Findon church was first established in the 10th or 11th century. Findon then consisted of clusters of settlements on, or just off, the line of the present A24. The people who lived in the hovels to the North of the church endured an uncertain and often miserable existence. They would probably have used the church as it then was (the part we now know as the north aisle) as a meeting place as well as a place of worship. It would have looked very different from how it looks today, empty of any seating apart from a few benches around the walls (which is where the expression ‘the weakest go to the wall’ comes from). In a largely illiterate age, people learnt stories from scripture from gazing upon the scenes from the Bible painted on the walls. Fragments of these you will see on the wall above the arches separating the north and south aisles.
Later in the Middle Ages, when the church was extended, with its magnificent oak beam roof over the whole nave, the chancel would have been separated by a screen. The celebration of the Mass remained somewhat remote from the people, as the understanding of its significance, and the way in which it was celebrated, differed considerably from that which we find today. After what may have been centuries of neglect, the church was restored halfway through Queen Victoria’s reign. The same architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, oversaw the work, as he did at Clapham, which together with Patching forms the United Benefice with Findon. If you enjoy the William Morris tiles behind the main altar, you might like to make a point of getting to see those at Clapham church as well.
Further works were carried out in the 1960s and 1990s. A wooden painted reredos dating from 1867 in the Pre-Raphaelite style was removed in 1982 when the altar was brought forward, and can now be seen at St.Mary’s House, Bramber. In 1994 the church was restored and refurbished with a new floor and new seating whilst, externally, it was re-roofed and the spire re-shingled. In 2012 kitchen and toilet facilities were added beyond the south wall of the nave.
There are several unique experiences to be enjoyed here. The colours of the figures in the stained glass windows become much more vivid at dusk. The ancient timbers of the roof creak in strong winds. The atmosphere of the place seems to reflect the prayer and worship which has been offered here through the centuries.
The construction of the Findon by-pass in the 1930s, and the very considerable volume of traffic now using the road, has meant that the church is somewhat cut off from the community it serves. Nevertheless, it justifiably inspires considerable affection amongst local people.
The architectural history of the church
Examinations of the flint mine on the southern slopes of Church Hill show that people have worked and lived in the area since around 3390 B.C. This may not be ancient by African standards but, as we stand on this holy spot, it should give us a great sense of history.
Whilst the oldest authenticated church in England is to be found in Canterbury and dates from 560 A.D., the earliest recorded reference to a church in Findon appears in a contract for the supply of timber dated 1053. It is considered highly probable that the lower portion of the tower may contain Saxon work. The Domesday Book of 1086 records that “William de Braiose himself holds Findune…There is a church and six serfs and wood for 20 hogs.” However, it would be strange if there had not been an earlier Christian presence in Findon and architectural study reveals evidence of a Saxon church.
There is conjecture about these origins but it seems that to the original cruciform church was added, first, one of the familiar lean-to North aisles and then, in the 13th century, a much bigger North aisle as big as the nave, with its own north chancel chapel. The arcade was once the north wall of the nave (and carried wall paintings on both sides) and its thickness of only 2 ft is consistent with 11th Century work. The Norman nave itself dates from about 1120 and the arches were cut in the wall to form the arcade in 1160. So for some time two churches existed side by side and there is no way of knowing if they were joined before the cutting of the wall. The 3ft thickness of the South and West walls is typical 12th C. The South transept chapel also has high proportions consistent with 11th C work. Its East wall contains a blocked round-headed arch enclosing a small round carved stone with floral patterns on it. Again, conjecture suggests either the entrance to a chancel or to a chapel with an apse.
The late 12th C. arches in the arcade, and between nave and transept, are broad, unchamfered, and rest on square bases above round piers. It is thought that, at one time, there were paintings on both sides of the arcade but, now, only a small area on the North side is visible, the age and subject of which it is impossible to determine. The tower, from the early 13th C, has small buttresses, narrow lancet openings and a plain, slightly chamfered, tower arch. The chancel arch is mid13thC. and has a double chamfered arch. The arches between the Lady Chapel and both North aisle and chancel are later 13th C. The North door round arch is typically Norman, though the interior section is depressed (flattened) and, being later, does not match.
On the South side of the chancel can be found a piscina (a basin and drain into which was emptied the water used to wash the communion vessels) which is moulded with an almost triangular head, and a shafted sedile, a seat for the clergy. Next to this is the door to the sacristy which, it is thought, may originally have been lived in by an anchorite. A second, smaller, arched sedile lies between this and the choir stalls, whilst a stoup (vessel for holy water) is located by the pulpit. All of these are 13th C. as are the grille-like screen to the Lady Chapel, and the oak pew (now stored elsewhere).
In the 14th C. the chancel received an East window of three lights with decorated tracery and three quatrefoils, and a South one with two lights and cusped tracery. Then, in the 15th C. came the development which makes this church so unusual.
“Some eccentric” decided to roof over both nave and aisle in a single span, resting on the arcade. The scale is large, but the king -posts and tie beams are conventional. However, the queen posts span directly between tie-beam and rafters, leaning outwards at an angle of about 20 degrees. Dating from about the same time, a large East gable was built, containing a two-light window with panelled tracery. The spire dates from the 15th C. as does a perpendicular style window in the South West wall of the nave: its “twin” is a later 19th C. copy.
The 1867 restoration
The restoration work was in the hands of Sir George Gilbert Scott and cost £2,408, much of which was borne by Lady Bath. It may well be that Scott’s services were sought because he had recently overseen the restoration of the collapsed crossing tower of Chichester cathedral. His objective appears to have been to put the church into a good state of repair, whilst preserving what he thought good and removing anything likely to destroy the medieval design. However, parish records show that he resisted a request to remove the single span roof considering it to be “quite in accordance with the principles of the Middle Ages.”
The main elements of the restoration were re-facing the exterior (which has covered up clues to the origins — with the exception of the West gable outline on the north side), removing the plaster roof, stripping out the fixed pews which were “an odd mixture of shapes and sizes”, removing the two galleries, adding a porch to the North door, rebuilding the chancel arch and setting up a chancel screen. It is interesting to note that the South door carries a panel recording that revised seating would accommodate 390, compared to today’s 180/200 capacity!
Finally, he replaced the bell-openings in the tower and the octofoil west opening in the nave. Sadly, a fresco over the chancel arch, representing the Last Supper, was obliterated. Consequently, only a single one on the North side of the arcade remains as evidence of the time when pictures were used to teach Bible stories to the largely illiterate congregation. The font is 19th C. marble, with four shafts, elegant foliage capitals and a central support, copied from some fragments of a font in the aisle. These have been dated from as early as 11th C. though this is considered unlikely.
In 1874, the Vicar was empowered to sell the harmonium then in use, and give the proceeds towards the purchase of an organ. The present instrument was built in the same year, although a faculty was granted in 1962 to place a rebuilt and enlarged organ at the West end of the church and, at the same time, to move the console to the arch of the South transept (vestry).
The picturesque lych-gate, which features so prominently on photographs taken from the North East, was built in 1877. Further significant changes occurred in 1887: polished marble steps were placed in the sanctuary, altar rails of oak supported by iron standards were provided along with an altar cross; a screen between the chancel and manorial chapel was erected and the restoration of the font (sited at the west end of the nave) was completed by replacement of the old central column and four shafts with Purbeck marble, quarried no later than the 13th C. Colonel and Mrs. Thynne of Muntham Court used to attend Matins and sit in two chairs placed between the font and the bell tower arch.
In 1947, the church was listed as of special architectural interest under the Town and Country Planning Act and was classified as Grade 1 in October 1954. In 1965, faculties were granted to build new choir stalls and a choir screen. Further improvements included the transformation of the South transept into choir and clergy vestries (later opened into a single vestry). Prior to this, the transept was the manorial chapel and held pews facing North, the front one of which was occupied by the owners of Findon Place. The east door was used as a private entrance. Other changes saw the removal of the chancel screen and the hanging of a sanctuary lamp. In 1966, following the re-siting of the organ and robing areas, the East end of the North aisle was redecorated and converted into a Lady Chapel much as it is now, though the aumbry for the Reserved Sacrament is a later addition.
From 1977 to 2012
To commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the outer doors to the North porch were added. These are constructed of West African afromosia, an alternative to oak. The teak seat outside the porch was also part of this thank-offering to the Queen.
In 1983, the Diocesan architect, Leslie Parsons, designed the present high altar, which was made by Dukes of Steyning. Between 1980 and 1984, a set of hassocks was designed and made by the ladies of the congregation and friends.
Those in the choir stalls are of particular interest, as they each have the opening bars of a hymn by composers including Bach, Handel, Haydn, Wesley and Vaughan-Williams. The work on the Bishop’s Chair in the Lady Chapel is also worth close inspection.
In 1984, a new oil-fired central heating system was installed at a cost exceeding £5,000. Most of this money was collected by the Vicar and Churchwardens sitting in the village square on a well-publicised gift day.
The church interior was again re-ordered in 1994 by S. Reid, who replaced the rotten wood flooring with quarry tiles, and the pews by movable seats. At the same time the roof timbers were treated and the central heating system upgraded. Since then, the spire has been re-clad (although damage caused by woodpeckers can be seen near the top on the N.E. side).
In 2004, it was decided that toilet facilities were totally inadequate and needed to be easily accessible from the church. Alternative plans were put to the congregation, who approved that for a lean-to building outside the South door. After no fewer than 8 years of submissions, variations and delays, occasioned particularly because graves had to be moved, the new facilities of disabled toilet and a kitchenette were finally completed by Christmas 2012. It is hoped that this will enable the church to be used for community purposes as well as worship.
The oldest of the bells in the tower carries the date 1576. In 1870, the four bells then existing were recast and re-hung. The wooden screen in the tower arch carries the inscription “This screen was erected and the bells re-hung and increased to a peal of six in 1958, the gift of Colonel Ulric Thynne of Muntham” – one of many benefactions by his family. (At one time, the colonel and his wife had an upholstered pew in the bell tower area.)
A brass plate on the screen records that “The finance to glaze this screen was raised by the bell ringers and parishioners of the church 1987.” The details of the bells are framed on the West wall of the bell tower.
The four largest bells were tuned and re-hung and two smaller ones added in 1958 by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London. The first peal of Plain Bob Minor 7 different extents was rung on 17th January 1959. One of the bells carries the inscription “O Sancte Stephane” and another ”Jesus fulfil thy sweet grace all whom we beckon to this place.”The church also has a Sanctus bell, believed to date from the 12th C. It can be seen high above the pulpit. Such pre-Reformation bells are rare and only three churches of such age in Sussex have them. The bell was rung at the point in the Eucharist service of the Prayer of consecration, so that labourers in the fields could stop and be silent.
The Morris Tiles
As part of the 1867 restoration, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s son probably arranged for these tiles to be included because he was a great admirer of the work of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the first named being the William Morris who was a founder of the Arts and Craft movement. Whereas many churches contain stained glass windows by the company, there is no record of their having produced painted tiles for any apart from those at Findon and Clapham.
A contemporary letter illustrates that there was intense competition for the commission and, while Morris supplied the tiles, C.E. Kempe, a local Sussex decorative artist, painted
the panels for the wooden reredos which stood between the tiles. Sadly, this was removed in 1982 and is now displayed in the house known as St. Mary’s, Bramber. The reredos consists of two panels, one each side
of the high altar. Both panels have three Minstrel Angels, each almost a metre high, with faces turned towards the altar.
Of the six Angels, four wear garlands of flowers in their hair; they all have graceful swan-like wings and carry musical instruments: all but one are bare-footed, the exception having red flowered slippers.
Delicate traceries of typical Morris design are on their robes and fineries, contributing to the overall flow and movement. From left to right the Angels carry a long flared pipe, a dulcimer, a harp, a second long flared pipe, an organ with pipes and a second harp. The background consists of six trees, one bearing lemons and the rest pomegranates – the Morris favourite. Below the Angels are four rows of six inch tiles with designs known as “Findon Buttercup” and “Findon Daisy”. These were later used frequently in secular commissions.
The stained glass windows
None of the stained glass dates from earlier than the restoration of 1867 but is worthy of examination.
Turning left, as you enter, are two windows in the North wall, each of two lights, erected by John Wyatt, Priest. They depict the four Gospel writers. The two on the left are in memory of his parents, and the two on the right in memory of his sisters, and date from 1867. The East windows in the Lady Chapel have three panels: the main, central, one is of the Crucifixion; one side panel depicting the raising of Lazarus and the other the Good Samaritan. Dated c.1860, it was designed by J.F.Barraud and made by Lavers and Barraud of London.
The Vestry window, of two lights, made by Ward & Hughes and designed by Henry Hughes, depicts St. Paul and St. John flanking Jesus. It is in memory of John Lyall.
In the North West corner are two memorial windows erected by the Wyatt family. The first, from 1903, is on the north wall and has one light, depicting St. John the Baptist and is in memory of John Wyatt, Priest, who erected the windows in the North wall, East of the door. The second, from 1928, is on the West wall and has one light depicting a Madonna and child and is in memory of the two members of the family killed in the Great War. Both were designed by J.M.Powell and made by James Powell & Sons in the Whitefriars Glassworks. High in the West wall is a lovely rose window from 1867 with a design of lilies by Hardman.
No details are available for the purple-tinted two light lancet window above the pulpit.
The main East window in the chancel has three panels also depicting the Crucifixion scene. Whilst the makers were also Lavers and Barraud, the design is altogether different and is by N. Westlake, and dated 1866.The South window in the chancel, of two lights, is again by Hardman, dated 1867, and depicts Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, and Christ in Majesty.
During the floor reconstruction work of 1994, it was possible to check on the location of the graves in the church and it was found that there were many more than had been previously recorded. There is a framed plan on the west wall showing the locations of those in the Lady Chapel, where there are sixteen graves, whilst the main body of the church has seven. Four brass crosses, one placed in the floor at each corner of the Lady Chapel indicate the presence of the graves.
The graves in the main body of the church are located as below, with the first three being marked by brass crosses set in the pattern of the floor tiles.
Robert French date unknown, near the tower arch.
Gilbert de French 1374 near the Lady Chapel entrance
John Lyall tablet on the South side of the arcade arch nearest the pulpit.
William Payne (Vicar 1751-1771) d.1772 under the South side choir stalls at the altar end.
Charles Pilkington (Vicar 1771-1797) d.1797 under the North side choir stalls at the altar end.
William Swinburne d.1750 and
Anna Swinburne d.1792 in the Sacristy.
Patrons of Findon
The Patrons were the owners of the Manor of Findon until 1506, when Magdalen College, Oxford took over the responsibility. During this period, fourteen names have been identified as Patrons, six of the first seven having names carrying “de” or “Le”, bearing witness to their Norman ancestry. The earliest of these is Reginald de Northank in 1254. Magdalen College continued as Patrons until 1949, when the patronage passed to the Bishop of Chichester. From 1326 to 1515 the Manor was owned by the Norfolk family. Subsequently, it was granted by Henry VIII to Sir Christopher Hales and Richard Rich, the Solicitor General, presumably as a reward for giving perjured evidence leading to the conviction of Thomas More. Subsequent owners included Thomas Cromwell, Edward Shelley, Sir Henry Goring, the Earl of Dorset and the Earl of Thanet, from whom John Cheale, Norroy King of Arms, purchased it in 1719. His grave is in the Lady Chapel.
Vicars/Rectors of Findon
A list of the Vicars and Rectors of Findon can be seen on the North wall to the left of the main entrance. This shows that service in one place was usually much longer than we now expect. Perhaps the most extraordinary element of this record is that four incumbents held the living for more than forty years, the longest being Robert de Manningham for 56 years from 1325 to 1381. Whilst this can be explained by priests in those days being ordained earlier and continuing their ministry until death, this is unlikely to be the case with William Dennis Allen (1881 to 1923). Prior to the 1254 entry of Reginald de Northank as Rector, we know that King Harold held the Manor of Findon and would almost certainly have worshipped in this church during the time he visited his manorial holdings.
The War Memorials
The enormous numbers killed in the Great War (1914-18) can be judged from looking at any war memorial from that conflict. Findon is no exception and the list on the South wall of the nave records no fewer than 38 names, a great sacrifice for a village of fewer than 800 inhabitants. Several of the names recur, showing the terrible loss to some families. There are four Constables, two Franklands, two Margessons, two Pratts and two Wyatts. It is noticeable that a wide variety of regiments is represented, other than the local Sussex ones. For example the Constables all served with the 1st Dorsetshires. Yet more sadly, the name Wyatt can be found on the memorial to the 14 killed in the Second World War (1939-1945), to be found on the South-West wall.
The headstones of many of these can be found in the churchyard and are in better condition than those around them, due to the regular maintenance carried out by the War Graves Commission.