The New Church
The most impressive memorial to 'Prosperity' Robinson and Lady Sarah, however, is the present church of All Saints. Its Georgian predecessor (see Early History) had never been a satisfactory building, and though only 40 years old when the couple inherited the estate, was already decaying rapidly. By 1845 its western wall was dangerously cracked, a pewter bowl (still used for baptisms) was being used as a font - the mediaeval font having been exiled to the churchyard - and there was a bookshelf above the altar. Since it only seated 200 people (plus 40 children in the gallery) it was also too small for a parish whose population numbered 510 in 1851. But perhaps this scarcely mattered, since the average Sunday congregation in that year totalled only about 100 adults. The explanation, according to Vicar Edward Wilson, was that; 'The parish being nine miles long, several families who are from three to five miles from the parish church rarely or never attend it, but go elsewhere'.
Lord Ripon had intended to replace the old church with a new and more suitable building: but before he could do so, he died aged 76 in January 1859. His widow Lady Sarah therefore undertook the work, as a memorial to her deeply loved husband and a shrine for his tomb. By this time imitations of mediaeval Gothic architecture had come to be regarded as the only acceptable style for new churches, especially among the 'High Church' party to which Lady Sarah belonged. She thus employed the most respected and respectable of Victorian 'Gothic Revival' architects to design her church: this was Sir George Gilbert Scott, who had begun his career as a builder of Elizabethan-style workhouses and lunatic asylums, but had turned to churches (his first was St. Nicholas, Newport, Lincoln) and undergone a 'conversion' to Gothic Revivalism.
At Nocton, Scott chose to imitate the 'Early Decorated' style of c.1300, then regarded as the 'best' period of Gothic architecture. Built with no expense spared, the church was probably begun in 1860, being consecrated on December the 16th, 1862 and dedicated to All Saints: this was a new dedication, for previous Nocton churches had been dedicated to St. Peter. It was chosen in honour of Lord Ripon, whose birthday was November the first, or All Saints Day.
All Saints church, however, was not quite complete when Lady Sarah died in April 1867. A south aisle and south porch had been included in the original design, and these were added in 1872 by her son the Marquess of Ripon 'as a tribute of reverential affection to his mother'.
The Marquess, a deeply religious man as well as a successful Liberal politician, was at this time a leading Freemason: but two years later he suddenly announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism, though he apparently returned to the Anglican church before his death in 1909. He is buried in the magnificent Victorian church of Studley Royal, near Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire. This 'sister church' to All Saints was built by the Marquess in 1871-8, as a memorial to his brother-in-law Frederick Vyner, who was murdered by Greek brigands. It is well worth a visit, as is the sombre and indeed rather sinister church of Christ the Consoler at Skelton-cum-Newby, North Yorkshire, also built during the 1870s in memory of Frederick Vyner.
The Marquess sold the Nocton estate in 1889, but before he did so he financed the finishing touches to the furnishings of All Saints. These provoked many admiring comments, which sum up the spirit behind the building of Nocton's church, and indeed of the Victorian Gothic Revival it so admirably typifies. 'We cannot take our leave of Nocton', enthused the Lincoln Diocesan Architectural Society in 1872, 'without referring to the unstinting munificence which is evident in every part and detail, both of the church itself, and of its furniture. Nothing has been neglected or regarded as too insignificant to deserve reverential care. Would that there were more parish churches in our great diocese where the ruling principle was as markedly the determination not to give the Lord of that which doth cost them nothing'.
A walk round the church
All Saints church was commissioned by Sarah Albinia, Countess of Ripon; designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in imitation of the 'Early Decorated' style of c.1300; and built by Mr. W. Hudleston. It consists of a tower and spire, nave, and chancel with attached 'mortuary chapel' and vestry, all built between 1860 and 1863; and a south aisle and south porch, added in 1872. The entire church is constructed in best-quality Ancaster stone from mid-Lincolnshire, and roofed with brindled tiles from Broseley in Shropshire.
The church is usually approached from the north, via the spacious churchyard. This gives a good view of the nave and the lower chancel, whose windows (like many others in the church) are filled with 'plate tracery' imitating the style of c.1300. The tower, whose lowest stage forms an entrance porch, rises into an octagonal belfry, topped by a fine spire reaching a height of 120 feet. The belfry houses a peal of six bells, given by Lady Sarah in 1865: they were cast by Messrs. Mears at the Whitechapel Foundry. Their weights and inscriptions are as follows:
1. BLESSING. 4 cwt.; 2. HONOUR. 4 cwt, 1 qrt, 20 lbs.; 3. GLORY. 4 cwt, 3 qrs, 27 lbs.; 4. POWER. 5 cwt, 1 qrs, 24 lbs.; 5. BE UNTO HIM THAT SITTETH ON THE THRONE, 6 cwt, 2 qrs, 19 lbs.; 6. AND UNTO THE LAMB FOREVER, 8 cwt, 1 qrs, 11 lbs. Total weight 1 ton, 13 cwt, 3 qrs, 17 lbs.
The inscription comes from the last words of Handel's 'Messiah', and is an adaption of Revelations 7:12. Round the corner from the tower is the west window, its two pointed arches topped by a roundel, and then the south side of the church. This south side is quite different in appearance from its northern counterpart. Above the nave south aisle (added in 1872) is the clerestory (or 'clear storey') of repeated 'blank arches', containing four small windows which give extra light to the interior. Then comes the protruding vestry with its chimney, and the 'mortuary chapel' housing the tombs of the Earl of Ripon and his family.
In the churchyard near the porch lies the ancient parish font of Nocton, sole surviving relic of the mediaeval church of St. Peter demolished in 1773: an octagonal bowl resting on 'ballflower' ornaments, it probably dates from the 14th century. The fine vaulted porch itself was added in 1872. Its buttresses display statues of four saints: on the western buttress is St. John the Baptist in his camel-skin cloak; St. Peter, with his keys, stands left of the door; St. Paul, with his sword, on the right; and St. John the Evangelist on the eastern buttress. On the porch gable is an image of the Virgin and Child, and the inner door is flanked by pillars displaying some of the 'fine and rich carving' much praised when the church was built.
The interior of All Saints also provoked tremendous enthusiasm from the Victorians, and what now makes it especially interesting is that it remains almost completely unchanged since the day it was finished. Particularly attractive is the original decorative colour scheme; its dominant shades of maroon and red-brown are used for walls and wall-paintings, roofs, and even the heating radiators.
The nave is unusually lofty by comparison with its height and width. The fine timbered - roof of its main aisle takes the form of a trefoil or clover-leaf,and like the sloping roof of the south aisle is stencilled with a pattern of flowers. Such clover-leaf roofs are rare in English churches, and Scott probably borrowed the idea from one of the European buildings he often visited. From there, too, he derived the rectangular abaci of the clustered pillars of the south aisle - that is, the flat sections at the top of the pillars, between the band of intricate carving and the base of the arches. These were the one feature of All Saints criticized by the Victorians, who preferred English-style round abaci, and thought Scott's design 'foreign-looking'.
Immediately to the right of the entrance door is the marble monument of Dean Henry Hobart (see above, History), a typical early Victorian composition by G.P. White. Oddly enough, it does not show the Dean himself, but portrays his sorrowing wife (d.1867) and his daughter, the 'Miss Hobart' who designed All Saints' east window. To the left of the door, on the west wall of the south aisle, stands the late Georgian memorial of Henry's brother Robert, 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire d.1816 (see above, History), carved by William Bacon and transferred here from the Georgian church.
The west wall of the nave itself displays some of the best of the red-outline wall-paintings which are among All Saints' most delightful features: taken together, they form the most complete scheme of Victorian figure painting in any Lincolnshire church. To the left of the central war memorial is a charming Noah's Ark scene, including rabbits and some unusually amiable-looking snakes: to the right, the Israelites are seen landing after their miraculous Red Sea crossing, while Moses summons up the waves to drown their Egyptian pursuers. Above, flanking the window, are four saints, not all of them officially canonised. On the left stands Bishop Remigius, founder of Lincoln Cathedral; then comes St. Guthlacof Croyland, Saxon founder of the Fenland abbey; then St. Mary Magdalen; and on the right - most surprisingly - 'Little St. Hugh' of Lincoln, with cross and martyr's palm. Not to be confused with the sainted Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, this child was alleged to have been ritually crucified by Jews in 1255, a wicked slander which provoked a wholesale attack on the Jews of Lincoln. Venerated as a martyr, his body was later enshrined in Lincoln Cathedral, but the tales about him had long since been discredited when All Saints was built. This painting, indeed, is almost certainly the only post-Reformation representation of 'Little Saint Hugh' in an English church: how it came to be included in Nocton's decorative scheme is a mystery.
The west window in this wall is filled with Victorian stained glass by the firm of Clayton and Bell, commemorating the Countess of Ripon who built the church. It depicts the Old Testament figures Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hannah and Samuel, with scenes from their lives. Below and to the right stands the elaborate Victorian font of 1862, carved in Caen stone from Normandy with pillars of green Irish marble.
To see a piece of equally opulent display, though of a quite different style and period, pass through the nearby doors into the tower. There stands the towering monument of Sir William Ellys (d.1680), brought from the mediaeval church. Sir William was the great-uncle of the builder of Nocton Old Hall (see above, History) who erected this monument. Its Latin epitaph records that he died a bachelor at the age of 77, and that he was a Justice of the Common Pleas: but it does not mention that he had been a zealous Parliamentarian and Oliver Cromwell's Solicitor-General, achievements best forgotten by the time his memorial was set up during Charles II's reign.
The north wall of the nave is stencilled with pretty red-brown 'diaperwork', and its window display stained glass of early twentieth century date. That nearest the west commemorates Edward Howard, a churchwarden who died in 1922: it depicts Bishop St. Hugh of Lincoln, holding a model of Lincoln Minster, and St. Theodore, an early Archbishop of Canterbury, holding a model of Canterbury Cathedral. Below them are excellent pictures of Nocton's Georgian church (left) and Nocton Old Hall. The middle window is also interesting, though its subjects might not now be thought suitable for a church. It remembers L.B. Wray, killed while serving with the Tank Corps during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, the first occasion when tanks were used in significant numbers. Below figures of Saints Oswald and Etheldreda, it therefore depicts an early tank and a machine gun, and in the topmost light is the Tank Corps badge. Between this window and the next is a tablet to a steward of the Nocton estate, and then comes a window to Evangeline Dennis: proudly proclaiming her descent from one of the Pilgrim. Fathers, it shows the Mayflower sailing westwards, beneath figures of St. Aldan and the Venerable Beds.
Nearby stands the pulpit, a multicoloured Victorian extravaganza in Caen and Ancaster stone, with pillars of red Mansfield stone and green marble, a fine brass rail, and roundels depicting Christ, St. Peter and St. John. Above it is the chancel arch, surmounted by a great wall-painting of Christ in Glory, flanked by a concourse of angels, saints and prophets: among those on the left is King David with his harp, and on the right stands a very Victorian St. George, with armour and red cross banner. The arch itself has some splendid floral carving on its capitals.
Before passing through it, however, it is worth crossing to the south aisle. The easternmost window here commemorates Mary, daughter of vicar Edward Wilson: it thus depicts two Maries, the Virgin and St. Mary Magdalen, while in the bottom left hand corner are the heraldic arms of the Marquess of Ripon, including the stags of the Robinson family, the galley of their Campbell relations and the six-pointed star of the Hobarts of Nocton. Further west hangs the fine banner of the 'Loyal Ripon Lodge' of the Independent Order of Odd-fellows, the 'village club and friendly society' which provided Nocton folk with assistance before the days of state pensions and national insurance. Appropriately, then, the banner depicts the story of the Good Samaritan.
No expense was spared in decorating and furnishing the nave of All Saints: but the chancel was made more sumptuous and gorgeous yet, as befitted the most sacred part of the church. Along its north wall are ranged painted Apostles and (nearest the altar) Gospel-writers in the familiar red-brown colour scheme, interspersed with two stained glass -windows depicting (left) Old and (right) New Testament subjects relating to the Communion service. The paintings continue round onto the east wall, to show the Resurrection (left) and Ascension (right) of Christ, flanking the great east window above the altar. This window was designed by an amateur artist, Miss Hobart, daughter of the old Dean. It depicts the Multitude of All Saints gathered around Michael the Archangel, while beneath white-robed Elders cast their crowns before the Throne of God. Victorian commentators praised its 'freshness', but even they had to admit that its pale colouring was rather wishy-washy.
The same could certainly not be said of the 'reredos' or altar piece carved by Italian artists and given by the Marquess of Ripon. The focus of the chancel and indeed of the whole church, it centres upon a triptych of marble panels representing the Road to Calvary, the Crucifixion, and the Entombment of Christ. These are enshrined beneath gilded canopies with marble shafts, and on either side are canopied alabaster panels inscribed with serried ranks of kneeling saints and patriarchs. There can be no doubt at all that Lord Ripon thought the altar the most important item in the church, and the Communion service performed there its most important ceremony.
The altar itself (sadly damaged in a fire) stands raised on marbled steps. Before it, just within the elaborate brass altar rails, are perhaps the most amazing of All Saints' furnishings: a pair of gargantuan seven-branched candlesticks, almost twelve feet high and decked with brass angels. Yet amid all this splendour, it is comforting to note that practicalities are not entirely forgotten. For near the chancel north wall stands a heating radiator, discreetly painted maroon to merge with its surroundings.
The South Chapel
Though the altar is the focus of All Saints, the principal motive for building the church stands not far away - namely the tomb of the Earl of Ripon, alias 'Prosperity Robinson', and his Countess Sarah Albinia. Only the Earl, however, is portrayed on the tomb, which was designed by Scott, while the marble effigy was carved by Matthew Noble. Extraordinarily lifelike, it depicts the side-whiskered Lord Ripon in his Parliament robes, lying peacefully as if asleep.
The tomb is set just within the south or "mortuary chapel". Round its walls the scheme of wall-paintings continues with pictures of Saints Peter and Paul, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem (a particularly fine painting), and Christ instructing his Disciples to 'Suffer Little Children' to come to Him. This last is sadly appropriate, for many of those commemorated here died at tragically early ages. Among them is Eleanor, daughter of the Earl and Countess, whose memorial (surmounted by a lily for purity) is set down on the chapel south wall. She died aged 11 in 1826, 'being then the only child of her parents and one of great promise': with her is commemorated her baby brother Hobart Frederick, who died at the age of two days.
The east window of the chapel, designed by Miss Hobart, also remembers tragedies within the family of Nocton's squires. It commemorates and portrays her two sisters, likewise daughters of Dean Hobart: Albinia Mary, who died aged 16; and Maria, who died aged 30, shown holding the baby who soon afterwards followed her to the grave. Within the vestry, however, is a rather more cheerful remembrance of childhood, clearly visible through the iron screen. This is the memorial of Katherine 'Nanny' Field, Dean Hobart's beloved nurse: it was erected by the Dean himself, 'For time could not efface the earliest impressions of his youth !!'.
Though All Saints is such a fine and beautiful example of a Victorian estate Church, it is no mere museum. It remains a living place of worship, part of the group parish of Nocton, Dunston and Potterhanworth, and services are held here regularly. You are most welcome to attend them.
This guide draws heavily on a more detailed work: ‘Some Notes for a History of Nocton’, written by Kate Norgate and MH Footman in 1900. Though long out of print, copies can be consulted in the Local History room of Lincoln Reference Library. I should also like to extend grateful thanks to Canon Rodger, Vicar of Nocton; to Mrs. Redshaw of Nocton and to Miss Hilary Healey for assistance in compiling this guide.
Charles Kightly, Diocesan Tourism Consultant: May 1991
Website for All Saints, Nocton: http://www.allsaintsnocton.org.uk/index.htm