The people of the Clergy House
Dendrochronology reports carried out in late 2019 date construction of the Clergy House to 1399-1407. The Clergy House has been home to numerous individuals and families over the year. Even after it was purchased by the National Trust for £10 in 1896 it continued to be tenanted out for many years after until it was opened solely for visitors.
The parish of Alfriston was appropriated by Michelham Priory in 1398 and it is likely that the Clergy House was built to accommodate John Carleton their newly appointed clergyman.
The abolition of celibacy for clergymen after the Reformation is likely to have led to the major alterations to the house between 1550 and 1600. The major addition to the house was a cross-wing constructed at the western end of the building, as well as the insertion of a floor in the hall. This considerably increased the number of rooms and amenities for the residents such as Hugh Walker who was appointed vicar in 1593 who lived there with his wife and his seven children. Hugh Walker became the orthodox minister for Alfriston in 1593 where he remained until his death in 1626. He came from a family of minor gentry, well-connected and well-educated. He and his wife, Alice, had 11 children, and the first four were given strongly puritan names – Livewell, Bidenmorta, Continent and Lovegood. The parish register for 1606 records the birth of one of his daughters ‘in the Vicarage house between the hours of 7 and 8 in the morning’. The Clergy House would have been a high quality home for a priest and made a statement of his importance in the local community. With so large a family the Clergy House soon became too small for their needs, so Walker bought three cottages in the village where Somerset House and Moonrakers now stand on the High Street today. This would have provided easy access to the Church from the back of these cottages across the Tye.
Harriet Coates was the last person to live in the house before it was purchased by the National Trust in 1896. Born in 1800, she lived in the Clergy House all her life. Her husband John was a bargeman and the barge master John Lower also lodged with the Coates. Harriet was considered quite a character in the village, keeping chickens in a hollow tree outside the house and being the bell ringer for St Andrews Church. Near the end of her life the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, owners of the Clergy House, decided to demolish it as it had fallen into disrepair. Harriet pleaded with the church not to pull down house while she was alive as it had been her lifelong home. The house was temporarily reprieved and Harriet was safe to live out her remaining years in the place she loved until her death.
By the time the Reverend F. W. Beynon took over the living in 1889 the house was in serious danger of collapse and was unoccupied. Beynon’s efforts to save the house began almost immediately, undertaking some work himself to make the building watertight and secure by the summer of 1890, allowing him to open part of the building as a parish reading room. In 1892, supported by the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS) and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) he launched his campaign to save the building, asking for £450 to save the building. Beynon’s campaign had limited success, receiving less than the £150 necessary for work to begin. Eventually, however, funds came in and by 1894, repairs had been completed to the east end, and the roof was secure, albeit by replacing the thatch with wooden boards.
Acquisition by the National Trust
By 1894, Beynon’s project was in difficulty and he had run out of money. His project was rescued when the newly-formed National Trust considered the purchase of the building at the first meeting of its Council in January 1895. The Executive Committee approved the acquisition at its meeting a month later and the Trust was finally able to purchase the Clergy House in April 1896. The Trust, led by Octavia Hill, worked closely with SPAB and their recommended architect, Alfred Powell to conserve and save the building and began their campaign to raise £350 for the work. Unfortunately the Trust’s fundraising campaign for the property started slowly, and struggled to attract as much support as had been hoped for. The Trust had few plans for the building after its restoration. Initially Octavia Hill had suggested it could continue to be used for local parish purposes, or possibly as a tea room for visitors. In the end, neither of these plans happened and the Trust settled into a pattern of allowing visitors to access the hall, while the remainder of the house was rented out.
A tenanted house
The earliest tenants were local families, but they were soon joined by Lionel Curtis and Max Balfour who took the cottage as a holiday home, inviting their friends Charles and Janet Ashbee to honeymoon there in 1898. Charles Ashbee was a well-known Arts and Craft architect and designer who led the Guild of Handicraft which also stayed at the property in 1899 and 1900. After Curtis and Balfour gave up the tenancy, the property was let to the artist Muirhead Bone and his family.
Charles Aitken and Sir Robert Witt
In 1907, Bone gave up the tenancy, but the house’s links to the art world continued when it was taken on by Charles Aitken, the director of the Tate Gallery in London, and Sir Robert Witt, a well-known art collector and one of the founders of the Courtauld Institute in London. They, along with Witt’s wife and son, used it as a holiday cottage, inviting friends and colleagues from the art world to come and visit and spend time with them in Alfriston. As part of their occupation they undertook the work to produce much of the current garden layout including the characteristic brickwork and terracing. They also paid for the construction of the garden room which is now used as the property’s shop. Aitken gave up his share of the tenancy in 1934, with the Witts taking the whole responsibility on, only ending with Sir Robert’s death in 1952.
Thyra Creyke-Clark and beyond
After Sir Robert’s death in 1952, the tenancy passed to his secretary Thyra Creyke-Clark, who also used the house as a holiday home until her death in 1974. After Creyke-Clark’s death the Trust initially tried to find a new tenant for the house, but the house needed extensive modernisation and the costs of such put most people off. By 1976 the decision was made to open the house completely to visitors. By the summer of 1977, the house was connected to mains sewerage, and electricity was provided for the first time. A shop was opened in the former parlour on the ground floor and visitor access was allowed to the garden for the first time. This arrangement has continued since then, with the shop being re-located to the garden room in 1983.