Stileman, Richard (1787 - 1844)

by Malcolm Pratt

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Following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, much responsibility for Winchelsea's poor passed from the St Thomas's Church officers to the Rye Poor Law Union. In 1840 members of the Rye Union Board of Management set about centralising the provision of workhouses within their area, thus making Winchelsea's (now the Strand Guest House at the foot of Strand Hill) redundant. There was much controversy when it transpired that the benefits of the sale would accrue to Rye Union and not the Winchelsea parish. Stileman eventually brought this dispute to a conclusion by buying the workhouse himself and later, when the Union was struggling with workhouse overcrowding he provided, at a generous rent, accommodation for girls in one of his properties in Barrack Square.

Stileman's dispute with Winchelsea's Rector Dugdell has already been described. In his later years he became involved in a bitter dispute with another rector, this time Revd J J West and on doctrinal rather than administrative grounds. Stileman and a number of fellow parishioners had written to the Bishop of Chichester complaining about West who was a Calvinist and whose preaching of that creed caused offence to many of his anglican congregation. The bishop replied to the letter's signatories who included the people's churchwarden, David Laurence, non-committally and referred the complaint to West. West's anger at this affront poured out in his reply. He described to the bishop how his [the bishop's] letter 'was laid on the table amongst some of the most notorious drunkards in the place' and, under their influence idle persons of ill repute gathered 'to jeer me and my congregation as we came from the house of God'. In response to the bishop's observation that the complaint seems to have come from 'very respectable men' West declared that they were most certainly not respectable and commented that the bishop was quite unaware 'of the wickedness of this place'. Most of the signatories were members of Winchelsea Corporation about whom West said he had been obliged to complain to the prime minister, Lord Melbourne. Most importantly to us here, West states, 'The Corporation is under the influence of a Mr Stileman who has lately returned to Winchelsea having been many years absent through imbecility of mind'. The above account of Richard Stileman's life makes this allegation difficult to believe and yet it is an astonishing thing for a clergyman to commit to paper even in the course of a heated dispute with some of his parishioners. What evidence, then, is available which might corroborate West's assertion? In Stileman's magistrate's case book entries cease in 1827 and resume briefly in 1836. The 1832 Poll Book shows him eligible to vote by virtue of land ownership in Peasmarsh and Winchelsea but resident at Greenwich and not voting. The Poor Rate Ledger for 1833 lists The Friars as empty with no payment made. Stileman was not present when elected a freeman in 1834 nor in the following year when the corporation heard an application made on his behalf for a land lease. Only in 1836 did he apply to be registered as a voter for the Eastern Division of Sussex. An undated list of voters, probably 1837, has the legend 'Greenwich, Kent' against his name deleted and 'Winchelsea' substituted. All this, of course, is circumstantial but it seems enough to suggest that J J West's claim could possibly have had truth in it.

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