Murder, vampires, and bricked-up nuns: Preston Manor’s intriguing garden walls

Possibly the most dramatic thing a wall can do is fall down – all the more so if the wall abuts a churchyard and its fall exposes ancient graves. Drama may also be found if the wall contains gruesome information relating to a brutal murder or entombs the body of a bricked up nun.

Falling walls

At approximately 4.30am on 15 December 1981 there was a spectacular collapse of the wall between Preston Manor south lawns and the graveyard at St. Peter’s Church.

B&W photo. Collapsed wall at Preston Manor showing St Peter's Church, 1981. Courtesy John Barrow
Collapsed wall at Preston Manor showing St Peter’s Church, 1981. Courtesy John Barrow

The wall had no known date but Preston Court Roll documents from the Sussex Records Society show a wal has existed in that spot since 1547 when Richard Elrington of ‘the farmhouse at Preston,’ acquired some church land for use as an orchard. This requisition explains why the tower of St Peter’s Church protrudes into the Manor gardens.

Responsibility for rebuilding the wall fell to Brighton Council because since Richard Elrington’s day the wall has belonged to the Manor rather than the Church since Richard Elrington’s day. As the 1547 document states, ‘the said Richard shall make up all the walls of the church-yard now being in decay.’

B&W p[hoto. Collapsed wall at Preston Manor, 1981. Courtesy John Barrow
Collapsed wall at Preston Manor, 1981. Courtesy John Barrow
In June 1982 Brighton Council’s Tourism, Museums and Entertainments Committee met noting a complication: ‘the manor and all of the structures within its curtilage including the wall is a Grade II listed building.’

Listing status meant an application had to be made to the Secretary of State to demolish the remainder of the wall, as it had become unsafe. Mr Morley, Director of Royal Pavilion & Museums at that time, favoured replacement in the form of an historically accurate Sussex flint wall for the entire length. A less ambitious option of planting a yew hedge on the southern end was considered but rejected.

Rebuilding work eventually began on 3 May 1983 and lasted 25 weeks.

At a site meeting held on 20 June 1983 the Borough Engineer’s department were given the concrete test certificates. These documents were required to prove the foundations were capable of taking the weighty load – for the wall is immense, more like a castle wall than a churchyard wall, and includes five sturdy brick buttresses at the north end.

Recognition of the Preston Manor garden walls gathered pace from the early 1980s.

In a 1983 report the curator, David Beevers, wrote:

‘…the garden walls of Preston Manor are a unique feature, and provide considerable pleasure to our visitors. The house and gardens should be regarded as a totality. Apart from the walls surrounding Kipling’s house at Rottingdean, the walled gardens at Preston are the only examples to be seen within the Borough of Brighton. Even in the wider context of Sussex, they are rare and valuable.’

Today visitors to Preston Manor and St Peter’s Church would be forgiven for believing the restored wall to be centuries old rather than a mere 34 years. The flints and mortar have weathered and plant life has grown, giving the impression of antiquity.

Colour photo. Restored south wall of Preston Manor, May 2017
Restored south wall of Preston Manor, May 2017

Floral walls

In May and June fan-trained roses are in bloom and you will also find various species of wall-loving wild flowers including the aptly named Pellitory-of-the-wall.

Pellitory of the Wall, May 2017
Pellitory of the Wall, May 2017

Pellitory-of-the-wall is a common plant that everyone has seen but few really notice. Herbalists of the past used this plant to ease a range of diverse complaints from urinary infections to tinnitus. The apothecary Nicolas Culpepper (1615-1654) recommended Pellitory-of-the-wall for cosmetic purposes: ‘the said juice made into a liniment…helpeth the hair from falling off the head.’

Yellow Corydalis, May 2017
Yellow Corydalis, May 2017

Yellow corydalis is in flower at the base of the wall. This attractive member of the poppy family originated in the Alpine regions but now grows freely in Britain as it thrives on neglect in cool shady places.

In 2015 volunteers from St Peter’s Church cleared a plot on the eastern side of the wall and planted a mix of wildflowers, which self-seed annually to produce a display attractive to visitors and supportive of bees and butterflies.

A postcard donated to Preston Manor in 1979 by former butler Mr Maurice Elphick (1885-1980) shows the north end of the wall covered with ivy. The tower on the south face of Preston Manor was demolished after 1905 and the ivy removed mid-century to protect the fabric of the building.

Coloured postcard showing Preston Manor House and Church
Preston Manor House and Church

The raised grassy mound under the church tower was turned into a rockery by Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford after 1905. Rockeries became popular in the early 20th century as a naturalistic rebellion against Victorian formality. Parts of the low rockery wall can still be seen today in gardens that are open to the public every day and free to visit.

Rockeries & Vampires

Rose Frost as vampire Lucy in adaptation of Dracula, 2016. Courtesy Tanya Cressey.
Rose Frost as vampire Lucy in adaptation of Dracula, 2016. Courtesy Tanya Cressey.

Drama occurred on Sir Charles’s rockery during the staging of the death of Lucy Westenra in the acclaimed production of Bram Stocker’s ‘Dracula’ by Brighton’s Brief Hiatus theatre company. Here, accompanied by blood-curdling screams echoing across Preston Park, vampire Lucy was despatched by a stake through her heart on eight nights in October and November 2016.

B&W photo. Conor Baum directing Dracula by Preston Manor walls, 2016. Courtesy Tanya Cressey.
Conor Baum directing Dracula by Preston Manor walls, 2016. Courtesy Tanya Cressey.

Murderous walls

If you walk into the churchyard you will find a plaque fixed onto the restored wall in commemoration of 1831 murder victim, Celia Holloway.

‘Beneath this path are deposited portions of the remains of Celia Holloway who was brutally murdered in the Lover’s Walk of this parish.’

B&W photo. Celia Holloway plaque 1981. Courtesy John Barrow.
Celia Holloway plaque 1981. Courtesy John Barrow.

As this plaque was reinstated in 1983 and no path exists, there is some doubt as to the exact location of the portions of poor Celia.

Celia’s husband John and his accomplice lover Ann Kennet decapitated and dismembered Celia not at Lover’s Walk but at a slum dwelling in the now demolished Donkey Row, Brighton (not far from the Royal Pavilion) and buried her torso in a shallow grave in Lover’s Walk near Preston Manor. John and Ann soon apprehended and tried for Celia’s murder. John was found guilty and executed by hanging. Astonishingly, Ann walked free.

There are a number of notable persons buried at St. Peter’s including two veterans of the Battle of Waterloo but Celia Holloway is the best known and most piteous.

Entombing walls

Colour photo showing re-enactment of bricked up nun at Preston Manor
Re-enactment of bricked up nun at Preston Manor

Preston Manor is famously claimed to be haunted and is supposedly home to various white and grey female figures wearing long dresses or robes. The house has ancient origins and it is possible a religious building once stood on the spot or nearby, so ghostly nuns are appropriate.

Entombed nuns are a common motif in female ghost sightings across the British Isles ranking in popularity with suicidal maid-servants delivered of illegitimate babies.

The bricked-up nun legend was well known to the Edwardians. In E. Nesbit’s children’s classic, The Railway Children (1906) the character of Roberta, played so memorably by Jenny Agutter in the 1970 film, creeps fearfully into a dark railway tunnel to rescue an injured boy: ‘she knew now, she thought, what nuns who were bricked up alive in convent walls felt like.’

The legend at Preston Manor probably started with the finding of the buried skeleton close to the Manor south wall in January 1897 following a séance some months before. At the séance the ghost of a nun, Sister Agnes was contacted via a ouija board. She spoke of being excommunicated and buried in an unconsecrated location leaving her a wandering spirit.

Original documents regarding the findings at the séance are held at Preston Manor but there is no mention of Sister Agnes being bricked-up in a wall. Over the years fact and fable have become entwined creating an enduring and melodramatic story with no basis in truth…although perhaps not all walls in and around Preston Manor have yet revealed their secrets.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor