John Fitzgerald

A saintly benefactor who was less than charitable to his sons

by Kevin Gordon

It was John Purcell Fitzgerald who left Seaford the Almshouses in Croft Lane.

John was born in 1803, one of three sons, and he spent his time living in the family estates in Suffolk and in Seaford where his father had purchased Corsica Hall (then called Millburgh). John married Augusta Jane Lisle Phillips in 1832. She was a frail woman but bore three children; Olivia, who died in infancy and two boys, Gerald and Maurice.

Augusta was described by her brother-in-law, the poet, Edward Fitzgerald, as ‘sweet, cheerful and christianly’. She died only five years after they were married and John was devastated. So much so that even after he remarried he kept a full length painting of her beside his bed so it was the first thing he saw each morning. And if that wasn’t enough, he even retained his first wife’s clothes so that he could be reminded of her. What his second wife, Hester Hadden, thought about this was not recorded.

John was elected a Bailiff of Seaford for the year 1853. He was also a Jurat (the Cinque port equivalent of an alderman) for many years despite spending most of his time in Suffolk. John’s charity could not be faulted. At Boulge, the family home in Suffolk, he kept a room constantly stocked with items to give away to the poor and sometimes he would ride out into the countryside in a carriage piled high with tea, sugar and clothing which he used to distribute, along with personally signed religious books which he had written. He was accompanied on these trips by Miss Thornton, a blind organist. These charitable forays must have been a most unusual sight but were surely appreciated by the local poor.

His sons were treated as “lost souls who could only be saved from being roasted in hell by a full share of unpleasantness and mortification (in this life)”.

In 1855, John was back in Seaford. He gave 100 toward the restoration of St Leonard’s church and he also donated 400 for the building of a school in Steyne Road, on land donated by Lord Chichester. A stone, still visible on the building, reads: ‘This School was built by John Purcell Fitzgerald AD 1858.’ John was in Seaford again in 1864 when he laid the foundation stone for his almshouses and three years later he donated money towards the establishment of a lending library in Church Street.

In 1875 John allowed his home to be used by Seaford residents who found themselves homeless after the ‘great flood’ of 14th November. One resident who witnessed the floods was author George Meredith. He was good friends with John Fitzgerald’s son Maurice and they often stayed together at Meredith’s home at 3 Marine Terrace. At this time Maurice had obtained a reputation for betting (and losing) at horse-racing and his father frequently had to pay his debts. Maurice died in 1877 and is buried in St Leonard’s churchyard.

John fell seriously ill a few months later. His brother, who always seemed critical of his more devout sibling, could not even find kind words for him at this time, saying that ‘he keeps waiting and hoping for death which will not come; perhaps providence would let it come sooner were he not rich enough to keep a doctor in the house’. He died in May 1879 and is buried in the family vaults at Boulge in Suffolk.

Kevin has written numerous articles on Seaford. He is the Chronicler at the Seaford Museum & Heritage Society, and gives talks and leads walking tours – see

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