At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Brome

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Brome: a little-known Victorian extravaganza
from the south-east view from the road down the path 
east end lancets from the north-east
north transept north door tower doorway glamorous porch forty years 

Open!   About eight years ago, I spent the summer cycling around the part of Suffolk between the A140 and the A12, visiting the churches. It was this experience that made me think of making a website about the visits. The website survived, and to an extent prospered, and it is the one you are reading today. However, many of these early visits were poorly recorded. I only had a point-and-shoot film camera, and I'm not sure I really understood a great deal of what I was seeing. By the time I came to Norfolk, I was much better equipped. And so it was that some of those early visits nagged me, and by 2007 I was beginning to realise that it was time to go back and visit the Suffolk churches again.

While, as you would expect, much has stayed the same since I first cut a swathe across the county, some things have changed. For a start, many more churches are open or accessible than they were at the end of the 20th century. There also seems to have been an increase in public awareness of the importance of the buildings, and the extent to which we are at a crossroads, with declining congregations in many places no longer able to properly care for the buildings. It has always been an anomaly that in England, which of all northern European countries is the one with the most surviving medieval buildings, it is local congregations which have to steward and pay for upkeep rather than the state or local authorities.

But the death of the Church of England has been greatly exaggerated, and I came to some parish churches to find them and their community in much better health than they had been almost a decade before. One of them was Brome. Back in 1999, this had been a rather rundown building. On the several occasions in the 1990s that I had visited, I had never been able to get inside, because the keyholder had always been out. Other people contacted me to say that they had the same experience, and someone who did get inside reported an interior which was dark and dusty, and rather sad.

If either of those experiences has been yours, then it is time to go back to Brome, because great things have happened here. For a start, the benefice's churches are now open all day, every day, with large signs telling you so. And here at St Mary there has been a massive programme of restoration. The church was closed for fifteen months, and given a proper going over. And so it was that Peter and I set off from Diss, crossed the border and headed off of the A140 down the narrow lanes to Brome.

St Mary should be much better known than it is. This is partly a consequence of the fact that the Suffolk volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England is almost entirely useless for church visiting. Despite a perfunctory revision in 1974, when little was added and less was taken out, the book on sale in shops and on Amazon today is substantially the work of 1961, coincidentally the year I was born. Pevsner was alway suspicious of the 19th century anyway, and the restoration here brought him little pleasure. The entry for the structure of this church reads simply Norman round tower with a top of 1875. The rest mostly of 1863. The stained glass gets a brief mention - Much of the 1860s - the plate and the paten, and a paragraph on the monuments. And that's it. He doesn't even mention an architect, and neither does the similarly useless 19th century churches supplement to the 1975 revision of Cautley's Suffolk Churches and their Treasures.

How times have changed, especially with regard to our understanding and appreciation of what the Victorians did! For the church here is the work of none other than Thomas Jekyll, now recognised as one of the most innovative designers of the 19th century. He is best known in East Anglia for his remarkable Holt Methodist church, which ironically receives high praise in Bill Wilson's 1997 revision of Pevsner's volume for Norfolk. Jekyll almost completely rebuilt St Mary between the 1850s and the 1870s, and it would seem that little expense was spared. All that survives from the earlier church is the lower part of the tower, the font now beneath it, and a magnificent late medieval south porch which now acts as a vestry. Suspiciously, Pevsner does not even mention this beautiful structure, which can't be seen from the road, leading one to the suspicion that this was one of the churches where he didn't even bother to get out of the car.

Jekyll's work was augmented by the largest known collection of the work of the Ipswich sculptor James WIlliams, whose workshop produced the long stone reredos, altar rails, prayer desk and now sadly battered pulpit. The project was bankrolled by two millionaires: Lord Kerrison, whose name is inescapable in this part of Suffolk, and the Rector for forty years, George John Mapletoft Paterson. Lord Kerrison's wife produced some of the windows, and others are the work of Heaton, Butler and Bayne.

To start in the east, the great window is a sumptuous depiction of the Last Judgement, a rather unusual choice of subject. Christ sits on his orb near the top, flanked by Disciples laying down their crowns and angels holding open the books of judgement. Below, there are two images of St Michael, one of Mercy, showing him with his sword killing a dragon, and one of Justice, showing him with his scales. On the left, a smiling angel ushers the saved into Heaven. On the right, a frowning angel directs the damned into the mouth of hell. It is a remarkably early work for the style, rendered with great confidence.

In the north chancel aisle, Lady Kerrison produced a set of the Works of Mercy, whch are charming and naive. I think that Christ carrying his cross flanked by the Blessed Virgin and John the Baptist is also hers. She is also supposedly responsible for many of the nave windows depicting incidents in the life of Christ, but surely they must be the work of a professional workshop? The Baptism of Christ scene in particular is lovely. The window beneath the tower of Christ with the children is by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, and is Lady Kerrison's memorial.

Baptism of Christ teaching in the temple Adoration of the Magi water into wine Last Supper entry into Jerusalem
decorative glass in the converted medieval south porch Blessed Virgin Christ carries his Cross St John the Baptist Annunciation Day of Judgement 
disciples Christ in Judgement welcome to heaven entrance to hell disciples books of judgement
St Michael St Michael works of mercy: visit the prisoner Works of Mercy: feed the hungry works of mercy: give water to the thirsty works of mercy: comfort the sick
St Mary Magdalene Christ the Good Shepherd St Martha transept window 
Blessed Virgin, Christ and St John the Baptist sermon on the mount sermon on the mount Christ the Good Shepherd with St Mary Magdalene and St Martha

The major irritation of this church being effectively inaccessible back in the 1990s was that it was impossible to see the Cornwallis tombs. The Cornwallis family was one of the most powerful in East Anglia towards the end of the medieval period, having no doubt taken full advantage of the old feudal order coming to an end as a consequence of the Black Death. Thomas Cornwallis was Comptroller of the Royal Household under Mary I, and was held in such high regard that Elizabeth I asked him to stay on to help oversee her cultural revolution. He is said to have replied that he was perfectly happy with the religion he already had, which was the religion of his ancestors, and had served them well; instead, he retired to Brome, to raise sheep, and pay the occasional extortionate fine imposed by the local Anglican jobsworths. He survived Elizabeth by a year, and died in 1604 at a time when many memorials reflect the Puritan temper of the time. However, Cornwallis's father Sir John Cornwallis, who had died as long ago as the reign of Henry VIII, lies with his wife on a glorious late medieval tombchest, and Thomas's tomb is a near copy of it. Other Cornwallises are also remembered in this corner.

Cornwallis monument Cornwallis monument Cornwallis monument Cornwallis monument

I was so glad that I'd come back to Brome. I wandered around the graveyard, finding the elaborate memorial to George Paterson immediately to the east of the church. Thomas Jekyll would eventually go mad and die in a lunatic asylum, but not before pioneering the Chinoiserie revival in England. Lord Kerrison remained one of the most significant figures in Suffolk politics until his death, and his mark has been left all over the north of the county. If the three of them could come back to St Mary today, they would immediately recognise it. This is a wonderful church, so poorly served by what I had written before and what others have written elsewhere. It is an extraordinary labour of love, one of the finest documents in East Anglia of the piety and energy of mid-Victorian Anglicanism.

Simon Knott, 2007


looking east
tower arch and font pulpit and reading desk sanctuary font old heraldic glass Cornwallis monument
sorrowful mother: Lady Elizabeth Cornwallis Cornwallis monument angels of the Annunciation small brass 
St John on the pulpit ugly baby on a Cornwallis memorial suffer the children Suffer the Children north aisle
Cornwallis monument US air force reredos: Crucifixion St Mary's




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