MANY SMALL PLACES in East Anglia have disproportionately large churches. Cley-Next-The-Sea (‘Cley’) is no exception. Its parish church of St Margaret of Antioch is one of the largest in northern Norfolk. It stands atop a hillock, which used to be an island only reachable by boat. The boats that reached Cley were not only those of locals but also foreign vessels bringing valuable cargos to Cley. According to Marjorie Missen, who has written a detailed guide to the church, it was at Cley:
“… that strong links were made with Hanseatic traders and it was in some measure due to their wealth that today we are able to wonder at the size and magnificence of St Margaret’s.”
Without doubt, this church is both impressive in size and contains much of remarkable beauty. Most of the church was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its external walls are of flint with stone dressing. Amongst the things that caught my eye during our first and, as yet, only visit to the church were the beautiful, vaulted ceiling of its south porch; the stone carvings on the 15th century font: they depict aspects of the Sacrament; the wood carvings on some of the choir stalls (miserichords); and stone carvings of musicians on the tops of columns lining the nave. However, what first attracted my attention to this church was part of its exterior.
A roofless gothic structure projects from the south side of the church at the place where one would expect a transept. This structure is affixed to the main body of the church but is blocked off from it. Once upon a time, this might have been accessible from within the church when or if it it formed the south transept. I have so far been unable to find any definitive explanation for the abandonment of the south transept and its decay. Ms Missen wrote:
“The large scale work on the transepts and nave are unlikely to have begun before about 1315, or even later. Although the transepts have been in ruins for some centuries the delicacy and tracery of the south window can still be appreciated.”
Interesting as this is, it does not provide any reason why the south transept and the north have been blocked off from the church and allowed to become dilapidated. It has been suggested by Simon Knott (http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/cley/cley.htm) that the transepts, whose construction began in the early 14th century, were never completed because of The Black Death, which reached Norfolk in 1349:
“The most beautiful is that in the south transept, elegant lights that build to a cluster of vast quatrefoils. This was competed on the eve of the Black Death, and is probably at the very apex of English artistic endeavour. But I think that it was never filled with glass. I can see no evidence that the transepts were completed in time for their use before the pestilence, or that there was ever a need to use them after the recovery from it. And, then, of course, the Reformation intervened.”
This seems a quite reasonable theory. Yet, it is only a hypothesis, and so the mystery lives on. Is the south transept a ruin or an uncompleted building? That is the question.
MANY CHURCHES IN NORFOLK have circular towers. Actually, there are 124 of them in the county. Here is one example, St Mary’s in tiny Titchwell, near the north Norfolk coast. The small spire that tops the round tower dates to the 14th century. The foundation of this church was much earlier.
By the way, the name ‘Titchwell’ is derived from an Old English word meaning ‘ kid (young goat)’ and an Anglian word meaning ‘spring or well’.
SHE SITS THERE MOTIONLESS, day after day and year after year, watching the traffic on Westway either rushing past or crawling along in a traffic jam. In her heyday, before being captured in stone, instead of the noise of motor vehicles, she would have enjoyed the sound of the applause given by audiences in dimly lit theatres. She was the actress Mrs Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), and her carved stone statue stands facing the elevated Westway in Paddington Green, just west of the Edgware Road.
Paddington Green used to be part of an expanse of ancient wasteland located in an area now bounded by the Regents Canal, the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, and Edgware Road, but now much of this wasteland has been built upon. Writing in 1867, John Timbs noted:
“Paddington Green, now inclosed and iron-bound, was the green of the villagers, shown in all its rural beauty in prints of 1750 and 1783. Upon a portion of it were built the Almshouses, in 1714; their neat little flower-gardens have disappeared. South of the green is the new Vestry -hall. At Dudley Grove was modelled and cast, by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, the colossal bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington … it is thirty feet high, and was conveyed from the foundry, upon a car, drawn by 29 horses, Sept. 29, 1846, to Hyde Park Corner.”
Dudley Grove was in Paddington. What is now left of the wasteland consists of St Mary’s churchyard and next to it a small grassy area, still known as ‘Paddington Green’, and marked as such on a map drawn in 1815. It contains the statue of Mrs Siddons. The first written record of the Green is dated 1549. The Green contained a mediaeval chapel, now long-since gone. It has been replaced by St Mary’s Church, which was built in the Georgian style, in 1788. It was designed by John Plaw (1745-1820), who emigrated from London to the North American Colony of Prince Edward Island in 1807. His church in Paddington was later modified in the 19th century but restored to its original shape (a Greek Cross in plan) in 1970 under the guidance of the architect Raymond Erith (1904-1973), amongst whose other creations was the current form of the Jack Straws Castle pub in Hampstead.
The present church is the third in the area, which was halfway between the ancient villages of Paddington and Lilestone. The old Manor of Lilestone (or ‘Lilystone’) included the present Lisson Grove and extended as far as Hampstead. The earliest church was taken down in about 1678. The second church, which replaced it, can be seen in old drawings. It was a simple edifice with a single aisle and a small bell tower at one end. Edward Walford, writing in the 1880s, described it as:
“… not unlike the type of country churches in Sussex…”
The poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631) preached his first sermon in the first church in 1615 and the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) was married to Jane Thornhill (c1709-1789) in the second in 1729 without her parents’ knowledge.
Next to the western end of the church there is a single-storied rectangular, brick building decorated with trompe-l’oeil grisailles, one of which depicts Mrs Siddons. Today, this houses the Phileas Fox Nursery School. Built on the site of the old, now demolished, vestry hall (parish council meeting place), this building, the church hall, in a late Georgian style was designed by John Quinlan Terry (born 1937), an architect of the ‘New Classical’ style favoured by Prince Charles, and built in 1978-81.
Apart from the statue of Mrs Siddons on Paddington Green, most of it is surrounded by buildings or roads built either at the end of the 19th century or long after. At the eastern side of the Green there is what looks like a pair of either early 19th or possibly 18th century houses. The reason Mrs Siddons is commemorated on the Green is that she is buried in the adjoining St Mary’s Churchyard. Her gravestone is contained within a cast-iron enclosure that looks like a small cage. For some time, the actress lived in Paddington in a house which used to stand in the area around Westbourne Green, which is near the current Westbourne Park Underground station.
Mrs Siddons was highly acclaimed as an actress by many. The critic James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) had reservations as he remarked in his autobiography:
“Want of genius could not be imputed to his sister, Mrs Siddons. I did not see her, I believe, in her best days; but she must always have been a somewhat masculine beauty; and she had no love in her, apart from other passions. She was a mistress, however, of lofty, of queenly, and of appalling tragic effect. Nevertheless, I could not but think that something of too much art was apparent even in Mrs Siddons; and she failed in the highest points of refinement.”
Although the poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), shared Hunt’s opinion about her, others held her in higher regard.
The statue of Mrs Siddon in Paddington Green was sculpted by the French sculptor Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud (1858-1919). In the 1880s, he moved to London from France and lived south of the Thames in Brixton. His Mrs Siddons, based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was unveiled by the actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) in 1897. It was the first statue of a woman, who was not royal, to be put up in London.
Paddington Green, like its close neighbour Paddington Station, figures in the history of London’s transportation. For, it was from here that the coachbuilder George Shillibeer (1797-1866) ran London’s first omnibus service to The Bank of England in 1829. He had got the idea from Paris, where he had been asked to design carriages that could carry up to 24 passengers at any one time.
The Paddington Green police station building stands a few yards east of Paddington Green. Constructed in 1971, this used to provide local policing services as well as an interrogation centre for terrorist suspects. Suspects accused of terrorist activities were brought here for questioning from all over the UK. Although it was refurbished in 2009, the station was closed in 2018. The building’s future is in the hands of property developers, who plan to build new housing on its site.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, Paddington Green was a bucolic environment on the edge of what was then London. Now, surrounded by buildings and highways, it is a green but noisy oasis in a highly urbanised area.
WEST HAMPSTEAD, FORMERLY known as ‘West End’ in the time, before the 20th century, that Hampstead was a small town separated from London. Now, yet another of London’s numerous suburbs, West Hampstead has several churches as well as a synagogue. One of these places of worship, St James Church, is worth entering because it is not what it seems from its external appearance.
On entering the church through its electrically operated glass sliding doors, you will be surprised by what you find beneath its fine hammer beam timber ceiling. The west end of the nave is occupied by a post office, the first main-branch of a UK post office ever to be housed within a church. The north aisle of the church contains a children’s ‘soft play’ area, appropriately named ‘Hullabaloo’. The floor of the nave is filled with tables and chairs occupied by people of all ages, some enjoying refreshments from the church’s Sanctuary Café. All these things that you would not normally expect to find inside a church are part of The Sherriff Centre, a community organisation that began operating in 2014 (https://thesherriffcentre.co.uk/). The Centre’s activities also include a stationery store, a free food bank, live music as well as other events, free wi-fi, debt advice, and more.
Jesus is said to have thrown the moneychangers and others involved in commercial activity from the Temple in Jerusalem (“The Holy Bible”, John, Ch 2, v 13-16). However, he might have approved of the commercial activities within St James because profits from the sales outlets in the Centre are used to help finance charitable work. In addition to everything that I have already described about what goes on within St James, there is one more thing to mention. Despite the activities that you might not expect to find inside a church, regular religious Church of England services are held there. It is wonderful that St James, instead of becoming yet one more barely used Victorian church in London, has become a vibrant and beneficial part of a local community, catering to more than only just its by now small congregation.
A FRIEND INVITED us to dine one evening at the exclusive Mosimann’s Club in West Halkin Street in London’s elegant Belgravia district. As it was dark when we arrived and I was too busy chatting with our host, I failed to notice the exterior of the establishment. Years later, I noticed that the narrow façade of this fancy eatery, named ‘The Belfry’, is that of a Victorian gothic church with a slender spire.
The church was being used by the Presbyterians in 1866, so wrote Edward Walford in the 1880s. The website of The London Metropolitan Archives catalogue reveals more:
“…a chapel was built on Lower George Street, called the Ranelagh Chapel. In 1845, on the death of the Methodist minister, the church joined the English Presbyterian Church and was renamed Ranelagh Presbyterian Church. The lease on the Lower George Street chapel expired in 1866 and the church merged with a Presbyterian Mission in West Halkin Street, Belgrave Square. The name Belgrave Presbyterian Church was adopted. The church was rebuilt in 1881. In 1923 the church moved to premises in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington.”
The former church is an unusual structure in that the end facing the entrance is considerably wider than the façade. As to when it was originally built, I am uncertain. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, does not give it a mention in his extremely detailed guide to the buildings of the City of Westminster in which it is located. However, he does mention the chapel’s neighbour, to the left of it as you face the façade. Far more attractive than the chapel is the façade of its neighbour which is decorated in a neoclassical style. It has two porticos supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This building was built in about 1830.
Today, the Doric pillars flank entrances to a branch of Waitrose food stores. This shop also has an entrance on the street parallel to West Halkin Street, Motcombe Street. Thus, two temples of food stand side by side. If you cannot afford to dine in the former church, then you can console yourself and appease your appetite by acquiring something edible in Waitrose by stepping between the Doric pillars. In case you are wondering what we ate at Mosimann’s, I am afraid I cannot recall as it was so long ago, but I do remember enjoying it.
IF YOUR TRAIN FROM CAMBRIDGE to London stops at Shepreth and Meldreth, you can be sure that you are in for a longish journey because only the slower trains halt at these stations. Over the course of many years, we have been travelling to and from Cambridge by train and as I enjoy looking out of the window, I have always noticed this pair of oddly named stations. Only recently, we visited both places by car and took a look around these lovely villages between Cambridge and Royston and close to the A10 road, which runs from London Bridge to Kings Lynn via Cambridge.
The ‘reth’ suffix in the two villages names means ‘stream’. Shepreth means ‘sheep stream’ and Meldreth means ‘mill stream’. There is archaeological evidence of settlements in both places long before the Romans invaded England. The Romans may have occupied part of the parish of Shepreth and their successors, the Saxons, developed the village of Meldreth. Both villages are listed in the Domesday Book (1086). Little appears to have been recorded in the history books about events in tiny Shepreth. The larger village of Meldreth also played no great role in the history of England but, in the 16th century, Christ College of Cambridge moved to its estate near the village to escape from the plague. Members of the Meldreth Local History Group might disagree with my assessment of Meldreth’s place in British history. Their superb website (meldrethhistory.org.uk/) details many aspects of the place’s past, but most of them are about the village rather than the wider world.
I imagine that the building and opening of railway stations in the two villages in 1851 were major events in their history and development. Currently, the stations are served by Thameslink trains. The villages are popular places for commuters to both London and Cambridge.
Both villages are rich in historic buildings of great beauty. Many features of vernacular architecture can be found including many fine thatched roofs. A particularly charming old, thatched edifice In Shepreth is Corner Cottage, which is close to a more aristocratic looking building, Docwra House. This former manor house was built in the 17th century and then provided with later additions (www.docwrasmanorgarden.co.uk/history.htm). The village sign at Shepreth is suitably adorned with sheep, bales of fleece, a stream, a bridge, a water mill, and a leaping fish. The bridge, which we did not see, was built in the 17th century. It crossed the River Rhee, a tributary of the River Cam, in which sheep were washed, and was used by farmers taking sheep to the market in Cambridge.
At Meldreth, through which flows the tiny River Mel, a tributary of the Cam, we entered the parish church of Holy Trinity, whose construction began in the mid-12th century on the site of an 8th century church. Its square tower, nave, and chancel were all constructed in the 12th century. The church contains some fine brass chandeliers; an elaborately carved pulpit and choir stalls with wooden carvings; fragments of pre-Reformation frescoes; a lovely timber beam ceiling; some heavily whitewashed carvings supporting some of the ceiling timbers; and a mediaeval parish chest. The latter is one of about 150 surviving examples. It was made in Baltic pine with iron bands between about 1400 and 1420 and was used for securely storing valuable liturgical items (e.g., silverware, books, and vestments). In addition to visiting the church, we drove through long village to its station, which up until our visit by car, we had only ever seen whilst speeding through it by train. However, we did not see any mills as suggested by the meaning of the name Meldreth.
We did not spend nearly enough time in the two villages as we fitted them into an already busy day of sightseeing. However, having sampled them, we feel that they merit a longer visit in the future. Once again, these places provide good examples of the wealth of historical features to be discovered in England’s rural areas.
THE PARISH CHURCH in Thaxted, Essex, which was built in the English Perpendicular Style between about 1380 and 1510, is at first sight simply an impressive, attractive, typical example of this era of church construction. Recently, we were able to enter it and the lady who showed us around revealed that this was no ordinary, ‘common or garden’ church. During the early 20th century, it had been home to activity that you might not expect in a building such as this.
Within the church, there is a bronze sculpture by Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983). Mounted on a small wooden shelf, it depicts the head of Conrad Noel (1869-1942), who was the vicar at Thaxted from 1910 until his death.
Conrad was the grandson of the Earl of Gainsborough and son of Roden Noel (1834-1894), a Groom in the Privy Chamber, who left his exalted position after discovering radicalism. It was Roden who translated the words of “The Red Flag” into English. As a student at Cambridge, he had been a Cambridge Apostle. Conrad’s mother Alice (née de Broe) was daughter of a banker. Conrad was sent to school first at Wellington College and then at Cheltenham College. Then he entered Corpus Christi College Cambridge but failed to complete his course. After leaving Cambridge, he studied at Chichester Theological College, a high church Anglican establishment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chichester_Theological_College). It was here that Conrad began to conceive his unique ideas about socialist Anglo-Catholicism. By 1893, he defined his theology as ‘Liberal Catholic’, which Edward Poole explained in “Troublesome Priests: Christianity and Marxism in the Church of England, 1906-1969”, his master’s thesis in 2014, was:
“…a theology that looks to the orthodox teaching of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and the Early Fathers, combined with a democratic approach to churchmanship and the active participation of the congregation in worship.”
At first, Conrad found it difficult to become ordained because of his radical, socialist ideas. In 1894, the Bishop of Chester ordained him, and he became a curate in Salford, where Poole related:
“Noel began giving lectures on Catholic Socialism which were boycotted by the ordinary congregation but … were successful in drawing in large numbers of working people who had never attended Church. The indignant Church Wardens referred the matter to Bishop Jayne, resulting in an acrimonious interview between Curate and Bishop. Jayne accused Noel of having no respect for the long-standing congregation, and of irreverence by encouraging attendees to ask questions about Christianity in Church. Noel reminded Jayne of Jesus’ invitation to ‘all and sundry’, but Jayne dismissed the argument.”
Conrad married Miriam Greenwood in 1894.
Jumping ahead, in 1910 the socialist cleric, Conrad, was appointed Vicar of the Parish Church in Thaxted. His appointment to this position was offered to him by a local aristocrat, a former mistress of King Edward VII, Frances Evelyn (‘Daisy Greville’), Countess of Warwick (1861-1938), who had become to quote Christopher Hibbert in his biography of Edward VII: “… a dedicated socialist…” by 1906. Thaxted’s new vicar began revolutionising his parish almost as soon as he accepted the post. Mark Chapman, author of “Liturgy, Socialism, and Life” wrote that Conrad’s: “…first great battle was over the bible boxes, which were used by the richer parishioners to reserve their places in church, and which deprived many of the poorer members of the congregation of the best seats.”
Actions such as these caused some of the wealthier members to leave the congregation, but this did not worry Conrad. He made many changes in the church and its liturgical practices in order to democratise his parish church. He wanted the church to be for all, for the common people, a recreation of the spirit of the earliest Christians. To do this, he introduced music and dancing and folkloric activities. John Millbank wrote in relation to this:
“The joy of Thaxted was a wise joy. The liturgy and the music and the dancing were as essential to Christian socialism as work amongst the poor” (quoted from Chapman).
Conrad had a strong disregard for the church hierarchy, who, on the whole, disapproved of his methods of helping people to believe they were an integral part of Christianity rather than only its recipients.
Socialism flowed through Conrad’s veins. In 1918, he set up the ‘Catholic Crusade’, which was a socialist movement that would:
“… work through the Church for a new economic society basing itself on the laws and principles of the gospels and the prophets. “(Chapman).
In addition, Conrad was strongly against imperialism, especially the British Empire, and also firmly in favour of reviving the Arts and Craft aspects of the socialism of William Morris and John Ruskin. The latter could be seen in many of the activities organised under his guidance at Thaxted.
Poole explains that Conrad’s socialism was based on Marxism and he was in favour of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. His formation of the Catholic Crusade in 1918 followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which Poole notes:
“Noel saw the Revolutions… which brought the Bolsheviks to power, as evidence of a spiritual revival in Russia.”
Conrad hoped that a similar revolution would soon happen in the UK. Poole relates that later Conrad met Ivy Litvinov, wife of the Soviet Ambassador in London. She:
“…expressed to Noel surprise that a clergyman would celebrate the Bolsheviks despite their professed atheism. Noel responded that “dialectical materialism gave no true inspiration for the revolution, and that it was in spite of Marxist philosophy, rather than because of it, that those changes had taken place.”
Later when writing his autobiography, Conrad explained:
“I believe that the mystical element in the Russian people was much more the inspiration of the Russian Revolution than the appeal to the Marxian dialectic.”
By then, although still a socialist at heart, he was appalled by the Stalin-Trotsky split in about 1936 and he joined other clerics in the formation of the Anti-Stalinist Order of the Church Militant.
There is much more that could be discussed regarding Conrad’s idiosyncratic take on Socaialism and the Church, but I will concentrate on an incident that brought his church in Thaxted into the news in 1921. He had placed three flags in his chancel: the flag of St George, the tricolour of the Irish Sinn Fein, and the Red Flag of Communism. Students from Cambridge and also the ecclesiastical courts tried to remove them, but in vain. He preferred the flag of St George to the Union Jack, because the latter, he felt, ignored England and favoured plutocracy and British imperialism. As for the Irish flag, Chapman explained that it emphasised Conrad’s anti-colonialist ideals and the rights of national self-determination, for which WW1 had been fought. The Red Flag was chosen by Conrad because he felt that it:
“… was there to serve as a pointer to something more universal than a nation … it emphasised the notion of God as fellowship, and of the commonwealth and democracy of nations, none of which could be allowed to exist as an isolated entity…” (Chapman).
“During the First World War, Noel displayed the flags of the Allies in Thaxted Church. After the Russian Revolutions, he added a plain red flag to represent the workers of the world, and by 1921, it hung with the cross of St. George and the Sinn Fein tricolour on the chancel arch, and on May Day that year it was paraded in the church. By the following morning it, and the tricolour, had been stolen by Cambridge University students, leading Noel to place a notice outside reading “Stolen! Two flags from Thaxted church and two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) from the people by the rich.””
The flags chosen by Conrad caused great strife (known as the ‘Battle of the Flags’) in Thaxted, as Poole describes:
“On 24 May, Empire Day, some residents hung the churchyard with Union flags, which Noel then replaced with ‘mutilated’ versions in which St Patrick’s cross had been removed. At a meeting at the Thaxted Guildhall, protestors demanded that Noel cease preaching political and seditious themes. A crowd gathered outside the Church, and fights broke out between them and former policemen defending the church. Noel’s friends called on him to leave Thaxted for his own safety, but he refused. After a night of unrest, Noel wrote to his wife to describe the excitement of the evening, and to reassure her that “the flags of our religion are still flying.” Further scuffles followed when protestors tried to remove a new flag on 20 June, and on 26 June when demonstrators successfully burnt the red flag and hung more Union flags in the church. In July the red flag was burnt again, but local moderates finally took control of the opposition to prevent further violence. In January 1922, a petition calling for the removal of the flags was sent to Chelmsford consistory court and Noel defended his right to fly the flags, but by July he was instructed to remove them, and complied.”
Many years later, when WW2 was declared, Conrad:
“…mused on the irony that the flag that had been so reviled by his parishioners was cheerfully displayed alongside the Union flag as Britain and the Soviet Union fought Nazi Germany. In his view, “the very people who opposed it are now grateful that the USSR is pulling our chestnuts out of the fire”” (Poole).
The only flag of note that we noticed during our visit to Thaxted’s church is a banner sewn in 1917 by Conrad’s wife Miriam. It bears some words of JS Bach that were chosen by the composer Gustav Holst who had a house in Thaxted (I will discuss Holt’s involvement with Thaxted in a future essay).
When visiting Thaxted and its lovely church, it is hard to imagine that the place was once the location of so much violence and controversy. I am glad to see that Thaxted’s highly original parish priest is remembered respectfully within his church. A plaque next to his sculpted head reads:
“Conrad Noel. Vicar of Thaxted 1910-1942. He loved justice and hated oppression.”
These are fitting words by which to remember an unusual man who espoused both Communism and Christianity, who saw no incompatibility between these two belief systems that many others believe to mutually opposed. To summarise, quoting Mark Chapman:
“… it seems to me that Noel was a genuine visionary, although his practical solutions may have neglected some or even most of the complexities or realpolitik, he nevertheless sought to make the church an expression of the kingdom of righteousness, justice, and equality and thus a beacon in a desperate world.”
WE WERE FORTUNATE that we met a lady who unlocked (specially for us) the parish church of Saint John the Baptist with Our Lady and Saint Laurence in Thaxted, Essex. It was during our recent visit to the town in April 2021, when many churches tended to be kept closed most of the time. We were even luckier because this kind lady spent time with us, showing us the many interesting features within the building. Amongst these she pointed out: a cupboard colourfully painted with an Italian baroque design; an unusual lectern, also richly coloured; a decorative corona suspended from the ceiling of a southern aisle, and another above a figure next to the high altar. She told us that all these objects were made by the Marquis d’Oisy (1880-1959), who used to live in a cottage near Thaxted, an interesting man. My curiosity about the Marquis was aroused and after returning home, I looked for something about him on the Internet and found an informative article about the fellow, written by Julian Litten and published in “Saffron Walden Historical Journal”, issue number 24, Autumn 2012. Mr Litten has also recently published a book about the Marquis, which I have not yet seen.
The 37-year-old Marquis arrived in Essex in the summer of 1917. He settled in Plegdon Green, which is close to the present Stansted Airport and just over 4 miles south west of Thaxted. He lived out the rest of his life in Plegdon. He called himself ‘Amand Edouard Ambroise Marie Lowis Etienne Phillipe d’Sant Andre Tournay, Marquis d’Oisy’, and claimed to have been born in Rio de Janeiro. However, the so-called Marquis was neither an aristocrat nor born in South America.
It is most likely that the Marquis was born in Bath (England). Julian Litten’s research suggests that most likely the Marquis was born ‘Ambrose E Merchant’ the son of Ambrose C Merchant, a gasfitter, and his wife Alice Merchant (née Thomas) in Bath. When he grew up, the Marquis often used the name ‘Ambrose Thomas’.
By 1901, Ambrose Thomas (aka the Marquis) was living at Caldey Priory (near Tenby in Wales) where he was a Benedictine Monk. In 1902, he left the Order and most probably worked as a navvy, digging the Northern Line tunnels for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London. He did not keep this job for long. Until 1915, when he was working for a church furnishers’ company, Louis Grossé, as a vestment maker at St Saviours Church in London’s Hoxton, his life remains a mystery. It is not impossible that he spent some of the time learning the artistic skills that he was employ later in life.
The cottage that the Marquis moved into in 1917 was part of the estate at Plegdon owned by the silent-film screen actress Irene Rook, whom he could possibly have met if, as Litten suggested, he might have had some employment designing or manufacturing theatrical sets for films. By then, the Marquis was producing decorative wares such as the things he made, which we admired in the church in Thaxted. Litten suggested that Ambrose Thomas might have adopted the seemingly posh name Marquis d’Oisy whilst working at Louis Grossé but cannot be certain of this.
During WW1, there was a shortage of work for the Grossé company. This was probably the reason that the Marquis left in 1917 and came to live rent-free in Irene Rook’s cottage. It is likely that Irene Rook had bought things made by the Marquis and felt sorry for him when he faced unemployment in 1917. On arrival in Plegdon, Litten noted:
“At first, the locals were afeared of him, some even taking him to be a spy, attributing his exotic apparel of long cloak and floppy-brimmed hat as being more French than English. With money being in very short supply, he kept a cow tethered on the green for the sake of its milk, as well as a goat, and he grew edible flowers, fruits and herbs to keep the cost of his groceries down. He also kept two elegant greyhounds, and always slept in the open, whatever the weather, on the first-floor balcony of his cottage. Now that in itself points towards the probability of him having TB.”
Few of those who knew him well after he moved to Essex found it easy to believe that Ambrose was truly aristocratic. The film director Basil Dean (1888-1978), who lived near him, wrote of the Marquis:
“Lady Warwick used to say he came not from any foreign land but from the East End of London. He was a strange creature altogether, very tall and thin, emaciated almost, with a squeaky voice and a chin beard; and obvious homosexual … artist-antiquarian, vegetarian, and decorator – extraordinary of cottage replacements of period furniture to Lady Warwick. We owed to him much of our knowledge of Little Easton Manor’s history, all of our discovery of its foundations, and enthusiastic guidance along the path of its restoration. A passionate student of peasant ways – a folk-artist, you might say …”
The Marquis worked with Conrad Noel (1869-1942), the left-wing vicar of Thaxted (between 1910 and his death), known as the ‘Red Vicar’, about whom I will write in the near future. In 1923, he began making some of the objects that we saw in the church, beginning with the vestment cupboard he decorated with the Italianate motifs. Noel helped the Marquis by commissioning him to paint and/or create the following items as listed by Litten:
“…the lectern, the niche and statue of St Lawrence, the decorative carving on the reredos in the Becket Chapel, and commissioning two painted pewter coronas for the Lady Chapel and one for the statue of Our Lady as well as a band of identical cresting for the High Altar …”
We were shown some of these items by the lady who kindly let us enter the spacious, light-filled Perpendicular-style church, which was mostly built between the 14th and 16th centuries.
As well as his work at Thaxted church, the Marquis did extensive restoration work at Basil Dean’s Little Easton Manor and organised many folkloric pageants both in Essex and in London. Notable amongst the pageants was one organised near Thaxted in 1926 to raise money for the English Folk Dance Society who were trying to build their London headquarters in what was to become Cecil Sharp House (in London’s Regents Park Road). Music for this occasion was provided by the wife of the composer Gustav Holst, herself a composer, Imogen Holst (1907-1984). Gustav had strong associations with Thaxted and Conrad Noel, about which I plan to write. The largest event, arranged by the Marquis, was held at Hatfield House in 1936. With a cast of 600 and lasting 3 hours, the Marquis designed the costumes. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was amongst the audience. In addition to these activities, the Marquis created painted furniture for Heals in London and Sayles in Cambridge.
Irene Rook died in 1958 and left the cottage at Plegdon to the Marquis, who was by then a very far from wealthy man. Desperately short of money, he sold the cottage for a pittance in January 1959. Suffering from prostate cancer, he was put up by his former man servant Bernard Keel in his cottage at Takely, just south of the present Stansted Airport. He died in December 1959.
I have attempted to summarise what is known about the Marquis but omitted many of the fascinating details about this remarkable man’s life, which has been well-researched by Julian Litten, whose book “The Mystery of Marquis D’oisy” was published in late 2015. Had it not been for the superb tour given us by the kind lady who admitted us to the church in Thaxted, we would have most probably remained completely ignorant of the marvellous Marquis.
HER HEAD RESTS ON her stone-cold right hand with her elbow on a carved alabaster cushion. Her left hand is held lightly and limply against her left breast. She is a carved alabaster effigy of Dame Jane Cotton (1630-1692), widow of Sir John Cotton of Landwade (1615-1689). This sculpture of Jane Cotton lies against the north wall of the chancel of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in the village of Madingley, close to Cambridge. The church is open until 4pm most days and we got there by 3.45 pm a few days ago in April 2021. So, we were able to have a good look at the interior of this building whose construction commenced in the late 13th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1127740).
Jane Cotton, who reclines close to the high altar, was the daughter and sole heir of Edward Hinde (c1598-1631) of the Parish of Madingley. Edward lived at Madingley Hall (www.thepeerage.com/p34969.htm#i349687), which is a few yards uphill from the church. Sir John Cotton did well by marrying Jane because by doing so, he acquired the manor of Madingley.
Sir John left Madingley to his son Francis, who left it to his son William, who married a widow, Elizabeth. When William died childless in 1606, his widow Elizabeth took over all of the Hinde estates. She remarried and leased Madingley Hall to Edward, who was son of William Hinde’s brother Edward (died 1633).
Jane’s father Edward (died 1633) settled his lands on his eldest son Anthony, who died before him, fighting in Denmark, in 1612, when Denmark was fighting Sweden for control of part of Norway. Anne, Anthony’s widow, ‘sold’ her interests in the lands to her father-in-law Edward (died 1633). Anne and Anthony had a son Edward, to whom Anthony’s father (Edward, died 1633) had left all his lands, but the grandson, Edward, died in an accident in 1631. Jane Hinde then became the heir to her father’s lands. Had Anthony and his son not pre-deceased Jane’s father, she would not have come into possession of the Hinde’s estates, and neither would have they come into the hands of Sir John Cotton. The lands at Madingley remained in the Cotton family until the beginning of the 20th century.
Sir John, husband of Jane, was buried with his ancestors at Landwade in eastern Cambridgeshire. His daughter Jane is interred in the church at Madingley. Her monument stands near the northwest corner of the nave. She is depicted kneeling with a small book in her left hand. Jane was a spinster. She died in 1707. Not far from her monument stands a lovely carved stone font. Covered with geometric decoration, this was made in the 12th century and probably stood in an earlier version of the church. Nearby, the internal walls of the bell tower are decorated with damaged sculptures made of wood. They are:
Although there is much to enjoy in the church at Madingley, it was Lady Jane Cotton’s reclining effigy that most sparked my curiosity. Looking into what is known of Jane’s heritage has revealed a little bit about the complexities faced by the ‘landed gentry’ when they considered who was to inherit their land.
The families mentioned are what some might describe, often expressing a sense of deference, as ‘old families’. What this means is that the family has sufficient documentary information to trace it back, maybe over many centuries, for many generations. Well, if you think about it ‘old families’ are no different from other families because all of them must go back an awfully long way in history, even if the documentary evidence no longer exists.
DURING THE COVID19 ‘lockdowns’, it is often impossible to venture within a church. On several occasions, especially when there are builders at work within a church, we have been lucky enough to be able to enter it. Otherwise, they are usually locked up. Not too long ago, I wrote about General De Gaulle’s brief period of residence in Hampstead and mentioned that he attended mass at Hampstead’s Roman Catholic St Mary’s Church (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/03/22/french-connections/). Oddly, given how often we have visited Hampstead, I had never seen St Mary’s until we visited it in late March 2021. The church is located on Holly Walk about 180 yards north of Hampstead’s Anglican Parish Church.
St Mary’s is set back from the road and its tall narrow façade is wedged between two terraced Georgian houses. The white painted façade with neo-classical ornamentation and a niche containing a large sculpture of the Virgin and Child, and a belfry with a single bell, has a Mediterranean or southern European look to it. It adds an exotic touch to its otherwise British surroundings. The façade was designed by the architect William Wardell (1823-1899), many of whose creations are in Australia. Born a Protestant, he was influenced by his friend the great Victorian architect Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who converted to Roman Catholicism. Wardell followed in Pugin’s footsteps and became a Catholic, building several Catholic churches in England, including St Mary’s in Hampstead, before he moved to Australia in about 1858 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wardell). In the 1840s, after becoming a Catholic, he became a parishioner at St Mary’s.
Prior to the construction of St Mary’s, the Roman Catholics in Hampstead worshipped in Oriel House in Little Church Row. When this became too small to accommodate the congregation, the present church was constructed in under a year and was ready for use in August 1816. At that time, the congregation was led by a French refugee, the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel, whom I described in the article to which I referred above. While he was still officiating at St Marys, a Papal Bull, the “Restoration of the Hierarchy to England and Wales”, was issued in 1850. Included in this document was permission for bells to be rung from Catholic churches in England for the first time since the Reformation. It was this that led to the creation of the façade, designed by Wardell, which we see today.
Fortunately for us the door to the church was open when we arrived. A couple of workmen were doing some repairs and did not mind us entering the small church. According to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry in their “London 4: North” architectural guide, the interior was altered in 1878, and a sanctuary as well as two side chapels were added in 1907. The nave faces a baldachino supported by four pillars coloured black with gold-coloured decoration. The baldachino was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963) in 1935. His family were parishioners of St Mary’s. Adrian lived in Frognal Way in a neo-Georgian house called Shepherd’s Well. Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1872), Adrian’s grandfather, also lived in Hampstead, at Admirals House close to Fenton House. There is a painting above the high altar that depicts the Assumption of the Virgin. This was painted by a student of Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682) and presented to the church by one of its founders Mr George Armstrong.
There is a stone effigy in the northern side chapel, the Lady Chapel. It depicts a figure with hands together as in prayer, with a lion at his feet. Although Abbé Morel had requested to be buried under a simple marble slab, this effigy of him was commissioned by the architect Wardell. The lion at the feet of the cleric indicates that he died outside the country of his birth.
Although the interior of the church is not so old, it evokes the feeling of much older churches I have seen in Italy. As with the façade, the inside of St Mary’s feels as if it is in a country close to the Mediterranean. While visiting its interior, I popped a donation into a box in exchange for a copy of a booklet about the church, from which much of my information has been gleaned. The booklet includes information about some notable members of the church’s congregation, including General De Gaulle, the Duchess of Angouleme, William Wardell, the Gilbert-Scott family, the landscape artist Thomas Clarkson Stansfield (who lived on Hampstead High Street), the novelist Grahame Greene (1904-1991), and Baron Friedrich Von Hugel (1852-1925).
Greene, an agnostic, became converted to Catholicism and was baptised in February 1926, partly because of the influence of Vivien Dayrell-Browning, whom he married in October 1927 in the Church of St Mary’s in Hampstead.
Von Hugel, who lived in Holford Road, which runs east of Heath Street, was, like Greene, a convert to Catholicism. He was born in Florence, Italy, and moved to England when he was 15 years old. He was an influential religious historian and philosopher both inside and beyond the Roman Catholic Church. He was a leading proponent of Catholic Modernism, which:
Less cerebral than Von Hugel, but greatly skilled was Gino Masera (1915-1996), who worshipped at St Mary’s. The booklet describing the church notes that when working at London’s Savoy Hotel:
“His artistic talent was revealed when he was asked to carve a block of salt for table decoration. He regarded the commission to carve the Stations of the Cross [in St Mary’s] as a turning point in his career and went on to carve the statue of Christ the King which stands above the High Altar in St Paul’s Cathedral.”
St Mary’s Church stands above a large burial ground that lines the east side of most of Holly Walk. Less picturesque than St Mary’s, this cemetery contains some interesting gravestones including those of the actor Anton Wohlbrueck (Walbrook) who died in Germany but whose ashes are buried in Hampstead; the cartoonist George du Maurier; and the Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell.
Once again, visiting Hampstead, a district with a rich history has proved interesting. Each time we make a trip to the area, we see things we had not noticed before and this has resulted in gradually expanding our knowledge of a place that has attracted fascinating people as residents over several centuries.