A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
Sharpness Chapel: An Episode
By Jane Bradshaw (1989)
I first became interested in the Catholic chapel at Sharpness when I was looking at the list of documents held at Bristol Record Office for the Diocese of Clifton. I was actually looking for something about Thornbury, but the nearest I could get was in box 27, referring to Stroud and district, where one heading read ‘Sharpness: letters, papers and accounts’. It had not even occurred to me that Sharpness, a small town which grew up around the docks constructed at the Severn end of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal which was opened in 1827, had ever had any post-Reformation Catholic history. Still, there it was, and Sharpness seemed the nearest I was going to get to Thornbury, so I asked for Box 27, and the sad little episode of the Catholic chapel at Sharpness unfolded itself, as seen from the point of view of its originator and benefactress, Mrs Mary Gifford.
Mrs Gifford was the wife of Edgar Berkeley Gifford, who was the third son of Baron Gifford of St. Leonard’s in Devon. She married him in 1879 – the marriage is recorded in the Woodchester registers – when he was twenty-two. Perhaps she was older than he, as she is described on the marriage certificate as ‘Maria Booth de Ozleworth’, and Burke’s ‘Peerage’ of 1899 tells us that she was the daughter of John Osborne Esq., Q.C. and the widow of Thomas Booth of West Ashby Manor in Lincoln. Most of the Sharpness material in the Record Office is her correspondence with Bishop Clifford about Sharpness. The first letter that we have is dated 11 February 1881, and enclosed a letter from Canon J.J. Clarke to the Bishop. She writes from Pedington Manor Farm, Berkeley, to say that there are thirty to forty Catholics at or within reach of Sharpness, including children, and she thinks there would be support for a Catholic chapel at Sharpness.
To find Bishop Clifford’s end of the correspondence means working in the Diocesan Archives at Bishop’s House, and I have to admit that I have not yet matched up all the letters and diary entries. The Bishop’s reply I have not traced, but it seems to have been encouraging. At all events, on 9th July terms were proposed by Bishop Clifford to Mrs Gifford for the running costs of the chapel. The suggestion is that a chapel should be rented and furnished and a priest provided from Bristol. The costs of the priest’s journey, given very precisely as four shillings and three pence, his salary for coming (twelve to fourteen shillings a journey, that is about £30 to £35 a year) and his board and lodging (‘meals on Sunday and a bed on Saturday and Sunday’) are to be found by the congregation at Sharpness. However, any idea of renting a building seems to have been changed, for a year later (9 March 1882) Mrs Gifford is writing to the Bishop thanking him for returning ‘the plans of the church’, and asking that it should be dedicated to Our Lady, Star of the Sea. The costs allowed are to be £40 for the land and £130 for the building, and this is to be made up to £200 to allow for extra costs. Stone, King, the Bath solicitors used by the Clifton diocese, agreed to advance the money to the diocese to be repaid over the next five years. The financial transactions are not very easy to sort out. The money was repaid to Stone, King by Bishop Clifford in 1883. Mrs Gifford paid for the whole of the chapel herself once it was opened, but I have not found a formal receipt, and in the light of subsequent events I begin to wonder whether there ever was one. The nearest thing that I have yet found are some rough notes in Bishop Clifford’s writing indicating that Mrs Gifford paid the full cost of the land, the building and the furnishings in October 1885.
The estimate of £200, as is the way with estimates, proved over-optimistic. In July of the same year, Austin King of Stone, King writes to the Bishop about the chapel, saying that the owner of the land, an Alfred Cole, has agreed to sell the land for £60 (his original price had been £150) and the cost of building the chapel will be £200. There will be a ‘school or cottage’ behind. He adds that the trade in Sharpness Docks is improving, and in August Mrs Gifford, who is delighted at the prospect of having the chapel, tells the Bishop that petrol and chemical works are to be built at Sharpness.
The next excitement is in May 1883 when the Crown Inn at Newport comes up for sale. Mrs Gifford writes to the Bishop, saying that it would cost £250, and a further £250 to put it in order. She is very keen to have the Franciscans there, and this was at the time when the Franciscans were contemplating a move from Clifton. I cannot resist quoting fro Mrs Gifford’s letter:
‘I am sure it would do when put in order – if we can only get it without anyone’s knowing what it is wanted for as Newport is a dreadfully Protestant place and there is a rich man (my brother-in-law) at the big house of the place who would I know give Ballinger anything for it rather than have such a horror! As a monastery near him.’
Bishop Clifford was decidedly interested and records in his diary that he discussed the matter with the Franciscan Father Provincial, who was willing to make enquiries but said nothing could be settled until it was discussed the next month with the Definitors in France. In June it was arranged that the Crown would be bought by the Franciscans and they would serve Sharpness, though this last was not necessarily to be a permanent arrangement. But in the end nothing came of it and the Franciscans went to Portishead.
On 22 December 1883, Bishop Clifford of Clifton blessed and opened the new chapel at Newtown, Sharpness. The chapel, according to the Dursley, Berkeley and Sharpness Gazette for 29 December, was built ‘for the accommodation of seamen visiting the port and the Catholic residents of the neighbourhood’. It was a plain structure of brick, with chairs to take about sixty people. The Gazette adds somewhat enigmatically, ‘The altar and the appendages are thoroughly characteristic of the Catholic Faith’. The congregation is described by Bishop Clifford in his diary as ‘over twenty persons … mostly Catholics’. Was Mrs Gifford’s ‘thirty to forty Catholics’ rather hopeful? Among them, the Gazette records, were Mrs Earl of Ozleworth and the Hon. Mrs E.B. Gifford. It was thanks to Mrs Gifford that the chapel had been built and opened at all, but its history as a Catholic Mission in the Berkeley Vale was to be shorter and sadder than she hoped.
The brutal fact seems to have been that the local Catholic population could not support such a venture. The ‘thirty to forty Catholics including children’ at Sharpness does seem highly unlikely, though I am willing to be corrected by anyone who may know more about it than I do. The collection of the money to maintain the chapel was put in the hands of a Signor Montana, who was to hand what was collected both from local Catholics and also from the ships using the docks over to Mrs. Gifford, who was to put it in the savings bank. A collection book survives, endorsed by Bishop Clifford, with the entries in Italian.
Signor Montana seems to have borne the heat and burden of the day to day – or rather week to week – organisation of the chapel. Bishop Clifford, in his diary entry about the opening and blessing of the chapel, records methodically that the ‘chalice, ciborium and all vestments are to be kept at Signor Montana’s’ who will also ‘lodge and feed the priest (who was to begin with a Franciscan from Clifton) Saturday night and Sunday’. He adds that ‘Mrs Rolt’s milkman will drive the priest to Berkeley Road Station on Sunday evening’. (One of the witnesses to the Gifford’s wedding seems to have been called Rolt).
Mrs Gifford, though, was the chief benefactress of the chapel. She bought furnishings for the altar from Austen and Oates at Park Street, Bristol, and further church furniture from Jones and Willis of Birmingham. She also provided for the weekly cleaning of the chapel, and insisted on having it heated. (‘Please have good warming appliances’, she wrote to the Bishop, ‘as it will make very little difference to the annual expense and so much in the comfort of the congregation and also prevents the things getting spoiled by damp … ‘Duly, on 17 May 1883, the item ’14 weeks’ coal at 6d a week’ appears in the expense accounts for Sharpness chapel).
Staffing the chapel became difficult when the Franciscans went to Portishead and in June 1884 it was agreed that the Dominicans from Woodchester should take over and also be responsible for the finances. Mrs Gifford wrote to Bishop Clifford in July that year, saying that the mission was ‘again flourishing’ and that Father Gabriel Whittaker ‘takes great pains’. However, a Father Bernard is more often at Sharpness, and Mrs Gifford does not seem to have got on with him. In July 1885 she writes to the Bishop saying that the Dominicans are leaving Sharpness. ‘I cannot regret it’, she says, ‘as it will clear the way without any difficulty for anyone else to come’, and she again says how much she would like the Franciscans to come to Newport, where the Crown Inn is still available. ‘So it is possible’, she says, ‘and if you give me leave to try my best, the great disagreeable of clashing with the Dominicans is at an end, which would be a great help’. From Newport the Franciscans could start missions ‘in Berkeley, Dursley, Wotton-under-Edge, Thornbury and Alveston, all of which much need them, don’t they?’ she adds.
Mrs Gifford was neither the first nor the last person to find the Dominicans somewhat trying. However, the Franciscans were not available, and Bishop Clifford decided to act decisively. His diary for 13 July 1885, eight days after Mrs Gifford’s appeal, tells us that he visited her at Actree House in Berkeley, where she and her husband had moved the previous years, and ‘arranged for her to take charge of the chapel things belonging to Sharpness and keep the keys of the chapel which is to be shut up’. The chapel, in fact, drifted on for another three-and-a-half years, being after January 1887 served from St Peter’s Gloucester by Canon Barron who said Mass there occasionally. But Mrs Gifford played no part in the management of the chapel at this stage, and in July 1888 she wrote to the Bishop:
‘A short time ago I was told that the whole place both inside and out is in a most deplorable condition and the people inclined to be rather mischievous, which is not much to be wondered at … would it not be best, as you suggested to me some time ago, that the chapel and land should be disposed of?’
In December 1888 the deed was finally done. Mrs Gifford collected the vestments, altar stone and other items and took them to her house, returning the vestments to the Franciscan nuns at Woodchester and the chalice to the Bishop. The altar stone and altar linen she intends to give to Lady Mainstone for her new Chapel (where?). She wrote to the Bishop that ‘as the whole affair was such an utter failure the gifts ought to go back to the kind donors’. At the time she wrote, she felt that the Bishop needed reminding that the money for the chapel, which the diocese was now proposing to sell, was in fact hers. I am afraid that at this point I suspected the diocese of sharp practice, but an entry in Bishop Clifford’s diary for 15 December 1888 makes it clear that this was not the case:
‘Sharpness. Having decided to sell the property and pay over the proceeds to Mrs Gifford who advanced the whole of the money and who wishes to spend it on Stroud Convent Church. I have written to instruct King.’
Quite why Mrs Gifford had to remind the Bishop that she should be repaid I am not clear, unless, as I suggested earlier, her payment to the Bishop was somehow never recorded, and as he was away at the time of the sale of the chapel there was a misunderstanding. Three days after her letter reminding the Bishop that the chapel actually belongs to her, she writes again, saying, ‘I can see now plainly that I have put you in a false position regarding the ownership and I greatly regret having done so’, but adds that examination of the records will show that she gave all the money. Finally, in the closing account for Sharpness, on 11 December 1888, Mrs Gifford’s generosity is properly recorded. Of the £375.12.6d paid for the building, furnishing and running of Sharpness chapel, she had given £335.17s.6d.
Bishop Clifford’s diary entry for 15 December adds that the chapel is empty apart from chairs, hassocks and about twelve lamps, and that the keys are now with one of the principal Dock Clerks, a Mr Quirk of 11. Dock Row, who may help with the sale. The chapel was finally sold to a Mr. Browne for £84.6s.6d.
At this point my researches gave up. But the indefatigable Richard Barton of the Gloucestershire and North Avon Catholic History Society discovered that far from coming to an untimely end, Sharpness chapel (of Our Lady, Star of the Sea?) is still very much in use. It is now St Andrew’s Anglican church at Sharpness. It is described as a plain brick building with a slate roof. The interior measures sone 72’ x 21’. As far as I could tell when I visited it, the original ‘west’ window still exists, though the ‘east’ window has been boarded over and hidden by a curtain, in front of which is the altar and reredos. The ‘west’ wall is now causing problems, a lady doing the flowers told us, and the congregation is having to decide what to do about it. Quite how the chapel came into Anglican hands I am hoping to find out one day. Did ‘Mr Browne’ buy it for the Church of England, or is it more complicated than that.
Why did Sharpness fail? It is interesting to compare its history with that of two short-lived Berkeley Vale missions – those at Berkeley Power Station and Oldbury Power Station when they were built. At Oldbury (and I am told the same was true at Berkeley) so many of the men building the place were Irish that the C.E.G.B. made a building available for Mass and a resident priest, Father Joseph Hogan, was sent from Ireland. My neighbour in Oldbury can remember going to Mass at the power station when she first moved to Oldbury. In its most flourishing times there were two Masses on a Sunday morning and one in the evening, and a Mass every weekday, together with Confessions before all Masses and from 5 to 6.30 on a Saturday. My neighbour remembers the building as having also been a cinema, and that the Sunday Masses were regularly packed. As the need for outside workers came to an end, the mission was gradually closed down, being run for a short time from Thornbury before being closed down altogether.
In this case the mission was opened to serve a particular need, not as at Sharpness to fulfil the vague expectation that Sharpness’s own local Catholic population plus the shifting one from the ships in the docks would be sufficient to maintain it. The Oldbury mission had the financial backing of the C.E.G.B. construction workers, not the uncertain one of a local lady, comparatively well off but not entirely her own mistress in financial affairs. And the greatest advantage of all: Oldbury had a resident priest, and did not have to rely on someone travelling the eighteen miles or so from Bristol or even the fifteen or sixteen miles from Woodchester.
Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that to succeed a mission has to have financial backing, a sufficiently large Catholic population to provide both that backing and the necessary congregation, and a nearby priest who can give the younf mission the tender loving care it needs to get established. Sharpness failed on all three counts, and perhaps the most revealing moment in Mrs Gifford’s letters is when she says in her letter of July 1885 that she wants the Franciscans to come back: ‘the chapel having become almost “my private chapel”.’ Indeed it was, as the accounts show, but that was not enough, unfortunately, to ensure its survival.
Additional Note: Lady Mary Gifford of Bourne Stream, North Nibley, died on 15th August 1913, aged 72 years, and she is buried in North Nibley Cemetery.
This article was first published in South Western Catholic History, No. 7, 1989, and it is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Jane Bradshaw.
See also ‘Sharpness Union Chapel’:
PHOTOGRAPHS OF ST ANDREW’S CHURCH, SHARPNESS, FORMERLY THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHAPEL OF OUR LADY STAR OF THE SEA, PRIOR TO THE OPENING OF THE NEW CHURCH IN 1992.