A couple of months ago I wrote an article about one of the gems of Secret Hastings, the Church in the Wood in Hollington and now it is the turn of that other special church in a hidden place, Old St. Helen’s church in Ore. The only thing that the two churches have in common is that they both claim to be the oldest churches in Hastings but other than that they have very little in common. The Church in the Wood is a rebuilt church from the 19th century with an enormous churchyard and still holding regular services and set in woodland.
Old St. Helen’s church, on the other hand, is a picturesque ruin, abandoned in the 19th century, with a small and unkempt churchyard and surrounded by an upmarket housing estate. However, once you enter the church area you suddenly feel a sense of remoteness and solitude, surrounded by trees and other foliage and are totally unaware of the surrounding houses, as you are transported back through the centuries.
There’s can be little doubt that this is the oldest church in Hastings; other than Hasting’s Castle, this is the only structure in the town that can be demonstrated to have been constructed from the 11th century onwards, with the nave built in typical 11th century style and the tower being added in the 12th century.
There is a nearby well on private land, which unfortunately is now inaccessible, strongly suggesting that there had been a Saxon church on or near the site, due to the Saxon healing cult linking St. Helen and the presence of a holy well. However, on the site itself, no evidence of this was found during the archeological excavations of 2012.
On the side of the church there is an inset stone with a cryptic message, stating that “In the reign of King Edward A.D. 1293 this church was rated at 8 marks”. On further investigation, it appeared that, in 1291, Pope Nicholas IV instigated a tax on all Ecclesiastical Properties in England and Wales, based on the estimated value of the church, in order to raise money for the Crusades, with Edward I being allowed to keep one tenth of the annual profits. The 1291-92 records show that St. Helen’s Church was valued at £5. 6s. 8d. the equivalent of 8 marks, which appeared to be the currency used for recording this valuation.
It seems amazing that Rome was able to exert so much power over the lives of people living over 1000 miles away and this practice was continued until the Reformation, when Henry VIII, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, ‘Took Back Control’, to use that well hackneyed phrase.
The church was in use until 1870, when it was partly dismantled and some of the stonework was used to construct the new St. Helen’s Church, in order to accommodate the growing population of Ore. For the next century , the old church was then left to slowly fade away, a roofless ruin, becoming more and more dilapidated until, in 1991, the church was acquired by the Sussex Heritage Trust. In the following year its importance was finally recognised by English Heritage and it was given Grade II listed status and designated an Ancient Monument.
This gave the impetus to the Sussex Heritage Trust to embark on a programme of conservation and, between 2011-2013, after obtaining a Lottery Heritage Fund grant, the fabric of the church was stabilised and consolidated and the tower was repaired, with an internal staircase being constructed for the public. In addition, an archeological investigation was carried out, plus a detailed survey of the churchyard and memorials and an ecological study of the churchyard and surrounding area. Further information on the works carried out can be found on the Old St. Helen’s Church website.
During the conservation, the earliest burial that was revealed was in the nave, possibly that of William de Ore and family of the early 14th century, who was Lord of the Manor at the time. The flat memorial stone was damaged and now resides in Hastings Museum.
One of the most substantial tombs in the churchyard is that of a certain Musgrave Brisco, who died in 1854, the tomb being elaborately carved with various decorations including foliate heads as can be seen in the photographs below.
Brisco had been an undistinguished Conservative Member of Parliament for 10 years and in that time he made not one speech and had only contributed to just one debate in 1851, on the General Board of Health Bill, when he called for the insertion of the word “Hastings”. It doesn’t appear as though he spent much time working on behalf of the people of Hastings.
The Briscos were a wealthy Hastings family, Musgrave owning Cogshurst House (now demolished) and his brother Wastel who owned large tracts of Bohemia including Bohemia House (also now sadly demolished) and the Summerfields Estate. However, the source of their wealth had a dark history and together with thousands of wealthy families in Georgian and Victorian Britain, the Brisco’s money had been made in the slave trade. When the slave trade was abolished in the 19th century, the slave owners were compensated with enormous sums by the British Government, which enabled these families to retain their great wealth.
As for the freed slaves, they received not a penny for the abuse they had received. This shameful and forgotten era in the history of 19th Britain has been brilliantly documented by the historian David Olusoga in articles and in his BBC television series David Olusoga on slavery in Britain
For anyone wanting to read more about this unsavoury family and their many court cases for assault and worse, there is a wealth of information about the Briscos, Bohemia and Summerfields on the Bohemia/Brisco website. There is also a history of the Briscos in a newly published book from local historian Steve Peak on the America Ground Hastings, which is highly recommended.
However, by far the most famous person who was buried at St. Helen’s was General James Murray, who fought under General Wolfe in the battle for Quebec against the French in 1759. After the British had gained victory, Murray was made the first colonial administrator and governor of the Province of Quebec and was remembered for his even handedness in dealing with the defeated French-Canadian population and allowing their traditional rights and customs to continue.
Also, to his credit, he signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Huron Nation, near Quebec City, which is still in legally valid to this day. Unfortunately, Murray like most people of that period, had a blind spot in regards to slavery; he pushed for slavery to be continued in Quebec province as it had been under the French. He later became Governor of Minorca before retiring to Beauport House (now Bannatynes Health Spa), which he had inherited from his first wife’s family. His family tomb is buried in the chancel of the church, but following the repair of the church his monument stone has been moved into the new St. Helen’s Church for safekeeping.
As for the remainder of the churchyard, there are 80 memorial stones, although according to the Parish Register there are 1926 people buried in the churchyard, the vast majority of people at that time having been unable to afford their own memorial stone. Most of the memorials are either very difficult to read or completely illegible, as time and weather has worn away the soft sandstone, leaving countless anonymous souls lying in their eternal rest. Lichen has grown over many of the stones, creating beautiful patterns, nature’s memorial to the departed. The churchyard, as a result, has its own unique unkempt beauty.
The church can be a magical place. I was alone when I made my most recent visit to St Helen’s Church to take some photographs in the middle of September. It was late afternoon and as the sun went down, I sat in the churchyard completely alone and there was silence all around, except for the singing of birds. I felt completely at peace and alone in the world and, just for a moment, I was able to forget the pandemic, the climate crisis and all the other horrors of this world. It was a brief glimpse of heaven in Hastings.