Food, Days Out and Travel stories from Brighton, London and the Rest of the World


Days Out in Brighton - St Nicholas Church and the Eighteenth Century

At one time it was the only church in town. It was then frequented by Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, Martha Gunn, Phoebe Hessel and the Duke of Wellington. The ancient mother church of Brighton had a significant role to play in the 1700s.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

Even today this 900 year old church is at the heart of a thriving community and a very welcoming place to visit. Located in the centre of Brighton it is just up the hill from the clock tower and a perfect place to escape from the noise and distractions of the town centre.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

The church has a very long history and is known to date back to the 11th century. One of the church's most precious treasures is a Norman font that dates back to this period and is carved out of a single block of Caen stone.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

Samuel Johnson

During the eighteenth century, as the town became a popular seaside destination, the church began to see some high profile worshippers grace its pews. The affluent and highly-connected Hester and Henry Thrale from Streatham became regular visitors and brought with them their friends, including Samuel Johnson and Frances Burney. From where they lived on West Street, now commemorated by a blue plaque, St Nicholas was only a short distance away.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

Dr Johnson was not only a deeply religious man but he had a scathing wit and loved to debate as well. In Brighton he found a good opponent in the vicar of St Nicholas, Henry Mitchell. At one particular social gathering they both became so animated in a heated argument that they took up fireside utensils to enforce their points. The matter was ended when the Master of Ceremonies had to restrain the pair (from An Historical Guide to the Parish Church of St Nicholas by Brian Brooks).

Samuel Johnson's connection to the church has been comemorated by a plaque that was erected at the eastern end of the north aisle and near where he would have worshipped.

Martha Gunn

Other notable figures from this period have been commemorated at St Nicholas by gravestones in the churchyard. One of them belongs to the famous dipper Martha Gunn and her family. It can be found along the path to the right of the main entrance.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

Dippers or bathers were physically strong local women who would take bathing huts on wheels into the sea so that genteel ladies could dip into sea water without being seen. Martha Gunn began her career as a bather in the 1740s and continued doing this until the end of the eighteenth century. She became known to the Prince Regent who gave her the freedom to visit the Royal Pavilion kitchens when she wanted. Martha also proved a popular subject for artists and she was painted and drawn by many visitors. Her inscription reads:

MARTHA, Wife of STEPHEN GUNN, who was Peculiarly Distinguished as a bather in this Town nearly 70 Years. She died 2nd of May, 1815, Aged 88 Years.

Phoebe Hessel

Less well-known nowadays is another ordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life. After serving as a soldier and giving birth to nine children she eventually ended up at the Workhouse. Her plight was discovered by the Prince Regent who gave her an annuity that enabled her to leave the Workhouse at the age of 95.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

Her impressive gravestone was paid for by a local pawn broker and later restored by the Northumberland Fusiliers who took her as one of their own. It now lies right beside the entrance to the church and reads as follows:

In Memory of PHOEBE HESSEL who was born at Stepney in the Year 1713

She served for many Years as a private soldier in the 5th Reg. of foot in different parts of Europe

and in the year 1745 fought under the command of the DUKE of CUMBERLAND at the Battle of Fontenoy

where she received a Bayonet wound in her Arm

Her long life which commenced in the time of QUEEN ANNE extended to the reign of GEORGE IV

by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter Years

She died at Brighton where she had long resided December 12th 1821 Aged 108 Years

Duke of Wellington

Finally, the Duke of Wellington's connections with St Nicholas relates to his time as a boy. Before going to Eton he had attended an Academy for Young Gentlemen presided over by the same Henry Mitchell referred to earlier.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

His very grand memorial formed in the style of an Eleanor Cross stands near the Norman font. The inscription reads:

In memory of the great Duke of Wellington this sacred building in which, in his youth, he woshipped God, is restored 

While I was there I stopped to chat to an artist who was sketching the interior of the church. He also felt very welcomed by the church and found it a very special place to visit. The artist, Dan Woods said that the church of St Nicholas had invited him to exhibit his work over Easter.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

I also spoke to one of the volunteers who was on hand the day I visited. His name was Mike Jackson and after telling him about my love of the eighteenth century, he shared with me his own connection to one its celebrated figures. Although bearing a different surname he had found out that he is a direct descendant of Martha Gunn.

St Nicholas is free to visit but a donation is much appreciated.

St Nicholas, Brighton photo by Modern Bric a Brac

St Nicholas Church, Church Street, Brighton

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