History of St Marys

The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Hampden Park, arose out of the growing expansion of urban Eastbourne at the end of the nineteenth century.

Essentially in 1900 there was very little of the current Hampden Park residential and business area. The station had been built in 1888 but its original purpose was as a halt for visitors for the nearby Ratton estate. In fact until 1903 it was officially known as Willingdon Station.

Since the mid-nineteenth century Ratton had been the home of the Freeman-Thomas family. They had completely rebuilt the house after a fire in 1899. At the turn of the century Eastbourne Council wanted to provide an area of recreational parkland for its growing number of inhabitants. In 1902 Mr Freeman-Thomas negotiated the sale of part of his land to Eastbourne Council for this purpose. All the local council had to do was extend the road out of town from Lewes Road. This extension was named Kings Drive in honour of the accession of Edward VII who visited the town in 1904.

Almost immediately this led to the development of residential housing in the area closest to the park


In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century churches in the town like St John's Meads, Holy Trinity, Christchurch and St Andrews, Norway had been established.  Now in the early years of the twentieth century there was a clear need for new churches in the growing suburban areas. The district was created out of the parish of St Mary the Virgin, Willingdon which had previously dominated the whole area along with St Mary, Old Town. In fact at this stage it stretched across to Pevensey. By now there were already 500 inhabitants in this part of the parish.

On the 6th June 1906 the Vicar of Willingdon, the Rev. O Tudor who was Vicar of Willingdon for 41 years from 1888 to 1929, gathered his parishioners together to discuss establishing a mission church.

Rev Owen Tudor Vicar of Willingdon 1880s to 1920s

The land for the church was donated by Mr Freeman Thomas MP. The Freeman-Thomas family was enthusiastic in encouraging the foundation of St Marys. Mrs Freeman-Thomas organised a concert which was held in the town hall in the presence of HRH the Princess of Battenberg and which raised £200; a very considerable sum in those days.

Lord Willingdon, as he became in 1910, took his responsibilities as benevolent squire very seriously and as late as 1910 when inaugurating the Hampden Park Institute and Miniature Rifle Club he said that he took it his duty to look at the whole development of the area for the benefit of the people who lived in Hampden Park.

The architect of the original church was W Hay Murray. It was made of redbrick with stone dressings and brown tiles. The original projected cost of building the church was £1,484.

The foundation stone of the original church was laid by Mrs Freeman-Thomas in on May 2nd 1908 and it was dedicated on November 18th 1908 by the Bishop of Chichester, the Right Reverend E J Ridgeway who had only become Bishop of the diocese earlier that year.

Among the dignitaries at the dedication were the Rural Dean of Eastbourne Canon Goodwyn, the Vicar of Willingdon, his curate the Rev F Lewis and the honorary secretary of the fundraising committee; the Rev J W Hatton of Knowle House.

The dedication service was in the form of shortened evensong and took place at 5 pm in the afternoon and included contributions from a number of local clergy. The first curate-in-charge, the Rev E G Hawkins, offered the prayers.

Rev Hawkins was the previously the curate of St Peters, Eastbourne and Headmaster of the Eastbourne Municipal School for Boys. Later, in the 1920s, he became Vicar of Wilmington. The singing at the service was led by what the Eastbourne Chronicle referred to as the "surpliced choir of Willingdon". Later still the Rev Hawkins retired to a house in Huggetts Lane called Abbots Leigh. His wife Ada died in 1946 and is buried in St Mary's, Willingdon Churchyard. 

The service included the hymn "The Churches' one foundation" which was also sung at the consecration of the later church in 1953.

As the local newspaper reported; "The structure is well arranged in every way: the walls are thick and solid: and the roof of red tiles looks strong enough to remain weather-proof for many a long year."

Everyone present at the dedication of St Marys in 1908 expected the church to eventually become the Church Hall of a much larger and permanent church on the site. This was alluded to by the speeches of not only the local clergy but also by Mr. Freeman-Thomas and the bishop.

It was also a theme taken up by the Eastbourne Chronicle: The site is an acre in extent so that there will be ample space for the large church which will in due season complete a scheme which must do much to promote the cause of true religion.

The Bishop also took the opportunity to talk about what he called true socialism; the fact that everyone is absolutely equal before God.

Interestingly, Hampden Park consisted of just five roads; Rosebery Avenue, Nevill Avenue, Glynde Avenue, part of Brassey Avenue and part of Brodrick Road (then called Station Road).

Many of these road names emanated from names in the Freeman-Thomas family. Lady Willingdon was formerly Miss Mary Adelaide Brassey. Brand Road is named for Lord Willingdon's mother.

Hampden Park itself is named after Lord Hampden; he was a Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Willingdon's grandfather. Nevill Avenue was named after a nineteenth century mayor of Eastbourne.

It was not until 1911 that Hampden Park became incorporated into Eastbourne. In fact they had asked to subsume Willingdon parish but this was rejected and to this day has not occurred.

The first baptism to take place in the new church was of Noreen Augusta White from 47a Church Street, Eastbourne.

However there is no extant marriage register until 1919. The baptism registers do however date from 1909 and two people still associated with the church, Peggy and Joan Thwaites were baptised on the 9th October 1910 and 20th October 1911 respectively. The church was given a new font in 1924 and this is recorded in the register by Mr Davis.

EG Hawkins stayed in the parish until 1915 when he became Vicar of Wilmington. He was described as energetic, earnest and well-liked. He was replaced by the Rev W Johnson Jones in 1915 and he remained throughout the Great War until he was replaced by the Rev Richard Claude Davis. Johnson Jones went on to be vicar of St Richards Haywards Heath and Claude Davis to another rural parish in Sussex.

Under Mr Hawkins it was definitely the mission church of St Mary-in-the-Park within the parish of Willingdon and he seems to have been very much involved in the wider parish. However, from 1915 on it was referred to in the registers as the conventional district of St Mary Hampden Park in the parish of Willingdon.

The curate called himself Curate-in-charge until the 30s when Arthur Brookes referred to himself as incumbent in the registers.

The life of St Mary's Hampden Park during the years leading up to the Second World War seems to have been very vibrant. For many years from 1916 onwards there was a Childrens' Service at 2.30 pm every Sunday afternoon. This was very well attended by mothers and their children.

Annually in the twenties there were two major social events that were eagerly awaited by members of the congregation. Firstly there was a Parish Ball held in the Hampden Park Hall (now the Community Centre).

Secondly there was the Church Garden Party held on a Wednesday afternoon in June in the garden of Mr and Mrs Mark Martin the builders of the original church. The children of the church were always excused school to sell buttonholes to adults for this occasion.

Mr Mark Martin in fact became the churchwarden of St Marys although he had had a long association with All Souls Eastbourne. He died in 1924 but interestingly his son E C Martin was mayor at the time of the dedication of the current St Marys in 1953.

 1910, interestingly, Hampden Park consisted of just five roads; Rosebery Avenue, Nevill Avenue, Glynde Avenue, part of Brassey Avenue and part of Brodrick Road (then called Station Road).