How Staffordshire’s distinctive Catholic history influenced the building of Haunton’s Catholic church
Published by kind permission of Anthony Mason
If you drive or cycle north of Tamworth in Staffordshire through the Mease valley towards the village of Clifton Campville and its majestic church spire (St Andrew’s Anglican church reputedly has the tallest spire of any village church in England) you could easily miss the Catholic church of St Michael and St James in Haunton a mile before. But it is a building of some quality, containing symbols that reflect not just Haunton’s but Staffordshire’s significant Catholic history.
Although largely a twentieth century building, the church has its roots in the three great strands of the Catholic revival of the 19th century: the Oxford movement; the gothic revival; and the economic freedoms that enabled upper middle class and aristocratic Catholics to fund the building of churches and schools.
These influences came together in Haunton after Colonel Charles Mousley inherited Haunton Hall. His Catholicism came both from his Spanish mother and his father’s links to Staffordshire’s deeper Catholic past. In 1845, the Mousleys commissioned AWN Pugin to design a chapel at the Hall dedicated to St Mary. Sadly (from an architectural viewpoint) this is now incorporated into Haunton Hall Nursing Home but can still just about be seen to the right of the main entrance. It was soon judged to be too small for a growing Catholic population and there was talk of building a new church on land opposite the hall.
The influence of the Oxford movement came to Haunton through Reverend Henry John Pye, Rector of St Andrew’s in Clifton Campville and son of the squire of Clifton Hall. Cambridge educated, in 1851 Pye married Emily, daughter of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and grand-daughter of William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery campaigner. After a long and complex spiritual journey, he and his wife decided to convert to Catholicism in 1868. This was a significant and difficult step for them as Pye was cut off from his living, his wider family and (initially at least) his inheritance. Pye wrote a long treatise for his Clifton parishioners on his reasons for converting.
He became a barrister and JP and over time reconciled with his family. By 1880, Henry and Emily had returned to the area and were determined to build a new Catholic church in Haunton. They gifted land for the church, but needed more money to realise their dream.
In 1885, Augustus de Trafford came to Haselour Hall near Harlaston – around three miles from Haunton. A member of an old Lancastrian Catholic family and son of a Baronet; de Trafford’s wider family gives its name to a Manchester local authority, and cricket and football grounds beloved of many. Around the same time, Lady Frances Mostyn came to Haunton Hall. The Mostyns are most closely associated with Mostyn Hall in Flintshire and her son Francis was appointed the first Vicar Apostolic of Wales in 1895.
The resources of the Mousleys, Pyes, de Traffords and Mostyns were eventually combined to help finance the building of a church on Pye’s land opposite Haunton Hall.
The first church on the site opened in January 1885. Probably funded by Mousley and Pye, it was dedicated to St Michael and was a temporary iron structure. By 1887, this was extended by the addition of a chancel built in part “from the stones of an ancient mediaeval chapel dedicated to St James [the Great] which stood eastwards of its present site and had long fallen into decay.” In fact, the root of this story is difficult to trace and in the 1881 Ordnance Survey map, the site is labelled ‘St Agnes’ rather than St James. However, the re-use of these stones around the window above the present high altar was a symbolic link of the old with the new. As a result, the dedication of the church was changed to the rather unusual combination of St Michael and St James.
In 1901, the prefabricated structure was replaced by the present stone building, designed by Edmund Kirby, a pupil of Pugin’s oldest son Edward. The church is in an adaptation of the Early English style, built in red and white Hollington sandstone with a timber bellcote at the west end. While the building is relatively small, it is coherent in its design and is little altered. It has a distinctive heavy scissor-trussed roof and the interior fittings are of high quality. These include a font in a late twelfth century Romanesque style whose provenance is uncertain. It was most likely found next to the River Mease, but another source says it was imported from Treviso. Whatever its origin, it was probably not designed as a font as it portrays no obvious Christian symbols.
The high altar is most likely by Kirby and at the church’s consecration, The Tablet said “the columns are of pavanazzo marble and the super-altars are also of rich marble. The tabernacle is of pure white alabaster, beautifully carved with angels and the emblems of wheat and the vine”. As it was financed with little debt, the church was consecrated on 20th June 1907.
The windows in the church are its most distinctive feature and are of fine quality. Despite their “Victorian” feel, they are all of the 20th century. Those in the nave and chancel are by John Hardman and Co. of Handsworth. Influenced by Pugin, they have strong gothic characteristics. Some have great historical themes and others are distinctively Catholic, with scenes of Our Lady and of the shrine at Lourdes. They were mostly commissioned by the founding families – from the chancel windows above the high altar dedicated to Lady Mostyn; to those from the de Traffords on the south side of the nave, many of which commemorate family war dead. The principal west windows commemorate the Pye family. A further south window, depicting the Assumption, St Edward the Confessor and Pope St Eugene, commemorates the Mousleys. Col. Mousley’s was the first burial in the graveyard in 1887.
Unusually, the central window on the north side is in memory of Father John O’Toole, an early pastor of the church and includes representations of items still in use today including church plate and the Sanctus bell. The window was designed by W. J. Wainwright, President of the Birmingham Society of Artists for Hardmans. Father O’Toole is pictured in the lower portion of the window alongside representations of the sisters of St Joseph of Bordeaux who had a strong and distinctive presence in Haunton from 1904 to 2017. The most recent window is in the chancel and commemorates Oswald de Trafford who died in 1942 and is also by Hardman.
It is possible that St Michael and St James is the only church in the diocese to have a complete set of nave windows by Hardman and the overall effect is pleasing and harmonious.
The Lady chapel is a later addition. The chapel’s side windows are by Alexander Gascoygne and include his distinctive golden lion motif. These were commissioned in 1925 by Mrs Donisthorpe of Enderby Hall, Leicestershire and have a different and richer style – almost pre-Raphaelite when compared to the Hardman windows. The gorgeous window picturing the conversion of St Hubert is an unusual theme in English stained glass and is perhaps the finest window in the church – and a full development of Gascoyne’s work as he died soon after his work at Haunton.
SS Michael and James is a small parish and as of 2018, no priest is appointed as sole pastor. Rev Tony Rigby, the Deacon attached to the parish is supported by the Area Dean who is the appointed parish administrator. The parish remains very active with prayer and Eucharistic Services at several points in the week. Ecumenical links with our Anglican friends at St Andrew’s are also strong. The church has the celebration of a Mass for Sunday at least once a month.
Interior photographs by Coralie Wells, parishioner and design student