A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
Thomas Meyrick M.A.
With thanks to Julian Orbach for kindly supplying the photographs
In 1860, William Henry Lowder was appointed as curate of Bisley. He had previously worked as an architect and was the brother of Father Charles Lowder the famous Vicar of St Peter’s London Dock. The Vicar of Bisley, Thomas Keble, used his new curate to supervise the restoration of All Saints’ Church and, as a result, the body of the ancient parish church was pulled down and a virtually new one erected, done in the face of considerable local opposition.
However, the bowl of the font, of late Norman work, had been found back in 1850 and, at that time, it was then placed, inverted, on the top of a well cover. As part of Lowder’s scheme it was decided to restore the ancient font to its proper place within the Church. In 1937, local historian, Mary Rudd, took up the story:
‘Of the pedestal of the font it is imperative to state that it is absolutely modern, and it was carved by the Rev. T. Meyrick of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in imitation of old work. As he was an amateur in sculpture, given a piece of similar stone he undertook to produce something that would not clash with the original work, and he chose the subjects of the Good Shepherd and the Disciples drawing the net with fishes. His imitation of ancient work has been so successful as to deceive many experts.’
She added in a footnote:
‘This was attested by Canon Keble and his daughter in the Parish Magazine in 1897. The stonemason who prepared the stone for Mr. Meyrick, is still living in Bisley (1933).’
So, we might wonder, who was Thomas Meyrick and what may have led Lowder and the Kebles to choose him as their sculptor? To answer the second part of the question we can see that he had some prior experience as we can identify two other fonts that he had already been involved with. The first was at Chilton Foliat in Wiltshire where the church’s mid nineteenth century restoration has been outlined on the Community History website provided by Wiltshire County Council:
‘In 1845 further restoration took place to plans by Benjamin Ferrey, incorporating a wider aisle, new vestry and east window; the box pews were replaced by open pews and the gallery was rebuilt. The pew ends date from 1845 but the old box pews were adapted to form their backs; marks of the original fixings may be seen below the seats. The font dates from the 1850s and was designed by the Rev. Thomas Meyrick. The original 13th century font is now in the church of St. Thomas at Southwick, near Trowbridge.’
The second is close by, at Ramsbury, where there is the unusual font in Holy Cross Church. Dismissed by C.E. Ponting as merely ‘amateur work,’ the shaft was carved and then the whole font cleaned and fixed at Thomas’s own expense. This has been summarised in the Ramsbury section of the Victoria County History for Wiltshire:
‘The bowl of the font, of stone carved in the shape of a pineapple, was possibly an ornament on a gateway of Ramsbury Manor replaced c. 1775. The base was carved by Thomas Meyrick c. 1842’
Having identified three examples of his work, we come to our first question – who was Thomas Meyrick? He was born on 12th October 1817, fourth son of the Reverend Arthur Meyrick M.A. (1786-1855) and his wife, Mary Anne, nee Foxton (-1866). Thomas was baptised at Ramsbury on 1st January 1818 by his uncle, the Reverend Edward Graves Meyrick (1780-1839), who was the Vicar. Thomas’s father, Arthur Meyrick, had studied at Trinity, Oxford, and was Vicar of Urchfont from 1811 until 1838. In later years he lived in the Village Ramsbury as a ‘Clerk without cure of souls’. The Meyrick Family included many clerics and Thomas’s grandfather was for some years Vicar of Ramsbury before his son succeeded to the living.
Thomas studied at Corpus Christi, Oxford, matriculating on 27th February 1835, aged seventeen. He gained his B.A. in 1838 with a First in Classics and his M.A. in 1841. He was a scholar from 1833 to 1845 and, after his graduation, he stayed on in Oxford and became a popular private tutor. To date I have found no evidence for him being ordained in the Church of England.
His cousin, the Reverend Frederick Meyrick, when writing his Memoirs, refers to Thomas Meyrick and outlines his life after graduation:
‘In 1844, during my ﬁrst year of residence as an under graduate, I received a note from the Rev. R. G. Macmullen of Corpus Christi College, saying that my cousin was very ill. Going to see him, I found him in a state of great mental excitement, and hardly master of himself. He said that he wished to join the Church of Rome but was bound by a promise to Newman not to do so. I went to Littlemore, where Newman was then living, to consult him, and he gave me a letter for my cousin, in which he said that he could not authorize his secession, but he relieved him from the obligation of any promise made to him. Recovering to a certain degree, my cousin went to his home to ask his father’ s permission to become a Romanist. His father, an old Tory Protestant parson, said that to save him from losing his mind (which appeared likely from his excitement)’ he would give the leave, though if it had been to save his life, he would not.’
Soon afterwards Thomas was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and went to study at Prior Park College at Bath. He received a visit from Frederick whilst he was studying there. Thomas decided to join the Jesuits and, by the time of the 1851 census, he had been ordained a Roman Catholic priest and was studying at St Beuno’s, a Jesuit College in in the historic county of Flintshire. Ten years later he was Professor of Rhetoric at Stonyhurst, the Jesuit public school. In 1878 Thomas produced his ‘Lives of the Early Popes,’ and dedicated the publication to William Herbert, Esquire, of Clytha, Monmouthshire, under whose roof it was written. The title page refers to the author’s earlier work, ‘Life of St Wenefred.’ Clytha Park is situated close to Llanarth Court, with its early Catholic chapel, so Thomas was probably acting as the family chaplain.
Thomas’s time with the Jesuits is outlined by Frederick and does not make pleasant reading:
‘Later on he joined the Jesuits, and became extravagantly attached to the worship of St. Mary. But ever since the excitement that he underwent at the time of his secession he had been liable to temporary ﬁts of deep depression, followed sometimes by unusually high spirits. The Jesuits, wearied with his distressed and variable bearing, sent him to an asylum. The asylum was very ill-managed in respect to the moral control exercised over the patients, and it was governed by great violence. On one occasion my cousin tried to escape, and, being caught, was brought back and placed in a padded room with a strong man, who knocked him down and then provoked him to ﬁght, knocking him down every time that he stood up, till ‘the devil of insubordination was supposed to be subdued in him.
On a later occasion he succeeded in escaping; and having hidden himself under the willows that fringe the Thames at Putney during the day, he set off as soon as it was dark and walked all the way to Wiltshire, and begged his brother to take him in and protect him.
Indignant and angry with the Jesuits, he broke off from them, and wrote a pamphlet (printed, but not published called ‘My Imprisonings’; or, ‘Why I left the Jesuits’. Time passed, and an imagination suggested itself to him that he had committed a sin in leaving the Jesuits having once been enrolled among them and taken oaths of obedience. He again joined them, but once more the depression and excitement seized him, and he was sent by the Jesuits to an asylum in Ireland, from which he was delivered by the Inspector of Asylums. After this he made a solemn vow never to rejoin the Jesuits, and he went to live in a lodging house at Bournemouth, refusing either to leave the Roman Church or to see a Roman priest, or to go near the Roman or the English Church. Thus many years passed.
At length he had a partial recovery, and again officiated as a Roman priest; the recovery was not complete, and, indignant at not receiving all his ‘faculties,’ he went to Rome in 1899 for redress, at the age of eighty-two, and was there consigned to the care of some charitable nuns, who looked after him until his death in 1903. Few know the wrench that it was to those who left the Church of England for Rome before Newman’s secession in 1845 had made it easier to do so. Thomas Meyrick never recovered from it.’
The Reverend Thomas Meyrick of 2 Beaumont Terrace, Bournemouth, died on 24th September 1903, at the Fate-Bene-asylum Fratri, Bressia, Italy.
Returning to the fonts – why was a Jesuit convert priest producing carvings for Chilton Foliat during the 1850s and at Bisley in 1862? One can only presume that this was done at the request of family and friends and was perhaps even seen as being therapeutic for his troubled soul. The work at Ramsbury is more understandable as Thomas was, at that time, still an Anglican and his family were much involved with Holy Cross Church.
Richard Barton, December 2019