Skeletons in the church

The Brighthelm United Reformed Church and Community Centre backs onto North Rd, and is adorned with a sculpture by John Skelton, depicting the loaves and fishes story. Built as a new home for the Central Free Church, it incorporates the former Hanover Chapel, which was built in 1825 as an Independent chapel for the Revd M Edwards, and then used by the Presbyterian Church from 1844 until 1972, when it combined with the Union Church. The chapel was then used as a Greek church until 1978, and the church hall in North Rd became a resource centre; it was gutted by fire in 1980. The southern facade of the Chapel, with twin porches, Tuscan columns and giant pilasters, has been preserved and restored.

In 1845, Queen’s Rd was constructed over the western edge of the Hanover Chapel’s burial ground, but the cemetery’s boundary wall and railing remain on the western side of Queen’s Road as a raised pavement. The churchyard became the corporation’s responsibility following the 1884 Brighton Improvement Act; it was laid out as a public garden, the Queen’s Rd Rest Garden, in 1949 when the gravestones were removed to line the perimeter walls.

In 1989, the churchyard was remodelled with access from Queen’s Rd. An obelisk monument in the garden has a very faint inscription to Dr Struve of the Royal Spa in Queen’s Park.

On August 15 1982, The Argus published a story, ‘Mystery of 500 bodies’, which revealed that a crypt containing hundreds of crumbling coffins and bones had been discovered underneath the remains of the resource centre when the Brighthelm Centre was being built. The chambers were first discovered on December 15 1981, when the roof of one of the chambers fell in. The subsequent excavation revealed many chambers, containing coffins of different types and from different eras – those commemorated with stone plaques were in fairly good condition, due to being lined with lead, and had been placed on separate shelves within chambers or in family groups within the chambers. The earlier, wooden coffins had mostly crumbled to pieces and there were no plaques or other memorials to indicate whose remains they had contained.

The discovery of the remains were kept largely secret from the public – apart from an advert in the local paper, asking for any surviving relatives to come forward and reclaim the remains, which yielded no replies. The excavation of the graves was carried out from April 1 to July 28 1982, and the remains were subsequently re-interred in a mass grave at Lawn Memorial Park, Warren Rd, Woodingdean.

Records were made of all the identified remains and kept on file, along with maps and photographs made by the Brighton Borough Surveyor, by the staff at Woodvale Lodge. It was believed the unidentified remains found amongst the crumbled wooden coffins may have been those of people who died as the result of some common illness, and probably dated back to the late 1700s.

At that time, scarlet fever was a serious health problem for adults and children throughout England. Later burials, from the 1820s onwards, included the family of William Wigney, a linen-draper; Harriet Stevens of North St; Stephen, Ann and Polly Ayling of Sussex St; Charlotte George, 11 Richmond Place; John Samuel Shepheard Spyring, 3 Western Place; Thomas Judson, Craven Cottage, Queens Road and Mary Rogers, 1 Upper Rock Gardens. Designed by John Wells-Thorpe (whose other designs included the new Hove Town Hall and St Patrick’s Church, Woodingdean), the Brighthelm Centre was opened on October 10 1987.