DAVID MORGAN unravels intriguing pieces of history that link Croydon Minster to the American Revolution
One of the joys of taking groups around Croydon Minster is the questions that are asked about various aspects of our historic building.
This is particularly true when parties of school children make a visit. On one occasion earlier this year I was showing one particular group a few of the memorials to people, now long dead, who had been buried in the church.
“Over there,” I continued, “is the memorial to John Singleton Copley, one of America’s greatest painters, who died in 1815…”
I was about to describe some of Copley’s most well-known paintings when an eager hand shot skywards. “Excuse me, but what is an American who died in 1815 doing buried in Croydon?”
A good question, and one that I did my best to answer.
It isn’t widely known but from about 1770 for the next 40 years, Croydon had a link to America and with Massachusetts in particular.
The man who owned Addington Palace at that time was Barlow Trecothick. He was a rich trader who eventually became the Lord Mayor of London. Trecothwick’s wife was Grizzell Apthorp.
Grizzell Apthorp: That’s a brilliant name isn’t it?
She was the daughter of Charles Apthorp, one of the very richest men in Boston, which at that time was still part of the British colonies. Grizzell’s brother was a vicar. He was the Rev East Apthorp.
He was involved in many arguments in Boston, as he wanted the British rule to continue, whereas most local people wanted to be able to govern themselves.
After being forced out of his huge house in 1764, Rev Apthorp came to England to stay with his sister and brother-in-law. While here, the vicar of Croydon died suddenly and Rev Apthorp was given the job as his replacement.
I wonder what the parishioners of Croydon thought about an American becoming their vicar?
In the 1770s, many Americans from Boston and other places in Massachusetts decided to leave for London. They saw it as being much safer for them.
John Singleton Copley was one of those people who left Boston.
He didn’t leave because of the War of Independence. He came to Europe to study the work of famous artists and to try to improve his own painting.
His family was linked to the many troubles of the day, as his father-in-law owned a ship that was attacked in the harbour as part of the Boston Tea Party, when its cargo got thrown overboard.
Copley decided he would settle down and live in London to carry on his painting career, and was joined by his wife and children. Today, we can fly easily from Boston to London, but in those days a difficult journey by sea had to made before any passengers could be landed. Sometimes the weather could be so bad that the ship might dock in Falmouth, Cornwall, rather than sail up the Channel. Passengers would then have to continue to London in a horse-drawn coach.
Copley became very successful here, as well as in America.
Today you can find his painting of The Death of the Earl of Chatham covering a huge wall in the National Portrait Gallery. Painted in 1781, Copley captures the dramatic moment that William Pitt the Elder, the former Prime Minister, collapsed while making a speech in Parliament.
Copley’s family life contained much tragedy because two of his children died quite young in 1785.
When Copley died in 1815, he was buried at what was then the Parish Church here in Croydon, now known as Croydon Minster, where his children had been buried 30 years before.
The reason the Copleys were buried here was because of the American vicar, Rev Apthorp. There would have been occasions when exiles from America met up in London. It was only a coach ride to Croydon and so links with Rev Apthorp could be easily made.
“Does that answer your question?” I asked my eager questioner.
“Yes thank you. But… are there other Americans buried here, too?”
And indeed there are. Up in the corner of the Lady Chapel is a memorial to Thomas Hutchinson. On that brass plaque it tells you that he was the last Colonial Governor of Massachusetts.
As the Governor, he was the most important person in controlling that area. The local people, in the end, detested him so much that they burned down his house and he was forced to leave for London. He became a special adviser for King George III, presenting him with his view of what was going on in America.
I don’t think he was very successful as an adviser, as Britain lost control of America after the War of Independence. Thomas always wanted to return to Boston, which was his home town after all, but after the war it proved impossible and he died a very disappointed and broken man. He was buried here, again because of the Rev Apthorp link, in 1780.
There was another prominent American buried in Croydon Minster, too.
That was Mrs Christiana Fenwick. She died in 1785. Her father, Colonel John Stuart, fought for the British against the Americans but was often a rather controversial character. Visitors to Charleston in South Carolina can still see his name today outside one of the town museums.
Unfortunately, the fire of 1867 in this church destroyed the three American tombs leaving, just the two plaques on the wall as a visible reminder for us today. It a great shame that we cannot see the tombs as they were, but we still have their stories.
As we completed our tour that day, the young pupil thanked me for the answer, and the teacher expressed amazement at the amount of history that came from a single question and its answer.
But that is what Croydon Minster is like.
It is jam-packed with historical characters and stories, from the vicar who followed Thomas More into the court at Lambeth Palace for failing to swear The Oath of Succession back in Tudor times, to the sporting vicar in a more modern era who played rugby in the Currie Cup in South Africa.
There is a brass plaque commemorating Gabriel Sylvester who was Master of Clare College Cambridge in the 1390s as well as a stained glass window celebrating the noted local Victorian dignitary John Wickham Flower, who was one of the founders of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society.
A church has stood on the site probably from the 9th century. The first written evidence of a priest, whose name was Elfsie, dates from the year 960.
If you are surprised by the history of Croydon Minster and want to discover more, why not come in and have a look?
The church is open every day, except Thursdays. If you would like a group tour or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page.
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers to plan bespoke tours for groups or to provide illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
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