The story of the Every’s is also much involved in the public life of the town and their influence, if what we would now consider patriarchal, appears benign.
They were Unitarians and Unitarians were considered heretical by many other Christians but still were part of that nonconformist tradition that is closely associated with the industrial history of Lewes, and with the Liberal political tendency.
This nonconformist history is recorded most significantly by Jeremy Goring in 2003 in his account of dissent in Lewes, Burn Holy Fire, in which he notes Lewes as predominantly a Liberal and dissenting town . John Henry Every opposed the erection of the Martyrs Memorial as, according to Goring ‘religious toleration was a major article of faith’ with him. He also paid for the remodelling of the Unitarian Westgate Chapel interior including a stained glass window which was part of the early twentieth century changes initiated by the minister J.M. Connell resisting sectarianism. The Baptist Minister J.P. Morris devoted a sermon to a eulogy of John Every who died in 1909 describing his ‘sturdy life and upright character’ and Goring records that he had ‘sold them a site for their Sunday school at a nominal price and contributed generously to the cost of its building’ (p.140).
When John Every’s son, John Henry, was chairman of Westgate and an Alderman, Baptist, Presbyterian and Wesleyan ministers attended the Unitarian Provincial Assembly in Lewes in 1906. Goring quotes one of their reasons for accepting to do so was John Henry’s character ‘a splendid representative of Unitarianism at its best’ and one who had ‘entered so fully and sympathetically and brightly into all that affected the welfare of the town’. (p.141) .
The Every’s were considered model employers for their time, providing the Paddock as playing fields for their employees as well as a recreation centre on the Phoenix site. A building on the playing fields bears a plaque;
‘This building dedicated to the memory of Jessie wife of John H Every of the Phoenix Ironworks was erected by him to foster the good fellowship of sport and recreation 9th September 1933’.
The Town Hall offer a brief biography of him due to his period as Mayor which notes his refusal to build a gallows for the prison as he objected to capital punishment. A plaque on the Pells children’s playground established to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, credits him with two other Councillors as the instigators. By the 1920’s the rule of the ‘masters’ was challenged and the Nevill History Group have shown that as alderman and chair of the housing committee during the building of the Nevill estate in the 1920’s, he defended the Housing Committee of the Borough Council against the Labour Trades Council’s suggestion that they had dragged their feet on house building. He insisted, as the Sussex Express reported on 8th October 1920, that they ‘did not lose a single minute in setting to work and getting matters underway’.
On his retirement from the Council he was given a framed testimonial, now in Anne of Cleves House in Southover, recording these roles, and he commissioned Reeves to photograph him with it.
John Henry Every restored Bull House where Tom Paine had lived and gave it to the Sussex Archaeological Society of which he was a member. The house still contains ironwork he had made for it. He also valued the industrial history of Sussex and his museum at the Works, contained a large collection of ironwork and also furniture, and a portrait of Tom Paine. Their choice of its contents was bequeathed to the Archaeological Society as is recorded in an article in the Society’s publication, Sussex Archaeological Collections of 1943.
The Society are working on a new exhibition on Lewes’s industrial history, drawing on this collection. Brigitte Lardinois, who prepared the exhibition of Reeves photographs, ‘Stories Seen Through a Glass Plate’, which displayed historic photographs of the High Street in light boxes placed in or with a view of the original locations, also hopes to pay some particular attention to the Phoenix Works in a future light box exhibition.
Some photographs of the Works and its products, were shown in Reeves’ exhibition in their own gallery, which accompanied this lightbox show. Fiona Marsden who has worked for some time on the Everys observed in the Lewes Phoenix Rising Roadshow of December last year, which presented their plans to renovate the Phoenix buildings;
“It would be tragic to lose the remaining Phoenix buildings just as interest in them is growing and the work of researchers following various strands of the Phoenix story is beginning to come together in to a definitive history of the Every’s contribution to the town.”
This aspect of the site should soon attract tourists and the preservation of the factory buildings and their adaptation for modern living is just the solution that John Henry Every himself might have chosen.
It is to be hoped that the increasing awareness of this history, and its potential to inform and encourage visitors to the town, will result in the planning authority’s acknowledging the significance of the Phoenix buildings and their value to our present and our future.