Military wife remembered in Sussex

Kevin Gordon
Kevin Gordon

As a military wife remembered, in a quiet Sussex Church, St Peter’s Church at the top of Blatchington Hill is an oasis of calm in the middle of the bustle of suburban Seaford.

There has been a place of worship here for thousands of years as the Norman church stands on a site used for worship by pre-Christians.

Last weekend the church held an open-weekend to encourage more worshipers and visitors and I am pleased to report that it was a great success. The church retained its quiet tranquil dignity but the adjacent church hall (which was once the chapel for Blatchington Court School) was bustling with visitors enjoying refreshments and looking at an exhibition about the church-yard.

St Peter’s Churchyard has recently been researched by a study group from Seaford Museum and they have been diligently clearing the undergrowth to reveal the wording of some ancient and interesting gravestones.

I was aware of a couple of interesting incumbents including Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856-1934) a comic novelist whose most famous book “Visa Versa” has been filmed on a number of occasions, the last time, getting the Hollywood treatment in 1988.

There is also the grave of William Tyler Smith (1815-1873) which has been cleared of vegetation. Tyler-Smith was a London surgeon who moved to Seaford and formed the Seaford Improvement Society. He campaigned for better facilities for the town and was responsible for getting the railway to extend the line from Newhaven to Seaford in 1864.

I joined the museum volunteers a few weeks ago to assist for a couple of hours. We were particularly interested in the military graves the Napoleonic Wars. The Parish of East Blatchington included a large battery which by 1761 was ready to receive contingents of troops from all over England, Scotland and Wales. These militia spent a few miserable months in Seaford, often under canvas and with poor food and facilities. This is evidenced by the number of the men and their families whose who were buried at St Peter’s Church. Take the Loyal Lincoln Volunteers (also known as the 81st Regiment of Foot) They stayed at Blatchington Barracks from December 1809 to April 1810. In this short five month period, eleven of the soldiers died.

The majority of the men were buried at the church with no stone to mark their last resting place, however at least three graves do survive. Close to the north wall of the church is the grave of John Dymond, a Sergeant Major in the 2nd Somerset Militia who died aged 48 years in May 1807. We carefully brushed the grave and tried to read the text which had been engraved over 200 years ago. We had been given hints by the local Family History Society and tried ‘brass rubbing’ techniques which failed. We tried carefully rubbing earth into the incised letters which did make some easier to read. But then someone came up with a powerful torch which was shined obliquely across the face of the stone. To our amazement the words suddenly became legible.

A soldier lies here, death’s victim - food for worms, flesh must return to dust and the heart must cease its beating. reader remember this! As a last tribute of respect, this stone is erected by the non-commissioned officers of the regiment.

We wondered how long it had been since that script had been read. The grave is decorated with carved flowers and flags and a winged cherubs head. John Dymond must have been a loved and respected member of the regiment to have had such a headstone.

Another soldier is buried near the north wall of the church and his grave is visible from the footpath in Belgrave Road. It is decorated with crossed flintlock pistols and a large cutlass.

The grave is for Stephen Rabbit, a private of the 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons. He died in May 1804 aged just 23 years. The members of the research group cleaned and tidied the stonework and again the wording was revealed under the beam of a powerful torch, appearing like secret writing. all that come my grave to see, as I am now, so you must be, depart from sin - live godly, so welcome death come!

Lastly hidden among the undergrowth to the south of the church is the grave of Elizabeth Ward whose husband William, was a Sergeant in the Derby Regiment.

She died in March 1799 aged 47 years and her grave stone is decorated by a skull set in front of a large bone and crossed trumpets. It makes you wonder why she had the honour of being buried with a permanent tombstone? Was she the regimental cook or maybe a mother figure, sewing buttons onto the uniforms of young officers? Did she attend services at St Peter’s Church, joining the local agricultural community and villagers to give praise, maybe joining the parishioners afterwards for a drink and a chat? Did she miss her home or was she used to traveling from place to place with her husband? The secrets of this military wife have been taken to the grave.

Maybe she used to sit quietly in the church or wander around the graveyard to escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life, just like you can today. You will always get a warm welcome at the ‘Church on the Hill’.