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The Visit of the Friends of Ashdown Forest to Sackville College Almshouse


On Wednesday, 12 July 2023, twenty members of the Friends of Ashdown Forest visited Sackville College Almshouse in East Grinstead for a guided tour. The three volunteer Guides, Angela, Ben and Caroline, gave an introduction in the Common Room, then took the group to see the Dining Hall, Chapel and Study, before we all returned to the Common Room for tea and cake.

​​​​Sackville College was founded in the will of Robert Sackville, 2nd Earl of Dorset in 1609 as a ‘hospital or college’, to be called Sackville College and to house 31 deserving poor people. Today the College still provides accommodation for local retired people of limited means. The building is an architectural gem, and it has a fascinating history.

The word ‘college’ in this case meant: a gathering of people for a common purpose, governed by a set of rules. At various times in its history the common room has been used as a schoolroom, but the purpose of Sackville College was to provide shelter and a small pension to poor people.


Herbrand de Sauqueville came to England after 1066. His descendants married members of important landowning families such as the Howards. John Sackville married Margaret Boleyn, aunt of the more famous Anne. Thomas Sackville was therefore a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I and she made him the first Earl of Dorset. Robert Sackville, 2nd Earl of Dorset, founded Sackville College in his will, but died some days later. Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset had the Almshouse built and incorporated a grand wing on the north side, the Dorset Lodgings, for his occasional use, so that the rich and the poor sometimes existed side by side.

Sackville College has survived into the twenty-first century. Today fourteen residents each have a flat with their own kitchen, bedroom and bathroom and most flats have a sitting-room as well. Residents are no longer restricted to just one bucket of well water a day and their rooms look out onto the attractive quadrangle.

Another important aspect of the history of Sackville College is the life and work of the Rev’d Dr John Mason Neale, Warden 1846-66. He was an ordained clergyman and lived there with his wife and five children. He wrote many hymns and carols, one of which is Good King Wenceslas. Neale composed the words in his Study and set them to the music of a sixteenth-century hymn found in a Scandinavian book of sacred songs, Piae Cantiones. By tradition, when Neale walked around the College daily or looked out of his Study window, he thought of poor people ‘gathering winter fuel’ and scratching a living from the soil in Ashdown Forest, without suitable spiritual or medical care. He thought of Wenceslas, the ninth-century Christian ruler of Bohemia, who helped the poor. The resulting carol was first published in 1853. The words ‘right against the fence’ echo the Forest ‘pale’ and ‘St Agnes’ fountain’ honours his eldest daughter, Agnes. In 1854 Neale founded the Society of St Margaret, a sisterhood of nuns who received some basic nursing training and went out to stay with and care for the sick poor. The work of the Society of St Margaret continues to this day.

I hope that connections between Ashdown Forest and Sackville College have been forged and that Friends of Ashdown Forest will visit again to hear more about this lovely place and the Warden who, like Good King Wenceslas, ‘looked out’ over Ashdown Forest.

Caroline is a Guide and Hon. Historian at Sackville College – – and is also a Friend of Ashdown Forest.

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