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St Thomas the Apostle, North Willingham

History & Background

The first thing that stands out when taking a look at the exterior of the church of St Thomas the Apostle is its physical difference to all the other parish churches that make up the Walesby group. It is built of softer green sandstone rather than the orange-brown ironstone generally used, and it is largely a Classical Georgian style, whereas the others are either medieval or Victorian Gothic revival. The village itself of North Willingham is also different in that it lies at the foot of the Wolds, rather than in them and its name is Anglo-Saxon rather than having Scandinavian origins.

The current church was built in 1777 by Ayscough Boucherett, in what was then the fashionable Georgian Classical style. The Boucherett family had dominated the surrounding area since the late 17th century. The village and surrounding lands being first acquired by Matthew Boucherett, a French Hugenot (protestant) refugee, who first became a London apothecary and merchant, before setting himself up as a Lincolnshire country gentleman.

There must have been a church on the site around the time of the Domesday book, as records exist of Sixhills priory appointing vicars throughout the middle ages. The first known vicar being Andrew of Normanby in about 1220. Sixhills priory was founded about 1150, belonging to the Gilbertine order, established by Lincolnshire priest Gilbert of Semperingham. The Gilbertine order was the only medieval ‘solely English’ order of religious life.

The church records pre-date the current church and go back in some form to 1658. The records are today stored for safe keeping in the Lincolnshire Archives. There is a substantially complete set of ‘Parish Officer’ records commencing 1795 which throw much light on the nature of life in Georgian Willingham. Officials then elected by ‘the Vestry’ had to cope with law and order, local government and church upkeep. Nothing much has changed through time and it seemed, as is also often the case today, one or two hard-working villagers held all the offices of the church: churchwarden, surveyor of highways, overseer of the poor and parish constable. Also, the churchwardens responsibilities included surplice washing twice a year!

In 1790 the Boucherett family built the great, but now demolished mansion of Willingham House to the West of the village. It remained an important focus even after the Boucherett family had died out in 1905. Willingham was an estate village until the final break-up of the estate in 1942. It must have been a successful and important place with a population of 234 in 1851. Around the same time Archdeacon Bonney on in inspecting the church reported it as being in good order, in 1895 however the tower had to be extensively repaired.

The Church

St Thomas’ stands adjacent to the Market Rasen to Louth road. With the increase in traffic over the recent years parking has become difficult. The church is often bypassed by visitors as the easier option. It is undoubtedly Georgian in style with its West Gallery still intact, yet untypical in other ways having no aisle, a narrow nave and a very distinct chancel. This all suggests the footprint of the current church is very similar to that of the medieval church it replaced. Indeed the lower tiers of stone suggest they are from an earlier era. The tower is medieval and is considered to date from the 13th century, heightened by contrasting ironstone in the 14th century. In 1895 architect CJ Fowler repaired and modified the top of the tower introducing battlements and pinnacles.

The Georgian style is simple and plain. No images of Saints adorn the windows, this would have been considered too idolatrous for the puritan sentiments of 1777. The West Gallery of the church, in the years before organs and formal church music, would have probably housed the choir or ‘church band’ a rather haphazard assembly of strings and woodwind instruments that would have accompanied psalms and hymns.

Originally the Nave would have contained box pews, similar to the few remaining pews that can be seen in the North Aisle of Walesby ‘Old Church’. These were removed and what is presently in place are typically Victorian.

The Church Today

Until recently St Thomas’ has been in regular use with monthly services of Holy Communion and well attended Harvest and Christmas celebrations. It also used to operate as the Polling Station and as the only community building in North Willingham also a public meeting space. It is well loved by the village, which makes it even more difficult to contemplate it in its current state of repair. I refer, of course, to the difficult decision taken to temporarily close the church for worship and other uses, as it is considered potentially unsafe.

As a church which has no heating system and also suffers from perennial moisture ingress from various sources, there has been a substantial amount of decay to the fabric and structure of the building, most of it hidden from view. Recently in the interior large areas of plaster have started to sag and fall from the Chancel ceiling, and a large section of cornice and ceiling, in the Nave, have fallen into the West Gallery. Demonstrating the failure of some parts of the fabric at high level. Externally quoin stones have started to move outwards at the south east corner of the Nave, suggesting some structural difficulties in this area.

For public safety, in consultation with the archdeacon, the decision to temporarily close the church was taken. Access for the general public is prohibited until architectural and structural assessments have been completed and it is declared ‘fit for use’. In the meantime the body of Christ, in the form of the congregation of North Willingham, are still worshipping as they did before but now in the houses of parishioners. This has proven to be a very sustainable and successful option as we try to get the church building back into use.

The Future

To take a church in this modern world and want to not just make it safe, but bring it back into use and take its place centre stage in the heart of a village community is not something to be considered by the faint of heart. However the congregation and PCC of St Thomas’ have taken the decision that, this is exactly what they want and must do.
Architects have assessed the building and an indicative quote of £320,000 has been offered as the suggested cost of the works. At first sight a tall order as most of that must be raised from grant funding, something that is not as easy as it used to be. Churches today get no special privileges, indeed to ask to repair a building solely for worship, will not get you through the initial listing process and nowhere near the short list.

To be successful in major grant applications places of worship need to be open day to day, to show community involvement and a need for the building in addition to its use for worship. Additionally, a demonstration of its importance from a heritage perspective is needed.

Worship, being open day to day and in use by the community are fairly easy to demonstrate in the case of St Thomas’.
What about its heritage though?

It is a building different in style to most in the local area, it does have many of its original features intact, and that can be argued as physical heritage, but the most important aspect to its claim to heritage is its undoubted connection to the Boucherett family, and their importance locally and nationally, especially in the person of Jesse Boucherett.

Jesse Boucherett 1825 -1905

Jesse Boucherett was born at Willingham house in 1825, into the landed family of Ayscough Boucherett who built St Thomas’ in 1777. A very wealthy woman, who spent long periods of the year in London, becoming socially and politically aware of the plight of working women in the mid-Victorian era.

After reading the journalist and writer Harriet Martineau’s article ‘Female Industry’ in the Edinburgh Review in 1859, she was moved to found the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW). This changed her life, but more importantly the lives of many thousands, if not millions, of women since.

The committee of the new Society met for the first time on July 7 1859. It comprised 12 women and 4 men and established an office in Great Castle Street, London. Later it moved to Langham Place and became known as the Langham Place Group.

The aims of the Society were clearly laid out - to open more occupations to women. Around two million women needed to work for a living and the ‘great want of employment’ for them led to distress and suffering. The traditional occupations of teaching, domestic service and needlework, now so overcrowded, that employers were able to force down wages and conditions to such an extent that many were reduced to seek the support of the workhouse.

Jessie Boucherett realized that unless girls had better schooling, they would not benefit from wider opportunities for employment. She set up a school to remedy this, concentrating mainly on arithmetic. This enabled them to obtain employment in occupations such as ‘clerks, cashiers and ticket sellers at railway stations’.

As public awareness of the society grew, more important names joined the committee - the Earl of Shaftesbury as President, the Bishops of London and Oxford, and William Gladstone MP.

In 1865, a permanent salaried Secretary was appointed - Gertrude King - her salary of £100 being met by Jessie. She held the post for the next 50 years!

Jesse’s work and commitment to the Society also paved the way for many girls to be apprenticed in a wide variety of occupations which had previously been open only to men, such as: china-painting; gilding; hairdressing; photography; telegraphy and watch-making. It also enabled other important ‘firsts’, such as helping the first two women to be accepted for training as hospital dispensers, as well as spearheading women’s admittance to Fellowship of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Jessie Boucherett was a dominating presence in the Society for the first 50 years of its existence. Using her own money, which by now had been considerably enhanced by a further inheritance of £16,000 (around £1,100,000 today) from her mother and an income of £1,000 a year, from 1877, after her last brother died. Then she inherited the entire estate after her sister died in 1895.

The second great enthusiasm of her life was the women’s suffrage campaign, which began in the offices of the society and which she financed with its first £25 (around £2000 today).

Jesse died in 1905, the last of the Boucherett line. Her body was interred in St Thomas’ churchyard, where she rests today. A daughter of North Willingham who made a real difference to the lives and conditions of millions of women then and now.

Now, Jesse Boucherett is a much talked of woman and substantial research is taking place into her life and the impact she had on the world of women’s rights.

As part the development and restoration of St Thomas’ church the PCC would like to ensure that more information on Jesse is available to the general public. They hope to incorporate her life, works and achievements into a permanent exhibition at St Thomas’.

Where next ...

The PCC working alongside Fran Bell and Matthew Godfrey, the Community and Heritage Buildings Officers of the Diocese of Lincoln, are preparing to advertise for tenders for a development phase of the project that it is able to fund itself. Owing to the prospective cost of the development phase, anticipated at around £25,000, we are obliged to ask for three tenders from supervising architects because when the final implementation phase is undertaken we will be over the required tender threshold.

We are determined to reopen St Thomas’ in due course and return to, the village and to generations to come, a living sentinel to our Christian faith.

External resources (and links) about the life and work of Jessie Boucherett

Quick introductions/summaries:
Futures for Women
Spartacus Eeducational

A good piece in the Market Rasen Mail:
Market Rasen Mail

In this history programme from BBC2 a good mention about Jessie’s work from 11 mins 30s onwards

You can see the accompanying book for the TV series in Google books:
Google Books
(Click on next and previous to see the five extracts which are relevant.)

A one hour radio drama on Jessie:
BBC Radio

A sound clip of Anne Bridger:
Jessie Boucherett

You can access much recent material in Google Books if you enter Boucherett or Jessie Boucherett in the search box on the Google Books website:
Google Books 2

Extracts from much of her own writings can be found and many contemporary historical studies.
For example:
Google Books 3

(A good biography in extract 3 of 5)
Google Books 4
(Very detailed)

The whole of Jessie’s own book “Hints on Self Help” is available here also:
Hints on Self Help