History of St. John the Baptist Church, Busbridge
Busbridge Church, built 1865-67 under the patronage of Capt. John and Mrs Emma Ramsden of Busbridge Hall, was consecrated on 1st March 1867 by the Bishop of Winchester. The Ramsdens’ initials, JCR and ESR, were carved into the English oak porch and can still be seen when entering the church. Gilbert Scott R.A. was commissioned to design the church which was built using local Bargate stone by the Godalming-based firm of Moon and Son for the sum of £4000. It was described at the time as…
Busbridge Church was intended from the outset to offer equal welcome to all in the local community: the chairs were all deemed “free” – that is they were not “appropriated” to any particular families. The first baptisms which took place on the 3rd March 1867 perhaps best exemplify this intention: two babies were baptised: one the Ramsden’s own child, the other a ‘gypsy’ to whom Mrs Ramsden reportedly gave one of her shawls, inspiring the following lines to be penned:
Subsequent additions and alterations, the most significant of which took place between 1894 and 1910, have added a number of decorative embellishments to the original design such that it now has the character of late Victorian Arts and Crafts church. These include a number of fine stained glass windows made by Morris and Co. to designs by Burne-Jones and a chancel screen designed by Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the war memorial and the memorial to Gertrude Jekyll which are in the churchyard. The church is now a grade II* listed building.
The first addition was in 1894, when Ellis Gosling, the son of Emma Ramsden from her first marriage, funded the building of the vestry to the north of the chancel. This work was designed by John Oldrid Scott, son of Sir George Gilbert Scott. At the same time a reredos, also designed by J. Oldrid Scott, was installed behind the altar. Fashioned in chalk to complement the Church walls, it featured white alabaster figures depicting Mary and St John at the Crucifixion in a central panel, flanked by adoring angels. This reredos was replaced in 1910 by the marble which remains in the church to this day.
In 1899 Busbridge Church received three memorial gifts which resulted in a marked change to its appearance and liturgical context. The most controversial at the time was a memorial which Mrs Mellersh offered in memory of her daughter. This was to be a chancel screen designed by Edwin Lutyens, the young architect and friend of church member Gertrude Jekyll. The addition would considerably change the appearance of the church and would lead to a distinct physical separation of nave and chancel. The original design was not to everyone’s taste: the newly appointed Rector, Rev. Robinson, wrote that he would have much preferred a stained glass memorial. The design was amended at least once. The final screen is a fine piece of wrought iron and bronze, crafted by Messrs. Starkie Gardner and Co, which complements the original wrought iron overthrow to the churchyard gates. It is now an important and distinctive feature of Busbridge Church, well known by and accessible to Lutyens’ connoisseurs and to the local community alike.
The screen was Lutyens’ second contribution to Busbridge Church: in c.1895 he had designed a tombstone for Gertrude Jekyll’s mother Julia, and he later designed the memorial to Gertrude Jekyll and her brother (c.1932). Lutyens’ most celebrated contribution to the churchyard is the War Memorial, recently given grade II* status. The Memorial Cross, worked by Messrs. Holland & Hannen & Cubitts is hexagonal in plan, to suggest victory; it is cut from one piece of Portland stone; the lines of the base echo those of the Cenotaph in London providing a link to Lutyens work beyond Busbridge. It stands in the North West corner of the churchyard, its striking form clearly visible to travellers heading south from Godalming along the Brighton Road. The Memorial Cross is central to the local community’s annual Act of Remembrance.
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris
In 1899 two less controversial memorial gifts were made, though of equal importance to the current heritage of the church. These were two sets of stained glass windows commissioned by Emma Ramsden’s family and designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The two west windows were given by Mr Ramsden in memory of his wife Emma, foundress of the church, and her son Ellis Duncombe Gosling who had both died in 1897. The windows depict two holy mothers and sons: The Virgin Mary with Christ and St Elizabeth with her son, John the Baptist, to whom the church is dedicated. The windows overlook the baptismal font, making the narrative of John the Baptist baptising Christ particularly relevant.
These windows were complemented a few months later by the east windows also made by Morris and Co. to a Burne-Jones design. These windows were given by Mrs Ramsden’s daughter, Lady Galway (nee Vere Gosling), in memory of her father, Ellis Gosling (1836-1861) and brother, Ellis D Gosling (1861-1897). They form part of a larger memorial to the two Ellis Goslings which included their internment in Busbridge churchyard of her father alongside her brother. Two recumbent crosses in the Churchyard adjoining the church’s East wall mark their resting place.
In August 1905 three windows on the South of the chancel were given by the Shearburn family in memory of their parents and sister. These were made also made by Morris and Co. to Burne-Jones designs, however these were from existing designs rather than specifically designed for the Church. They establish unity of form in the chancel area. Their content reflects the focus of the chancel area on Christ’s death and resurrection as featured in the screen, East Window and reredos. The subjects: The Virgin Mary, St John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene were with Christ at his death.
Busbridge Church’s connection to William Morris extends to his textile design. The church has a very special altar frontal designed by William Morris c.1870. It is one of few examples of his early textile designs, and one of only a handful of altar frontals. The original design is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, to whom the frontal was loaned for exhibition in 1961.
Chancel refurbishment and the arrival of Pews
By 1910 the original Busbridge Hall had been sold, demolished and a new Busbridge Hall built in a more attractive part of the estate. The owners, Mr and Mrs Graham, made a significant contribution to the Church which remains to this day. The chancel was transformed by the provision of oak fronts to the choir stalls; oak panelling to the chancel and sanctuary; marble paving to the chancel and sanctuary; marble altar rails and an alabaster reredos. Harmony with the existing colours of the windows and chancel walls was obtained by the use of green marble from Connemara, Italy and Iona. whilst bronze altar rail supports reference the Lutyens screen. The aesthetic effect is one of coherence and harmony such that the casual visitor might deduce that the chancel walls, pavement (now carpeted) and the chancel screen were contemporaneous and part of one design scheme. The chairs in the nave, now almost 50 years old, were replaced with oak pews which document a social hierarchy for parishioners were given the opportunity to appropriate the newly installed pews, in direct contradiction of the ‘free seat’ church of 1867.
In 1915 the first of nave stained glass windows was installed by commission of Mrs Arnold in the transept at the eastern end of the nave’s south wall. It shows the figures of Faith and Charity, and was the first of the windows designed and made by Archibald K. Nicholson, whose work now fills the north and south nave windows. The Arnold window was altered in the Autumn of 1915 with the faces and feet replaced by new cartoons drawn by Frank Dicksee R.A. Grisaille medallions in these windows are adapted from the Room at Emmaus by Rembrandt, and Fra Angelico’s Washing of the Feet.
The War Memorials
Many parishioners served in the wars, both in the armed forces but also through civilian work. The Church War Work party in the first world war (1914-18) coordinated efforts for medical and relief supplies, guided by Lady Agnes Jekyll, sister-in-law of Gertrude, and parishioner, who was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1918 for her work with the Order of St John (read more here). The Rector, Rev. Larner, served as British Civil Chaplain in Calais from 1915-1916 and as chaplain to the forces in France and Belgium 1917-18, from where he regularly wrote to the parish.
The church features three parish war memorials: a Roll of Honour listing servicemen who died in the first and second world wars carved into the North wall in lettering designed by Sir Herbert Jekyll; the memorial in churchyard designed by Lutyens, and a window made by Archibald K. Nicholson. The window, which was commissioned from in 1919, honours soldiers and sailors with figures of their respective patron saints, St Martin and St Nicholas. Beneath St Martin is a view of Amiens and its Cathedral. Amiens was not only a base for the Somme action in the Great War, but also where St Martin was stationed. Beneath St Nicholas we see the Scapa Flow, a principal base for the general fleet.
A. K. Nicholson Windows
Nicholson had provided several windows prior to his parish war memorial window, the first in the south wall in 1915, with others on the North wall heavily influenced by the events of 1914-1918.
The 1917 memorial window for Charles Henry Tisdall (d.1916) depicts two figures: The Faithful Soldier, with the Crusader’s Cross on his scabbard, and The Faithful Servant, represented by a young St Timothy reading the epistles sent to him. The medallion beneath the soldier illustrates a scene from the Legend of the Holy Grail with Sir Galahad kneeling outside the chapel of the Grail, the medallion below St Timothy is an Italianate background of a city of the Crucifixion.
In November 1918, a window was given in memory of two Shirburnians killed in action: Percival Whately and John Templeman Barnes. The connection to Sherborne is represented by the figure of Aldhelm, first Bishop of Sherborne, and below him Sherborne Abbey. The Figure of Godfrey [Geoffrey] de Bouillon, first King of Jerusalem, is shown over a medallion of the city of Jerusalem. An interesting iconographical detail is the crown of thorns on de Bouillon’s helmet, which was designed to symbolise his refusal to wear a gold crown when his Saviour’s crown had been of thorns.
The final individual Memorial window dates from 1920 and is in memory of Edward and Jane Tyer from their children. The window is composed of ‘national and parochial’ content. King Alfred, ‘the most famous of our early kings and above all a most devout Christian’ was also lord of Godalming which he bequeathed to his nephew Aethelwald. Beneath the figure is a depiction of the Saxon church at Tuesley. Queen Bertha, the only woman on the North wall, was instrumental in bringing the Christian faith to England in the 6th Century when she married King Ethelbert of Kent and later welcomed St Augustine’s mission in 597. The baptism of King Ethelbert by St Augustine is represented in the picture beneath.
Two remaining two windows on the South of the nave remained plain until the installation of parish’s diamond jubilee windows in 1925. These completed the scheme envisioned in 1915 with four figures of women described by the Bishop of Winchester as ‘St. Joan of Arc … the ideal girl, St Margaret … the ideal wife, St Hilda … the ideal ascetic, Dame Julian of Norwich … the ideal mystic, [who] taken together … made a four-sided picture of perfect womanhood’.
There were no further significant architectural additions to the church once this final scheme of stained glass was installed. A small church centre was built in 1977 and two significant re-orderings were undertaken which resulted in the removal of some 1910 additions. Firstly, the choir stalls and organ were removed in 1992, opening the chancel for more flexible use, then in 2002 the pews in the West End were removed and the area reordered, making the original font accessible once more and providing storage and flexible space.
© Janine Bailey 2016