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The history of Winchelsea

Smugglers and preachers

Wesley's last open-air sermon, Winchelsea 1790One of the few industries to prosper in Winchelsea after its decline was smuggling, much to the distress of John Wesley (1703-1791), who lamented of local people that "They will not part with the accursed thing”.

Wesley paid his first visit to Winchelsea on 30 October 1771, arriving by foot from Rye to preach to "a considerable number of serious people". He returned on 28 January 1789, by which time, local Methodists had a preaching house. This was built in 1785 and originally called Evens' Chapel, supposedly after the neighbour who donated the plot. From the pulpit, Wesley preached to a room "well filled with decent serious hearers, who seemed to receive the truth in the love of it".

The chapel has changed very little since it was opened. In 1867, a new chapel was opened (on the site of Chapel Plat in Hiham Green) and the old chapel was put up for sale. Fortunately, there were no buyers and the Methodists moved back to Wesleys Chapel in 1969 as their numbers declined.

It was at Winchelsea that Wesley preached his last outdoor sermon, six months before his death, under an ash tree on German Street on Thursday, 7 October 1790, famously describing his visit to “that poor skeleton of ancient Winchelsea”. Wesley had to preach outdoors because of the size of the crowd and because, as elsewhere, the established church excluded him In Winchelsea, the Rector at the time of his visits, Drake Hollingberry, declared that, "If I saw the Devil running across the churchyard with a Methodist on his back, I would not intervene. He would merely be taking care of his own!" For his last sermon, Wesley had to sit down because of his age, although he wrote, "I stood under a large tree and called to most of the inhabitants of the town 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand: repent and believe in the Gospel'. It seemed as if all that heard were for the present, almost persuaded to be Christians"! Wesley’s tree, much weakened by souvenir hunters, blew down in 1927 but a new tree was grown from a sapling taken from a cutting from the original and planted in 1931.

The Methodist congregation in Winchelsea declined after Wesley's death but was revived by the arrival of troops during the Napoleonic War and prospered until after the Second World War. Nowadays, Wesley's Chapel is not in permanent use, but the local Methodist Circuit preserves the building and holds regular events to keep it in use.

Smuggling reached its peak around Winchelsea in the 1820’s. In 1829, it was recorded that 70 or 80 men passed through Winchelsea at four in the morning each carrying two casks. It is claimed that the last smuggler killed in England in a fight with the coastguards was one Thomas Monk, a “poor fiddler” of Winchelsea on 1 April 1838. With the formation of the Coastguard in 1831 and the reform of the Customs Service in 1853, smuggling virtually died out, although the last entry about smuggling in the Winchelsea's gaol book recorded that one Captain Parker of Winchelsea was fined for the offence in the 1880's.

In the 18th century, there was an attempt to build a new harbour for Rye in what is now Winchelsea Beach, which is actually closer to Winchelsea than Rye. It was linked to Rye by the River Brede. The harbour was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1722. It took 63 years to build but was closed within weeks of opening in 1787, blocked by the shifting shingle that had destroyed the port of New Winchelsea. Much of it was built using stone from the ruins of Winchelsea’s churches and possibly the town wall. It is known as Smeaton’s Harbour, after its architect, and now lies under the Harbour Field football pitches in Winchelsea Beach.

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View our photo gallery of the re-enactment in October 2006 of John Wesley's last outdoor sermon, which took place in Winchelsea in October 1790.