In 1979, I was seeking the burial place of forbears of mine in Battle. The following is an account of my findings then, what transpired and what came to light in the course of my searches. The above church was formed by a small group of people, in 1780, who gathered regularly for worship, then in 1789 decided to buy some land on which to build their own chapel with a burial ground. The chapel has had many titles and has been claimed to be Baptist, Presbyterian, etc., but the legend over the entrance to the chapel was “UNITARIAN CHAPEL – A. D. 1789”. Such old church books and papers as had survived were in the keeping of the Unitarian H. Q. at Essex Hall, Essex Street, WC2 but have now been handed over to East Sussex Record Office, Lewes. The Public Record Office, Chancery Lane, has the register of births 1769-1834 but only burials 1791 – 1793 (Lewes Record Office has transcripts of these). No other burial registers seem to have survived, so that the tombstones were the only record of burials up to 1862, when burials ceased as the graveyard was full. There was an Order in Council for the cessation of burials. Due to dwindling congregations, worship ceased in 1898 but to prevent the disposal of the chapel, the site was purchased b y a Unitarian member and worker, Miss Lucy Tagart. In Miss Tagart’s will, dated 20/9/1925 she appointed Unitarian Trustees – the chapel having been let at a nominal rental as an Institute for the Recreations & Education of Young People since 1898. In 1928 the Institute was given notice to quit. From then on, in the hands of the Unitarian Trustees, the chapel was ‘borrowed’ for a variety of purposes until it was finally sold in 1946 and various suggestions were made regarding its possible use. It was sold again in 1957 to a dairyman who, according to local eye-witnesses, demolished the chapel, had the tombstones laid over their graves and covered the ground sufficiently to enable the submission of an application for the erection of a dairy distribution unit and yard on “derelict land”, for which planning permission was granted – with no heed to the current legislation; i.e. Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884 which prohibited any development upon a disused burial ground except by a church. Unigate Dairies bought the distribution unit in 1961, in good faith, and they in turn re-sold it in 1979.
The new owner had obtained outline planning permission for the erection of six flats and garages and demolition of the dairy unit and the Battle & District Historical Society Museum Trust had already made enquiries regarding some of the tombstones, known to have belonged formerly to the former Unitarian Church. These enquiries were pursued by myself on behalf of other interested persons and there followed nearly seven years of struggle to prevent any further desecration of the burial ground, assisted by the introduction of further legislation – Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981. Finally, the site having changed hands several times, it was established that no development would be possible unless and until all the human remains had be exhumed and properly re-interred in the Cemetery. This meant very careful clearance of the entire site and, as a result, the then prospective developer had to withdraw and the whole site was sold to Zion Baptist Church. The Baptist Church have promised to restore the few memorial stones which had been left lying beside their church since 1957, to preserve them and to establish a small memorial garden to those who still lie there.
Alphabetical list of people admitted to Battle Unitarian Chapel
Alphabetical list of people who died while members of the Battle Unitarian Chapel
MRS M.J.HADAWAY SEVENOAKS OCTOBER 1986
Produced by Michael Metcalfe