This weekend is Heritage Open Days, but Thursday and Friday were both too busy to get out. We started Saturday 10 September with a visit to the Allestree Autumn Fair, then went for a drive to Chesterfield. Holy Trinity church – SK383716 – has the grave of George Stephenson, so this was the obvious place to go (the church with the funny steeple will have to wait). The church has a website. As you can see, we parked right outside, and got a lovely welcome. They have a very comfy vestibule, the kettle was on and the cakes were delicious.
George was being well commemorated – display boards from the museum, some models, and a collection of books (though not the excellent 2010 biography by David Ross which I have just finished). I liked this one, which was given as a Scripture Prize by the Vicar in 1886 (that’s my sort of Vicar).
Let’s pause for a moment, and record the history of the church. By the 1830s the parish church was nowhere near big enough for the population. A meeting was held, and by the end of it the money had been pledged. The Duke of Devonshire gave the land, and the foundation stone was laid on Wednesday 17 May 1837. “The cheerful pealing of the bells of the parish church was in harmony with the general feeling”. The Duke arrived at 11 am and was escorted to the Angel Inn for a “public breakfast”. The press recorded that there was “a profusion of viands, adapted to the most capricious taste.” 9,000 people went in procession to the church. The band played Psalm 100, His Grace was presented with a silver trowel and the foundation stone laid. “God Save the King” was sung – Victoria came to the throne on 20 June.
The guide doesn’t mention the architect or the opening date. A new book I have just found – Anglican Churches of Derbyshire, L.A.H. Combes, Landmark Publishing, 2004 – says the architect was Thomas Johnson. It was refurbished in 1889 when Cllr Rollinson was Warden – large plaque in his memory.
In 1938 a new choir vestry was added, and the church was refurbished in 1994. This means that the stained glass window to the Reverend A. Poole, the first Rector, is now in the kitchen.
Let us go back to George. There is a memorial tablet just behind the altar, and he is buried nearer the wall. His wife Elizabeth is mentioned on a plaque on the wall.
As all my readers ought to know, he was born in Wylam, Northumberland, worked at Killingworth, then was involved in so many different railways. He moved to the Midlands and made even more money exploiting the coal seams of Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire. He bought Tapton House, which is now part of Chesterfield College (I can’t see any mention of it ever being open to the curious).
I like this story, which was recorded by Samuel Smiles:
“One Sunday, when the party had just returned from church, they were standing together on the terrace near the Hall, and observed in the direction a railway-train flashing along, tossing behind its long white plume of steam. ‘Now Buckland,’ said Stephenson, ‘I have a poser for you. Can you tell me what is the power that is driving that train?’ ‘Well,’ says the other, ‘I suppose it is one of your big engines.’ ‘But what drives the engine?’ ‘Oh, very likely a canny Newcastle driver.’ ‘What do you say to the light of the sun?’ ‘How can that be?’ asked the doctor. ‘It is nothing else,’ said the engineer, ‘it is light bottled up in the earth for tens of thousands of years, light, absorbed by plants and vegetables, being necessary for the condensation of carbon during the process of their growth, if it be not carbon in another form, and now, after being buried in the earth for long ages in fields of coal, that latent light is again brought forth and liberated, made to work as in that locomotive, for great human purposes.’ ”
Back in 2008 I gave a Lent Address in St Edmundsbury Cathedral on “Finding God in Invention” and looked at George’s life and faith (or lack of it). If anyone would like me to give the talk again, I’d be happy to do so. In that talk I said “I would love to be able to link George’s inventive genius with his Christian faith. To be able to say that here was a man who realised the gifts that God had given him, but George Stephenson was not a man for whom church going and organised religion was important. In politics and religion he had a sceptical and open mind. Towards the end of his life, his friend and fellow-engineer Thomas Summerside, a devout non-conformist, had several exchanges with him about his lack of faith. “I wish you were a Christian of the real sort”, said Summerside one day. “I am a Christian, Summerside”, Stephenson retorted. “No, Sir, you are not”, declared Summerside boldly. “I am a far better Christian than many of those priests”, retorted Stephenson hotly (Rolt, page 297).
One of those at his funeral in this church was Edward Pease. Now aged 81, he had been the Quaker financier behind the Stockton and Darlington. He made the journey from Darlington to Chesterfield – by train – to be present. Edward would not have found an Anglican funeral service to his liking, and he was worried by George’s lack of faith. To quote from his diary (Rolt, page 298): “His end was one that one seemed painfully to feel no ground, almost, for hope. I fear he died an unbeliever – the attendance at his funeral appeared to me to be a right step due to my association with him and his son. I do not feel condemned in doing so, yet gloomy and unconsolatory was the day. In the church I sat a spectacle with my hat on, and not comforted by the funeral service.”
Let’s be more positive. One obituary of George said: “He was too truly great to be ashamed of the beginning out of which he sprung … He seemed the impersonation of the moving, active spirit of the age … take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again. Nay, we cannot, for in his sphere of invention and discovery, there cannot again be a beginning.”
The East Window was paid for by Robert Stephenson, in memory of his father. I liked the wooden screen behind the altar, and there is some lovely woodwork in the Chancel chairs – but no mention who made them.
Of course, George Stephenson is not the only person in this church who matters. They had a small display of WW1 along with their War Memorials.
They have some nice banners, a photo of previous clerics, and a photo of today’s people. Thank you for a lovely church.
Outside there is a Memorial to George Stevenson, with his wife Elizabeth who died young. Do read the poem. The guide comments that many people assume this is THE George Stephenson, so they have a plaque saying it isn’t. It would be lovely if the guide told us what George Stevenson did with his life.
A nice welcome and a church doing their best to keep it open and alive. They could do with clearing their gutters!
Outside the station is this statue. It was installed in 2005 and the artist was Stephen Hickling.