Stileman, Richard (1787 - 1844)

by Malcolm Pratt

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Stileman wished to provide an appropriate modern home for his growing family for the building he had purchased remained much as it had been known by the original occupants, the medieval Franciscan monks, the Greyfriars. For this development work Stileman engaged the distinguished architect J B Rebecca who began by having the house demolished and built in its place the castellated manor house which, largely at least, can still be seen today. Rebecca also added the gatehouse which, although now considerably extended, also survives. These works were completed in 1819. No attempt was made during this upheaval either to restore or modify the ruins of the Greyfriars Chapel, one of the most important examples of Franciscan architecture in England, which remain in the grounds. Nevertheless half of this structure was almost lost when the Stilemans' gardener recommended that the wall on one side should be knocked down so that a greenhouse could be built against the other. Fortunately this suggestion was not adopted!

Some time before the somewhat traumatic events of the purchase of The Friars and its major development, Stileman had been sworn in at the Horsham Assizes held in April 1815 as a county magistrate. This office he exercised not only by attending the county assizes when required but particularly by sitting at his Winchelsea home to hear representations and complaints from local people. These cases he carefully recorded in his own hand in a book which has survived. Not many came from Winchelsea for the Winchelsea bench was operating independently. However, people came from over a wide area of eastern Sussex in order to seek his support and assistance over grievances they felt of injustice and mistreatment. The nature of these approaches varied considerably but the most common which he heard between 1819 and 1827, with a few noted later in 1836, concerned assault (60 of a total of 185 cases), failure to pay agreed wages (49) and theft (23). Those who came no doubt 'cap in hand' to see him were almost exclusively of the working class, a considerable majority being listed as labourer or servant in husbandry (farm labourer). It is clear that they had confidence in Stileman and that, to them, he represented the only authority to which they could turn in the hope of receiving a fair hearing of their problem.

While exercising this jurisdiction Stileman continued to establish himself as Winchelsea's leading resident and principal landowner, sometimes to the considerable annoyance of the mayor and corporation. For example, on 4th April 1820 he was served by the town chamberlain with a complaint alleging that he had enclosed within his property areas which in fact belonged to the corporation. These included Monday's Market, an important central area in medieval times, which was close to Stileman's estate, and land on the southern outskirts of the town which adjoined the New Gate, once a principal entrance but, then as now, well outside Winchelsea's occupied area. This document demanded that Stileman remove the unauthorised fencing within one calendar month otherwise the corporation would carry out the work itself and, presumably although it is not stated, send Stileman the bill. Surviving records do not, however, reveal whether or not he complied. Despite this dispute and others like it Stileman was able, in 1824 to negotiate with the corporation a five hundred year lease on a small piece of land adjoining his estate. The annual rental was agreed at sixpence. Remarkably that lease remains operative in the twenty-first century and the owners of what is now known as Greyfriars, pay the modern equivalent, 3p, for the privilege of continuing to occupy that land.

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