A Brief History of Westgate Chapel by Gloria Baker

“For many, many centuries, political arguments were fought out in religious terms, and I’ve never thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood the history of the church.  All political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom.”

Rt Hon Tony Benn

“Dissent is the intellectual tradition which keeps liberty alive and energizes democracy.”

Helena Kennedy QC

The origins of Dissent

The roots of dissent lie principally in the Protestant Reformation and the decades preceding it, when the power of the established church was first challenged.

During this time people across Europe began to claim the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, to have a direct relationship with God without church mediation, and to follow their own conscience.  They questioned orthodox doctrine and affirmed their own beliefs.  This was a significant threat to authority and was repressed as heresy, with many martyrs.

Martin Luther the German priest is a well-known figure from this time, but there were many reformers in England.

At the end of the 14th century John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, and his supporters, the Lollards, made multiple copies to distribute around the country.  Lollard was a derogatory term for someone whose education, if any, was only in English.

In the hall you can learn about John Ball, the Lollard preacher to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

The great ejection of Dissenters from the Church of England

As the plaque on the front of the building explains, Westgate’s congregation first formed in 1662, in the middle of the politically tumultuous 17th century.

This period witnessed the English revolution – the execution of Charles I – civil war, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  Religion remained a battleground for liberty, power and nascent democratic ideas, and you can learn more about this in the hall too, with the Levellers.

The Act of Uniformity of 1662 required clergymen and congregations of the Church of England to conform to strict establishment demands on ways of worship and forms of governance.  Those whose liberty-loving consciences would not permit compliance were ejected from their churches.   These included the ministers of St Anne’s, St Michael’s and Southover churches in Lewes.

Oppression of non-conformists

The years that followed were ones of struggle for civil and religious liberty throughout the country, and Lewes had a particularly large number of non-conformists.  Prohibited from gathering in their former spiritual homes, they met wherever they could, at risk of spies infiltrating their assemblies and reporting them to the authorities.

These ‘Dissenters’, or non-conformists were, like Roman Catholics, no longer permitted full participation in national and civic life.  They were oppressed with restrictions on how and where they could worship, study and work.

Toleration of Dissent

After years of persecution, met with a steadfast refusal to conform, the Declaration of Indulgence of 1687 permitted Protestant Dissenters to worship in public under certain conditions.  This was followed by the Toleration Act of 1689, part of the ‘bloodless revolution’ that made Britain a constitutional monarchy under William of Orange.

This was the beginning of a lengthy process towards conceding full civil rights to people outside the Anglican Church. Dissenters, so long as they accepted the doctrine of the Trinity and took an oath of allegiance, were now permitted to have their own places of worship and preachers.

The Lewes non-conformists were now at liberty to find a home, and came here, to Westgate.

Westgate, the ‘Bull meeting’ home of non-conformism

The building had been erected around 1583 as the town house of Sir Henry Goring.  Through various sales it had become part of an estate including what was then the Bull Inn, and it was now bought by the Lewes dissenters.

The Meeting House was separated from the Bull, and alterations were made to make it suitable as a place of worship.  It was opened on the 5th November 1700 and was known as the ‘Bull Meeting’.

Tom Paine arrives at Westgate and hones his craft here

In 1715 Rev John Ollive, minister of Westgate Chapel, acquired Bull House.  His son, Samuel Ollive, lived and traded here as a tobacconist, attending Westgate, where his children were baptized.

In 1768, an unknown young man of 32 arrived in town to work as an excise officer, and Ollive offered him lodgings in Bull House.  His name was Thomas Paine, and it is probable that he attended the Meeting at least occasionally.  He moved amongst non-conformists prominent in the town and in London, including Mary Wollstonecraft and the Stoke Newington Dissenters led by Dr Richard Price.

When Samuel Ollive died, Paine married his daughter Elizabeth and ran the family business with her.  Their wedding was held across the road at St Michael’s, as marriages were still only permitted in the established church.

Paine became a contributor to Meeting House funds as the result of an outbuilding he erected beside Bull House in front of the entrance to the Chapel, two years before he left Lewes. During this time, he honed his skills of argument and oratory at the Headstrong Club at the White Hart, and wrote his first published work, The Case of the Officers of Excise, in which he argued for improved pay for his profession.

The pamphlet cost him his job and the business, but gained him a reputation. He left Lewes, and his unhappy marriage, in 1774, a 38 year-old failure.  But within a year he was in revolutionary America, and his inspirational writing encouraging democratic ideals made him famous.  He later moved to France as it too experienced revolution, and wrote his most famous work, Rights of Man.

He is now celebrated as a founding father of the United States and a champion of liberty the world over.

Thomas Walker Horsfield

Another writer associated with Westgate is Rev Thomas Walker Horsfield FSA (1792-1837).  He came to Lewes as a young man in 1818, when he accepted the ministry of the Westgate Chapel.  He stayed in Lewes for ten years, during which time he also ran one of the town’s schools, and studied local history.

He is remembered today for the two books he researched while he lived in Lewes. He published the first volume of his History & Antiquities of Lewes in 1824, and the second volume in 1827, shortly before he left the town. Later he produced a massive two volume History, Antiquities & Topography of the County of Sussex.

Both exhibited exceptional scholarship for the period, and he became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in between the dates of publication of his two Lewes volumes. This book is still one of the most important sources for the history of the town today, recommended by the Lewes History Group.

A tablet to his memory was erected in the chapel in 1927.

The growth of non-conformism in Lewes

The end of the 18th century and early years of the 19th saw the proliferation of non-conformist places of worship in Lewes.

The Cliffe Chapel was established in 1775, and from it grew the Baptist church in 1784, the same year the Friends (Quakers) built their present Meeting House. The Jireh Chapel was built in 1805, and the Wesleyans (Methodists) began to hold services on the old St Mary’s Lane (now Station Street) in 1807, with the Congregational Tabernacle forming in 1816.

This multiplication of alternative places of worship resulted in a dwindling congregation at Westgate, which was now eyed with some suspicion for what had become, even by non-conformist standards, unorthodox doctrine.  For by the end of the 19th century, Westgate had become Unitarian.

The development of Unitarianism at Westgate

When the Lewes non-conformists had originally made Westgate their home, rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) was not permitted within the Toleration Act of 1689.  Toleration had its limits, and these included both Unitarianism and Roman Catholicism.

Unitarian worship (insisting on divine unity or oneness of God, and the essential unity of humankind and all creation) only became legal in 1813 – a little over 200 years ago.

Successive ministers at Westgate were not bound to any particular expression of non-conformism, and gradually moved to Unitarianism.  An important influence was Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804), the scientist who first discovered oxygen.

Priestley was a champion of science and reason, a supporter of the French Revolution and a dissenting minister.  Through his teachings he was responsible for many of the old Meeting Houses adopting Unitarianism.

Priestley argued that the Christian church was originally Unitarian, and that the doctrine of the Trinity, adopted in the early years of the church, was a corruption of the Gospels.  His aim was to restore Christianity to what he conceived to be its primitive purity and simplicity.

Unitarianism maintains its links with science and democracy to this day, along with a willingness to learn from and find inspiration in other religious faiths, and a concern for social justice and action.

Westgate and democratic advance in the 20th century

An example of this expression of liberal Christianity can be found in one eminent family of Westgate worshippers.  The first John Every established the Phoenix Ironworks in the town in 1832, which went on through successive generations to become the largest employer in Lewes.

His grandson, John H Every, was, at the turn of the century – the Phoenix’s heyday – in addition to running the ironworks, an active alderman and mayor of Lewes.

Every led the syndicate purchase of the Paddock in 1913 as a community recreation facility and built the sports pavilion within it.  The inscription there dedicates it to his wife, Jessie.

Jessie Every and her husband were supporters of the campaign for women’s right to vote.  A garden party held at their house led to the formation of the Lewes Women’s Suffrage Society (LWSS) in 1910.

During the First World War, Westgate was used as a venue for wounded soldiers’ entertainment.

After the war’s end it was the location for debate on how the peace should be won, with ideas on rebuilding the structure of society on a more secure foundation being discussed by the Chapel’s Literary Society.  A series of lectures was later published as Problems of Reconstruction.

In the 1920s the Everys undertook restoration of Bull House and Westgate. They added the stained-glass window in the Chapel and the tablet erected to the memory of the two thousand clergy who surrendered their livings at the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1662.

They donated Bull House to the town as part of its collection of museums.  

The value of dissent and diversity, along with concern for equality, democracy, social justice and action, continue to inform Westgate to this day.