A Missionary Zeal

Words by Mike Holland

A lot has been written about the old Hanningtons store in North Street Brighton which finally closed its doors to the public in 2001. Dubbed the Harrods of Brighton it dominated North Street for almost 200 years since being first set up by its founder Charles Smith Hannington.

It was very much a family affair and continued to be so until 1969 when Dorothy Hannington passed away and the shares were bequeathed to the Royal Sussex and London hospitals. However by far the most colourful character in the families history was James Hannington who was born in 1847.

The family lived at Hurstpierpoint in a mansion known as St George’s which his father Charles had acquired. It was a rambling property and young James had many an adventure in and around the grounds. He was without doubt completely fearless and so full of mischief he became known by family and friends as Mad Jim.

One of his more notable adventures ended with him losing a thumb whilst blowing up a wasps nest. Far from putting him off he became even more inquisitive, although by this time his parents seemed to have channelled his efforts into collecting all kinds of objects and he filled cases and cabinets almost as quickly as he obtained them.

James had a private tutor up till the age of thirteen but was then sent to the Temple school in Brighton where he stayed for the next two and a half years. However he was no academic and could not wait to leave, which he did at the age of 15.

He immediately started work in his father’s Brighton Counting House which he found almost as monotonous as school. However the monotony was broken by numerous trips on his father’s yacht which further fuelled his thirst for adventure.

By the age of 21 James had visited every capital in Europe and, unbelievably, managed to have risen to the rank of major in the 1st Sussex Artillery Volunteers. He was an excellent officer and under his leadership the detachment won several prizes at the annual camp competitions.

He was an excellent horseman and could hit any target with a rifle. He excelled in just about every outdoor activity imaginable. His father, who was extremely proud of his adventurous son, had long come to the conclusion that young James was not destined for a life in business and managed to persuade him to enter further education at Oxford with a view perhaps to entering the clergy.

Mr Hannington seems to have had a friend in the Reverend Dawson who seemingly became a great influence on James who after his ordainment became a rector at his father’s chapel in Hurst. It wasn’t many years, however, before the adventurous spirit seems to have resurfaced when he volunteered to join the Church Missionary Society.

He was immediately dispatched with five other missionaries to Zanzibar from where they would travel to the continents interior to what is now Uganda. They were to replace other missionaries who had been murdered the year before but whilst travelling to the interior James was stricken down with fever and, near to death, transported back to Zanzibar then onward to England.

The following year, having returned to good health, he set off for Africa again. Travelling into Uganda he knew, only too well the dangers as King Mtesa had recently died and the new less trusting son King Mwanga had even less time for Christians than his father.

James took just one other missionary with him on this trip although 500 natives formed the caravan. Having left the main body with the other missionary in charge James advanced into Uganda with about 50 natives. The messengers of King Mwanga met and imprisoned this advance party.

They were held captive for eight days before Mwanga decided they should all be put to death. Only four men escaped, the rest were speared to death although there are conflicting reports of how James met his end. One report says he was shot with his own rifle.

However the more likely is the version from the executioners themselves who stated that the priest was speared from both sides. They stated that his dying words were. “Tell Mwanga I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood” James Hannington was certainly one of the great sons of our city and one that should rightly be long remembered. The Bishop Hannington church in Hove was named after his memory.