Catholicism in Midhurst & Easebourne

For almost 1,000 years the form of Christian worship practised in southern England was Catholic Then came the teachings of Martin Luther and the Reformation in Northern Europe, which emboldened Henry VIII to split with Rome in order to marry the woman he wanted.

For over 200 years, the rift between Catholics and Protestants continued to divide Britain. Cowdray, under the Lords Montagu, remained Catholiic, and this was enough to make Midhurst and Easebourne Catholic too. the First Viscount Montagu had remained openly Catholic when that might have led to his execution. He spoke out against the Act of Supremacy (1559) yet Queen Elizabeth still chose to visit him on her Progression of 1591.

But in the eighteenth century the Seventh Viscount, by degrees, appeared to seek out the society of Protestants. His marriage with the widowed Lady Helkerton, a Methodist, set the seal on his defection from the faith. The ‘accursed spirit of the eighteenth century was on him’, and he at length followed the Duke of Norfolk, Sir William Gascoigne, and other Catholic noblemen and gentlemen in an open apostasy.

The reason he gave to his friends was the double land tax imposed on Catholics at that time, and which ‘fell heavily on his broad manors, the old inheritance of the monks of Battle and Shulbred, and the nuns of Easebourne’. It seems to have been suddenly decided on. On the Sunday after the legal communication of the Act, Lord Montague ordered his coach, and on stepping into it, desired his coachman to drive him to the parish church of Midhurst. The faithful servant turned, threw down his reins, and descended from the box. “No, my Lord,” he said; “if you will, the devil may drive you to the devil, but not I.”

The next step was to dismantle the household Catholic chapel, and Lady Montague was very anxious to hold Methodist evening services there. On more than one occasion this was attempted, but the lights could never be kept in above a few moments, and persisted in going out without any apparent cause, till even the Protestant servants took alarm at this omen, and the idea of services in the chapel was abandoned.

And so ‘the Faith was trampled out in the little town, two-thirds of whose inhabitants had been baptised into the Catholic Church’. The old servants were discharged and dispersed., the chapel removed to ‘a miserable cottage in Easebourne, where a priest yet strove to keep the altar on a wretched stipend insufficient for existence, and the Methodist propaganda went on unceasingly under the patronage of Lady Montague, who had full influence over her weak and wicked husband’.

On his death bed, Lord Montagu repented and once again embraced the Catholic faith. He died in 1787, and ordered with his last breath that his recantation should be published after his death in the Gentleman’s Magazine, as well as in the newspapers of the day. In it he asks pardon for the injury he had done his dependents, and he declares that his apostasy was solely based on worldly motives, and not on any doubts as to the authority to the Church.

The Catholic Chapel in Easebourne struggled to survive, as a priest could still be prosecuted for ‘exercising his functions’. It seems that some people were eager to claim the reward of £100 for providing information that led to a conviction. There are gaps in the register until the penalties were relaxed by Act of Parliament and in 1779 the Rev. Richard Antrobus recommenced the old Cowdray register. But in 1856 Catholic worship in Easebourne came to an end with the expiry of the lease. The ‘miserable cottage' became Easebourne Village Institute.

The Rev Peter Coop was appointed priest, residing in North Street opposite the then Post Office. There was a large room at the back which made a nice little chapel for the small congregation. It was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, but when The Rev Coop moved on this venture, also, came to an end.

Around 300 Catholics had attended the Cowdray chapel, but by the time the Easebourne chapel was closed only a handful of worshippers remained. No church, no priest, but undaunted they went by wagonette every Sunday to the nearest place of Catholic worship – Burton Park. The wagonette, hung as it was with curtains, was referred to as ‘The Flying Bedstead’ or ‘The Tally Ho’. It was pulled by two donkeys or mules, which grazed on the Common. The owner, Charles Todman, stabled the wagonette at the place later occupied by Mr Maides’ ironmonger’s shop.

Things started looking up for Midhurst Catholics when Rev George Frederick Ballard appeared in 1866. Living first in Rumbolds Hill, later in Sandrock behind the Half Moon, he re-opened the room in North Street and held regular services there. He tried, unsuccessfully, to regain possession of the chapel in Easebourne, but he was able to purchase (for £300) the former coachyard at the back of The Wheatsheaf in Rumbolds Hill. He appealed (February 1869) for money to build a church - £450 in total – and in November that year the opening ceremony was held in a brand-new building designed by Buckler in the Early English style. This firmly re-established Catholic worship in the town, and within a number of years the congregation outgrew the little church. It was impossible to extend it, and so in 1891 land in Petersfield Road was purchased for a new church and presbytery.

The Catholic presence in Midhurst had been further strengthened when, in 1888, two Sisters of Mercy, Mother Louis Gonzaga Brandon and Sister Berchmans Quin, moved here from Brighton with four or five poor girls with the intention of starting an elementary school for Catholic children. They first occupied two adjoining houses called Heatherside on the Common near the cemetery, and then the large house in Petersfield Road called Donkhams, purchased from Miss Chorley. The house and enclosed garden became the Convent of Mercy, named St Margaret’s after Margaret Pole who had been imprisoned at Cowdray. A laundry was opened, providing humble occupation for the girls, and a house was built for the priest. In 1893 the Convent was further extended with the construction of St Elizabeth’s House (named for St Elizabeth of Hungary) and the Bishop of the diocese resumed regular canonical visitations and confirmations.

As the Sisters grew old, and weren’t replaced by younger women, the Convent and school declined in size and importance, and closed in 2009. The site was redeveloped and the remaining sisters housed nearby.

The number of Catholic worshippers continued to increase, and in the 1950s it was decided to raise funds for a new church. Dr Winifred Lamb, archaeologist, classical scholar and naval intelligence office in World War 1 offered an inducement. She offered to match funds raised by a series of advertisements in the Catholic journal 'Universe'. Fr. James O'Connell the parish priest, placed adverts for a number of years, and eventually (with Dr Lamb making good on her promise) construction started on a new site on Bepton Road, surrounded by fields. It was a revolutionary design, and one which has influenced many other churches built subsequently.

The Roman Catholic Church of Divine Motherhood, designed by Guy Morgan & Partners, opened in 1965. Since that date, Catholics from Midhurst and Easebourne have enjoyed uninterrupted and unhindered worship for the first time since the eighteenth century.

Harvey Tordoff
August 2022

Note:  This article was writtren by Harvey Tordoff for The Midhurst Society but has not been fact-checked by The Society

Cowdray – The History of a Great English House by Mrs Charles Roundell, in the appendix of which appears an account by a lady identified only as K.S. (undated, but probably mid-nineteenth century).

History of an Old Catholic Mission by the Rev. H Willaert

'Universe' Catholic Weekly (28 January 1966)

"Flying Bedstead" or "Tally-Ho"

Behind The Wheatsheaf, Rumbolds Hill

Church of Divine Motherhood, Bepton Road