The Vicar of St Leonard’s from 1777 to 1815 was the Reverend Thomas Evans, a Welshman who, I believe, was ‘a bit of a lad’.
He was born at St Asalph, Flintshire, in 1749 and graduated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1767, becoming our vicar on April 22, 1777, aged just 28 years.
Unfortunately, he seems to have had a quiet start to his incumbency as he is absent from church registers and other documents until 1786. Despite his poor start, he seems to then fling himself into local politics. In September 1789, there was literally a political riot at the town hall in South Street. One of the candidates, Sir Godfrey Webster, gathered a mob to surround the building so that certain freemen could not get in to the building to cast their vote.
There were many local people in the mob which, believe it or not, also including our local vicar, Thomas Evans MA. Eyewitnesses say that the vicar was keen to fight, even holding up his fists against the lone constable!
On January 15, 1793, our vicar was found guilty of swearing ‘six profane oaths’. Who he swore at and what he said is unrecorded but he may have been under the influence of a drop or two.
On July 10, 1795, he turned up in the pulpit at St Leonard’s with a black eye and with his arm in a sling! There must have been gossip among the townsfolk as to how he became so injured but all was to be revealed a few days later under the heading “The Pugalistic Parson in the Gravel Pit” – he had been in a fight. His opponent was no less than the magistrate, Thomas Harben! The fight (surprise, surprise) was centred around politics. The Rev Evans had publically supported Thomas Pelham the major land owner of the time who had premises at Bishopstone Place.
The Magistrate, Thomas Harben, was the son of the Bailiff (Mayor) and they supported The Duke of Richmond, a Freeman of the Town and the supporter of Thomas Pelham’s opponents.
A few days earlier, our good vicar was out walking with a friend called the Reverend Geere, when they passed Mr Harben near a local gravel pit.
Words were exchanged and it is said that the vicar gave the magistrate a ‘violent push’ (surely not becoming of a man of the cloth). The magistrate retaliated by punching the vicar in the face (surely not becoming of a man of the law!) and this knocked him into the gravel pit.
The Rev Geere then attacked the magistrate but his friend warned him by shouting up from the gravel-pit “Take care for your eyes – for d---- m me the magistrate fights at the eyes” (gosh yet another profane oath!) The two vicars then united in what the local paper called a battle between the Church and the Law. Despite being outnumbered, the magistrate Mr Harben was younger and managed to get the better of the two men and they were ‘beaten off the field’. What an embarrassment for our cleric!
Now my reference to his possible drinking is evidenced by two mentions of him that I have traced – firstly in September 1795, a few weeks after the punch-up, he gave evidence to Seaford court that a Mr Perry was a fit person to be granted a beer licence to run a pub. This seems a strange thing for our vicar to get involved with.
Now this altercation did not effect the vicars standing in the community as in 1808 he was duly sworn in as the Bailiff (which meant he was not only the Mayor but also the head Magistrate). He was re-elected again two years later – the first vicar to be our bailiff. In December 1811, he was presented with an engraved vase at the Pelham Arms (now the V-Bar) although this was in respect of his impartiality as a magistrate, the newspaper report says that many toasts were called and many drinks were consumed.
Presumably by this time he had learned to be more sober in his outlook and there are no further reports of any fisticuffs.
Unfortunately, Evans memorial, a stained glass window at the west end of the southern aisle of St Leonard’s Church was destroyed during an air-raid in the war.
It was a depiction of Christ blessing little children and also commemorated his son John and grandson John Harry Evans a local doctor.