Sarah Whitear (1823-1873)
Sarah Whitear, Countess Waldegrave possibly wielded more influence upon mid-19th century Hastings than any other woman. Although she owned a London residence at 4 Harley Street, she was dedicated to Hastings and lived for 55 years in The Mansion, Old London Road (now Old Hastings House).
She was born in 1787, the daughter of the Reverend Willliam Whitear, rector of St Clements Church, at Hastings Old Town Rectory, 106 High Street. At the age of 30, she was married at All Soul’s Church, Langham Place, London, to Edward Milward Junior, twenty times Mayor of Hastings. Such was their social standing that the Bishop of Chichester conducted the service. On Milward’s death in 1833 she inherited a life interest in his great wealth, which included the West and East hills, Fishponds Farm, which extended beyond Fairlight Glen and the , as well as much property including some at Westfield, Guestling and Pett. Sarah had no children but after 13 years of widowhood she married William, the 8th Earl Waldegrave, who had seven children from a previous marriage. He died in 1859 and Sarah remained a widow for the remainder of her days.
The Countess is best remembered for laying the foundation stones of at least ten churches, which she also endowed. The first was at St Clements Halton in 1838, for which she donated the church and parsonage, the site, and even the building stone. She founded schools for St Clement’s and All Saints’ parishes and gave both land and funds to build Halton School, and donated £500 for an infants’ school and a house for the mistress. She financed numerous Sunday schools, poor-schools and institutions, and provided wash houses and public baths in Bourne Street for the impoverished inhabitants of the .
She paid for a Fisherman’s Institute in All Saints Street and was involved in the Hastings Literary and Scientific Institution. She bought uniforms and a rifle range at Ecclesbourne for the Cinque Ports Volunteers, and built a Mission House in All Saints’ School yard. She helped negotiate for, and donated £100 to secure, a Public Recreation Ground at Priory Meadow. She was a major donor to every appeal for funds for the victims of accidents, and for widows of fishermen lost at sea; indeed, her name is almost always found among the top five contributors. Organisers knew that once her patronage was secured, that of others would follow. Her name also headed a Memorial (i.e. petition) signed only by ladies and submitted to the Commissioners in 1861, opposing the building of an international harbour. Among the signatories’ fears were that an influx of sailors would increase prostitution and that the streets would no longer be safe for ladies.
The Countess was a great benefactor, but she enjoyed using her money to manipulate and control people. (She was far from unique in this; recent historians have associated the charitable act with ‘ambition, egotism, a desire for deference, and power-seeking [in] an attempt to create obligations to oneself which will enable one to exercise control over people.’) She compelled people to do things her way by attaching strict conditions to her gifts. When she endowed All Saints School on the East Hill with £100 in 1835, it was on condition that there were separate girls’ and boys’ entrances. She allowed public access to Ecclesbourne Glen and then only if no alcoholic beverage was sold there, because ‘numbers of ladies stroll about these heights and frequently without an escort, and it would not do for these gentle creatures to be liable on their return home to the rudeness and swilled insolence of late wassailers on the lonely downs or in the blind mazes of the tangled woods.’
She was conservative to the point of being a killjoy and used her privileged position to halt or prevent many kinds of revelry, including cricket and dancing parties on the . She once gave orders to close a well-used footpath, though to her annoyance she was forced to reopen it. Thomas Brett wrote:
In Eighteen-Thirty sev’n a path was stopped
Which present writer frequently had hopped,
And which said stoppage he — the right to try
Did all the printed notices defy.
T’was Mrs Milward’s arbitrary act,
Which soon she found it prudent to retract.
If thou wouldst know where this pathway was found
It led from West Hill mills to Barrack Ground.
The Countess disapproved of anything that strayed from her rigid, ultra-conservative point of view: nonconformists, dissenters, radicals, and reformers all received short shrift. She was against the women’s rights movement and strongly opposed votes for women. However, she was deeply interested in educating native Indian women in domesticity and health, and allowed an Easter ‘tabletop sale’ to take place in her drawing room to raise funds for them. At the consecration of St John’s Church, , she gave an impromptu speech against the ‘ritualistic’ – that is, Roman Catholic — practices that were taking place at Christ Church St Leonards, one of the few churches not endowed by her. Whilst visiting a girls’ school in Cumberland in 1867 she lectured them on the evils of ‘loving finery’ and dressing up, warning that their future employers would not like it.
List of local Churches benefitting from her support
- St Clements Halton * (1838)
- Fairlight Church * (1845)
- Holy Trinity Church * (1857)
- Christ Church Ore * (1858)
- St Matthews Church * (1860)
- St Pauls Church * (1865)
- St Johns Church
n.b. * (year) Indicates she laid the foundation stone during this year with a silver trowel which was later acquired by Hastings Museum