tower, for instance. It can only be surmised that it would have been much like others locally, flint walling with stone dressings, consisting of a simple nave and chancel, serving a village that never had the wealth for ostentatious building. In 1602 we have the only direct report on the fabric, merely informing us that, “The whole Chappell is unpaved the seats ruinos the [roof] covering greatly decayed the glasse windowes and doores neede mendinge the wall whitinge they want allso a bible a pulpitt and linnen clothes for the communion table.” Unless considerable repairs were made, there was not much of value to save when the crash came, apart from the Horsham slab roofing and timbers [7]

There is one very fortuitous relic of the period which makes locating the chapel rather better than guesswork, allowing its distance south of the present shoreline to be estimated. That is the 1621 Randall Map of west Ferring, which has been reproduced in Ferring Past. This map is not at all accurate overall, but by relating the fields to those on much later maps, it is possible to calculate the approximate loss of land since that year. Ferring Past has an approximation of 250 yards, which cannot be contradicted [8].

The important feature of the map is that it indicates less erosion further east. It is indeed probable that a small headland was rapidly being eroded at Ferring Rife, and the existence of such a feature is hinted at in the Armada Map of forty years earlier, when a landing stade and defence works were located on the west side of this outcrop of land. This and other clues suggest land loss was less in central Kingston [9].

In 1621 the sea might barely have reached the churchyard, so that the chapel is likely to have been less than 250 yards south of the shoreline at Peak Lane. Perhaps a lot less.

Over the next couple of decades the only overt concern for churchwardens was with the behaviour of various parishioners, at a time when church courts still had influence. In 1625 there was a complaint by Kingston of “boyes and servants striving and justling and pinching one another for want of seates in Ferring church, to the offence of the congregation, and disturbance of divine service.” This hints at how ordinary services were already being attended there as a matter of course [10].

About this period there is evidence for bad weather with gales damaging churches, although poor upkeep may have exacerbated the problem. At Middleton in 1624 the wardens spoke of, “the great windes the last winter.” [11] Then in 1626 at Ferring the vicar had his, “barne blowne downe.” [12]

Finally in 1626 came the well known presentment, followed by a formal petition. “Our chappel is much decayed and out of repayre by reason of the sea, and now hath wrought away the land in a manner to the very chappell so that it is not reapyrable. And being allotted to the mother church of Ferring, we most humbly desire order may be granted unto us to take downe the covering and healing of the chappell, which is of good and large Horshan stone or slate and enable the parryshioners for the preserving of the stone and timber worke for the yearly and continuall benefitt of the poore, for suddenly the chappell will be ruinated by the sea.” [13]

Amongst various petitions asking permission to use materials “to repair the church at Ferring,” one in January 1627 involved all the village householders appending their marks, as if none of them were literate, comprising nine principal inhabitants and ratepayers in one block, and eight labourers separately. At under twenty households the village was a smaller place than hitherto, with manorial documents of the period speaking of land and cottages being “eaten up by the sea”.

It is particularly interesting that one of the churchwardens involved in this was Robert Baker. He had lately moved to Kingston from Angmering, and a few years later came to East Preston, where he took up abode at Baytree Cottage, which remained the family house and farm for the next 200 years. “We the inhabitants of Kingston whose names are heare under written humbly bisiche your lordship to grant a licence unto us for the pullinge downe of our chapple and savinge of the stones and timber about yt which will very suddenly some of yt be taken away by the sea yf yt [is] not other wise prevented with speede.” [14]

Despite this proclaimed urgency, difficulty was experienced over the next couple of years in moving to Ferring. The Vicar complaining that pews had not been erected, but the Kingston wardens replying, “there is no convenient place appoynted them to builde their seats in Ferring Church otherwise they would willingly.” [15] However the move was unavoidable and a tradition, recorded about 1900, has it that Kingston did eventually place its pews in the north aisle of Ferring church.

In 1635 when glebe terriers, or surveys, of the vicar’s farm, were made for the three parishes in Ferring Prebend, the terrier for Kingston could still boast of a remnant of churchyard, although nothing is mentioned of the building, whether in ruins or otherwise. “Item one rood [quarter acre] of grownd adjoyning to the Churchyard bounded on the southwest corner and the north end by Edward Spring’s land and on the east side by James Short .... and on the west by Mr Palmer’s land.” Other parts of the survey show how the Street, present day Peak Lane, ran down to the beach with a lane branching east towards the “farme” - or manor house. There is little doubt that the chapel would have been adjacent to this village road junction [16].

The barely surviving base of a well, excavated in 1981, about 170 yards south and half that distance east of the headland at Peak Lane, can only have related to the old village. That is, to the southern extension of the Street. Almost entire buckets made of wood were found in the silt at its base, the last two courses remaining of this well being of dressed chalk sitting on a square of oak timbers. These timbers would have been fabricated at ground level and then sunk by undercutting, with the chalk sides gradually built up course by course, also at ground level [17].

Black Rock is twice the distance of the well from the foreshore.

That the chapel had been demolished, if not entirely submerged under the sea, by 1636, is evidenced by the lack of a church inspection for that year. Only East Preston and Ferring survived of the three ancient places of worship.

Then, in confirmation, the very last church presentment for Kingston dated 1641, reports “Our Chappell is utterly ruinated and demolished by the sea, and wee doe constantly resort to Ferring to service being the mother church.” Exactly what use was made of materials from the church, including its roofing of Horsham slab, is unknown. Any good fittings must have gone to Ferring, as approved. Then after dressed masonry had been removed, whatever remained would have broken down into anonymous flint pebbles [18].

In 1993 Mr Eschbaecher, while excavating at Baytree Cottage where Robert Baker had lived, found a piece of stone window mullion in long undisturbed subsoil. In section it measured just over 9 by 6 inches. Locally, stonework of this kind is rare other than in churches, nevertheless it is much more likely to have come from a domestic window.

The 1671 Survey of Kingston manor, another written terrier, might well have referred to the old church site in its descriptions of lands. Therefore the reference to a “common meadow of one acre three roods which the old church way formerly went through” raises hopes. As it transpires it was not the old church, but the old way, which was signified. Not to the chapel but to Ferring Church across the rife. This meadow was at the north end of modern Kingston Gorse, and must have linked up with a broad lane called West Way, today named Ferringham Lane. This then was the main route, not only for churchgoers but all traffic between the villages [19].

Another footpath between Kingston, its West Field, and on to East Preston, connected the central villages. In 1620 it was evidently this path which had to be diverted, “And att this court it is agreed ... that in regard the sea hath devoured the way ... all the tenants ...are to have a way ... through the field called the new peece and the weste crofte” The line of the path that survived would have ended up fairly close to the well excavated in 1981, and the putative area in which the chapel was sited [20].

The possibility of any identifiable trace of the chapel surviving, out to sea, is remote in the extreme. It is great pity that we do not even know its patron saint, as the name of the church.

References and Notes
[1] SRS 85 Sussex Depicted
[2] The Incoming Tide 1995
[3] Scribble 1916 Mr Hollis owned an estate in East Preston and published a magazine for the locality.
[4] SRS 43 Sussex Wills
[5] EpI/23/4
[6] EpI/23/5
[7] EpI/26/1
[8] George Randall Map formerly Worthing Museum now at WSRO - It appears to be skewed in its north-south axis and each field has to be related to modern maps individually.
[9] A Survey of the Coast of Sussex made in 1587 Lower ed. 1870 This map may show coastal features fairly correctly on a local scale, but overall it is clearly not correct. Such court rolls and surveys as survive for the early and later 17th century, do not suggest any extraordinary coastal erosion in Kingston.
[10] SRS 49 Churchwardens Presetments
[11] The Incoming Tide
[12] SRS 49
[13] SRS 49
[14] EpI/49/34
[15] EpI/17/22 Par152/7/18
[16] EpI/25/1
[17] No knowledge of any "official" report on this excavation. Detailed photographs of the well, and also remains of buckets, are now at the WSRO included in a deposit of negatives which have not yet been catalogued. 
[18] EpI/22/1 Kingston Easter Bill May 3rd AD 1641
[19] Court Book of Survey 1671 Formerly at Worthing Museum but recently moved to WSRO
[20] Cap I/38/1 Kingston was owned by Palmer of Fairfield in Somerset, but Richard Williams acted as his steward.

© RW Standing August 2001

All views expressed are personal to the contributor.
Copyright © 2001-2015 Martin B Snow and the contributors All rights reserved.
Last modified: December 21, 2014