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Celebrating 200 Years Brighton’s Very Own “Cathedral”

Recently, I revisited the church where, many moons ago, I got married. As on our wedding day, the sun shone, the birds sang, spring flowers still clustered around the churchyard, and I was reminded of the important part the church plays in preserving my family’s history.

Rev. Daniel Millest of St Peter’s Church, York Place, Brighton certainly understands the role his church, affectionately called Brighton’s “cathedral”, has played in people’s lives. In fact, he is inviting residents of Brighton and Hove to share their personal memories of this historic parish church as part of the bicentenary celebrations taking place throughout 2024.

Looking back over its 200-year history you can see that, even before the foundation stone was laid by the Vicar of Brighton, the Rev R J Carr, on the 8th May 1824, St Peter’s was destined to make a significant difference to the town and its people.

Up until that point there had only been two churches in the town – the old parish church of St Nicholas and the Chapel Royal in North Street - but they were no longer adequate to meet the needs of the population. This situation was mirrored elsewhere and was being addressed, on a national scale, by the 1818 Act of Parliament to ‘promote the building of additional churches in populous parishes’.

Fast-growing Brighton certainly fell into this category and was granted a loan by what Historic England describes as the greatest state-funded wave of church building ever seen in England.

The location chosen was north of the Steine, at the gateway to what was the main part of Brighton, on an island between the major London and Lewes roads. The contract to design the building was won in open competition by a relatively unknown, young architect called Charles Barry (1795-1860). Barry went on to design the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey).

Choosing where the church was to be built and by whom was possibly the easy part, selecting a name was much harder! After much debate, it was agreed that, because of the town’s long association with the fishing industry, it would be appropriate to name the church after the apostle and fisherman, Peter. There was, apparently, no such debate over the imposition of a building stipulation that prohibited burials, “either within or without the walls”. The fact that the underground Wellsbourne river flows in this area, undoubtedly, justifies this decision and explains why St Peter’s has never had its own graveyard.

Building started in 1824 and took three years to complete. Barry’s design was described as in the Perpendicular and Decorated styles of the 14th century and when the church opened its doors on the 24th July 1828 it was hailed as one of the earliest and finest Gothic revival churches in the country.
Barry did not, however, get all his own way with the design; he had planned a spire, but this never came to fruition and over the following years the building underwent several revisions and additions. Most notable was the removal of the galleries and in 1898 the demolition of the original hexagonal apse to make way for a much larger, straight ended chancel designed by Somers Clarke and John T Micklelthwaite. This was built in Sussex sandstone and its softer colour makes a striking contrast with the white of the Portland stone in which the rest of the church is built.

The original church had seating for 1,800, but under the rented pews system only half were free seats. The new chancel, which was completed in 1906, enabled the church to offer many more free places and to accommodate the steadily increasing population of the town. (1801 population of Brighton was around 7,000, by 1901 it had grown to over 120,000.)

All congregants, whether they were in the free seats or had paid for a front row pew, would have enjoyed the stunning stained-glass windows, most of which were designed by Charles Eamer Kempe, a Sussex man who lived and worked in Lindfield. Choral music was also a big feature as were the church bells. The original bells were replaced in early 1914 and, at that time, St Peter’s claimed to have the largest bells in the county. On the 4th August of that same year, these bells fell silent as Britain declared war on Germany. During the years of conflict, regular intercessions took place, with large congregations listening in silence to the roll call of church members serving their King and Country. In 1927 a church hall was built as a memorial to the men and women of Brighton who had given their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918. St Peter’s was granted a Grade II listing on the 24th March 1951 and life in the church was good, but in the background niggling concerns about the structure were beginning to appear. In 1985 an arson attack did enormous damage, then a decline in attendance and an increase in expenses associated with maintenance of the building bought St Peter’s to crisis point.

In December 2007, the Diocesan Pastoral Committee recommended that St Peter’s should be made redundant. The authorities had not, however, taken into account the determination of a small group of campaigners who vigorously protested the closure, organised a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures and explored every possible way to keep their sacred space open.

A lifeline was offered by Holy Trinity Brompton Church (HTB), London, in 2009, when they agreed to take over the ownership and running of St Peter’s. A year later, although still connected with HTB, as part of a UK network of churches, St Peter’s was able to take back control.

Since then, considerable restoration work has been carried out and is, in fact, still ongoing. Happily, the landmark St Peter’s church remains open and is once again a thriving place of worship and a vibrant part of our community.

For more information about the history St Peter’s Church see: “A History of St Peter’s Church, Brighton”, Paperback – Illustrated, 18 Dec. 2013 by P.D. W. Nicholl.

Posted in History on May 01, 2024