John Hannah - the name on the plaque

Photo:Plaque in Upper Gardner Street

Plaque in Upper Gardner Street

On a wall in Upper Gardner Street

By Adrian Carlton-Oatley, North Laine resident

North Laine is not blessed with many public inscriptions, but one that is very accessible can be found in Upper Gardner Street, on the wall of what was originally the Central National Infants’ School. It records the school's re-opening by the Countess of Chichester on Thursday 3rd November 1887 and bears the name of 'J Hannah D.C.L., Archdeacon of Lewes and Vicar of Brighton'.

Who was John Hannah?

John Hannah (1818-1888) was the son of a Wesleyan minister of Lincoln, also called John, who was twice president of the Wesleyan conference. The eldest of eight children, he was the only one to survive into adulthood. His father taught him at home until being appointed tutor at the Wesleyan Institution at Hoxton, when John was sent to St Saviour's Grammar School, Southwark. He went up to Oxford in 1837 (when he presumably became a member of the Church of England, as to matriculate he would have had to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles) and in 1840 he obtained first class honours in Classics and became a fellow of Lincoln College. Ordination followed in 1841 and in 1843 he married Anne Sophia Gregory, sister of a college friend.

He became a chaplain

For three years 1845-1848 he was chaplain at Combe Longa church near Woodstock, which was served by the fellows of Lincoln College. Here he proved himself to be a vigorous reformer, introducing a second sermon on Sundays and increasing the frequency of Communion services to every six weeks (it was not uncommon at the time for Holy Communion to be celebrated only three or four times a year), attracting as many as a hundred communicants at each. He and his wife Anne were long remembered at Combe for the pastoral care shown to the villagers, including persuading the Vestry to provide allotments for the poor. This concern for the needs of the poor would resurface when he came to Brighton.

Then he was Rector of Edinburgh Academy

In 1847 Hannah's life took a different turn when he was appointed as Rector of the Edinburgh Academy. The directors felt that the Academy's prestige required that the Rector should hold a higher degree, so Hannah took the degree of Doctor of Civil Law at Oxford. The reason he was awarded the DCL was that he was at the time still too young to supplicate for the degree of Doctor of Divinity (it is intriguing to speculate what he actually had to do to get it). In 1854 he became Warden of Trinity College, Glenalmond, in Perthshire, where he was to show his business acumen by putting the school on a firmer financial footing.

He became Vicar of Brighton

In 1870 Hannah returned to parish ministry, becoming Vicar of Brighton in succession to the pugnacious Henry Mitchell Wagner, who had died in harness after forty-six years in post. Though the number of churches in Brighton had increased to meet the growing population during Wagner's incumbency, the new churches were all chapels-of-ease of the one large parish (which had meant that the clergy who served them were all perpetual curates appointed by Wagner himself).

A new system of independent parishes

Almost immediately Hannah, who became rural dean of Brighton in 1871, set about the cumbersome task of reorganising Brighton into a system of independent parishes. He transferred the parish church of Brighton from St Nicholas's to the larger St Peter's in 1873 (his son John Julius became vicar of St Nicholas's in his place, having served as his father's curate there since arriving in 1871).

He was made Archdeacon of Lewes

In 1876 Hannah was made Archdeacon of Lewes, while continuing as Vicar of Brighton. In the same year, concerned by the poor physical and social amenities for the working-class inhabitants of the area around Eastern Road in the Kemptown area, where the public house was the only place of entertainment and working men were spending too much of their money on drink, he founded the Pelham Institute. The Institute, which was accommodated in purpose-built premises designed by local architect Thomas Lainson, contained a large hall for services, concerts and other educational activities, a reading room, canteen and kitchen, a games room and a smoking room. Single bedrooms were available for short lets at 1/- a night or 3/6d a week.

Remained Archdeacon until his death

Hannah resigned the living of Brighton in 1887, in his seventieth year, but remained as Archdeacon until his death in 1888. His son, John Julius, followed him as Vicar of Brighton until he was appointed Dean of Chichester in 1902. Though rather overshadowed by the more flamboyant Wagners, John Hannah deserves to be remembered for the work he did in transforming Brighton from an ecclesiastical fiefdom into a series of independent parishes and for his social and humanitarian concerns in the town. It is perhaps fitting that, as someone who worked for much of his life as a schoolmaster before taking up parish work in Brighton, John Hannah's one visible memorial in North Laine should be on a plaque commemorating the opening of a school.


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 240, May/June 2016]

This page was added on 28/07/2016.

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