At the sign of the Barking lion...

Holy Trinity, Barsham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Barsham Barsham

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This is a lovely little church, in a memorable setting beside the Waveney, although it must be said that you do need to approach it from the busy Bungay to Beccles road. Once in its churchyard, however, the sound of the traffic is left behind. You enter the churchyard through a delicious thatched lychgate of 1897 built to the design of FC Eden, an architect and artist whose name is writ large over this church, as we will see. The splendid former rectory slumbers just beyond the fence. The setting was likely even more idyllic before the elm trees which Arthur Mee saw here in the 1930s were lost to Dutch Elm Disease.

As often, the round tower rises in several stages built in different campaigns. The lower half of the tower is 12th Century, it was extended upwards in the 14th Century and then the bell stage was added in the 15th Century with, as Pevsner points out, layers of brick, which are unusual and attractive. Curiously, the tower and the west wall of the nave are not fully joined above head height, suggesting that the body of the church here is older than the tower against which it stands. The most striking feature of the exterior, however, is up at the other end of the church. Here, like an extension of the window tracery, a flint lattice spreads across the face of the east wall. It has been variously dated as anything between the late 12th Century and the early 20th Century, but Stephen Hart, in his authoritative Flint Flushwork: A Medieval Masonry Art, dates it as probably late 15th Century and no later than the early 16th Century. It is most unusual, there's nothing exactly like it anywhere else in Suffolk, although something rather similar was been picked out in brick on the east wall at Spexhall at some point.

Near the south porch sits a memorial to one of the famous names associated with Barsham, the author Adrian Bell whose books, including Corduroy and Silver Ley, contain some of the most evocative writing about Suffolk in the 20th Century. You step down into a charming, devotional space. Because of the influence of the Suckling family, the patrons of the living, this was one of Suffolk's great Anglo-catholic shrines, and that the church is so richly furnished today is thanks to Father Allan Coates, rector here from right at the end of the 19th Century and into the 1920s. Coates was an enthusiastic collector of items discarded by other churches, and a friend of the FC Eden. Eden had been a pupil of Charles Earmer Kempe who had carried out the restoration of the chancel here before Coates's time, in the 1870s. Kempe's is the remarkable east window with its figures set in individual panels, quite different to our common experience of his style.

FC Eden would return again and again to Barsham church. Structurally, his most important work is the north aisle, built as a chapel to St Catherine in 1908. Eden's loving and meticulous attention to detail is largely what gives Holy Trinity the feeling it has today. His are the communion rails, the sanctuary carpet, the aumbry and the war memorial. Most importantly of all, however, is the glass, which is almost all his. The roundels in the north aisle depict scenes in the life of Christ from the Nativity to the Resurrection. St Cecilia and St Luke face each other in memorial glass to Catherine Coates and Charles Dyce. The 1903 window depicting Catharine Mary Allan being presented to the Blessed Virgin and Christchild by St Catherine looks more Kempe-like than other work by Eden. The answer is that it was the work of James Fisher, who made most of Eden's glass up in the workshop and who signed this window in the bottom right hand corner.

Adoration of the Magi (FC Eden, 1908) Adoration of the Angels (FC Eden, 1908) Christ is mocked (FC Eden, 1908)
Resurrection (FC Eden, 1908) Crucifixion (FC Eden, 1908) Transfiguration (FC Eden, 1908)
St Cecilia and St Luke with Catherine Coates kneeling (FC Eden, c1910) Catharine Mary Allan presented to the Blessed Virgin (FC Eden, 1903)
Holy Trinity symbol (FC Eden) Pray for the soul of Catharine Mary Allan (FC Eden, 1903)

FC Eden was not the only former apprentice who worked at Barsham under Kempe and then came back to work independently. Another was the young Ninian Comper, that flamboyant Anglo-Catholic, whose finest hour in Suffolk would come up the road at Lound. The church guide quotes a letter written by the nineteen year old Comper to his mother from Barsham Rectory on Good Friday 1883: Dearest Mother mine, it is a lovely place - a sweet rectory in the midst of splendid trees & the little church almost touching the house. There is a curious East window all in diamond tracery down to the cill and most of the diamonds contain a Saint or Angel painted by my master so I feel at home. And there is a pretty Elizabethan screen, done up & supplied with a rood and iron gates by my master also. Mr Williams is what I call a regular thorough priest and not a rector or a clergyman and is much to my mind but Father knows him well, I believe, and so need not try to dwell upon his virtues!

The rood screen is Laudian, as at Kedington, having been put up in the 1630s to replace that torn down at the Reformation a century before.The rood, which is not the one Comper saw, and the arch of honour were put up in the 1890s, and painted in 1919. You step through it to see the restored low side window on the south side of the chancel. The shutter and its hinges were made by a local blacksmith, probably under the supervision of Kempe. The window above shows Jesus healing the ten lepers, a reference to the misguided belief that low side windows had something to do with allowing lepers a view of the altar. This idea has now been entirely discredited, but still the window remains, a memory of the enthusiasm for the medieval in the last years of the 19th Century.

The George III royal arms came from nearby Shipmeadow, its church now a private house, as do the paschal candlestick and the Jacobean Holy Table in the rebuilt chapel of St Catherine. The 17th Century font cover came from just across the river at Ellingham, Norfolk. A simpler memory of the past is the memorial board to Harry Stebbings, gassed in the First World War, which was painted by Arthur Batchelor of Norwich at cost of materials only, according to Coates's journal. Up in the chancel is the remains of an important terracotta table tomb, one of seven in East Anglia, built from parts manufactured in and shipped from Flanders in the 1520s. It was probably to Sir Edward Etchingham, although only the frontal survives. There are also a number of floor brasses and ledger stones. A roughly surviving St Christopher wall painting is discernible on the north wall of the nave.

On the 8th of February 1906, lightning struck the east end of the church, destroying the stonework of the east window and smashing the medieval mensa which had been reinstalled on the high altar. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good though, because enough money was raised by appeal to pay for the rebuilding of the north aisle. In 1979 a fire destroyed the nave roof, and scorch marks caused by fallen clumps of smouldering straw can still be seen on several benches.

The Suckling family held the living here from the 17th Century. They were the local landed family, and in a position to present themselves or those they favoured to the living on each occasion. They embraced Anglo-Catholicism early and wholeheartedly, at a time when a career in the Church was increasingly seen as a poor alternative to the fortunes to be made out in the British Empire. They tapped into the energy of the movement in the East End of London, where they also presented livings. They were particularly associated with the High Church social action movement of the late 19th Century, being good friends of Father McKonochie, one of a number of Anglican priests prosecuted by the Church of England for 'popish practices'. McKonchie retired, a broken man, to Barsham Rectory. He is remembered by a memorial at the west end of the north aisle here. The Sucklings were also associated with the nearby Anglican convent of All Hallows, at Ditchingham in Norfolk, an institution that scandalised upright Victorian protestants. As at Claydon, the parish priest here suffered vile abuse for his connection with it.

Perhaps the best-known Suckling connection occured before the excitements and the enthusiasms of the 19th Century Anglican revival. Catherine Suckling was born in Barsham Rectory in 1725, the only daughter of the rector, and in 1749 she married the curate of neighbouring Beccles, one Edmund Nelson. They moved to various parishes in Norfolk for her husband to take up the incumbency, and at last they came to Burnham Thorpe, where the living was offered to Edmund by the Earl of Orford, Horace Walpole. In 1758 Edmund and Catherine's fifth child was born at Burnham Thorpe, a boy, and they named him after their benefactor, but using the Latin form of his name, Horatio. Catherine died in 1767 and so never saw her son become, as Admiral Nelson, one of the most successful and certainly the most famous of naval commanders in English history.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east early morning sun in the chancel east window by FC Eden
looking west Easter sepulchre pelican in her piety (15th Century) pulpit
Suckling memorial window (FC Eden c1903) Suckling crest, 1586 Suckling impaled with ?, 1586 shield of the Holy Trinity
the healing of lepers window my beloved is mine and I am his aumbry to everything there is a season
Barsham Mothers Union Suckling St Felix
in pious memory of John Yelloly, priest (1893) Horace, Robert and Dorothy Suckling
the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar our God for him wrought marvellously

Adrian Bell


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