The story of Sackville College

East Grinstead, in East Sussex, is proving a fertile source for my blog posts. During my most recent visit, I dragged my long-suffering godfather, Ron (a life-long East Grinstead resident), around another venue which I’ve driven past countless times: Sackville College.

It’s a beautiful building, as you can see – and remains a working alms house with ongoing connections to the royal family. We visited on a Saturday, when guided tours are available for a nominal £5 fee – well worth it, as our lovely guide spent an hour and a half showing us around and talking to us in detail about Sackville College’s origins and achievements.

The Great Hall, home to a Minstrels’ Gallery and a chair in which King Charles II, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and The Princess Royal have all sat

We were enthralled – and I’m going to share a little of what we learned in this post, with my usual proviso that you should visit Sackville College yourself should the opportunity arise. As a wise woman once said, let’s start at the very beginning…

Which would be in the early 1600s, when Robert Sackville, second Earl of Dorset, bequeathed £1,000 to fund the construction of a hospital or college in East Grinstead, plus £330 per year afterwards, to fund it. The Earl’s objective was the “relief” of 21 single men and ten unmarried women. One man was to be warden, paid £20 per year, while everyone else received £10.

Who was the Earl of Dorset? His father, Thomas, was a poet and statesman whose family had been acquiring property and influence in the area since John Sackville was elected as East Grinstead’s MP in 1541. The Sackvilles had travelled to England with William the Conqueror.

Robert Sackville, 2nd Earl of Dorset (1561-1609)

For families like the Sackvilles, founding an alms house was a common expression of wealth, charity and piety; the Earl’s aunt, Lady Dacre, had founded Emmanuel College in Westminster a few years earlier. The site that the Sackville family chose for their alms house, on the highest point of East Grinstead, expressed their superior social status.

We don’t know when the building was ready for occupation, but we do know that much of the stone that formed the building was taken from the Sackvilles’ Buckhurst Place manor house, in the nearby village of Withyham (recycling in the 17th century was a regular occurrence).

Buckhurst Place

The alms house follows a traditional collegiate layout, i.e a quadrangle from which staircases lead to single rooms for residents. There’s a chapel, an adjacent kitchen and separate, superior accommodation for the Sackvilles and their guests.

Alas, the Earl’s son, Richard, was something of a spendthrift and died in debt in 1634. His brother, Edward, inherited those debts and lost more money through supporting King Charles I in the civil war. Little money remained for the collegians’ pensions – and five of them subsequently died of starvation.

Early residents of the College included Elizabeth Gee, who had served on juries of matrons at assizes to determine defendants’ claims of pregnancy – and saddler William Kidder, a man of “great diligence and industry” whose unfortunate habit of standing surety for other people “led him to great straits and inconveniences”.

Early wardens included the Reverend Rayner Herman, a former grammar school teacher, and John Cutterford, a former Bristol port inspector. However, of all Sackville College’s redoubtable wardens, the one who most captured my attention was Reverend John Mason Neale. Just 28 years old when appointed, and already considered “controversial”, the High Church clergyman moved into the College with his wife, Sarah, daughter Agnes and son Cornelius in 1846.

The Reverend Dr. John Mason Neale (1818-1866)

Neale rebuilt the chapel, instituted four daily services and invited the residents to dine with his family in the hall on Sundays. Getting by on just four hours’ sleep per night, Neale spent most of the day writing in his study – pictured below – when he wasn’t travelling across Europe researching in libraries, studying churches and promoting causes close to his heart.

John Mason Neale’s study, where he wrote ‘Good King Wenceslas’

Devout and hard-working, Neale was blessed with a sense of humour and frequently brought guests into the quad to hear the elderly residents snoring. His tenure was not without controversy, however, due to country-wide fears that clerics like Neale wanted to undo the reformation and restore the power of the Pope (three Protestant Martyrs had been burned in East Grinstead during Bloody Mary’s reign). During November 1848, a series of fires, an assault by an intruder and anonymous letters all targeted Neale; further arson attacks followed.

This hardy soul persevered, paying out of his own pocket for the warden’s apartments to be renovated and for the construction of a well house. Neale did, eventually, win over the local community and when he died, in 1866, aged 48, he left provision in his will for an annual church service, sermon and dinner for the residents on 26 May, the anniversary of his arrival.

Sackville College’s well house

A number of illustrious wardens followed, including William Hooper Altree, surgeon to King Miguel of Portugal, and James Harrison, medical attendant to Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Edinburgh. To this day, however, John Mason Neale is viewed as the man who did the most to ensure Sackville College’s survival.

Today, the College views itself as a “peaceful retreat from the busy world on its doorstep; a kind of sheltered housing at realistic charges in modernised apartments in a caring community.” It remains a home for “people of limited means” who are over 60 years of age and independent. I loved my time there; it’s a tranquil, welcoming environment which restores your faith in humanity; long may it remain at the heart of the East Grinstead community.

John Mason Neale’s tombstone, St Swithun’s Church, East Grinstead

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