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1732-1796: Sir William Burrell - keen local historian

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

An account of travels through Sussex with Sir William Burrell by Francis Grose in May 1777

Following a visit by Sussex Historic Churches Trust Nicholas Rowe reported in its newsletter, the following:

Sir William Burrell's monument in Cuckfield church

Among the many monuments which we saw at Cuckfield was that to Sir William Burrell, Bt (1732-1796), the antiquary upon whose work the written history of the county depended for at least a century after his death. According to his wishes Burrell was buried in the family vault at West Grinstead, where his second surviving son held the remainder of his Uncle Merrik's estate.

Sir William Burrell

Burrell’s widow Lady Sophia commissioned John Flaxman (1755-1826) to produce monuments at both West Grinstead and Cuckfield churches. The famous sculptor visited both churches, and found that the space above the door at Cuckfield better suited to a mural plaque.

William Cole, a fellow antiquary, described Burrell as ‘an active, stirring, man, and a good antiquary. He is rather low, and squints a little; but very ingenious, and scholar-like’ (BL, Add. MS 5864, fol. 69).

Christopher Whittick Chairman of the Trust

Article by Nicholas Rowe

Additional information on Sir William from Wikipedia

From an early period in life he was interested in antiquarian pursuits and ultimately concentrated his attention upon the history of the county of Sussex. Nearly every parish of Sussex was personally visited by him and its records inspected and partly copied. Drawings were made for him of churches, houses and sepulchral monuments, and he spared no labour in tracing the descent of the county families.

He didn't print any of his work, but bequeathed the entire collection to the British Museum. His interest in local history was not confined to England, as he traveled Scotland extensively in 1758. Tourism had scarcely touched Scotland before the middle of the 18th century, making Burrell's travel journals an important early record of Scotland's social and economic conditions.

Burrell was seized with paralysis in August 1787, and, though he partially recovered, found it necessary to resign his public appointments. He retired to Deepdene in Surrey with his wife Sophia, and there died on 20 January 1796. He was buried at West Grinstead, Sussex. Lady Burrell remarried to clergyman William Clay. She died on the Isle of Wight 20 June 1802.


Sussex Historic Churches Trust, supporting the rescue and repair of places of worship

The handwriting shown at the top is from pages from Francis Grose’s diary of a tour of Sussex, undertaken with his friend and fellow antiquary Sir William Burrell (1732–96) in May 1777. By this time Grose had already published views of Sussex for his monumental study The Antiquities of England and Wales, but intended to cover more of the county for a Supplement to that publication. From the British Library.

The diary starts on Saturday 17 May, when Grose left his house in Wandsworth for Ifield. Meeting Burrell at Crawley, the pair spent the next twelve days travelling south, following the coast from Seaford to Rye and up again in the direction of Tonbridge.

Burrell's other memorial in West Grinstead Church

Sir William Burrell engraving by Robert Laurie in the National Portrait Gallery - Wikimedia public domain image.

Monument, main image, in Cuckfield Holy Trinity Church.

Monument (right) to Sir William Burrell, 2nd Bt., in St George's Church, West Grinstead, West Sussex where he is buried. It was sculpted by John Flaxman. Wikimedia public domain image.


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