A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
During the latter part of the nineteenth century Catholic missions had grown up in places to the north of Cheltenham. The Marquis de Lys opened St Joseph’s Chapel close to his home at the Mythe, Tewkesbury, and a new church was built at Chipping Campden in 1891 by the Noel Family. In 1886 the Ashton-Case Family opened their Chapel of Our Lady and St Augustine at Beckford Hall. However, all of these new places of worship were situated at some distance from Cheltenham.
In 1890 Stuart and Elizabeth Forster purchased Postlip Hall which is situated in a valley on the edge of Cleeve Hill. Forster was a London barrister and he soon became a Gloucestershire magistrate. Elizabeth Marie Rudolpha Forster had been received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1887. She was the adopted daughter of Mr. E.L.S. Benzon, a wealthy businessman who had left her a legacy of £100,000. His son, known as the ‘Jubilee Plunger, squandered some £250,000 of his inheritance on the turf during the Golden Jubilee Year of 1887.
During the year 1891 the Forsters restored the dilapidated Norman Chapel, reputedly founded by William de Solers c. 1139, which was situated in their grounds. For several centuries it had been used as an agricultural building and was, by this time, partially roofless. Middleton, Prothero and Phillott were the supervising architects, and Mr. Collins of Tewkesbury and his foreman Mr. Gill did the work. A report of the work appeared in the Gloucester Journal for 20th June 1891:
‘The restoration has been carried out by Mr. Collins, Tewkesbury, under the supervision of Messrs. Middleton, Prothero and Phillot, Cheltenham. The principal work effected is the erection of a Sacristy on the north side, and other particulars of the general repairs are the re-tiling of the Sanctuary, the re-flooring (with wood blocks), and the new tracery in the West Window. The Norman altar (designed by Mr. Forster) is of Seton stone, and is the work of Mr. A.B. Wall of Cheltenham, who also executed the statuary on either side, representing respectively the Blessed Virgin and the Sacred Heart. A figure of the patron saint of the church (St. James) is also seen over the presbytery (adjoining Postlip Hall), and was included in Mr. Wall’s commission.
The solemn re-opening on 16th June 1891 was performed by the Bishop of Clifton, Dr William Clifford, assisted by Father Robert Aloysius Wilkinson O.S.B., the Rector of St Gregory’s Church in Cheltenham. St James’s Chapel was only the third medieval church in England to revert to Catholic usage so the events at Postlip were seen to be of national interest and to be something of a triumph for the local Catholic community.
We find a further newspaper report:
‘The ceremony of consecration was performed by the Hon. and Right Rev. William Clifford D.D., Bishop of Clifton, who attended by a large body of clergy and acolytes, moved in procession from the presbytery to perform the act of consecration. In accordance with the symbolic ritual of the Roman Church, the walls of the edifice were sprinkled in every part, externally and internally, with holy water, and the prayers peculiar to the consecration service were intoned before the altar. Mass was then sung, the Bishop being celebrant, the Rev. R.A. Wilkinson O.S.B., assistant priest, the Rev. Edmund Tunny O.S.B., Deacon and the Rev. Sadoc Silvester O.P. (Stroud) Sub-deacon. The Rev. Canon Russell of Clifton acted as master of ceremonies, and other clergy present were the Right Rev. Abbot O’Gorman D.D., O.S.B., the Rev Wilfrid Lescher O.P. (Prior of Woodchester), the Rev. R. Moss, Rev. D. Sweeney O.S.B. (Malvern), Rev. Willibrord O.S.F. (Bristol), Revs R. Disano and C. Brady C.P. (Broadway), Rev J. O’Shaughnessy (Cirencester), Rev. B. Lloyd (Campden) and the Rev. H. Owens, was also present, and engaged in general duties connected with the service. Under the conductorship of the Rev. A.M. Wilson O.S.B., Gounod’s “Messe Solemnelle” was given by the choir of St. Gregory’s Cheltenham (slightly augmented), accompanied by American organ, at which Miss Hawkins presided, and a string band of some 16 performers. Madame Rotunda sang the Benedictus, and Mr. Edney, the Sanctus. The Rev. Dr. Sullivan of London, preached, his text being, “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.”
The Pontifical High Mass was followed by a luncheon given by the Forsters for the clergy and local Catholic nobility during which a letter of congratulations was read from the ailing Cardinal Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster. Later in the afternoon Solemn Benediction was given by Dr. Clifford culminating in a ‘Te Deum’
Mrs Forster separated from her husband but continued to live at Postlip Hall with her chaplain, Monsignor J.H. Owens. She utilized her wealth ‘in the most liberal and beneficient manner more especially, for many years past, in any direction which could tend to the progress of the Roman Catholic Church in the district or the happiness or well-being of its members.’ She was later described as ‘the soul of kindness and hospitality.’ Clearly she supported local charities and is remembered affectionately for arranging a party at Christmas for local Catholics with a visit organized to the Cheltenham pantomime. She also hosted ‘conversaziones’ with Monsignor Owens for the Catholics of Cheltenham, music being a special feature of these occasions. She was a member of Miss Alice Gardiner’s Russian Balalaika Orchestra and in later years organised a concert at the Rising Sun Hotel by the orchestra in aid of Belgian refugees.
There is some evidence that Mrs. Forster was in discussion with the Cistercian monks of Lerins about establishing a monastery at Postlip.
In August 1895 the house known as ‘Wayside’ in Mill Lane, Prestbury, was purchased with the object of establishing a mission there served from St. Gregory’s. The house was being constructed by a Mr. Balcomb or Balcombe who was a plumber, house decorator and builder. He was for some time the organist at St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Prestbury and he lived at Craven House in the centre of the village. He was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1883 and, as a result of certain financial difficulties, he built the house, now known as Wayside, for his own occupation. For some reason just before its completion was in sight he decided to sell the new property to Father Wilkinson. Mrs Healy Thompson, aunt of the poet, Francis Thompson, made a substantial donation towards the cost of adapting the house into a chapel.
On 18th December 1895 Father Wilkinson opened the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel with a celebration of Low Mass. The new chapel only accommodated about fifty persons and it was plainly furnished, ‘but redeemed from severity by two beautifully pained panels in the reredos, which had been bought in Bruges, one representing the Virgin, and the other Our Saviour revealing the Sacred Heart’ (Cheltenham Free Press).
The chapel’s life was brief as it was closed in 1902 probably because of the small number of Catholics in the Prestbury area and also the close proximity of Postlip Chapel. Some of the windows in the house still contain stained glass and on the exterior of the building is a niche which formerly contained a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, executed at Mr. Wall’s studio.
Returning to events at Postlip, Monsignor Owens was the priest there for twenty years having previously been a Jesuit. He seems to have involved himself with life in Cheltenham and served on various committees. His death came on 12th June 1912 at Twyford Abbey, London, a Catholic nursing home, and he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.
New Zealand Tablet, 30th January 1913:
‘ENGLAND DEATH OF MONSIGNOR. The death occurred some time ago of the Very Rev. Mgr. J. H. Owens, of the Clifton diocese, and brother of Sister Alphonsus, 0.5.D., of Rosary Convent, Oamaru. Prior to the interment Solemn Requiem Mass was celebrated in the Alexian Brothers’ Chapel at Twyford Abbey, Willesden. The funeral took place subsequently to Kensal Green Cemetery, the coffin being borne to the grave by the Brothers, as is customary. Monsignor Owens, although of Irish extraction, was born at Dover. He had travelled a great deal and was familiar with, the state of the Church in nearly every country, especially throughout the Continent of Europe. He had an intimate knowledge of many of the details of life in the higher ecclesiastical and ruling circles of Europe. He was man of polished manner and engaging conversation, and made many friends in the course of his priestly career. His appreciation of his sacred calling was intense, and for many years he acted as chaplain at Postlip Hall, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, travelling also in that capacity both in Great Britain and Ireland and on the Continent. He was appointed Hon. Privy Chamberlain to the Holy Father in 1904.’
In about 1913 Mrs. Forster left Postlip for ‘Petra’ on Cleeve Hill but she continued to use her ancient chapel there. The new property, formerly called ‘Upmeads’, was situated next to the Rising Sun Hotel and the domestic chapel there was turned into a house chapel. We know that in 1913 St Peter’s Cleeve Hill together with St James’s Postlip were both served by Father W.A. Philipson. He was succeeded by Father Wilfred George Palmer whose accommodation was ‘The Towers’, a house adjoining ‘Petra’.
In 1915 Mrs Forster provided money for the establishment of a mission at Winchcombe and the former Chandos Grammar School was purchased as a church. St Nicholas’s Church, Winchcombe, was due to open on Easter Sunday 1915 and, in preparation, Father Palmer and Sergeant O’Rouke went on Good Friday to ‘Petra’ to collect items for the new chapel. Father Palmer and his companion were walking down the lane between the Rising Sun and the house when they smelt burning. The priest passed the drawing room window on his way to collect a ladder from the conservatory and he saw flames leaping from the fireplace. He went to investigate and found Mrs. Forster lying on the floor with her head on the bar of the grate. He later informed the inquest that her head was burnt to a cinder and her torso was on fire too.
It would seem that Mrs. Forster had previously suffered a number of heart attacks and had collapsed when rising from her chair. It was thought that she was already unconscious when her head hit the bar of the grate and that she therefore suffered no pain. She was described as a devout Catholic, a most generous benefactor to the poor and, as a friend stated, a “lady bountiful” to all, “without regard to creed or class” She was buried at Cheltenham cemetery.
Tablet 10th April 1915:
‘We likewise regret to record the death, under tragic circumstances, of Mrs. Elizabeth Marie R. Forster, of Petra, Cleeve Hill, near Cheltenham, and Postlip Hall, Winchcombe. Mrs. Forster had recently suffered from heart failure, and on Good Friday, while in her drawing-room, seems to have fallen forward into the open fire-place during a fainting seizure. Her charred body was discovered by Father Palmer, her chaplain. Mrs. Forster was the adopted daughter of the late Mr. Benzon, who bequeathed to her a portion of the large fortune which was otherwise a byword in the spending of it by her foster-brother. Born in Rome, she was received into the Church in 1887, ten years after her marriage with Mr. Stuart Forster, a barrister-at-law and a magistrate. Having bought the Manor of Postlip, in Gloucestershire, she there restored, in 189o, the beautiful twelfth-century chapel of St. James the Apostle, and this, indeed, was only one among her several beneficences as a church builder or restorer’.
The opening of the church at Winchcombe was postponed for a fortnight by which time Mr. Forster had expressed his determination to continue to support Father Palmer and the local Catholic mission. However, the chapel at ‘Petra’ was closed and the chapel at Postlip ceased to be used regularly for Mass. Following the death of Mrs. Forster the Hall was sold but the chapel was retained and given to the Diocese of Clifton, with right of access around the boundary.
Unfortunately, little was done to maintain either the chapel or the access route for many years but during the late 1980s a group of Friends was formed and first maintenance and then restoration work followed during the early 1990’s. The architect was John Frederick George Sparrow of Stratton, Davis and Yates.
Special celebrations from this period include the following:
At 3.30pm on Sunday 16th June 1991 a special Solemn Mass was celebrated at Postlip to mark the Centenary.
On Friday 21st October 1994, to mark the completion of the restoration work, the Chapel was re-dedicated by Monsignor William Mitchell, the Vicar-General. He wrote to me at seminary, “The Service took the form of a very simple re-dedication of the Chapel, not a Mass. It went very well, and afterwards we shared a buffet lunch in the big house, where a huge log-fire contributed to the general good feeling. The Chapel itself was looking good, and with Fr Brennan’s extra touches with flowers and candles it rose to the occasion.”
My celebration of a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit at Postlip Chapel on Saturday 10th December 1995 was an occasion of immense personal joy.