The sad history of St Leonards Parish Church

Once again courtesy of Derelict In The UK we bring you photographs of iconic and deserted buildings, this time St Leonards Parish Church.

Standing grand on the St Leonards seafront, this beautiful building was completed in 1961 to replace its predecessor destroyed by a direct hit from V-1 ‘doodlebug’.

It originally had structural building problems in 1994 after a landslide down the left side of the church. Fortunately it was saved at the time.

In 2018 structural problems were mounting again and it was decided the church would close permanently. A final service was held for this building at its sister Church St Ethelburga’s on August 4th 2018.

Although Grade II listed, the future looks bleak for this well known building that currently sits abandoned.

The original St Leonard’s parish church, part of Burton’s St Leonard’s, was destroyed by a V1 flying bomb in 1944.  The main part of the present building was opened in 1955 but the tower was a later addition.  

The rebuilt church was designed by architect Adrian Gilbert Scott and the stained glass windows were the work of Patrick Reyntiens.

The unique features were inspired by Canon Cuthbert Griffiths, rector from 1929 to 1961. Following a dream, he went to Israel and had the prow of a Galilean fishing boat constructed to form the pulpit.  The ship which brought it here was on its last voyage and the company donated the ship’s binnacle to become the lectern. Among other special features is a depiction on marble flooring of the fish caught off the coast of Hastings.

From its opening until the mid-1990s the rebuilt church was seen as the flagship Anglican church of the borough, with the largest attendances. In 1987 a serious landslip occurred to the west of the church but did not breach the church wall. Then in 1994 a severe mudslide on the west side reached as high as the vestry windows.

Serious problems were also developing inside the building.  The stonework was crumbling because of its very close proximity to the sea.  The first threat of closure came in 1994 and proceedings were started to share the Methodist church in Norman Road, now a block of flats. But the arrival of a new Bishop of Lewes led to a reprieve. 

Funds were raised and grants obtained to carry out the most pressing repair work and the remaining members rallied round to give the church a new lease of life.

But the problems with the building persisted and the risk of further landslips continued, so sadly the life of the church could no longer continue based at that building. The life of the church family had already merged with that St Ethelburga’s and continues to thrive there.

This is a report of the day of the final service written by Bernard Perkins:

On a sunny Saturday afternoon 38 people met on the steps of St Leonards’ church to offer prayers of thanks for all that had taken place on that site since the consecration of the original building in 1834.

This was the prelude to a more formal Service of Thanksgiving which took place immediately afterwards in St Ethelburga’s church, led by the Rev Mike Coe and attended by more than 85 people. It afforded everyone an opportunity to say goodbye to this much loved building.

Many people had travelled large distances to be there and we heard numerous accounts of how the church (and its people) had been a positive influence on individuals’ lives. Rev Coe read an extract from a letter written by Canon Griffiths at the time of the WWII bombing; it spoke of the need to focus on people as opposed to buildings and of seeking the fruits of the spirit in our church communities. Words delivered at a time of great change and upheaval; words equally relevant to today’s community.

The service concluded with tea, refreshments and a time of fellowship during which past friendships and acquaintances were renewed and I suspect a few new ones forged.

Among those taking part in the service were Richard Harrison. He and his wife Mary were married in the temporary church, in the former swimming baths in West Hill Road, while the church was being rebuilt.  They have been involved in the church ever since.

Ronald Brooks – sadly no longer with us – and his sister Jean were also still active church members. As children they attended the church primary school, which was then in Mercatoria, and remember the VE Day celebration amid the ruins of the old church. 

Maybe the church can have a future? Click the link below…

Does anyone out there have any photographs of the original church? Let us know in the comment section below.

9 thoughts on “The sad history of St Leonards Parish Church

  1. The original church was the scene of a wicked desecration in 1845 when the grave of an Abyssinian princess was smashed open by thieves who believed that African women were buried with their jewels. She must have been the first black woman to die in St Leonards, and possibly the first to stay here. I covered this story in my recent book “Strange Exits from Hastings”.

  2. For a modern design for a church it is really quite noble. And sad it is now classed as a dangerous structure.
    The strip of land behind it that extends from Undercliff /West Accent not far from this church had a subsidence in the early 70’s and another in the same place where there was a subsidence in 2005 where there is since an abandoned building site. ( That is another story)
    There is a fault line right along to the back of Caves Road. Further along was the Sussex Steps from West Hill Road to Caves Road now permanently closed some 15 years ago due to subsidence. Standing at the top of Caves Road looking towards the back of West Hill Road is an incredible brick structure under the cliff there to support it.
    It is said that was why Decimus Burton never built anything along the strip of land.

  3. Cuthbert Griffiths was a remarkable priest; a steadfast ally of Bishop George Bell, he and the congregation at St Leonards-on-Sea made a parish house available as a first place of sanctuary to a succession of German refugees before the Second World War. In such a way Griffiths and his congregation played a conspicuous part in rescue of a number of families escaping from the Third Reich and the Holocaust. I wonder what will become of that extraordinary pulpit, and of the lectern to which the article refers? I would certainly be most grateful for any further news and for any recollections of Canon Griffiths himself.

  4. And what of the church’s now cleared burial grounds,firstly to the east side of the old church(presumably destroyed in WW2),and also the now closed area on West Hill Road containing the pyramidical tomb of James Burton.What record of these memorials survives and for that matter their clearance time.Important among these was the grave of Ella Sophia Raffles,only surviving child of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles,founder of modern day Singapore.She was buried at St Leonard’s on 12th May 1840 at the age of nineteen years,living at the time with her mother at no,59 Marina.

  5. Hello. I’d like to learn some more about this church and any historical information. My grandfather was CC cannon Griffiths. My father was adopted by the Cannon and his wife when he was a young boy.. he has an adopted sister who currently lives in Canada also. I have lots of photos of Cryil Cuthbert Griffiths but would be interested to know anything other information. Kind Regards Jeremy Griffiths

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