Tuesday, 29 May 2007

All Saints Church, Nocton (Early History)

Drafted by Charles Kightly (May 1991)

Built as 'a monument of affection, erected by a Noble widow in memory of a Noble husband', All Saints at Nocton is perhaps the best and least altered example of a Victorian Gothic church in Lincolnshire. Present-day Nocton is likewise essentially a Victorian planned estate village, the creation of the Hobart and Robinson families of Nocton Hall.

A church and a village, however, existed at Nocton many centuries before Victoria's reign. The original settlement may date from Prehistoric or Roman times: for the Roman Carr Dyke (which linked the river Witham to the Welland and formed part of an ancient fen drainage system), cuts through the middle of the parish, dividing Nocton Fen from the higher land on which the village stands. Two dug-out canoes, probably Bronze Age, were discovered when the Dyke was dredged in 1790. Certainly there was an Anglo-Saxon settlement at Nocton, whose name (spelled 'Nochetune' in 1086) may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon words 'hnoc tun', meaning 'village of the wether sheep'. (A wether is a castrated ram, often kept in ancient times as a flock leader).

When Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, Nocton's population numbered some 38 families, and the village already possessed a priest and a church. (No trace of this Saxon church survives, but it probably stood immediately south-west of Nocton Hall). By this time the manor of Nocton belonged to Norman d'Arcy, one of the companions of William the Conqueror: his descendants would continue to own it for nearly another six centuries, until 1660.

Another important influence on the mediaeval village was Nocton Park Priory, founded by Norman's son Robert d'Arcy in the mid-12th century for the 'Black Canons' of the Augustinian order, so called from the colour of their robes. The Priory stood by the Carr Dyke about a mile east of the village, on a site now known as Abbey Hill. Only earthworks now survive there to mark its position, but in the 18th century the foundations of the Priory church and cloister could still be traced. The canons also owned the parish churches of Nocton and Dunston and land in many surrounding villages, but the Priory was never very large or wealthy, being overshadowed by the more important monasteries of Bardney and Kirkstead. Only four canons were still living there when it was finally suppressed in 1536, during the early stages of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.

On the 13th of October 1541 King Henry VIII himself visited Nocton with his flighty fifth wife Katherine Howard, staying overnight with the young squire Thomas Wymbishe on their return from a royal progress through Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. He is said to have planted an ancient chestnut tree in the Hall grounds. (Not long afterwards Queen Katherine lost her head, partly because of her infidelities during this very progress). The manor house where the royal couple stayed has long since disappeared, along with its successor on the site of the Priory, and by the 1670s ownership of Nocton had passed from the descendants of Norman d'Arcy to the Ellys family.

The first of the family to live at Nocton was the Puritan judge and M.P. Sir William Ellys, whose splendid monument (brought from the old church) can still be seen in the tower of All Saints. Though he held high office as solicitor-general to Oliver Cromwell, he afterwards managed to make his peace with Charles II, and died a wealthy old bachelor in 1680, leaving Nocton to his great-nephew Sir William Ellys, baronet (1653-1727). It was this second Sir William who, in about 1690, built 'the magnificent seat of Nocton Hall', on the site of the present Hall. His mansion (later known as 'the Old Hall') burnt down in 1834, but a fragment of its separate banquetting hall (c.1680 ?) still survives, forming the wall of a house about 100 yards north of the church. Old engravings show that the Old Hall was a large E-plan building, with five turrets topped by cupolas.

Later residents of the Old Hall included the rakish Sir Francis Dashwood. second husband of Sir William's daughter-in-law: nationally notorious as the founder of the 'Hellfire Club', Sir Francis was better-known locally as the public-spirited builder of Dunston Pillar, whose remains still stand by the main A15 road some four miles west of Nocton. Originally 92 feet high, equipped with refreshment rooms, and topped by a lantern, it was designed as a 'land-lighthouse' to guide benighted travellers across the highwayman-haunted wilds of Nocton Heath.

The Hobarts
From the Dashwoods, Nocton passed (in about 1767) to the scarcely less flamboyant George Hobart (1731-1804), later (1793) third Earl of Buckinghamshire. A distant cousin of the Ellys family, Hobart was 'exceedingly fond of dramatics, and was for a time a conductor of the operatic entertainments in London': indeed, he celebrated his arrival at Nocton Hall with 'a grand masquerade', and frequently performed plays there in subsequent years. His wife Albinia Bertie of Branston (1738-1816), was a compulsive gambler and devotee of the game of 'faro'. "When she won, she went abroad in her sedan chair, attended by gorgeous lackeys, to scatter largess among the poor': but when she lost, the Nocton estate had to be temporarily mortgaged (1786) to pay her gambling debts.

Perhaps because of such goings-on, the Hobarts thought the ancient parish church of St. Peter 'too inconveniently close to their mansion'. Though they had no legal right to do so, they therefore demolished it in 1773. Only the Ellys monument and a mediaeval font in All Saints' churchyard now survive from the old church, but the site of its churchyard is marked by a rise in the ground south-west of the present Hall, covering the remains of over 20 generations of Nocton parishioners.

To replace it, the Hobarts built an entirely new Georgian church much further from the Hall, on the site of the present church. Later described as 'a small mean structure', it was consecrated in 1775, and old pictures (there is a drawing in All Saints, and a representation in the north-west window of the nave) show that it was built in the currently fashionable Classical style, with a small bell-turret. The interior was filled with unvarnished deal box-pews, and had a raised gallery at the east end.

The third Earl also drastically 'improved' the Nocton estate, draining its fens and enclosing its common land. Most of his time, however, was spent in 'smart London society', his two sons Robert and Henry being left at Nocton in the care of Katherine ('Nanny') Field, the steward's wife. A touching memorial to her can be seen in All Saints' vestry: it was erected by Henry Hobart 'in full recollection of her Kindness, Care and watchful Attention over him during the first ten years of his life'.

This 'Honourable and Very Reverend Henry Hobart' (1774-1846), whose own much more elaborate monument stands near All Saints' entrance door, was the third Earl's younger son. Appointed Vicar of Nocton in 1815, in the following year he also became Dean of Windsor. He was thus in effect a personal chaplain to the Royal Family, and in his later years this 'strange old gentleman' grossly but quite unintentionally offended the young Queen Victoria: for on the birth of her eldest son (the future King Edward VII) he attempted to congratulate her on 'thus saving us from the incredible curse of a female succession'.

Robert Hobart, the Dean's elder brother, succeeded his father as 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire in 1804: his marble monument stands at the west end of All Saints' nave. It records his career as an eminent politician and colonial administrator, and in particular his negotiation of a new charter (depicted on the monument) for the East India Company. He is now much better known, however, for his associations with Hobart, capital of Tasmania, founded during his time as Colonial Secretary and named after him.

In 1810 the 4th Earl renovated Dunston Pillar, replacing its crowning lantern with a colossal statue of King George III: a mason named John Willson fell off the pillar to his death while fixing it in position, and is buried in Harmston churchyard beneath the tombstone epitaph: 'He who erected the noble King, is here now laid by Death's sharp sting'.

King George himself was less than delighted to hear that his statue had been set up in such a desolate spot. 'Ah, Lincolnshire', he remarked in disgust, 'all flats, fogs and fens!'. The statue was removed when Dunston Pillar was shortened by the R.A.F. during the second World War: its head and shoulders can now be seen in the grounds of Lincoln Castle.

'Prosperity Robinson' and Lady Sarah
Earl Robert died in 1816 without male heirs, whereupon his title passed to a nephew. But the Nocton estate passed to his only daughter Lady Sarah Albinia Hobart (1793-1867), who had recently married the Honourable Frederick John Robinson (1782-1859), then M.P. for Ripon, later Viscount Goderich of Nocton (1827), and eventually first Earl of Ripon (1833).

Robinson's career as a politician left something to be desired, 'he being not endowed with either capacity or experience....besides being disqualified for vigorous measures by the remissness and timidity of his character". His failings as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1823-7) gained him the mocking nickname' Prosperity Robinson', and though he managed to remain Prime Minister for five chaotic months between August 1827 and January 1828, he was 'singular among Prime Ministers in being the only one who never faced Parliament in that capacity, his Cabinet having been formed so weakly or managed so clumsily that it fell to pieces before the accustomed time of trial arrived'. In short, he was 'perhaps the weakest Premier to whom a Sovereign of England ever intrusted the seals of office.

All the same, Lord Ripon was respected as 'a fair and candid man', and he and Lady Sarah were certainly good friends to Nocton. The village's present attractive appearance, indeed, is largely due to the generosity of this couple and their son the Marquess of Ripon (1827-1909). Between them they built the Almshouses (1833), the School (1869), and the cottages known as the Old Row (1841), the Ripon Row (1870s) and the Ten Row (1878), all in a distinctive 'Gothic Revival' style.

The Ripons also built the present Nocton Hall, now a Residential Home and hospital. Despite the valiant efforts of a brand-new village fire-engine, Sir William Ellys's Old Hall burnt to the ground on July the 15th, 1834, blazing for nearly fifteen hours. At the 'earnest petition' of the villagers who volunteered to cart building materials at their own expense - its replacement was begun in October 1841, the architect being William Shearburn of Dorking, a Nocton-born 'local boy made good' who was the son of the estate joiner, Joseph Shearburn. Old Joseph himself oversaw the building work, which took ten years and cost between £40,000 and £50,000. Much of the walling stone was quarried nearby on Dunston Heath.

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