Duncton and Petworth

For many years the focus of Catholicism in this area was not at Petworth, but at Burton Park (the large house a few hundred metres East of the present church at Duncton). This house was, from some time in the seventeenth century until the end of the nineteenth century, in Catholic hands, and its owners had a chapel within the house. They also provided for a priest to say mass there.

In 1854 Burton Park was inherited by Anthony John Wright Biddulph. He decided to provide a Catholic burial ground, but then adapted his plans by building a church as well. The church, dedicated to St. Anthony and St. George, was designed by Gilbert Blount and built on land next to Duncton Cottage, which was used at the time as the priest's residence. The church was consecrated in August 1869, and due to the illness of the Bishop of Southwark this was carried out by Archbishop Manning, for whom this was familiar territory as in his Church of England days his parish had been almost within sight of this new church.

At about the time that this new church was being built, Charles Willock Dawes moved into the area, taking up residence at Burton Hill, a house on the edge of the Burton Park estate. He had previously been an Anglican clergyman, but had recently converted to Catholicism. He was a man of considerable means, having inherited a large sum of money through his mother's family. At first he collaborated with Mr Wright Biddulph, and together they provided for a school to be built next to the church (at one time the Burton Park mission had, then, a presbytery, church and school all on the one site, although the presbytery and school have since been sold). Relations between the two men became very strained, however, and in the end Mr Dawes built his own church in Petworth, our present church of the Sacred Heart. This building, designed by Frederick Walters, was completed in 1896. Mr Wright Biddulph was angry that the bishop agreed to this new building, only some three miles from his church at Burton Park. He felt it undermined the independence of the church he had built, and in a sense he was right. The two existed side by side as separate parishes for thirty years or so, but were united in 1926, with the priest living at Petworth. At this time the Sunday mass attendance was a dozen or so at Duncton, and perhaps double that number at Petworth

Mr Wright Biddulph died in 1895; Mr Dawes died in 1899. Each was buried in the crypt of the church he had built. Mr Dawes left his house at Burton Hill to the Jesuits, who used it as a retirement house, as well as leaving a large sum of money to the Diocese of Southwark. For the Jesuits this was a return to Burton, because many of the chaplains who had lived and worked here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were members of the Society of Jesus.

The first half of the Twentieth Century was a struggle for the little Catholic community in Petworth and Duncton. The numbers were never large; money was extremely difficult to come by; the buildings were falling into disrepair and indeed even by 1923 the Franciscans at Crawley, who had been asked to cover when the parish priest was unwell, pointed out that the condition of the house was so bad that it was effectively impossible for a priest to stay there.

During the war there was a Polish camp in Petworth Park, andthere was a Polish priest to say mass there. Some of Poles who had lived in the camp, however, remained in Petworth after it was closed, and they were partly responsible for the considerable growth in mass attendance during the 1960s. After a long period as something of a backwater, Petworth began to take off as a vibrant and lively parish, which is what it remains to this day.


In 1529 Cowdray House was bought by the Earl of Southampton, who altered the chapel that can still be seen in the ruins of the house to the form that is seen today. The Earl agreed to keep Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, under house arrest at Cowdray during her imprisonment by Henry VIII, and she spent seven months there in 1538-9, before being executed in 1541 in London. She was beatified in 1886.

When England settled into Protestantism after the reign of Mary Tudor, the First Viscount Montague, now the owner of Cowdray, argued in Parliament against the repudiation of the old faith. When Catholicism was removed from the Parish Church, he allowed the mass to be celebrated in his home. The Montague family remained resolute in protecting the Catholic faith until 1767, when, the title passed to the Seventh Viscount, who had married a Protestant lady and turned his back on Catholicism. Although he was reconciled to the Church on his deathbed, from this date Catholic worship was removed from Cowdray house and had to find a new home.

Although the Viscount had closed the chapel in his house, he did help to pay for the building of a Catholic mission in Easebourne, just outside Midhurst, the first new Catholic Church to be built in Sussex after the Reformation. The Catholics of the area, although reduced in number since the Viscount’s change of religion, continued to worship in this new chapel until, in 1856, its lease expired and it had to be given up. Once again the Catholics of Midhurst had to find a new place to worship.

Fr Coop, the new priest at Midhurst, stayed with his sister in a house in North Street, and celebrated mass for the local catholics in the house. When he left the town in 1866 the Bishop decided not to replace him, and the Catholics of Midhurst travelled to mass at Burton Park, where a new church had just been built, by wagonette. The mission in Midhurst, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi since the move from Easebourne, re-opened in 1866, with mass celebrated in a house until the new Church of S. Francis of Assisi in Rumbold’s Hill was opened in 1869. This church was built on the site of an old coach yard behind the Wheatsheaf pub.

The little church quickly proved too small for the growing number of catholics in the area, and by 1891 land to build a bigger church in Bepton Road had been bought, although this church was not to be built until the middle of the Twentieth Century.

In 1888 the Catholic community in Midhurst received a great new blessing, with the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy, who are still in Midhurst today. Amongst other things, the sisters began a school which was under the patronage of Margaret Pole (St Margaret’s School) and this school continued into the twenty-first century, the Senior School closing in 2002 and the Junior School following it in 2009.

In 2012 the parish of Midhurst was assigned, on the retirement of Fr Peter Johnstone, to be cared for by a single priest together with the Parish of Petworth. So, yet again, this parish that has been through so many changes and moves over the last five centuries, enters another new season.