At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Henstead

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Henstead Henstead Henstead

south doorway   St Mary sits away from its village in the intensely agricultural landscape of the Lowestoft hinterland. It is extraordinary to think that we are barely five miles from the centre of that busy town.

This is an ancient place. The narrow lanes cut deeply down into the old field pattern, and this church sits beside a crossroads on its circular mound of a graveyard, obviously a pre-Christian pagan site. And, as so often in Suffolk, you get closer to what appears to be an elegant work of substantially the 14th and 15th Centuries, and find something more rugged and earthy, for this is still at heart a Norman church, with one of the best Norman south doorways in Suffolk. You can gaze out across the fields and copses, imagining yourself to be at any time, if it were not for the occasional car storming up the by-road to Lowestoft.

If you have visited this church at any time in the last ten years then there is a fair chance that you have found at least part of it under scaffolding, but the extensive and no doubt expensive programme of work now appears complete, in as much as these things ever are. You let yourself in (the church is open every day) through that magnificent south doorway into an entirely rustic space, redolent with age and the long generations of its parish, but well cared for, and obviously much loved.

There is a musty smell of carpets and plaster, a silence carried down the years. The nave and chancel are continuous under one long roof. Not much survives from before the 17th Century, when there was a major fire which also destroyed the village which once sat at this crossroads. St Mary probably stood in ruins for the Commonwealth period, after which the chancel was rebuilt in truncated form, possibly for use as a school room. There was a restoration in the 1840s, early for Suffolk but late enough to be ecclesiologically correct, and then a reordering in 1906; Mortlock mourns the loss of the box pews at that time. He's right of course, but our Georgian and Victorian ancestors would still be quite at home here.

For such a rural church, St Mary has more than its fair share of good memorials. They date from the 18th and early 19th centuries, and may have been reset in the 1840s restoration. Two of them are of interest for their material as much as for their design, as they are made of coade stone and are signed Coade & Sealy. Coade stone was a cement-based artificial stone which was very much cheaper to produce than carved marble, and memorials were made of it from the 1760s until the 1830s. One here is for Commander William Clarke, and features a rather startling porky cherub trying to conceal his grief. The other is to George and Frances Mitchell who died in the prime of their days within six weeks of each other - it features a woman who appears to be wrestling with a large urn, perhaps to stop it falling. I can't think of another rural church in Suffolk with two such memorials. Less alarming is the memorial to Laurence Etchard of a century earlier, its drapes rather more lifelike than the bat-winged skull grinning at its base.

St Mary displays a beautifully lettered roll of honour, and there is a WWI cross to George Frederick Farmiloe, who was killed near Arras in France on 26th June 1917. It is rather elaborate, and appears to be one of the second generation crosses installed by the then-Empire War Graves Commission when bodies were collected together in larger cemeteries after the war rather than a battlefield cross. George was the son of Thomas and Fanny Farmiloe of Hampstead in London. The Farmiloes were wealthy lead and glass merchants, and their former factory in East London is regularly used as a film set, standing in for the Gotham City police headquarters in the latest Batman film, an unlikely connection with this peaceful, remote spot.

The Farmiloe family bought Henstead Hall in the 1950s, and presumably this cross came with them and was placed in the church then. Incredibly, George Farmiloe's son Douglas is still alive and, at the age of 96, still lives at Henstead Hall. In his recent autobiography, A Tarnished Silver Spoon, he describes himself as a 'Mayfair Playboy' and records that his happiest memories were of being young in London, when I was spending money in the West End... all the women, that’s probably the best times. Drink and women.

Across from his father's cross is a pleasing proto-Art Deco memorial to Robert Harry Inglis Palgrave, also of Henstead Hall. He died in 1919, and is remembered in a style which gives a nod to the earlier memorials around him as a leader in the study of economics, an example of Christian citizenship and a man of unwearied industry to whom Work was Prayer, somewhat in contrast to the Hall's rather jolly current resident.

  porky cherub

Simon Knott, October 2011

looking east looking west
cartouche 1840s font roll of honour died in the prime of their days within six weeks of each other
Coade & Sealy London 1806 grinning winged skull grinning winged skull porky cherub
commander of the ship Iris who was unfortunately slain GF Farmiloe, killed in action beloved and lamented a leader in the study of economics
died in the hospital ship Dreadnought south doorway (detail) WS 1879 Jeremiah Cooper



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