Number 69 – April 2014

St Mary’s Tower and Clock: A Detective Story

Recently the History Group obtained a selection of old photographs printed from glass negatives. They are undated, but various clues have helped us establish when they were taken. We shall be showing them in the Quarterly Review at various intervals and in occasional History Group exhibitions.

In this edition we are showing an early photograph of the church tower. The 1086 ‘Domesday’ survey, in Latin, mentions a church (ecclesia) in Walsham. ‘DomesdayRsquo; seldom goes into detail about buildings, and says nothing about Walsham church tower. The first time that a tower is specified is in a will of 1403 (Norwich Record Office). As was customary, the will was in French, and we find that the tower (clocher needed repair. Church towers were built primarily to house a bell, as clocher implies. The mention of £13:6s:8d towards repairs, a large sum in 1403, suggests that Walsham’s tower, probably already over three centuries old, needed considerable maintenance. Later, about 1475, the four stone finials that we see today were hauled up in sections to embellish the battlements. Our research has established that they represent the heraldic beasts of Edward IV: to the west two lions: to the east, a bull and a griffin. The king was brother–in–law to the Duke of Suffolk who owned one of the Walsham manors. Walsham was then a rich parish, and the church building was so well endowed that most of what we see today was erected in the 15th century.

Victorian photographs show the tower much as it is in the 21st century, except that it was then topped by a structure known as a cupola. Usually made of wood and copper, it was a typical ‘status’ addition to buildings, both sacred and secular, from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. A few can still be seen. Until the 2012 fire, Cupola House in Bury had a large 17th century cupola, important enough to give the house its name, and the feature will be replaced with the rebuilding. In Walsham, The Grove, an early 19th century mansion, has a more modest rectangular structure, hardly a cupola, housing a bell which chimes the quarters. The present clock at St Mary’s chimes only the hours, sometimes a few minutes behind the Grove.

It was said that the earlier St Mary’s clock bell was‘miserable sounding’, and we know from 18th century bills that ‘looking after the clocke’ cost the town wardens eight shillings annually from 1709 to 1739. There are also frequent mentions of ‘oyl for the clocke’. In 1785 the Walsham plumber presented a bill: ‘to painting the Cuperlow, twice, 10s.’ In 1877 the clock, which had controlled the cupola bell, was replaced and the cupola bell mechanism disconnected. Several late Victorian photographs show that the cupola itself lingered on for some twenty years after that date even though it had no practical function. When John Martineau rebuilt the tower roof in 1900 the cupola was dispensed with.

To return to the clock, a Bury Free Press report from November 1877 states ‘the new clock is a munificent gift of Hooper Jn. Wilkinson Esq., the esteemed and venerable gentleman of this parish.’ The ‘venerable gentleman’ was then 77. In the clock chamber, awkwardly reached by ladder from the ringing chamber, a pencilled note can still be made out on the wooden clock casing:

‘Set Going November 13th 1877 by the Donor
Hooper John Wilkinson Esquire
Revd. Arthur Lee Vicar
Thos. Golding Esq., Henry Plummer (Ch Wardens)
2 p.m.’
Copy of a black and white photo showing a previous structure of St Mary's Church Walsham le Willows
St. Mary’s – a previous structural layout – click to enlarge

The contemporary newspaper report mentions ‘several other gentlemen’ crammed into the confined space. We can imagine them in their long coats on thatNovember afternoon, stumbling along with a lantern, for the space is windowless. Thebreport states that ‘the clock movement is on the horizontal plan, being the most modern design. The main wheels are cast iron and the rest brass. The time is shown on a 5 foot convex dial with sheet copper hands that are gilded and stiffened by brass backs’. We are also told that ‘winding is performed once a week’. Thankfully technology has moved on since then, and winding is now automatic. Some can remember the ‘good old days’(?) when the weights were wound up regularly by hand. The newspaper continues: ‘The manufacturers are Messrs, Gillet and Bland of the Steam Clock Factory, Croydon.’ Their brass plate can still be seen on the mechanism, a testimony to Victorian engineering.

The Bury Free Press also says:‘A very elaborate massive stonework moulding has been constructed for the new dial that is the gift of Thomas Golding Esq. Churchwarden.’ In other words, while the new clock mechanism and dial were the gift of Hooper John Wilkinson of Walsham Hall, the circular stone frame for the dial was given by Thomas Golding of the other large Walsham house, The Grove, mentioned earlier. Perhaps there was some rivalry between the two gentlemen, or we could charitably conclude that it was a gesture of collaboration. At all events, the newspaper account testifies that the present circular stone frame and the metal clock face were placed there in 1877.

Black and white photograph showing the current structural layout of St Mary's Church Walsham le Willows
St Mary’s – Current Structural layout – click to enlarge

The old photographic plate reproduced here shows the church with a child and three onlookers standing by the churchyard wall. There is even a workman on the vestry roof repairing the vestry chimney. At that time the vestry was the only source of heat in the whole building, and inside there are still traces of the fireplace where the vicar warmed himself. The photograph must pre–date the new clock face and stone frame of 1877, for, although obscured by trees, the tower has a clock dial flanked by pilasters (small pillars projecting from the wall) and topped by a triangular pediment. This same detail can be seen in a naive pen and ink drawing, (see illustration) recently found in the vestry, entitled ‘North East View of WALSHAM CHURCH SUFFOLK from the Church Yard. 1841’. The drawing‘s minute penwork shows the date ‘1838’ on the pediment, although our illustration cannot reproduce such small detail.

The 1877 newspaper account mentios ‘the old unsightly wood face’ of the former clock. In other words the pediment dated ‘1838’ in the old drawing, with the pilasters and plinth, was merely painted wood. Our Victorian photograph showing the old 1838 wooden clock face also shows the Colson obelisk which, with its railings, can still be seen near the churchyard entrance. If you stand in the churchyard and look at the obelisk’s eastern side, the monument’s earliest date, 1869, can be made out. Our photograph, obviously after 1869, must, however, predate 1877, when we know that Wilkinson‘s clock and Golding‘s ‘massive stonework’ were both installed.

Brian Turner 2014


Walsham History Group transcription of Church and Town Warden’s Accounts on CD available from Walsham History Group Publications | 01359 258535 (£10)

What the Papers Said….100 Years Ago

In April 1914 the Bury Free Press reported three accidents that had happened in Walsham.

‘Village doctor Mr. Poignand was driving his motor car out of Ashfield Lodge when he came into a violent collision with a passing van. No one was injured but the motor was seriously damaged.’

‘The little son of village postmanJoseph Debenham climbed onto the roof of a shed but lost hold and fell onto some sharp spikes. The nasty wound in his thigh was stitched up by the doctor.’

‘A horse and carriage belonging to Mr Sidney Field was being driven to Walsham church when the horse took fright at an upturned cycle on the road. The horse jumped through a hedge but no serious damage was sustained.’

In May 1914 it was reported that efforts were being made to induce the Highway Authority to have the High Street in Walsham tarred, ‘The fast increasing motor traffic through the village renders the nuisance from dust intolerable.’

In June 1914 the Rev. Briggs wrote…

‘We in Walsham are justly proud of our beautiful old church. Several gifts have lately been given: Two brass candlesticks from Mrs West and Capt. Thoroton. An embroidered red silk altar frontal, a green silk burse, and a veil for the chalice and alms bags, from Mrs Wood of Brook Cottage, and an anonymously given embroidered green damask altar frontal. We now have all the colours of the seasons.’

Also in June two funerals were reported…

‘Maria Susan Aldridge, wife of Robert of Crownland Road, has died aged 77. The coffin was conveyed in a hearse to the Baptist Chapel where she had been a member for many years.’

Also the funeral of William Pollard took place…

‘A well known inhabitant of Walsham, he was for many years game keeper to Mr John Martineau. When land was given by Mr Martineau in 1890 for a new cemetery, William Pollard was responsible for its lay out.’

The Bury Post reported that a property in Walsham was sold at the Angel Hotel in Bury…

‘Hartshall Farm, with farmhouse, cottage, and 136 acres of arable and pasture land was sold to Mr F.J.Hucklesby for £1750.’

Also in June, George Hubbard a labourer from Walsham received one month hard labour for stealing a white speckled hen from Mr Lock at Rookery Farm. (At the outbreak of war George Hubbard volunteered for service.)

Although the Great War was only weeks away there was no hint of what was to come in the newspapers. The main story in the press was about the gathering of militant suffragettes in Bury St Edmunds and the trial at the Assizes of two suffragettes accused of burning down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe, and setting wheat stacks on fire. In court the two, Hilda Burket and Florence Tunks…

‘would not stop talking and shouting. They accused witnesses of lying and said that a great deal of fuss was being made about a little property being demolished,…

I‘ll die rather than go to jail’

shouted Burket. They were led from court laughing after Burket received two years prison and Tunks 9 months.

James Turner
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