by Malcolm Pratt
Since almost all Winchelsea's leading citizens were, in the 1820s, members of Winchelsea Corporation, it seems strange that, at that time in his career, Stileman made no attempt to increase his influence by joining them. This was because Winchelsea was what is now known as a rotten borough and the corporation had fallen under the influence of the Duke of Cleveland who controlled Winchelsea's election of two members to parliament. The corporation members were freemen of the town who were the only people entitled to the franchise. They were told for whom to vote by the duke as 'patron' and, despite its normality in those days, Stileman deplored the corruption involved and would have nothing to do with it. The duke was, in fact, liberal of mind and, as the controversial 1832 Reform Bill went through parliament, he instructed those members whom he controlled to vote for it and, thus, for the abolition of their own seats. After that the corporation became open to Winchelsea residents, albeit by invitation rather than election, and Stileman's attitude was, as will be seen, transformed.
Meanwhile Richard Stileman's principal influence within the town was as an overseer of the poor. In this capacity he was a member of the select vestry which took responsibility for the collection of the poor rate and the distribution of poor relief. It is not possible here to refer in detail to the many ways in which Stileman's benevolent service in the management of the parish assisted the residents, both those who were financially secure and those who fell in need of support. It must suffice to give as examples that he chaired a public meeting at the Court Hall which established a school for the poor children of Winchelsea and Icklesham; stood surety for officers whom he considered to be worthy candidates for paid office within the parish; lent money to the parish when it needed funds to assist poor people to emigrate; conducted inquiries into matters of dispute including a remarkable one in which the parish officers of Pett were accused of smuggling a pregnant girl across the parish boundary so that her child when born would become Winchelsea's responsibility; led the initiative for extending the Winchelsea workhouse in order to provide better accommodation; became a surveyor of the highways which, as the name suggests, involved responsibility for improving the parish roads; gave strong support to those seeking poor relief when worthy applications were being held up by bureaucracy; and made equally determined representations about those whose claims he believed to be fraudulent. In all cases his fellow overseers treated his views with great respect.
A more extended example of his support for the people of the parish arose from the fact that in the 1820s the Rector of Winchelsea was an absentee. He was the Revd J W Dugdell, Rector of Preston in Kent, who appointed as his Winchelsea curate the Revd Thomas Richards, Vicar of Icklesham. Mr Richards, a dedicated clergyman, was no doubt grateful for the additional income but was quite unable to devote enough time to the care of so many parishioners. Nor, the particular point of dispute, was he able to conduct two services on Sundays in both parishes. Richard Stileman led the protests. He convened a public vestry meeting on 13th January 1826 at which he gave details of his extended but unsuccessful correspondence with Mr Dugdell in which he had sought the appointment of a full-time incumbent for Winchelsea. The well attended meeting fully supported Stileman, thanked him warmly for taking this initiative, and decided to appeal to the Bishop of Chichester particularly emphasising that, with only one service each Sunday many would be unable to attend 'on that sacred day'. The terms of the letter, almost certainly suggested by Stileman, sought 'to impress upon the bishop by the sense of the meeting our most anxious wish that he will take into consideration the earnest desire of the inhabitants of the parish'. A committee, of which Stileman was to be chairman, was set up to continue the correspondence and report progress. Unfortunately this initiative was a failure. There was no progress. It would seem that the bishop took the view either that Dugdell's arrangements were adequate of that they could not be legally challenged.