Follow Winchelsea on Facebook

Follow Winchelsea on Twitter

The history of Winchelsea

Victorian artists' colony

In the late 19th century, there was an influx of artists and writers to Winchelsea and Rye. The decayed grandeur of Winchelsea appealed to the romantic side of the Victorians, none more so that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Moreover, their hero, Joseph Mallord William Turner, had sketched and painted extensively in the area, including a dramatic scene of soldiers marching along the road along the Royal Military Canal and up Strand Hill into Winchelsea (Winchelsea, Sussex, 1828). Two etchings of the Ferry Gate (which he called the East Gate) were included in his Liber Studiorum.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti visited in 1866, commenting on the “pleasant doziness” of Winchelsea, and observing how a procession of the Mayor and Corporation was “observed by a mob of one female child in the street and by us from the inn window” (a scene still played out today).

The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery)

One of the most frequent Pre-Raphaelite visitors to Winchelsea was John Everett Millais, who sometimes stayed with William Holman Hunt at Pett, and other times at Glebe or the New Inn in Winchelsea. Both of them had been introduced to the area by Edward Lear. In Winchelsea in 1854, Millais painted The Blind Girl and The Random Shot (also called L’Enfant du Regiment), the former set against the background of Strand Hill and the latter on one of the tombs in St Thomas’s Church. The Millais family later settled in Winchelsea.

The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery)

 It may have been Millais who introduced William Makepeace Thackeray to Winchelsea. Thackeray’s novel Denis Duval was set in Winchelsea, and mixed real and fictional characters. The eponymous hero, who was the descendant of Huguenot refugees and modelled on Millais, is determined to follow his uncle into the Royal Navy, but his grandfather wishes Denis to join his band of smugglers. Among the real characters in the story were George and Joseph Weston. The Weston brothers were outwardly respectable citizens (George was a churchwarden) but they had a criminal past --- including fraud, obtaining money by threats (while one of them was Chief Constable of Manchester), highway robbery and smuggling. Eventually, George Weston was recognised by a sheriff and followed to church. When the two brothers emerged, bibles in hand, they were confronted. Although they managed to escape, they were pursued and arrested. The brothers were sentenced to death, but escaped from Newgate Gaol. However, they were recaptured, taken to Tyburn “kicking and struggling and biting their captors” and hanged on 3 September 1782. In Thackeray's novel, the Westons are portrayed as active highwaymen, and one of them is shot in the face by Denis Duval while attempting to rob a stagecoach on which Denis is travelling. Unfortunately, the novel was never finished.

The writer Ford Madox Ford came to Winchelsea in 1891 to visit his sweetheart, Elsie Martindale, daughter of the local doctor (and original author of The Extra Pharmacopoeia, a list of new drugs still being published today and known colloquially by doctors as the “Martindale”). He eloped with her in 1894, but returned to live in Winchelsea in 1901 once relations with her family had been repaired. While in Winchelsea, Ford wrote A History of the Cinque Ports (1899), which included two chapters on Winchelsea.

Ford was visited in Winchelsea by Joseph Conrad, who rented a cottage opposite Ford’s house (which was the Little House in Friars Road). During this period, Ford and Conrad jointly wrote The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903), and Conrad wrote Youth (1902) and Nostromo (1904), but Winchelsea’s role in their authorship is uncertain. Ford left Winchelsea in 1907 as his marriage was breaking up. A footnote: during his time in Winchelsea, Ford was known by his original name, Francis Hermann Hueffer. He changed it in 1921 --- adopting the name of his grandfather, the famous artist and supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites, Ford Madox Brown --- having refused to bow to anti-German sentiment during the First World War (in which he served as an officer in the British Army).

Another artistic Victorian resident of Winchelsea was the actress Ellen Terry, who bought Tower Cottage in 1896. She was frequently visited in Winchelsea by the redoubtable Sir Henry Irving. Miss Terry gave the sexton of St Thomas’s Church a scare by rehearsing the part of Lady Macbeth in the church late at night. She left Winchelsea in 1906 to live in Smallhythe.

Other notable artists and writers visited Winchelsea. Ralph Caldecott, famous for illustrating children’s books, stayed in the 1870’s. In the early 1900’s, Beatrix Potter, rented Haskards in St Thomas’s Street. Edward Elgar dragged EF Benson from a game of golf in Rye to search Winchelsea churchyard for an ancestor whom he believed had been hung for sheep stealing. Henry James used to walk and cycle from Rye over to Winchelsea and brought Stephen Crane (author of the Red Badge of Courage) and HG Wells (who wrote a short story in 1927 called Miss Winchelsea’s Heart).

Top | Reform and Relapse | World War Two