EARLY HISTORY OF ST. GEORGE'S CHURCH, DOUGLAS

P. W. CAINE

SAINT GEORGE'S CHURCH, Douglas, and now temporarily associated with the Archdeaconry of Man, and used very frequently and over a great number of years for diocesan and State ceremonies, came into existence after great tribulation. The Manx Museum possesses a collection of papers concerning St, George's in its early years, a collection which belonged to the late Canon William Gell; I myself have had access to another collection through the courtesy of the present owner, Miss Edith Oates; and from the two collections it is possible to construct a connected and fairly complete narrative.

In 1708, Saint Matthew's Church was built at the instance of Bishop Wilson. That great Church statesman, who strongly condemned the smuggling trade in the Isle of Man, could not in 1708 have foreseen the prosperity which this trade would bring, and the increase it would cause in the population of the Island's largest town. In 1761, six years after he died, his successor, Mark Hildesley, was interesting himself in the erection of another church, considerably larger. That simple-minded pastor was probably not anxious that the new church should be considerably handsomer, but the merchants and gentry of Douglas in the middle 18th century had ambitions. According to one of the church trustees, Richard Betham - father-in-law of the celebrated Captain Bligh - the scheme provided ' a more convenient and elegant place of publick worship, which might be the means of preserving a just sense and decent appearance of religion amongst us'. Externally, the church has little to boast of in point of architecture, having only a plain square tower without ornament of any kind. That reproach was partly removed in the improvements of 1910. The author of the celebrated Six Days' Tour (anonymous), while admitting that the inside of St. George's was very good, urged that ' some pity should be taken upon the miserable tower, which might be rendered much less ugly at a comparatively trifling cost.'

The site for the new church was sold to the Bishop by Philip Moore, a Douglas worthy whose career has to some extent been noticed in a paper read before this Society by Mr. David Craine, M.A. It formed part of what was called ' Oates' land,' and all through these papers it is described as ' near Douglas.' There is a reference to ' the badness of the road leading from the town of Douglas to the said chapel.' The scheme was taken up with some zeal, and many persons undertook by bond to pay subscriptions. On the 29th October, 1761, the list of promises represented 283, and it rose to 712. On the strength of this support building was begun.

Then came the Revestment Act of 1765; the British Government recalled the sovereignty of the Duke of Atholl and took vigorous measures against smuggling, measures which unquestionably were likely also to restrict legitimate commerce. The merchants of Douglas were paralysed with fear. ' The sale of the Island,' says one of these letters, ' which put a period to our opulence, put a period also to everything that depended upon it.' While the church roof was partly on, the work was stopped.

In 1775, three years after Bishop Hildesley had died and had been succeeded by Bishop Robert Richmond, the project was revived, ' The offer of some new donations, and the necessity of accommodating many families excluded from divine service, occasioned the work to be resumed.' A number of persons entered into yet another bond to be responsible for expenditure to the amount of 150, and the Bishop gave a commission to certain persons to raise further subscriptions. Like Bishop Ward sixty years later, he caused an appeal to be launched in Liverpool, London, and Bath, and the donors between 1775 and 1777 included three archbishops, six dukes, six earls, thirteen bishops, and various other persons of distinction. The sum thus received was 418.

So the work was resumed, and the merchants of Douglas, emboldened once more, made a present to the church of an ' elegant ' organ. Mr. William Crebbin, one of the trustees, had a friend in Dublin named John Parkinson, who in turn knew a Mr. Ruxton. Mr. Ruxton had come into possession of an organ belonging to ' a musical society which subsisted here,' and in due time this organ was transhipped to Douglas. Now, the ' Messiah ' was first performed in Dublin, in the year 1742. A ' musical society ' and an organ were of course necessary for the performance, and the tradition which existed in Douglas up to the time when the organ was replaced by the present instrument, in the 'sixties of the nineteenth century, that the great Handel had played on it, seems reasonably sound. The Isle of Man guides, commencing with that of the Reverend Samuel Haining, first published in 1821, describe the organ of St. George's as exceptionally sweet.

The letters of Mr. Parkinson to Mr. Crebbin make delightful reading, and I am sorry not to be able to quote from them. Extensive quotations were made in an article in the Isle of Man Weekly Times of 7th January, 1933

The work cost more than had been estimated, and some promises to subscribe were not fulfilled. Then the Bishop died, and his estate was found to be insolvent. Part of the donations had been paid to him and had gone into his personal account, and ' an hundred and sixty pounds we are afraid will be lost, excepting a small dividend.'

This was the state of things when Bishop Mason arrived in 1780. The trustees met in December of that year, ascertained that the chapel was indebted to them to the extent of 183. 9s. 34d. ' British,' decided to pay other sums out of their own pockets, made calculations of what each of them needed to pay in order to ' even up ' his liability for a quarter of the total, and then, not unnaturally, ' thought it just and reasonable that we should charge interest until we shall be reimbursed.'

The work was finished, the pews were either sold or let by auction on a seven years' lease, and the consecration took place on the 27th September, 1781, twenty years after the proposal had been made. The choice of patron saint seems to have been a compliment to Bishop George Mason, just as St. Mark's Chapel in Malew was built under the auspices of Bishop Mark Hildesley.

Among these papers is a plan of the seating, showing that on the ground floor fourteen seats were estimated to be let at 6, ten at 3, and thirty were to be left for the use of the poor; in the gallery, fourteen were to be let at 4, fourteen at 1. Ios., and fourteen at I. Space was also provided for the ' military ' - the soldiers then stationed at the Douglas fort and housed in barracks. (Hence the names ' Fort Street ' and ' Barrack Street '). Another document shows that the Bishop and the chaplain were each permitted to choose ' one seat below stairs, and one back seat upstairs, or in either of the galleries '; seats were also provided for the Duke of Atholl, Governor-in-Chief, and the lieutenant-governor.

The shape of the original church was somewhat curious. Opposite the tower - in these documents called ' the steeple ' - was a semicircular apse which contained the chancel, and in an ' ear ' of which the chaplain's family sat. Members may see what it looked like by looking at the illustration on page 63 of an edition of Quiggin's Guide dated 1836. The first chaplain was the Rev. Charles Crebbin, who at the same time was vicar of Santon, and the second was the Rev. John Christian.

The estimate of pew seats was accompanied by an estimate of annual charges. The minister was to get 100 certain; the organist 15, the clerk 10, the sexton 5. Accounts of a later period show payments on a rather more generous scale - the organist 20, the clerk 16, the sexton 8. 10s. There was a payment to the bellows-blower of half-a-guinea per year.

A reference in 1824 to ''Mr. Barrow's salary' identifies the church organist. He was Charles Barrow, maternal grandfather of the novelist Dickens, and had been a music teacher and musical instrument maker in London. (See The Dickensian, Vol. XLVI, P. 33). His son, John Henry Barrow, wrote the words for Mona Melodies, and published a volume of poems called Manks Legends.

In 1788, a considerable amount of debt was outstanding, and it was arranged that interest should be paid upon approved claims at the rate of five per cent. In the following year the first seven years' lease of the seats expired, and a commission appointed by the Bishop had to report to him, 'with concern,' that the new letting had been disappointing. Eighty pews had been let, at a rent about two-thirds of that formerly paid, and thirty-nine were undisposed of.

The debts remained outstanding, and interest continued to be paid, for upwards of twenty years. In 1822 the widow of an original creditor obtained an execution against the chapel, which apparently she proposed to enforce by selling part of the burying-ground. Deemster John Christian granted a perpetual injunction against such an enforcement, declaring that any order for the sale of the churchyard would be highly indecorous, and 'not supported by any law or custom of this land.' How the debts were finally discharged, 0r whether the creditors were persuaded to waive them, these papers do not show.

The churchyard was a very early part of the scheme, but it remained unenclosed for many years, no legal title to the land having been established. In 1809, John Moore - presumably John Moore, of The Hills, who had married into the family of Philip Moore, of Pulrose, the original seller of the church site - granted a title in exchange for two seats in the church and a plot in the graveyard. The churchyard wall which we now see is understood to be original, but a portion of it collapsed a few years ago, as the result of subsidence in the southern part of the burying-ground, and was repaired.

St. George's was not intended to be supplementary to St. Matthew's, but a substitute for it. The 'bond ' of the 29th October, 1761, sets out that 'it hath been proposed to have the present chapel pulled down and enlarged, or to have a new chapel erected.' A 'plan to complete the new chapel,' not dated but apparently belonging to the period of about 1775, when the scheme was taken up afresh, proposes that the funds for the stipend of the present chaplain, and the Douglas school (the mastership of which the chaplain of Douglas held as an emolument), should be annexed to the new chapel. This plan was to be tendered to the chaplain and the proprietors of pews in the old chapel, who were promised equal accommodation in the new. Whether they consented or not, the Legislature was to be petitioned for an Act to dissolve the old chapel and sell it and the site for the expenses of erecting the new. The vicar of Braddan was to consent to the chaplain exercising every part of the clerical functions and burying the dead in the churchyard, 'reserving all fees, rights, and dues belonging to him as vicar of the mother church.'

St. Matthew's was threatened with extinction again when either St. Barnabas' or St. Thomas', or both, came into contemplation. But the old church, or more correctly speaking the old parish, survives and, one may say, prospers.

The papers include a notice to attend a meeting first in the church and then at the 'Buck Room,' 'to consider the completing of the church.' The document bears no date, but the period appears to be 1775. And in 1819 a meeting of the trustees to receive pew rents was held in the 'committee room of the Poor House.' This 'poor house ' was obviously a precursor of the House of Industry.

The date of the replacement of the apse by the present rectangular chancel has not revealed itself in the records which are commonly accessible, but it is upwards of seventy years ago. Considerable improvement and extension was made in 1909-10, when the church was closed for several months, and was re-opened on 5th May by Archbishop Lang. The church was lengthened by 18 feet at the east end, and the consequent new chancel was erected four feet above the former level. The church was re-roofed in the most admirable way -there are separate roofs for the nave and for the two galleries - additional vestries were provided, one of which stands to the south of the main door. It replaced the low offshoot from the tower which is shown in such an illustration as that facing page 118 of Johnson's Guide dated 1857.

The Tablets and the Church Adornments

The most notable of the memorial tablets, found in the north gallery, is that to the great Manx-born scientist Edward Forbes, who died in 1854. The upper part of this tablet is triangular and has a pendent decoration somewhat resembling foliage, and enclosed in the apex is Professor Forbes' portrait. The epitaph ends with a singularly appropriate quotation from the Scriptures

'O Lord, how manifold are Thy works!
In wisdom hast Thou made them all.
The earth is full of Thy riches.'

The central window in the chancel was presented by Mr. Henry Bloom Noble in 1865, and the side windows by the Misses Harris, daughters of High-Bailiff Samuel Harris, in 1940.

The panelling in the handsome memorial chapel at the north-east end of the church was given by Mr. F. C. H. Cowin and Miss Cowin in memory of their father, Mr. William Cowin, for sixteen years a churchwarden and a prominent member of the Douglas School Board. Matching it at the south-east end is an equally handsome baptistry given by Mr. Arthur Cooper, Mr. Frank Cowin's colleague as churchwarden for seventeen years up to the date of this paper, and Mrs. Cooper. Within this baptistry is enclosed a memorial window to Mrs. Aitken, wife of the late Mr. John Hobson Aitken, I.S.O., Chief Clerk in the Government Office. This window matches in style a window at the opposite end of the south aisle, in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. A portrait of the Queen is seen in the upper portion of the window.

The present pulpit was given during the improvements in 1910. It is made in the form of a cross, and was the gift of Mrs. Kendal, a daughter of Captain William Kermode, at one time Commodore of the Isle of Man Steampacket Company's fleet.

St. George's cherishes a fine silver Communion Service, bearing date 'Douglass New Chapel, 1777.' It was presented, therefore, four years before the church was opened, and one of the pieces bears a London maker's date of 1767. Mr. Alfred Jones, who wrote the standard book on Manx Church Plate, was told of a tradition handed down by successive sextons that the donor was the fourth Duke of Atholl. On another piece are the maker's initials, 'C.W.,' signifying according to Mr. Jones, Charles Wright. The Service consists of two chalices, one large paten, two small patens, a flagon, and a spoon, and is beautifully engraved with the sacred initials 'I.H.S.,' the cross, and three nails set in a halo.

The Tower

The tower was proposed to be used during the Second World War as a military watch-tower, and a wooden watch-post was attached to the summit, just inside of the battlements. A new wooden staircase was built, a telephone-box was erected, and a room about half-way up was prepared as a dormitory. The project was never put into operation.

In an angle west of the main door can be seen a piece of the original spouting - a small leaden chamber bearing the date 1776 and the initials 'R.S.M.' Mr. William Cubbon has suggested that these initials may stand for 'R. Sodor and Man.'


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