History of the church

St. George’s Church was designed by the architect, Charles Augustus Busby, for Thomas Read Kemp M.P. who had formerly been a dissenter but who had joined the Church of England in 1823.

Busby was born in 1788. He published a book of architectural designs in 1808 in which he made scathing criticisms of an infinitely greater architect, Robert Adam, who had died in 1792. But there is nevertheless no doubt that Busby had considerable competence as an exponent of the more ponderous type of neo-classicism which became fashionable in the Regency period. The structure is rectangular and without transepts. Has an especially pleasing west front with a fine neo-classical tower and a pair of splendid unfluted Ionic columns recessed between square pilasters each side of the main entrance door and surmounted by Renaissance inspired cherubs’ heads, their gilded wings spreading over the volutes.

Regency period
In strict historical terms the Regency period began in 1811, when George III became incapable of discharging his duties and ended in 1820, when the Regent ascended the throne as George IV. As a stylistic phase, it is considered to run from around 1800 to slightly after 1830. It was in the later part of this period that Kemp developed the eastern area of Brighton which is named after him. And at the same time financed the construction of St. George’s.

Although it is impossible to doubt the sincerity of Kemp’s religious sentiments, he conceived the church or chapel as it was then known, partly as an investment, since he hoped to receive a reasonable income from the pew rentals. It seems unlikely that such a consideration will ever form one of the motives for church building ever again!

The investment eventually proved disappointing and Kemp who was becoming over extended in his building ambitions sold it to Lawrence Peel in 1830 or 1831. Kemp then fled to the continent to escape the importunities of usurious creditors and died in Paris in 1844.

Fishermen’s gallery
During the 1830’s Queen Adelaide, consort to William IV the last British King of Hanover, used St. George’s as her Chapel Royal on Sunday afternoons. The then Incumbent being appointed her chaplain-in-Ordinary. Her interest brought about such an increase in the congregation that it became necessary to build an additional gallery at the west end of the church, above that which already existed and this sturdy structure was finished in only a week by the London firm of Cubitt’s who developed Pimlico in London. This upper gallery was said to have been called at different times The Sky Parlour by children who used it, and The Fishermen’s Gallery. The second name implies that the honest fellows who occupied it were confined to that remote part of the church, because fresh from their fishy labours on the beach they exhaled an odour which was not of sanctity. The access to the galleries is gained by two internal curved staircases one each side of the central vestibule with cast-ken balustrades of simple design.

Queen Adelaide donated the church plate, which consisted of two chalices, a pair of footed patens for the administration of the sacred wafer, and a tall, cylindrical flagon. The chalices both have U-shaped bowls with averted rims and stems with small centrally placed annular knobs, while the flagon with its hinged and domed lid like that of a tankard, is of similar design to those of the early l8th century except that it has a sprout, which is opposite the scroll handle. This handsome silver-gilt garniture which is still in use was made by William Bateman, and all its components bear the London Assay-Office marks for 1825.

Peel family memorials
Peel retained the ownership of the church until his death in 1888, and his successor to the freehold Charles Lennox Peel sold it to the congregation for £4,000 in 1889, reserving the family Vault beneath the building. Early the following year the title became vested in the trustees of the Church Patronage Society. Memorial tablets to the various members of the Peel family are to be seen on the north wall and the east end.

Changes then at once began to take place in the interior and exterior and some of them can arouse neither our enthusiasm nor our gratitude! Charles Lennox Peel offered £1,000 towards the building of a chancel from which it is evident that an internal ground-plan based strictly on that of an ancient Greek temple had ceased in some degree to exert its former appeal.

Work was soon begun. The aisles ended at the chancel arch, the spaces beyond being occupied by a vestry on the north and other offices in the south. But the galleries above were extended eastwards to the new wall. The organ being rehoused in the south gallery level with the chancel. This was its third and doubtless final resting place. It was built by the firm of Bishop in 1825, the handsome case according with its Georgian architectural surroundings and was originally situated in the west gallery when the additional gallery was erected in the 1830’s. However, it was moved to the east end above the alter and was transferred to its present position after 1890, the Georgian case being discarded as being too secular. Much of the Instrument is original, but was enlarged in 1921 and a pneumatic action fitted by the firm of Morgan & Smith.

The new east wall of the late 19th century was pierced above the alter by a large mullioned and traceries window, beneath a round headed arch, and although pleasing enough and well proportioned in relation to the surrounding wall space, it evinces the sort of stylistic confusion which often prevailed in the Victorian era, since it owes an uncertain allegiance to both Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Oak reredos
The new oak reredos beneath it is however an extremely creditable example of accurate classical design, and is broken at intervals by fluted square pilasters with fine Corinthian capitals, though it is slightly unfortunate that the triangular pediment which surmounts the centre on the central light of the window above it. Another modification which was evidently viewed by its perpetrators with satisfaction can only be considered as well-meaning vandalism. This took the form of removing the original neo-classical columns which arose from floor to gallery and from gallery to ceiling, and replacing them with disproportionately thin pillars of cast iron. Their capitals are embellished with classical acanthus foliage, as are the corbels which occur where the north and south galleries meet the piers of the chancel arch but they undoubtedly spoil Busby’s dignified interior and destroy some of the harmony which previously existed between the inside and outside of the building.

Doric columns
The paired columns at the angles of the second stage of the tower are Roman Doric, as were the internal columns rising from floor to gallery, while the monumental Ionic pillars which flank the west door were matched by the columns from the gallery to ceiling. These graceful affinities are now gone, owing to the self- confident reforming zeal of our Victorian forbears.

The solid continuous front of the original galleries was almost entirely plain, apart from a classical moulding round the edge, but this was replaced by an open work front in a nondescript style, and made of varnished deal, like new pews which supersede the old box pews of the Regency period.

By 1962, the building was in need of repairs and decoration, and an attempt was made to have it closed. This was successfully resisted by the trustees and the congregation increased sufficiently for money to be found to finance its restoration. The exterior is now once more seen in its original beauty and dignity, qualities which are emphasised by the floodlighting of the west front at night.

We can only view with regret some of the less sensitive changes which took place in the late 19th century. However, the interior is light and airy and the original proportions, which remain largely unmarred, give it considerable charm despite the later alterations. The church is a great deal larger than appears at first sight and can seat 1,300 people, a capacity which is still fully used on special occasions, such as the Princess Diana memorial service which took place in 1998.

The Peel family crypt is now open for public view by prior appointment.

**At the time of writing, Winter 2000 sees the near completion of the new community centre extension building, together with the re-establishment of the front gardens and with it the flood lighting.

Comments about this page

  • I am slowly completing a history of the church which I began over 25 years ago. It contains a vast amount of detail regarding the life and development of the church and if anyone has any queries over any aspect of that church from its building up to 1980, I will be pleased to try and answer them.

    By Richard Thornburgh (10/05/2004)
  • I was a member of St.Georges as a boy from about 1955 to 1959 when our family moved to Whitehawk Crescent. I was married there by the Rev. Popham-Hosford in December 1950. Thanks for the reminder.

    By Les Standring (06/04/2005)
  • Hello Richard, I would like to contact you re St George’s Church and St Mathew’s. I am searching for info relating to both churches as my great grandfather, William McCormick, was vicar of St Mathew’s and one time curate of St George’s.

    By Bryson Bourke (18/10/2008)
  • I remember Rev. Popham-Hosford when I was a Guider with the 3rd Brighton Guides. He was very approachable and regularly visited the Guides during their meetings. This was in the 1970s.

    By Yvonne Taylor (12/07/2009)
  • Dear Richard, I am undertaking research on Thomas Read Kemp (especially his religious views) and would solicit any material or comments you can offer on the subject.

    By Grayson Carter (16/08/2011)
  • I was baptized in this church over 80 years ago and still have my baptismal certificate.

    By Gwendoline F Healy (03/11/2023)

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