A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
In August 1895 the house known as ‘Wayside’ in Mill Lane, Prestbury, was purchased with the object of establishing a Catholic mission in the village which would be served from St. Gregory’s Benedictine Priory in Cheltenham. At the time the house was being constructed by a William Balcombe of Craven House in the High Street. For some years Balcombe was also the Organist at St. Mary’s Parish Church in Prestbury but he had been received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1883 so let us first consider what was the background was to his conversion.
The Reverend John Edwards (later Bagot de le Bere) came to Prestbury as Vicar in 1860 from his former post as curate at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge. St Paul’s was one of the first churches to put into practice in a parish, the principles of the Oxford Movement. At Prestbury he found the church to be in poor state of repair cluttered with pews and galleries. A finger organ in the chancel obscured the altar. He restored the church to accord with Tractarian principles – removed the gallery, restored the Chancel and greatly enhanced the Sanctuary and High Altar. This was completed by 1868 and from then on, Prestbury became a noted centre for Anglo Catholicism with vestments, incense, altar lights, processional candles and daily Eucharist. Many of the leading Anglo-Catholic clergy preached and celebrated there and Father Edwards played a very active role in the Catholic Movement in the Church of England. Father Edwards was present at Newman’s investiture as Cardinal in 1879 and was among the more militant members of the English Church Union yet remained faithful to the Book of Common Prayer. Father Edward’s daughter became a Member of the Community of the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor, as Sister Louisa Mary.
In 1866, when Deep Street Congregational Church was opened in competition to St Mary’s, it was founded in the belief that:
‘the ritualism which now obtains in many of the churches is nothing short of popery in the midst of Protestantism. We feel grateful to God that we have been privileged to afford to true hearted protestants the opportunity of worshipping in accord with their own principles’
In the same year, the infamous Arnold Harris Mathew attended St Mary’s Prestbury whilst he was a pupil at Cheltenham College and he said, years later, that he hardly understood the difference between the liturgy then celebrated at St Mary’s and that of the Roman Catholic Church of St Gregory.
Father Edwards’ assistant curate, Rev George Angus, born into Scottish Presbyterianism, arrived in Prestbury in 1866 but converted to Roman Catholicism in 1873. On 6th January 1875 Angus wrote to the Cheltenham Examiner about his conversion after the Vicar had been accused of leading his curate and some parishioners to Rome, through his teaching about the Real Presence, Eucharistic Sacrifice, honour to the Saints, confession and absolution, prayers for the dead and sacramental worship. Angus verified that he had believed all these doctrines well before he came to Prestbury. In 1876 he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and served for many years in St Andrew’s, Fife.
Action against Father Edwards began in 1874 after publication of the Public Worship Regulation Act and continued until his deprivation in 1881. In many ways Father Edwards was misunderstood by other Christians for his ‘popishness’. It was Charles Coombes, a local tailor, who reported him to the Bishop and stones were even thrown at the Vicar on his way to church. But he remained until 1884, having appealed against the deprivation. His father the Patron of the living, appointed a like – minded priest in his place.
Returning to William Balcombe, as the Organist and also as the son-in-law of the Parish Clerk, he must have been closely involved with the advanced Anglo-Catholic Faith and Practice at St Mary’s Parish Church. Perhaps the deprivation of the Vicar was the final straw which led to him turning to the Benedictines at St Gregory’s.
So who was William Balcombe (1838-1928) or Balcomb? He was baptised at Cheltenham Parish Church on 16th November 1838 and in the register his father was described as a Plumber and Glazier of 4 Montpellier Villas. At the time of his christening his parents, William and Mary Ann (nee Cooke), had only just married, on 25th June 1838, at the Church of St Mary de Lode in the City of Gloucester.
When, in 1866, William Balcombe married Emma Freeman at Prestbury his occupation was given on the wedding certificate as Organist. Looking at the evidence provided in the census returns, it would appear that William was torn between pursuing a musical career and continuing in his father’s trade. The 1871 census finds the young couple living in Portland Parade, Cheltenham, and, at that time William was working as a Plumber and Glazier. Ten years later Wiliam Balcombe and his family were living in Prestbury, at Craven House, and he was then working as an Organist as well as being the Collector of Rates. This was two years before he was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The 1891 census return listed him as being a Plumber and Decorator of Craven House.
As a result of certain financial difficulties, William Balcombe 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 Harriet Diana Healy Thompson (1811-1896), wife of Edward Healy Thompson and aunt of the poet, Francis Thompson, made a substantial donation towards the cost of adapting the house into a chapel. On her husband’s conversion in 1846, Harriet was also received and like him she devoted herself to Catholic literary work, writing various biographies, histories and novels.
On 18th December 1895 Dom Robert Aloysius Wilkinson, Missionary Rector and Prior of St Gregory’s, 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).
Also in December 1895 Father Wilkinson, assisted by his curate, Dom Ceolfrid Trehearne O.S.B., blessed the new chapel at Nazareth House and it too was dedicated to Our Lady of Good Counsel or Mater boni consilii. This title of the Blessed Virgin Mary resulted from devotion to a fresco, said to be miraculous, which is found in the thirteenth century Augustinian Church at Genazzano, near Rome. Over the centuries interest in Our Lady of Good Counsel had grown and this culminated in the title being added to the Litany of Loreto by Pope Leo XIII on 22nd April 1903.
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 its close proximity to Postlip Chapel which had opened in 1891. 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.
As for William Balcombe he moved into Cheltenham to live with his brother John, a Chemist of 11 Suffolk Road, but then returned to Prestbury to lodge with a family at Salford Cottage. Surprisingly, his wife, Emma, seems to have been running a boarding house in Fulham, London. William predeceased his wife, dying on 19th February 1928, at 11 New Street, Ross-on-Wye .
With thanks to Roger Beacham
Richard Barton (2020)