Standing on its knoll overlooking the wide expanse of Pevensey Marsh, our church tower may be seen from many miles around.
Its early history is obscure and the first definite mention we have is in 1229 when Gilbert de Aquila of Pevensey Castle bestowed the advowson (the right to present a clergyman to a church living) of the church of Haylesham upon his newly founded priory of Michelham.
Within fifty years a bitter legal and sometimes physical battle was being fought between the Abbey of Bayham, the Priory of Michelham and the Rector of Hailsham for possession of the Church. In 1296 it was agreed to present the whole matter to the Archbishop of Canterbury for arbitration, and in the course of a long award he decided in favour of Bayham Abbey, basing part of his judgement on the fact that the Church was a Chapel of Hellingly. This latter contention, it must be said, was hotly contested by the Bishop of Chichester.
By 1513 the Church had fallen on evil times, and it was listed in the Storey Register as one of the “Priories and Churches impoverished by damage to their lands and possessions by inundation, fire, etc.”.
It suffered again later in the century, when according to the minutes of the Privy Council; “At Westminster 29th March 1559…of an heinous disorder lately committed by the inhabitants of the towne of Halislesham, of the said county, in spoyling the Parishe churche…”
The Present Church
It would seem from the evidence of early wills that the Church has retained its original dedication to St Mary the Virgin. Except possibly for a portion of the north wall, nothing remains of the Church of 1200.
The present building is of the Perpendicular style and probably dates from 1425-50. Even this has been altered considerably over the years. The tower is square, some 70 feet in height, built in blocks of sandstone alternating with squares of knapped flints, topped with battlements and a pinnacle at each corner, bearing weather vanes. The main vane rising from the tower bears the date 1801 and the initials W. H. and W. K. are those of William Hilder and William King the churchwardens at that time. The west door and windows were rebuilt in the 1880s, and are believed to be copies of the original work.
During Victorian times the church underwent considerable renovation. Between 1869 and 1877 the south aisle, porch, north chapel and south chapel (now the choir vestry), were extensively restored. At the same time the arches between the north chapel and north aisle and chancel were opened up. In 1878 the chancel was restored, the old box pews were removed and the church repewed without a central aisle. It is likely that the old double pulpit was also removed at this time.
1889 ushered in more extensive alterations when the arch in the tower wall between the belfry and nave was reopened. The floor of the chancel was placed on the same level as the nave, and the pews replaced by the present ones. The roof, which at some time had been lowered, was raised again to its original position, and the clerestory windows inserted. Apparently the church at one time had a rood screen which was removed at some date in the early 1800s.
During the twentieth century further restoration work took place, mainly to strengthen the foundations and replace rotten and flaking stone work. In 1985 the lounge was built on the north side of the church. When the new organ was installed in 1955 the north chapel was for a time used as a baptistry.
There is a small plain trefoil headed piscina in the south wall of the chancel. Adjoining it is the Sedilia, at present a broad recess under a flat arch. The late Mr L. F. Salzman, a noted historian and antiquarian, was of the opinion that it was originally divided into two seats.
In a niche in the Choir Vestry (not accessible to the public) is a double-headed capital, dug up in the churchyard in the last century. It has been thought this came from the first church, but on the other hand the opinion has been expressed that it may have originated at Michelham Priory.
All the Church windows, except the Sherwood (Faith, Hope & Charity) window in the north wall, were destroyed by a bomb in 1943. Except for a small portion of 15th century glass, and the 1914-18 War Memorial window, these were all of Victorian origin.
The present East window was executed by Messrs Cox and Barnard of Hove, having been designed by Mr Charles Knight, RWS, ROI of Brighton and painted by Mr J.M.J. Brand and the cost was defrayed by monies due under the War Damage Commission. It was unveiled by the Bishop of Chichester on July 4th, 1954.
There are a number of memorials in the walls and in the adjoining churchyard. Among them are several to members of the Harvey family, the Rev. G.G. Harvey being Vicar from 1846-72. His son Francis Clyde Harvey was Vicar from 1872-1922, and oversaw much of the building restoration work.
The plaque in the north wall to Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt recalls not only an officer who fought on the British side in the American War of Independence, but also the descendant of a family whose forebears founded New York when it was known as New Amsterdam.
Francis Howlett, the first schoolmaster in the town about whom anything is known, lies in the Churchyard under a wooden memorial inscribed with the appropriate quotation from Oliver Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”. One who knew him wrote ”Francis Howlett, comedian, schoolmaster, post master, tax collector, vestry clerk, printer, travelling librarian, musician and general referee.” Truly he was a man of many parts.
Five of the peal of eight bells date from 1663, one being recast in 1768, and three from 1889. The earlier bells were cast by John Hodson, very probably at the place now called Bellbank. In 1951 the bells were taken down. The four lighter were recast and the four heavier retuned. They were rehung in ball bearings and iron head stocks.
The old custom of ringing the curfew at 8 o’clock each evening has now fallen into disuse.
The present clock was installed to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Until that time the tower had a single diamond shaped clock face which had the distinction of having only one hand, the intervals between the numerals being divided into four quarters instead of five minutes.
The late Mr C.U. Jenner wrote that in the early 1800s the music was supplied by a playing choir of violins, oboes and bassoons. When these players died the Church obtained a small barrel-cum-pipe organ. This was followed in 1907 by another second-hand organ. This in turn was succeeded in 1955 by the present instrument built originally by Messrs Forster and Andrews which the Rev. M.C. Chapman (Vicar 1930-67) obtained from the Royal Normal College for the Blind. At the same time the opportunity was taken to build the organ in its present position and also to construct a new ringing loft for the bellringers.
Up to the time of the Civil War the property in the High Street adjoining the Churchyard belonged to Charles I. It is obvious from later excavations that at one time the Churchyard extended to the road edge, but it is impossible to say from our present knowledge when encroachment took place. The Queen Victoria Memorial Gates were erected in 1902, after a shop which had stood on the site was burned down in 1894.
Registers have been kept since 1558 and as a result of the work of Mr M.J. Burchall of East Sussex Record Office, indexed typescripts from 1558 – 1812 can be seen at the public libraries in Hailsham and Eastbourne. Burial registers 1813-1900 are held at the Record Office: churchyard burials ceased soon after the opening of Hailsham Cemetery in 1872.