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Preston Parish Church of St Peter c1260-1908

The original parish church of Preston, that of St. Peter, still stands today adjacent to Preston Manor.

In 1226, Henry III granted the right to hold a weekly market at his manor of Preston to Ralph Neville, Bishop of Chichester. This bishop was a great builder at his cathedral, and it is reasonable to assume that it was he who began the building of Preston Church, which was completed in ca.1260, around sixteen years after his death. The exact date of its construction is not certain, and is believed to have been built upon the site of an older church called Prestetone mentioned in the Doomsday Survey but no trace today remains of the church. The Early English architecture of the present building dates it to the 13th century.

The village of Preston was a very small place, consisted only of a few farms and agricultural land. Later is was noted for its schools for young ladies. By 1531, the parish of Preston was too poor to pay for a priest of its own, so it was joined with the equally poverty-stricken hamlet of Hove, and their combined income was enough to maintain one clergyman to run the two parishes. A religious census takes in 1676 recorded only sixty-five people living in Preston, but the census of 1831 showed an increase to 235 souls. BY that time is seems that the vicar of the two parishes had appointed a curate to run Preston parish for him whilst the vicar devoted his time to Hove.

In 1830 the curate of Preston-cum-Hove was the Reverend Charles Townsend, a well-known man of letters and of the arts, as well and an antiquarian, and on 24th April 1830 he wrote to Henry Hallam Esq., FRS, VP:

“The church of Preston near Brighton appears from various indications to have been built towards the end of the reign of Henry III. On the east wall of the nave, on both sides of the arch opening to the chancel, the Commandments had been painted, which becoming greatly decayed from damp and age, I endeavoured to scrape away. After removing many thick coats of whitewash and plater, I gradually made out on the wall, northward of the arch, the painting of the murder of Becket and on the southward of the arch various (other) paintings.”

Such was the discovery of the murals, that they became a great attraction until their partial destruction in the fire of 1906. An etching by R.H. Nibbs shows the interior of the church in 1851 with its high backed and enclosed pews and long forms places down the centre of the nave for use by Preston’s shepherds, who attended services in their white smocks. An altar with a wooden reredos behind is also depicted.

By the 1870’s the fabric, both inside and out, was in urgent need of repair and extensive renovations were made in 1878. To increase accommodation, the old box pews were replaced by long wooden forms, a new marble font took the place of the ancient Saxon one, and a very utilitarian pulpit on the north side was substituted for the three decker one shown on the south side in the etching. In addition, the floor level of the chancel was raised above that of the nave, and the altar tomb of Edward Elrington (1515) was removed from its previous positions against the north wall of the chancel to take the place of the wooden one in the sanctuary.

A regrettable loss what the removal from the north side of the chancel of a mural tablet with effigies of Anthony Shirley and his wife kneeling before a desk with twelve children (seven boys and five girls). Tradition has it that for some time the dismantled figures lay in the churchyard before their final removal by persons unknown.

A drawing of Preston Church printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine of September 1804 shows no entrance porch on the north side and the vestry on the south side was not added until after the 1878 renovations.

The church contains several other interesting items, including the grave of the controversial Reverend Francis Cheynell DD, the Puritan divine who was appointed Rector of Petworth, Sussex.

A memorial to Celia Holloway who was murdered in Lovers Walk can be found in the churchyard.

Inside the church is a memorial tablet to the late Isaac Gold (a regular worshipper in the church) who was murdered by Percy Lefroy Mapleton on the Brighton railway on June 27th 1881.

The church was also the military church for the soldiers in the Preston Barracks until the building of St Martin’s on Lewes Road.

An order in Council. dated 9th December 1876, prohibited any further burials in the churchyard or church except in existing vaults or walled graves, so memorials erected since then refer to cremated remains only. In February 1953, the church was included in the list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.

Although the new church of St John was opened for worship in 1902, it did not become the parish church until 29018, when the old church of St Peter was made a chapel-of-ease and services continued to be held there until 1988. In 1990, it was declared pastorally redundant, and came into the care of the Redundant Churches Fund (now the Churches Conservation Trust).

In 2006 a Friends group was started to look after the church and organise fundraising activities to support the upkeep of this wonderful building.


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