St Giles and St Michael

St Giles is the patron saint of lepers and surely it’s no coincidence that there was a medieval hospital at nearby Freeford caring for those unfortunates suffering from the disease.  Less readily explicable is the short lived name change at the end of the ninteenth century when, according to the Whittington History Society, the church was known as St Matthew’s for around twenty years, before reverting back to St Giles in the 1890s.

Whittington church

The church history guide, handed to me by two kind ladies who found me loitering outside and invited me in, condenses eight hundred (ish) years of history into four paragraphs. Quality not quantity. It tells how a church has stood on this site since the thirteenth century, built with red sandstone from nearby Hopwas Woods.

Hopwas quarry.jpg

The edge of Hopwas Woods as seen from the canal.  There is a suggestion that stone for ecclesiastical purposed was quarried from an area of the woods given the tongue in cheek name of ‘The Devil’s Dressing Room’

The only original part standing today is the base of the tower, with the nave being rebuilt in 1761 following a fire and the chancel added in the 1880s. The Jacobean oak pulpit, installed here in 1922, was originally donated to Lichfield Cathedral in 1671. One hundred and eighteen years later it was moved to St Peter’s at Elford  but was discarded when that church was renovated in 1848 and lay disused in the stables of Elford Hall until a new home was found at St Giles. Apparently, at some point in this game of pass the pulpit, the Cathedral made enquiries about getting it back but obviously nothing ever came of this.

Whittington stained glass

More recycling can be found in the north and south windows of the chancel, where there are fragments of medieval painted glass thought to originate from the Benedictine Abbey at Burton. Presumably it was brought here following the dissolution but exactly why and how I don’t know, so if anyone fancies looking into Whittington’s windows in more depth, please do.

Whittington organ

Then, up on the balcony, there’s an organ, paid for by public subscription as a memorial to sixteen villagers killed in WW1. The brass plate at the front is inscribed with the name of the fallen and was made from a shell case brought from Mons battlefield. The church registers also records other WW1 deaths, with several servicemen from the military hospital at the nearby barracks and one from Brocton Camp at Cannock Chase buried here in late 1918, their deaths possibly related to the Spanish Influenza pandemic of that year.

whittington graveyard

One unexpected celebrity burial here is Thomas Spencer, co-founder of Marks and Spencer, who came to live in Whittington to pursue his love of farming after retiring from the partnership which began on 28th September 1894, when he invested £300 into a business owned by Michael Marks. The church hall is named after him, built with funding from the retailer in 1984. Just as a bit of background, Marks had started out working as a pedlar selling wares from a bag and from this he went on to open a market stalls in Leeds, which became known as the Penny Bazaar. The stall featured the poster ‘Don’t ask the price, its a penny’. I suspect plenty still did, a tradition still carried on in Poundland today (other single price retailers are available but this one gets a mention as it started up the road in Burton).  The St Michaels brand was introduced by chairman Simon Marks to honour his father, who came to this country as an immigrant from Belarus with little money or English and founded a British Institution.

whittington thomas spencer hall.jpg

We can’t talk about St Giles without mentioning the hospice, established at the vicarage in 1983, when Reverend Paul Bothwell decided to do something to improve care for local people living with terminal illnesses.   In its first year, there were 167 patients, today it cares and support for around 500 people a week. The free nursing and medical care provided by St Giles costs around £9 million every year. Only a third of this comes from the government, the rest is down to us. Now, it just so happens that I know of two trainer botherers top people who took part in a fun run on Sunday to help raise funds for St Giles. Normally, all I ask for on this blog is for people to tell me if they’ve seen a bit of Fisherwick Hall lying around or for an explanation as to why there’s a fibreglass elephant in Cannock town centre (and, ‘Well that’s just Cannock for you’ will not suffice!). Today however I’m going to ask you to consider making a donation to this amazing local charity. They ran 5km, the only steps you need to take are to get your credit card out and donate a couple of quid here.

whittington church 2

Sources:

http://www.stgileshospice.com/history.html

http://www.whittingtonhistorysociety.org.uk/assets/whs-church-booklet-with-plan.pdf

 

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2 thoughts on “St Giles and St Michael

  1. Kate, that is fascinating. Back in the days when I was working I wrote stories about events at the Thomas Spencer Hall, and even attended functions there, and I had NO IDEA that Thomas was one half of Marks and Sparks. And it’s a timely reminder that many of the things we regard as being quintessentially English owe their existence to immigrants….

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  2. PS: I would support the fun-runners, but St Giles is the only charity I make a regular contribution to – I signed up for their lottery when it was first set up, and on the rare occasions that I’ve won anything I’ve donated the money back to the hospice.

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