Methodism came to Hailsham when, in 1860, the central Home Missions Department of the Methodist church designated Eastbourne as a Mission Station. The church there grew rapidly and with an evangelistic zeal members soon began to look beyond the town to neighbouring towns and this included Hailsham.
Meetings were initially held in a private home and later in a room in The Grenadier. However the church outgrew these facilities so members considered the option of having their own building. Overseeing the development was the Rev. Lancelot Railton from Eastbourne.
The new church was built by Caleb Crisford who quoted £400, although the final amount was £607! In accepting Mr Crisford’s quote, Mr Railton wrote “I cannot but express an earnest hope that the work will be carried out without injury to any of your workmen, with every advantage of fair weather.” The foundation stone was laid on 9 September 1868 by Rev W Lamplough of Blackheath. A later addition was the small porch and minister’s vestry. This was confirmed in further correspondence between Mr Crisford and Mr Railton. In a letter dated 4 December 1868, Mr Crisford quoted £40 for the work, which he hoped to complete by the end of January, weather permitting.
The new church opened in early 1869 and very quickly a Sunday school was provided which attracted over 50 children, and by February Mr Railton reported that, “here in Hailsham we have a flourishing Sunday School and we have started a Clothing Club for the children as well as a Juvenile Home & Foreign Missionary Association.”
Later reports made reference to the new church. One dated 6 April 1869, stated, “our new chapel at Hailsham is attended by increased congregations in which there is manifested attentive and devout hearing. We have seen some soundly converted to God,” and in August 1869, “our cause grows at Hailsham. Several Open Air services have been held and the Word has been eagerly received by the villagers.”
Throughout the first ten years, the congregation became established with a strong membership of loyal workers in both Church and the Sunday School. The church attracted a wide range of members including those in the higher income bracket as well as local traders and shopkeepers which helped to ensure financial stability.
Despite increasing congregations, there remained the problem of attracting preachers together with providing pastoral oversight. As a result application was made to as early as 1871 for a “hired local preacher” to take charge of the Church. This was agreed provided the Church undertook to pay a stipend of £40 per annum. However after what has been described as “some fruitless enquiries” the matter was dropped. The situation was partially resolved 1878 when the Rev. T B Jeffries came to Hailsham as the first of a series of young men who gave a year or two prior to entering theological college.
Although it is said that Methodism was born in song, this information doesn’t seem to have reached the early Methodists in Hailsham! It seems the congregation was strongly conservative in its taste of hymns and a complaint was made To the Quarterly Meeting in June 1878 regarding the un-cooperative attitude of the Hailsham friends towards the use of the new hymn book.
One facility which the new church lacked in the early days was an organ. However in 1893, Miss Strickland, one of the Trustees, persuaded her colleagues to purchase a second hand pipe organ that could be blown by water power. However the water pressure from the mains was insufficient to do the job. As a result considerable and expensive structural modifications had to be made.
During the late 1880s/early 1890’s the church was influenced by The Forward Movement and engaged in a wide range of evangelistic activities and during what was a busy period in the life of the church. Sundays included two preaching services, two prayer meetings, two Sunday school sessions, and an adult prayer meeting. In addition there were three week night class meetings, a Wednesday evening prayer meeting and a Thursday evening service.
In 1898 another application was made for Hailsham to have its own minister. This was supported by a document containing the signatures of twenty members guaranteeing an annual stipend of £80 plus the provision of a house. The offer was accepted and that year a minister was appointed to live in Hailsham. However after six years the minister was transferred to Eastbourne. For the next two years the church was led by a retired minister and thereafter there was a succession of young men.
Around 1905 the wealthier members of the congregation, transferred their membership, to the Parish Church or the newly opened Congregational Church (now The Free Church), in Western Road, where the membership had the advantage that they were “masters in their own house” and could appoint their own minister without reference to outside authority. The loss of some members had a negative effect although the situation improved following the appointment in 1908 of the Rev. Frank Hart who reinstated the weekly prayer meeting and started a Sisterhood which he insisted should be non-denominational.
With the outbreak of the First World War many young men joined the army which clearly depleted the effectiveness of the congregation. Sadly ten young men did not return and their names are recorded on the tablet on the wall of the church.
In 1918 the church reached its Golden Jubilee. It is perhaps worth noting that during these first fifty years the church in Hailsham had had some thirty different ministers none of whom stayed for more than three years and some for less than one. Additionally many of the ministers were Eastbourne based and had responsibility for other churches. This meant that the continuity and stability of the Society depended largely on local leadership for both pastoral and practical support.
Throughout much of the life of the church there has been regular investigation and discussion into enlarging the premises and even seeking an alternative site. This was first raised in 1872 and again in 1912. In 1934 further consideration was again given to acquiring some of the adjacent land but this too was unsuccessful.
With the commencement of the Second World War the church again suffered a loss of members. In addition the premises were used as a WVS canteen and a store. The outcome was that they were in a very poor state as people began to return from the Forces. However Hailsham was growing and so was the church. The question of enlargement was on the agenda again, but with a familiar outcome although in 1957 some additional rooms were added.
Shortly after these building works the membership passed the 100 mark and the need for improved premises became even more pressing. The outcome was that in 1965 the whole premises were given a complete makeover. So substantial were the works that the members vacated the premises for four months and Sunday Services were held at Hailsham School, Battle Road. The changes included the provision of a new organ following which a number of recitals given by visiting guest organists including Dr William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber.
Shortly after this, in 1968 the church celebrated its centenary. At the same time the church had, at long last, a locally based minister. In the 1970’s the church successfully entered the Hailsham Carnival winning the prize for the best overall entry on four consecutive years. In more recent years the church has seen growth and some decline. However is has continued to provide a range of services and activities for members as well as the wider town community.