MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: What connects one of Croydon’s richest and most generous benefactors with a Hornby train set model?
DAVID MORGAN has been looking through the arched window to find out
The stained glass window to the left of the north door in Croydon Minster was designed by the eminent Victorian stained glass window makers, Clayton and Bell. Their largest workshop was in Regent’s Street in London.
They often worked on projects with Sir Gilbert Scott, so it was no surprise that they put in most of the windows in the rebuilt church here when Scott was the architect.
The window contains Biblical scenes together with depictions of saints.
Barnabus, who sold all his worldly goods and helped to found the church at Antioch, travelled widely through the Mediterranean with St Paul. Bartholomew was one of the 12 Apostles, martyred for his faith. Both are pictured on the lower part of the window.
The brass plaque with the window informs us that the stained glass is dedicated to Stephenson Clarke, who died on April 3 1891. He had one residence in this parish, Croydon Lodge – what is today a grand Grade II-listed building close to Lloyd Park and now known as Coombe Lodge.
And he owned another, Brook House, in the parish of West Hoathly in Sussex.
These two substantial properties meant that there must be money in the family. The question is “Where did it come from?”
A very long way from Croydon, in the village of Longbenton, just outside North Shields in Tyneside, we find a vicar named Rev Ralph Clarke. He was ordained in 1701. He was the vicar of Longbenton from 1703 to 1728. Rev Clarke was also a schoolmaster at Cocken Moor in Houghton le Spring as well as being appointed, in September 1728, to use the words of the register, “curate and sequestrator” at Tynemouth.
He had two sons, Ralph and Robert. Both of them began their working lives at sea and in time successfully gained their Master Mariner qualification which allowed them to captain ships. During their early maritime careers, the brothers bought shares in other ships, gradually making the transition from ship’s captain to ship-owners.
In 1730, they bought the majority of shares in a 300-ton boat, thus establishing what was later to be called the Stephenson Clarke Shipping Company. They would make it their business to ship coals from Newcastle, and several other British ports, too.
The company grew and prospered under successive generations of the Stephenson Clarke dynasty. The company name became so synonymous with freight transport that it even made it into model railway sets. Hornby produced a Stephenson Mineral Wagon with the initials S C on the side, to be pulled by various engines on the tracks of millions of schoolchildren over the past century or so.
Stephenson Clarke, to whom the Minster window is dedicated, was born in 1824. He inherited the business from his father, Robert, in 1849, and built it up until “Stevie C”, as it became affectionately known, was the largest shipping and haulage business in the country. The Shields Daily Gazette regularly reported on ships being added to the fleet, together with details of their trading.
The vessel William Richardson sailed from Shields in July 1866 with 511 tons and 7 cwt of gas coal worth £205. In the same month, the Rebecca sailed with 345 tons of gas coal worth £120. Both vessels were bound for Kronstadt, a port at the far eastern end of the Baltic Sea, in Russia. At this time the company was not only providing jobs for mariners but was contributing to the North East economy in a significant way.
As their business increased, so did the size and scope of their ships. At the Middleton Shipyard in Hartlepool in 1879, a new steamer was launched for the company. It was to be named The Gracie and registered in London. It was 270ft long, 32ft wide and could carry 1,800 tons of cargo. In a report of the launch, it was noted that the engines had a capacity of 180 horse power, which was large for the size of the ship. Clearly the company wanted The Gracie to ply her trade as speedily as possible.
Stephenson Clark ships began to traverse the world, too. One of their ships is reported to have sailed up the Magdelena River to the port of Barranquilla, in Colombia. Other newspaper reports show that his boats had traded in Brazil, visiting Bahia and Pernambuco.
Of course, a maritime business like this is not without its difficulties and setbacks. On December 19 1878, the British iron cargo ship SS Butler, built in 1865, was on a voyage from Newcastle to London with 900 tons of coal. She was lost after running aground in fog, two miles south-east of the Happisburgh lighthouse on the coast of north Norfolk.
Despite this significant loss, the business still grew, and there was a diversification in trade to ship other commodities including grain, fertilisers and steel to northern Europe, the Mediterranean, West Africa and beyond.
With his increasing wealth, Stephenson bought his Sussex home, Brooke House. His son, Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke, purchased Borde Hill, near Haywards Heath in 1892, after the death of his father.
Today, Borde Hill is ahome to an amazing collection of plants, started by the family, and has won awards for its house and gardens and contribution to local tourism. The Sussex theme is an important one as many of the ships built for the firm in the 20th century had the names of Sussex towns and villages: such as SS Steyning and MV Ardingley.
When Stephenson Clarke died in June 1891, he was 66 years old and still the senior partner of the company. His will stated that he left more than £ 900,000 – about £27million by today’s values. A portion of his wealth came from shares in the Ruabon Coal Company based near Llangollen, North Wales.
In the list of his bequests are three with Croydon connections: £1,000 was left to the Whitgift Foundation; he left £1,000 to Croydon Hospital; and he left another £1,000 to the vicar and churchwardens of Christ Church, Croydon for the poor.
He left nothing to the Minster (then the Parish Church), even though he has the stained glass window dedicated to him. Other churches included in his will included Highbrook, Haywards Heath, who received £2,000 for the upkeep of the churchyard, the maintenance of the tower and bells and for the windows at West Hoathly, and the church at Tooting Graveney, which also received £2,000.
Stephenson’s will also stated that he wanted his estate in Scotland, at Dalwhinnie, “to be kept up in the most liberal way for the benefit of the family”. He and his wife appeared to play the role of the local gentry very well. A newspaper article from September 1890 has the headline, “Annual Entertainment to children of Dalwhinnie, Glentrium and Laggan”.
It goes on to talk about how tables were laid out in the quad in front of the hotel with a sumptuous spread and that 124 children sat down to tea before having games and races. Every child was presented with a brand new shilling.
The Clarke family and their staff also supported events in Croydon. In January 1889, the Croydon Fanciers Association held an exhibition at the local ice rink. Among “The Feathered Songsters and domestic pets” were several from Croydon Lodge.
The Stephenson Clarke shipping company continued in business into the 21st Century, eventually going into liquidation after 282 years, in July 2012.
So when you look at the Minster’s stained glass window today, and instead of the Biblical scenes, think coal and ships.
- The story behind this stained glass window will be part of a talk to be given by David Morgan in Croydon Minster on Sunday September 5, as part of the Open House weekend, at 12.30pm and again at 2.30pm. Places are limited. Ring the Minster Office on 020 8688 8104 to book yours.
- To read previous David Morgan articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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