A history of Alfriston Clergy House
Alfriston Clergy House was the first building saved forever for the nation by the National Trust. This early 15th-century Wealden hall-house was bought as a restoration project in 1896 by the newly formed National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Through a series of changes and renovations across the centuries it has become this picturesque house seen today in its idyllic setting with views across the River Cuckmere.
This Wealden hall-house house was constructed around 1400 and used as a residence for Alfriston’s parish priest until the early-eighteenth century and remained in church ownership until it was sold to the National Trust in 1896. The charity’s experiences in conserving and finding a use for the building helped to shape the organisation’s future operations and purpose. Originally rented out to tenants, the house and gardens were opened as a visitor attraction in 1977.
Building alterations are shown in italic.
1399-1407: According to a dendrochronology report carried out in 2019 the house was built during this period for the priest of St Andrew's church who was appointed by Michelham Priory. Afriston Clergy House was built, consisting of four bays including the double-heighted hall and with two staircases, one in the parlour and one in the hall.
1536: Prior to the dissolution of Michelham Priory in 1536, the parish lands and buildings were leased to John Bust. The lands had been taken by King Henry VIII
1540: After the execution of Cromwell, the living of Alfriston becomes part of the estate of Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement from Henry, along with Anne of Cleves house in Lewes (not NT)
1550: Alterations were made by the Crown and the Church of England. First floor inserted. Old service end and west staircase demolished. Two-bay cross wing erected, creating new rooms on both floors. Staircase likely to have been built in the southern bay of the cross wing. New chimneys inserted on the southern wall of the hall, with the eastern end likely to have become a service space, and the new parlour and parlour chamber.
1557: The living of Alfriston reverts to the church on Anne of Cleves’ death.
1593: Hugh Walker was appointed vicar after the Reformation
1600: Windows glazed above the original entrance at the lower end of the hall, on the ground floor eastern wall, and on the first floor in the cross wing’s northern façade. The house had at least eight rooms. These alterations were all made to accomodate Reverend Walker's large family and many children.
1722: The house becomes tenanted by the first non clergy member, Walter Bartelott.
1750: Clergy house subdivided into two cottages and let out. South bay of cross wing demolished and replaced with a lean-to along the whole southern length of the building. Bread oven likely to have been added into the western chimney. These alterations were made to allow for more than one family to live here.
1833: North elevation of the roof likely to have been re-thatched.
1841: Two families, the Coat(e)s and the Foords, recorded living at the clergy house in the census.
1850: Successful appeal made to Queen Anne’s Bounty by the clergyman to buy a house he was renting on West Street. Assumed the clergy house continues to be rented out.
1874: Rev W. Stone becomes vicar. OS map appears to show an orchard as well as functional garden areas, plus paths leading to the drainage ditch.
1879: Permission to demolish the clergy house granted, but not carried out, apparently due to its picturesque character and archaeological interest.
1881: Harriet Coats, now 80, and the Reed family, tenant the clergy house.
1883: Harriet Coats, the last non NT tenant, dies
1889: Rev Frederick William Beynon appointed vicar. The floor inserted in the hall c.1550 removed by Beynon.
1890: Successful appeal by Beynon for support to restore the clergy house made to Sussex Archaeological Society, reported in the Sussex Advertiser. Owen Fleming draws up plans to convert the building into a community resource. Building made watertight and winter reading room opened in part of the building.
1893: Fundraising leaflet published by Beynon. Eastern end of the building secured, but repairs required to the central part of the roof, which had recently collapsed. Photographs suggest the roof was repaired.
1895: The Trust considers acquisition of the clergy house. SPAB support Trust acquisition. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners require the transaction to provide permanent advantage to the living. The Trust’s Octavia Hill asks SPAB for help in identifying an architect.
1896: The Trust acquires the clergy house for £10. Architect Alfred Hoare Powell writes up the necessary repairs. The Trust accepts an estimate of £350 for the works, and commits to fundraising, led by Hill. Hill proposes the Trust buy the orchard. Conservation work begins around August, on the front wall and hall.
1897: Fundraising proves challenging, but a donation of £50 from the Duke of Devonshire is made. Mrs Marchant tenants two rooms, and Lionel Curtis and Max Balfour the other half of the clergy house. Works pause over the winter of 1896/7 and fundraising continues.
1898: Charles Ashbee and Janet Forbes start to visit the clergy house, including on their honeymoon. On one occasion they use apples from the orchard to decorate the hall. The Trust agrees a 21 year lease of the remaining glebe land for £6p.a. The Trust accepts stonemason James Andrews’ offer to produce a commemorative plaque, designed by Powell. Works continue, believed to include the insertion of two staircases, a chimney at the east end and doors in the east and south walls of the lean-to. Lean-to ceilings repaired. The medieval door in the hall appears to have been closed. The partial boarding of the roof removed and entire roof of the main house re-thatched. It is likely the common rafters were replaced.
1901: The Forseys/Forceys, James and Emily, tenant the clergy house.
1903: Muirhead Bone tenants the clergy house, and draws it. A painting of Bone and his family at the clergy house is made by Francis Dodd.
1907: Charles Aitken and Sir Robert Witt tenant the clergy house, making it a destination in the art world.
1909: An OS map shows a terrace created at the back of the clergy house by the Witts & Aitken
1920: Garden Room constructed, commissioned from Lionel Pearson by the Witts.
1928: John Witt, son of Robert and Mary, holidays at the clergy house. The Trust makes a failed attempt to buy the garden, an elaborate layout for which, in keeping with the arts and crafts garden style, has been established, seen in the 1928 OS map. Roof ridge replaced. As well as the Garden Room, the OS map shows the outside toilet moved to the north-east corner of the garden.
1936: Advertising for tourists to visit the clergy house installed by the Witts in the village. Garden wall, fence and rotten doors repaired. Lead flashing added to kitchen chimney.
1950: The Trust buys the garden for £225, funded by Creyke-Clark.
1952: Creyke-Clark tenants the clergy house after the Witts’ deaths. The local council urges the Trust to open more of the clergy house.
1974: Garden room and garden ornaments acquired by the Trust on Creyke-Clark’s death. Pots recorded with Gertrude Jekyll’s initials have not been found.
1975: Tenancy of the clergy house advertised for £350p.a. plus at least £12,000 for improvement works.
1976: Garden surveyed by the Trust, showing the garden to have been laid out much as it had been at the start of the century. The steps connecting the upper and lower garden areas are shown. Additional features, such as an ornamental urn as a focal point, added. Thomas recommends replacing the roses with hybrid tea varieties, and adding dianthus under the box trees. Mentions of the Irish yew sentinels appear frequently in reports from 1976 onwards.
Works begin to modernise facilities and install shop and membership recruitment area in the house, in the parlour and room to the south, and staff restroom and equipment store in the garden room. Heating installed in some rooms, along with areas of re-thatching to the roof and repairs to the windows. Main house and garden room treated for insect pests.
1977: Shop opens. Works continue, with electrification in the house, and joining up to local sewer. One new door installed at west end of hall, while second, southern opening plastered over. Rammed chalk floor in the hall raised and sealed with sour milk.
1978: When the garden first opens to the public, vegetables are still being grown in rows in open ground.