Visiting Leaf Hall, Eastbourne, England: Continental Gothic by R. K. Blessley, opened in 1864

Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Leaf Hall, Eastbourne
Leaf Hall, Eastbourne | Source
Map location of Eastbourne, East Sussex
Map location of Eastbourne, East Sussex | Source

When is a church not a church?

Leaf Hall, Eastbourne, in England's East Sussex, was the inspiration of William Laidler Leaf (1791-1874), a philanthropist who wanted to provide the labouring classes of the town — including the fishermen of the surrounding Marine Village, as it was then known — with a non-alcoholic venue for improvement and relaxation. The building — with its distinct, 'ecclesiastical' appearance — was used for a wide variety of musical and dramatic events and for public lectures and for its library facilities, and its clientele soon went significantly beyond the working classes, whose interests it had originally purported to serve.

However, following the death of Mr. Leaf, it is known that the Misses Leaf, daughters of the founder, were determined to interpret more strictly the terms under which the building's management were supposed to work; in the opinion of the redoubtable Misses Leaf, the habitual users of the building were not working class 'enough'! and so they fired the management and set about devising improving activities such as they were sure that their late father would have approved of! (These enterprising, Victorian ladies even set up what was known as the Leaf Homeopathic Cottage Hospital in adjoining buildings.)

Over the years, the building became known as a venue for various abstinence societies, some of them more overtly religious than others (1). Significantly, one of these temperance societies, known as the Leaf Hall Temperance Slate Club, operated a health insurance scheme for its adherents.

Leaf Hall also became a significant venue for early trade union activity in the early 20th century.

Another interesting feature of Leaf Hall's history is that, although the building was never formally designated a church, various local churches and similar groups have either had their inception there or else used it for their meetings. (This is in keeping with the fact that some English Nonconformist churches have traditionally not taken up the practice of consecrating the buildings in which they meet.) In the 1860s, Leaf Hall was the venue for meetings of the Eastbourne Evangelization Society; this developed into a group using the Mission Hall in Longstone Road from 1880 (later removed to nearby Marine Hall, on Seaside). The Salvation Army was at one time based at Leaf Hall in the late 19th century. Christ Church School used Leaf Hall in World War Two, following war damage of its own facilities. An Apostolic Church began on the premises in 1982; and later the inception of the Sovereign Church, which considerably outgrew its venue, also occurred at Leaf Hall.

The building is executed in multicoloured red, white and black brick, with windows and doorways in Bath stone. Its style was described in 1864 as Continental Gothic (2). Leaf Hall's conical tower, renovated in the late 20th century, is somewhat of a prominent, local landmark.

The architect of the building was Robert Knott Blessley (1833-1923), who also left his mark on the face of the district in other, striking ways (3).

Today, Leaf Hall is used by Bourne Academy of Performing Arts, a function which is thus not dissimilar to some of the earliest activities held in the building in its early history.

May 3, 2012

Notes

(1) North American readers may note that it is fair to state that the Temperance Movement in the British Isles, though noted for its vigour, never took on the degree of politicized radicalism as occurred especially in the United States in the early 20th century.

(2) Illustrated London News , July 2, 1864.

(3) Interestingly, Architect Blessley is also known for having worked on Sussex churches; the 'ecclesiastical' influence may possibly be seen at Leaf Hall, also. But he is most well known for being the architect of Eastbourne's famous and monumental Grand Hotel, which opened in 1876.

See also: http://www.britanniavarieties.co.uk/leafhallforworkingmen.htm

Also worth seeing

In Eastbourne itself, notable sights include: Beachy Head and lighthouse, which lie within the town's limits; the Pier, the Promenade, the Martello Wish Tower, and the Redoubt Fortress attract many summer visitors; the Town Hall is architecturally distinguished; Sovereign Harbour is reputed to be Europe's largest marina.

At Pevensey (distance: 6.6 kilometres), the castle is partly Roman and partly Norman in origin.

...

How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York - Newark to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. (Distance from London Heathrow to Eastbourne : 146 kilometres.) For access by road, take M25/M23/A23/A27. There are rail links to Eastbourne from London Victoria railroad station. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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