John Barrett-Lennard – Victorian Rector of Crawley

(By Graham Crozier)

Photo of St Johns Church

Photograph of St John’s Church from Crawley Museum’s collection.

John Barrett-Lennard served as Rector of St. John the Baptist, Crawley, for twenty-two years in the late Victorian period.

Born in 1839, he was the fifth and youngest son of Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard and Mary Shedden, his father being ‘an advanced and independent Whig’ who was MP for Ipswich and then Maldon in Essex on three occasions between 1829 and 1852. The family often spent time in Brighton in the period when it was first becoming fashionable; Barrett-Lennard would retain his connections with the town throughout his life.

He married Isabella Loraine, daughter of Sir John Lambton Loraine, in 1861. They had three children: Constance, Emily Isabella (‘Tottie’), and Herbert Loraine Barrett-Lennard.

Barrett-Lennard followed what might be seen as a typical career route for a younger son of the gentry, initially becoming a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, a vocation which seems not to have suited him, as he held junior posts in the Anglican Church in London and Shropshire before arriving in Crawley in 1876.

Despite his fathers’ political leanings, John Barrett-Lennard was a staunch Conservative. As Rector of the parish, he would have traditionally been entitled to income from tithe payments, but since the Whig reforms of the 1830s the rights of the parish to such monies had been curtailed. The privileges of the Anglican Church had also been under threat from Gladstonian Liberalism since the start of the 1870s, especially from policies on Church disestablishment, and land and local government reform. The latter progressively weakened the formal role of the parish in local decision-making, with the vestry meeting gradually being superceded by elected parish councils in the 1890s.

Barrett-Lennard followed the path of the ‘Low’ or Evangelical Church in his approach the Anglicanism. Since the 1830s, the Church had been torn between those who wished to see a return to a more ritualistic, Anglo-Catholic approach to worship, typified by the Tractarian or Oxford Movement, and those who wished to retain the principles of a Reformed Church, that minimized emphasis on priesthood, sacraments and ceremonial in worship. This was at a time when the number of people regularly attending church was falling, with the proportion going to their local parish church well under half the total. Indeed, the controversy over forms of worship led to anti-ritualist riots in many places, including Lewes in 1857 and in Brighton in 1860s.

Barrett-Lennard would have been very aware of these problems in the Church when he arrived in Crawley in 1876, and the stagnating conditions he faced at St. John the Baptist would have confirmed the need for speedy action.

Peter Gwynne says of Barrett-Lennard that he ‘… was a strong but unorthodox parson. He was a good advertisement for what was elsewhere called ‘muscular Christianity’. Sometimes he walked to Brighton, then along the Downs, before walking home. During the week he dressed in grey tweeds and only wore his clerical collar on Sundays.’

The Anglican Church in the parish faced a number of problems. It is often written that the 1880s where a turning-point for Crawley, and in terms of improvements in lighting, drainage and sewage, road surfacing, and general social and economic improvement, this was the case. However, despite the arrival of the railway, the population of the parish throughout this period remained under 500 (unlike in Ifield where in steadily grew). There was also healthy competition for the souls of people living in the area, with improving facilities for Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers and Roman Catholics during the 1850s and 1860s. Ifield Anglicans were catered for with a new chapel of ease in West Green, in 1880.

But the most serious challenge facing Barrett-Lennard was the physical condition of St. John’s itself.  Despite some earlier attempts at restoration in the 1840s, by 1876 the interior of the church was damp and the woodwork rotting. The churchyard was overgrown with weeds and inhabited by sheep and chickens. People had encroached on church land to built mean houses and huts. In 1881, the churchyard was closed by the Home Office due to lack of space.

Barrett-Lennard set about restoring the fabric of the existing church and extending it’s use. Raising money through public subscription, in 1879-80 a north aisle and seating was added, the altar raised, and the gallery taken down and reused as choir stalls. The chancel was enlarged, with an organ chamber and vestry. A keen campanologist, he installed a new peel of bells and formed a band of ringers. He used his woodworking skills to carve new ornamentation to the stalls.

In the last years of his life, Barrett-Lennard raised more money, through a High Street Improvement Fund, to open access to the church from the High Street, demolishing two cottages and making a wider entrance. He had plans to do more, but died before they could be put into effect.

Apart from this and his duties as parish priest, Barrett-Lennard was an active member of the local community. He was a popular speaker, especially when such duties were attached to a public dinner; he attended all the dinners laid on by local clubs and societies! In 1882, he helped found the Crawley Debating Society, along with other local luminaries such as Dr.TH Martin and businessman George Simmins. As part of his educational work, he promoted football and boxing as improving sports for young men, very much in spirit of ‘muscular Christianity’.

He was a member of the ‘Loyal Deerswood’ Lodge of Odd Fellows, dedicated to the improvement of the working man’s moral character, through ‘thrift, forethought and prudence.’ This would have paralleled the work of a thriving temperance movement in the town in the latter years of the century.

He was not always in accord with the leisure pursuits of the local community, in particular attacking rabbit coursing and sparrow shooting as having an ‘… evil and brutalising effect … upon many of the uneducated spectators.’ When questioned on why he condemned these pursuits and not fox hunting, he declared: ‘I have no more sympathy for the cruelties of the rich than I have for the cruelties of the poor – much less, in fact, for the better educated man ought to be more humane.’

Other stories about Barrett-Lennard are equally illustrative of his character, such as his berating of a gypsy woman for putting her washing out on a Sunday, or his facing-down of a quarrelsome workman who invited people to fight him when the pubs closed on Sundays.

He died in December 1898, aged just 59. His memorial tablet near the pulpit in St John’s reads: ‘through his energy this ancient church was restored, enlarged and beautified.’ He was succeeded by his son Herbert, who remained Rector until 1928.

John Barrett-Lennard stands as an example of the sturdy, upright Victorian gentlemen who oversaw the growth of the Crawley-Ifield-Three Bridges area in a period of rapid change and improvement, creating a relatively prosperous commercial-agricultural community, equal to any town in the north of Sussex.


Elleray DR (1981) The Victorian Churches of Sussex. Phillimore.

Gwynne P. (1990) A History of Crawley. Phillimore.

Hygate N. (1993) Wayfarer Denman’s Crawley Revisited. Performance Publications.

Lowerson J (ed), (1980) Crawley. Victorian New Town. University of Sussex.

No author (1981) The Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Crawley, Sussex.

Houses for the workers – a poem

What’s in a name of a street near to you in this town?
In Southgate seventeen occupations are renowned

street sign - Baker Close, Southgate

There’s a baker, but no butcher or candlestick maker
The closest being a chandler, and not a muck raker

street sign - Chandler Close, Southgate street sign - Loriners, Southgate

Loriners produced all sorts of items to fit on horses
Saddlers provided the means to ride them over courses

street sign - Saddler Row, Southgate street sign - Smith Close, Southgate

The smith gave the horse shoes to prevent it being lame
A hunter rode out on the trail of deer or maybe even game

street sign - Hunter Road, Southgate street sign - Fletcher Close, Southgate

The fletcher gave him arrows to help him with the kill
The wainwrights built carts for the successful kills to fill

street sign - Wainwrights, Southgate street sign - Fisher Close, Southgate

The fisher added fish to make the villagers feel full
And the shepherd watched his flock so they’d provide wool

street sign - Shepherd Close, Southgate street sign - Brewer Road, Southgate

A brewer converted crops to beer to help memories fade
It was put in to large barrels that the cooper had made

street sign - Cooper Row, Southgate

street sign - Thatcher Close, Southgate

Atop an early house did a thatcher put a roof upon
And straw was a good roof until a tyler came along

street sign - Tyler Road, Southgate

street sign - Mason Road, Southgate

The mason didn’t mind what material made the roof coverings
His stone trumped the forester for erecting new buildings

street sign - Forester Road Southgate

street sign - Collier Row, Southgate

And the collier provided coal to heat up everyone’s home
Look out for all these workers on signs wherever you roam

By Kev Neylon

A Neat Clean Town: Writings about Crawley’s History

Crawley Workers

As May 1st is International Workers Day, here are some photographs of people working in Crawley from our collection.

Group of workers in aprons and hats

Richard Cook & Workers

Man and woman standing on the steps of a shop. Sign aobve shop window reads 'F.Hollingdale'

Hollingdales Shoe Shop

Four men wearing caps standing outside a forge building

Steeles Forge, Balcombe Road

Housing building site. Man operating cement mixer in foreground.

Northgate Housing under construction – April 1951

Man in suit leaning over a architectural model of housing

Model of West Green, February 1949

Woman in jacket and skirt weighing a baby

Northgate Clinic

Man on building site turning dials on a machine

Strain Gauge measurement apparatus – August 1950

two people wearing hardhats, one crouching in a trench in the earth.

Broadfield excavators

Three workmen standing on the roof of a factory with other factories in the distance

View of standard factories from roof of A.P.V. – September 1951

Broadfield House – a short story

The night my father met John Haigh, the acid bath murderer.

Broadfield House is a Georgian mansion built in the early 1800s. It is situated on what was once the main London to Brighton Road (A23) just south of Crawley.  A long drive leads up to the house, crossing Broadfield Brook before curving south. If you followed the drive round to the end you came to Broadfield cottage, my childhood home, nestled in woods and fields.  Sadly, it is no longer there, nor are the fields and woods, all having been replaced with Crawley New Town houses and roads. Broadfield House is still there, although looking less splendid now.

The land around Broadfield House originally consisted of landscaped gardens and lake, orchards, grass tennis court, a walled garden with greenhouses, yards, barns and residences for the workers at the house. The estate, much changed, is a now a public nature park owned by Crawley Borough Council.

I lived in Broadfield Cottage with my parents, Vera (neé Parsons) and Jack Cook, my two sisters, Jean and Cheryl, and my brother David.

My father was caretaker of Broadfield House and the offices, as well as being head gardener on the estate from 1946 to 1979.  We grew up in its shadow: playing on the veranda, exploring its creepy cellars and of course playing in the beautiful grounds.

After work, my father would sit down and tell us stories about his life.

There was the one about how he was nearly caught when scrumping for apples, and another about the time he was a ‘stop boy’ for the local shoot at Tilgate Mansion. He lived at Tilgate walled garden, at this time, with his parents George and Alice Cook.

We also heard about his first job at aged fourteen when he worked in a laundry in Three Bridges. He had to turn a ‘dolly’ all day to clean clothes, and his wages were twelve shillings and six pence for the week.

There were stories of more recent events, such as the time in 1950 that the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, visited the architect’s offices (Broadfield House) where the new town was being planned.

As caretaker, my father had to fit a special lavatory for the royal visit. He spent a long time getting it ready, but she never used it!

In 1958 the Queen visited Crawley again and my father was honoured to be one of those who had lunch with her at The George Hotel in Crawley (I still have the seating plan and menu!)

But the most fascinating story that my father told us was the one about the time he met John Haigh, the famous acid bath murderer.

My parents were asked to move into Broadfield House for a few months to oversee the closing down of the country club.

(From the memoir of Jack Cook, 1918-1999)

‘One night in January 1948 there was a knock on the door. When I opened it there were two men standing there.

“Yes?” I said, “What can I do for you?”  I noticed one man had very grey hair, the other dark.

“My name is Haigh,” said the dark-haired man, “and this is my friend Dr Henderson. I have booked dinner for two here tonight.”

I said, “You can’t have done because the hotel has been closed down for the last three months”

“But I have,” said Haigh. He took a small diary from his pocket.

The doctor looked at him and said, “Haigh you are mad, I always said you were mad.”

Haigh then asked if he could use the phone and I said, “Yes, come in.”

I heard him speaking to someone in Brighton.

Dr Henderson pulled a gold cigarette case from his pocket and took out a cigarette.

When Haigh had finished the call he said, “If anyone calls here and asks for me, tell them to go to the Punch Bowl in Crawley.”

He gave me two shillings for the phone call and they both left. It had all seemed rather odd.’

My father was later interviewed by the police when they were investigating the Haigh murders – he had been one of the last people to see Henderson alive. Henderson was probably murdered in Haigh’s workshop in Leopold Road, Crawley that very night! Shortly afterwards, Haigh also murdered Henderson’s wife and, like the rest of his victims, her body was disposed of in a vat of acid.

I’m glad that I encouraged my father to write a memoir. It’s full of all the stories he told us and is a book I’ll always treasure.

By Shirley Anne Cook. 

Inspired by Crawley History? Share your writings online.

Black and white photograph of the exterior of Broadfield House - large white house with grass in front and trees to the sides and behind.
Broadfield House (with thanks to Shirley Anne Cook for the use of the photograph)

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