BOOK REVIEW: William Lack, H Martin Stuchfield & Philip Whittemore. The Monumental Brasses of Durham. (M.B.S. £20.00. 2002. ISBN 0 9543271 0 1). xxi, 226 pages; illus; bibliog.; name index; stiff paper covers.


Anyone looking at Mill Stephenson‘s List and Appendix, might be forgiven for thinking the County of Durham contained only a few early figure brasses or indents and little else of interest. Whilst the first assumption may be numerically true, the compilers of this volume show the latter statement to be far from the case. Several have not been illustrated before, many others not for over a century. A large proportion of the new entries relate to 19th and 20th century inscriptions ­ from conventional memorial plates to small brass plates on fittings and furnishings within the building. Only a small proportion of these may be of wider social or historical interest, whilst many others will prove a fertile field for the growing numbers of researchers into family and local history.

Like other volumes in the series (of which this is the eleventh), I would urge all users to read the excellent Introduction (pp. v­xii). I will endeavour in this review not to duplicate too much of what is said there, though some overlap is inevitable. The short list of figure brasses from identifiable styles of engraving (p. 203) bears testimony to the relative scarcity of surviving figure brasses in the county. In contrast, Durham Cathedral and churches like St Andrew, Bishop Auckland and St Edmund, Sedgefield, provide evidence of interesting losses, whilst Ushaw College provides a wide range of good 19th century figure and cross brasses.

Undoubtedly the best known figure brass is the early kneeling figure of a lady (Sedgefield I, c. 1310­­20), seen on the book‘s front cover. On p. 140 it is illustrated with its two shields. Stolen in 1969 and happily recovered five years later, it is thought to be of local design. Also at Sedgefield an indent of a cross botonée, c. 1300, with its foot rising from an Agnus Dei, a chalice on its stem and crescent moon near the lower terminal of the cross. Its three line Lombardic inscription shows it to commemorate a former Master of Greatham Hospital (see illus. p. 142), though unfortunately the slab is now obscured by heating apparatus. In Greatham Hospital Chapel itself is a narrow brass marginal inscription in Lombardics of 1313 to another early Master, William de Middiltoun (illus. p. 84), described erroneously in some publications as an indent.

Other early figure brasses of note include the curious, worn, York lb style effigy in armour, to Thomas de Claxton, 1402, constable of Brancepeth Castle (Brancepeth, St Brandon I, illus. p. 23), and the York la style figure of a priest in choral cope (Bishop Auckland, St Andrew I, c. 1380, illus. p. 11). The priest is not unlike that at Cottingham, Yorks. I, 1383. Chester­le­Street I, c. 1430 has a good London F effigy of a lady in widow‘s dress, formerly kept in the vestry safe, whilst there is another London F figure of a priest (headless) in academical robes at Billingham (illus. p. 6).

Of later brasses the best known is the Johnson­style figure of Dorothy Parkinson (Haughton­le­Skeme I, 1592), holding her twin infant sons, both in swaddling clothes. (One is also tempted to ask why the engraver cut away two triangular pieces of blank brass, one from the upper foot inscription and another from between the feet of the figure ­ was he simply being economical?) At Hartlepool, St Hilda, is another Johnson­style figure in large hat, 1593 with inscription in capital and black letter, and at Houghton­le­Spring a third, showing 90­year old widow Margaret Belassis (d. 1587), kneeling, with her 8 sons and 4 daughters behind her. Bishop Auckland, St Andrew, III, 1581, is a remarkably modem looking rectangular plate with cross, scrolls, motifs, etc., identified as 'York goldsmith' style.

There are a number of interesting indents surviving and records of other lost brasses. Not surprisingly the largest series of indents and losses is to be found at Durham Cathedral. Best known is the huge slab of Bishop Lewis de Beaumont (d. 1333, but brass engraved c. 1320­30), whose figure, with censing angels, was replaced in 1951 and engraved by H.G. Parkin (see excellent illus. p. 47). The replaced figure was based on a description of the original brass in the Rites of Durham (1593). Two other large slabs with indents are illustrated on pp. 49 and 51.

Other notable losses include brasses of Bishop Anthony Bek (d. 1310), the first known brass in the cathedral, and Bishop Richard de Bury (d. 1345), whose brass was also described in the Rites. De Bury was also the author of a manuscript known as the Philobiblon, or the Love of Books, noted for its sound advice on how not to treat these manuscript treasures, e.g. not using fish bones as bookmarks, or not letting a runny nose drip on to the pages! Other indents of note can be found at: Bishop Auckland, St Andrew, including one of a priest in the head of an octofoil cross, c. 1360; Hamsterley, a cross c. 1345­60; Hartlepool, All Saints, Stranton, in armour, c. 1450; Durham, St Oswald; Barnard Castle (in churchyard) and Staindrop. At Haughton­le­Skerne, was a now lost brass (?) inscription of unknown date, to 'Dame Elizabeth Nanton, Prioress of St John'.

The best Victorian and later figure and cross brasses are to be found at Ushaw College (R.C.) Chapel, ranging in date from 1856 to 1884, with three fine examples illustrated on pp. 187­8. Burnopfield IV, 1917, is a very attractive composition, by Gawthorp, comprising an octofoil cross with a Pascal Lamb in the head and two kneeling angels at the base (illus. p. 27). Another more elaborate design (Staindrop IV, 1864), has an ornate cross, springing from ogee­headed, low canopy with achievement and inscription under, all framed within decorated marginal inscription with comer evangelical symbols (illus. p. 166).

With such a vast range of inscriptions (270 alone in the South Shields Mission to Seamen‘s Chapel dating from 1888­2000), it is only possible to highlight a small selection. West Boldon XI is to Thomas Humphreys (d. 1930), 'faithful doorkeeper in the House of Lords for 24 years'. More unusual are those at St Mary the Less, Durham [now St John‘s College Chapel] to 'Count Joseph Boruwlaski of Poland, who measured no more than three feet and three inches' (I, 1837), and Eastgate I, to the servant of W.H.H. Crondacre, M.B., 'Numbona, who laid down his life in the service of his master' in Natal, 1911. At St Peter, Bishop Auckland, is an inscription recording the baptism there, in 1891, of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, Stan Laurel‘ of Laurel & Hardy fame (illus. p. 15).

All life‘s tragedies can be found here. Lives lost at sea include: Ernest Barker (Forest & Frith II) who died trying to save another passenger aboard the SS Llandovery Castle in the Indian Ocean in 1914; 25­year old John L. Mavin, who was lost when his ship R.M.S. Okhla was mined off Bombay in 1917 (St John, Hebburn II); 16­year old Frederick Jagg, lost overboard from the Annesley bound for San Francisco, 1884 (Frosterley I). More recent events are recalled on a plate commemorating Brian Welsh and his crew mates‘, lost in action on H.M.S. Sheffield during the Falklands War, 1982 (Heworth, St Alban XXVII). Others recall the loss of husband and wife John and Joyce Wilson, killed at the Paris Air Show in 1974 (St Luke, Hartlepool IX) and three members of the Fenwick family, killed in an air accident in 1912 (Harton I). Another member of the Fenwick family died in an accident in Spain in 1973 (St Stephen, South Shields VII). In the same church are two plates (III & IV) with ships on them, in memory of Tyne lifeboatmen who died between 1848 and 1896, and the pilot cutter Protector and its crew, who died on the last day of 1916 when their boat was destroyed by enemy action ­ see illus. p. 160. Finally, a reminder of Durham‘s coal mining history ­ two memorials at Dawdon (VI & XVII), one to William Miller, undermanager of the local Colliery, killed in the mine in 1961; another in the form of a ? brass miner‘s lamp given by the Colliery in 1991.

Like all other counties, Durham has its full share of memorials to military campaigns and the two world wars, many to men of the Durham Light Infantry, including two inscriptions now in its regimental museum. At St Cuthbert‘s, Durham, 19 inscriptions to those killed in both world wars; at Holy Trinity, Pelton a series of inscriptions dating from 1915­23, most in memory of choristers killed in World War I, all made by Hall & Co. Ltd. of Birmingham (p. 121); and at Holy Trinity, Darlington poignant memorials to four members of the Bradford family, killed in action in World War I, winning between them three Victoria and two Military Crosses (p. 39).

Our members Patrick Farman and Peter Hacker, who did most of the fieldwork for this volume and many of the rubbings for illustration, have searched far and wide to complete their work. They include redundant, reused, ruined or disused churches and chapels, e.g. Croxdale Hall, Old Church and St Herbert (R.C.) Church, both privately owned; Finchale Priory; Hartlepool, Christ Church (now Hartlepool Art Gallery ­ 11 inscriptions 1897­­1930, currently in store, including some from the Dock Co. Office, demolished 1993); Winterton Hospital Chapel, Sedgefield (disused) and Sockburn (ruined chapel ­ four 15th century inscriptions, all illustrated). In all 315 buildings were searched, plus a further 24 in which nothing was found. Of the former, 39 were Roman Catholic churches or chapels, the remainder Anglican, non­denominational or now having other uses.

The authors of this extensive volume are again to be congratulated on completing another county on schedule, and producing it at such a competitive price. These volumes are, and will remain, an impressive and unique contribution to the study of brasses and one of which the M.B.S. should be justly proud.


    Back to County Durham Home Page
    Back to County Series Home Page