The Iron Church
Until about 1870, Blackham villagers who wanted to worship in the established church had to trudge – or the slightly better off might travel by pony and cart – all the way to the parish church in Withyham. Given the effort involved and the fact that at times in winter the un-metalled road would be too boggy to negotiate (the clue is in the name Summerford!), it is no wonder that Withyham vicar, the Rev Charles Nassau Sutton, claimed that at one time in Blackham, ‘Sunday was entirely disregarded. Idlers were to be seen about the lanes, passing the day playing pitch and toss whilst others were drinking and fighting.’ The fact that in 1902 when writing his book Historical Notes of Withyham, Hartfield and Ashdown Forest he was able to add ‘Happily, this has long since changed and there can now be no village where Sunday is more generally observed’ is largely down to his predecessor the Rev Thomas Rudston-Read. In virtually every parish where he worked, Thomas spent his own or his family’s money in providing schools, or building or improving the church in order better to reach his flock. And so it was in Blackham. Realising the difficulties people in the north of the parish were having getting to church, he decided to take action and in a letter written some years later to his daughter Freda, he says: ‘I had carried on a Service in the School room at Blackham, which had been attended by 100 or more people. Mr Haig, the owner, chose to put in a Presbyterian minister and I had to give up my service.’ Thomas appears to have been battling non conformity most of his career and certainly wasn’t going to abandon his Blackham parishioners, so he bought the piece of land where All Saints stands today and built a church made of iron sheets that was opened on All Saints Day 1884. He told Freda: ‘This was built by myself at a cost of about £330, and remains in my possession.’ The current church was opened in 1902 at which stage the iron church became known as the Reading Room. In the pamphlet he wrote for the 1977 Royal Jubilee, Mr W M L Wood wrote: ‘It was used for meetings, concerts and even as a drill hall for a territorial unit training in the 1914-1918 war. It remained until 1923/4 when the present village hall was built and it was finally dismantled.’
The only picture of the Iron Church, taken after the current church was built by which time this was the reading room
Rev Thomas Rudston Read
At no time has the little Church of All Saints presented so beautiful an appearance as on Sunday last when the service of thanksgiving for the harvest was held. The decorations were most beautifully carried out by the ladies of the congregation. The variety and richness of colour, combined with the tasteful arrangement of garden produce, fruit and flowers might be described as almost Oriental in effect - a style admirably suited to the occasion. By the hour of service every available seat and space had been
taken up, the entrance and aisle being blocked, while a great many remained round the open door.
The service, which commenced with the singing of hymn 382, was unique in itself as probably being the last harvest festival held in the little church, the new one being in course of erection. Evensong was conducted by the esteemed Rector, the Rev C.N. Sutton (left). the lessons were read by Mr Lucy and Psalms LXV and CL were chanted. The sermon was preached by the Rev A.J. Pulling, Rector of Ashurst, the text being Ephesians v 20. The rev gentleman based his able discourse upon gratitude and the countless mercies of
every degree we daily receive at God’s hands. The musical portion of the service reflects great credit upon the hard- working and painstaking choir, all of whom were present under the conductorship of Mrs Thornby, who as usual presided at the organ. At the conclusion the hymn “Lord to whom the sick and dying” was sung, while the offertory, which amounted to £1 18s was taken. This sum, together with the fruit, vegetables, bread &c., has been forwarded to the General Hospital Tunbridge Wells.
Big crowds at final Harvest festival in All Saint’s From Kent & Sussex Courier 18 October 1901
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