The Convent of the Holy Child St Leonards on Sea
Thoughts about its future – 2017 with update 2020
This circa 10 acre site occupies a very valuable elevated position with commanding views of the English Channel on the border of St Leonards with Hastings. It lies within the Magdalen Road Conservation Area No 11 of which the convent site constitutes approximately 50%. The whole of the convent site including its sandstone boundaries walls is Listed for conservation on the basis of the architectural and historical importance of the buildings on it. The only damage suffered during WW2 was destruction of glazing in the east window of St Michael’s chapel (Listed Grade 2*). This contrasts to the extensive bomb damage which did so much to impair the architectural heritage in other parts of lower St Leonards. Its status under Town Planning Regulations is for education and associated residential uses. The downside of the site is its exposure to the salt-laden south-west gales which make maintenance of its older buildings expensive.
The current (2017) use of the buildings as a Summer School does not constitute a viable use of the site economically and socially. The economic downside is that occupation for 3 months per year cannot provide enough income to meet the costs of maintaining and upgrading accommodation to meet current regulations. The social downside is that a very valuable asset is not contributing to the local economy and social life for 9 months of the year. The current owners recognise that and wish to sell it. The challenge is to find a new use of the site which will ensure its conservation and contribute to the local economy. Given the increasing importance of higher education in Society as a whole and its potential to bring benefits to the local economy, that is the obvious optimal future use of the site.
A brief history.
The site was purchased from the Eversfield Estate in 1834 with the objective of re-establishing the Roman Catholic Church in eastern Sussex following the 1929 Catholic Emancipation Act. Originally it was planned to be the site of a convent and the mother church of the Deanery of St Leonards (which extends westwards to the Pevensey Marshes, northwards to Wadhurst and eastwards to the Kent border).
All that changed with the arrival in 1846 of the remarkable Cornelia Connelly (born Cornelia Peacock 1809 Philadelphia, USA). Following the traumatic and notorious break up of her marriage, Cornelia set about establishing an order of nuns who would educate girls to be pro-active contributors to society. To this end she founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus which has grown to provide excellent education for girls and young women in England, the United States, Nigeria and Chile. Such was the feminist zeal of Cornelia that she managed to get total control of the St Leonards site even to extent of excluding the local priests from the presbytery on St Margaret’s Road. She got the support of rich Catholic patrons notably the Towneley family, the Duchess of Leeds and the Earl of Shrewsbury. The last in introduced her to the Catholic (gothic revivalist) architects William Wilkinson Wardell and Edward Welby Pugin.
The St Leonards convent thrived as the mother convent of the Holy Child Order until the 1960’s when the Order ran into two problems. (A) a decline in vocations; (B) falling demand for boarding education consequent to establishment of good local secondary schools. The St Leonards Catholic primary school (the successor to the original Girls Poor School) operating from rooms in the Wardell buildings immediately adjacent the Gateway on Magdalen Road was relocated to the north of the site and amalgamated with the corresponding Hastings Catholic primary school to become St Mary Star of the Sea primary school. The option of also siting the new local Catholic secondary school (St Richard’s College) on the site was not taken up largely because the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton judged that a “green fields” site in west Bexhill would better serve the catchment area of the school. This left the Order little option but to sell the site.
The purchasers were a Spanish family who until very recently ran it as a summer language school for children. Although one of the family remained resident there throughout most of the year and the family employed a resident caretaker, the great majority of its buildings were unoccupied for up to 9 months every year. In consequence most of them were not heated or ventilated during the wetter periods of every year. Further, as the income from the site was meagre, there was no financial rationale for thorough maintenance of the buildings. Wet and dry rot began to infest parts of the extensive buildings. A particular problem was maintaining the extensive boundary wall constructed in the local soft sandstone. These suffered serious degradation particularly on the east boundary of the site with the public open space of White Rock Gardens. Vandals thus gained easy access to the site and despite the vigilance by the caretaker, repeatedly broke into the buildings and vandalised parts of them. There has never been any evidence that the owners of the site deliberately neglected it. Indeed in some ways their care was better than that of other locally Listed Buildings. Their situation was simply that they had not the resources to maintain the extensive buildings and grounds of this extensive site,
Faced with pressure from the local Conservation Officer and Historic England, the owners sought to raise funds to restore particularly the Chapel by obtaining planing consents to convert some of the heritage buildings to residential units and to build 135 new housing units on the playing fields on the north of the site. Thus the 2010 planning application HS/FA/10/00207 and Listed building application HS/LB/ 10/00206. Ten years later neither of those applications had been decided. The applicants have the right to have them determined by appeal but have not availed themselves of it. One cannot be sure as to the reasons for this impasse but it can be surmised that whilst Hastings Borough Council as the Local Planning Authority, would be pleased to have the new housing constructed, it is concerned that the great increase in the financial value of the site arising from granting consents, would not be devoted to restoring the Listed buildings. Consequently the Council and probably also Historic England require prior restoration of at least the Chapel. The owners on the other hand have not appealed because of the risk that consents will not be achieved by this process bearing in the many objections which would be submitted to the formal examination of their appeal.
An important outcome of this confrontation was the adoption by Hastings Borough Council of Planning Policy ENV 7 under which the extensive undeveloped area south of the Chapel extending the boundary wall with St Margaret’s Road is designated as “private open space” – thus not considered suitable for ANY development.
Meanwhile the deterioration of Chapel of St Michael resulted in it being placed on Historic Englands “Heritage at Risk” Register and a threat of a Repairs Notice given to its owners. This resulted in an architect preparing in consultation with Historic England estimates of the costs of essential repairs. Historic England has identified funds to contribute to such restoration costs on condition that public access be granted to the restored Chapel. A proposal for applications to the Heritage Lottery and other grant sources to raise the balance of needed funds is being formulated. First steps in this task have been the detailed drawings supporting listed building application HS/LB/19/00392 to unblock and restore the original accesses to the Sacristy and a northern entrance to the Chapel. This has been approved and it is understood that the works are in hand,
A promising development occurred in 2018 under which an organisation, understood to provide sports training to youths, was given permission to use the playing fields and many of the buildings on condition that it proceeded with essential conservation works. Throughout the last two winters many of the buildings have been occupied and thus heated and ventilated. It is understood that some conservation works have been undertaken.
Whether the Covid 19 pandemic has critically compromised this initiative is not yet known.