The Seward Churches, North Tyne Valley, Northumberland - Chris Harding

Why would you have found ex-Naval Chaplains from the Napoleonic Wars in the heart of Northumberland?

Take a tour up the North Tyne Valley and find out!

Much of the Valley was once ‘the Great Parish of Simonburn’, stretching from the Roman Wall to Carter Bar. This changed in 1811 when an Act of Parliament formed five new parishes within it, Wark, Bellingham, Thorneyburn, Greystead and Falstone (and in 1832 the chapelry of Humshaugh and Haughton also became a parish in its own right).

The Greenwich Hospital Commissioners had been granted the Derwentwater Estates, including the Barony of Wark, following the impeachment and execution in 1716 of the Jacobite 3rd Earl, James Radcliffe, and subsequent death of his son in 1731. One of their responsibilities was the settlement into civilian life of former Naval Chaplains after the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1818 they opened four new churches, at Humshaugh, Wark, Thorneyburn and Greystead, to help achieve this.

The churches were all designed by Henry Hake Seward (1788-1848), a pupil of Sir John Soane’s famous school of architecture. Seward was at that time the house architect for the Greenwich Hospital. The churches, which are all plain buildings of ashlar in the then-popular neo-Gothic style, share certain architectural similarities such as the ‘Y’ stone tracery in the windows, raised parapets on the roofs, and flat painted ceilings inside. Greystead is no longer in use as a church, but in the other three churches some similar original internal features also remain, such as framed boards inscribed with the Ten Commandments and The Creed, or the hatchments (coats of arms) of King George III and the Greenwich Hospital (above left - the Greenwich motto ‘Otia Tuta’ means ‘Rest after Toil’). The Rectories at each church were also by Seward.

St Peter’s, Humshaugh,

is the only one of these churches without a tower - perhaps because when it was built it was still only designated a Chapel of Ease. There are bellcote-like-turrets to east and west, the west one being the real belfry. Church and Rectory were said to have cost about £4000. It was consecrated on 11th August 1818 by the Lord Bishop of Oxford, officiating for the Lord Bishop of Durham. (He had already consecrated Thorneyburn on the 8th, Greystead on the 9th and Wark on the 10th)

Inside there is no central aisle, and many of the original box pews remain, having escaped the late 19th century church restoration movement, although some open wooden pews were introduced at the back the church.

A ‘three-decker’ pulpit was also evidently removed. (A three-decker’ pulpit typically seated the Parish Clerk on the lowest level, while the priest was seated mid-level and preached the sermon from the highest level. It would be placed centrally towards the east end of the church, not to one side as the current pulpit is.)

Outside you will find the grave of Thomas Nixon from the nearby village of Wall who was the contractor who actually built the church, but died only four years later, in 1822.

The stained glass window at the East end shows three scenes of St. Peter, to whom the church is dedicated, and is in remembrance of Edward Brice, a Royal Naval Chaplain who was for 36 years the incumbent at Humshaugh, and who died in 1873.

To the south is a 1901 Charles Kempe window, ‘The Coming of the Bridegroom’, in loving memory of Margaret Octavia Cruddas. The Cruddas family at that time lived in Haughton Castle and were great benefactors of both the church and village.

St Michael’s, Wark,

is just to the north of the village, on the Bellingham road. Despite being consecrated in 1818 it is sometimes known as Wark’s ‘third church’ or the ‘modern church’ - the previous ones were built some time after 788 and around 1100! St. Michael’s was built by R. Duke of Gateshead and W. Profit of North Shields. The first stone was laid in October 1815, and along with the rectory it cost the Greenwich Commissioners £7,470 17s 0d. It is very similar to Humshaugh, but with the addition of a tower at the west end.

In 1832 the incumbent was still the first Rector, the Reverend Isham Baggs, who had served as a naval chaplain for 17 years - important to note, as White’s Directory of 1828 explains - ‘None but chaplains in the navy, who have served for ten years or lost a limb in the service can be inducted.’

St. Michael’s was restored and reseated with open benches and a new pulpit and lectern in 1883-4, at a cost of £550.

The East window is by Henry Holiday and is unusual in having three figures together in one panel.

The porch window was restored in 2009 in memory of Peter Bell and was designed by a former Rector, Canon Stanley Prins.

The altar cross used in services was originally from the Royal Chapel, Buckingham Palace.

It was presented to Wark Parish in 1931 by King George V.  Rev. Spencer Wade was incumbent at the time, who amongst many other things had once been chaplain to the King.

St. Aidan’s Church at Thorneyburn

is fun to find, but well worth the visit. It was built along with a Rectory, Stable and Churchyard Walls, all by Seward, which Pevsner describes as ‘ a curiously urbane group in the midst of these wild moors’. Like Humshaugh it cost around £4,000 to build.

Inside the church was restored and reseated with open benches in 1885, along with a new pulpit and reading desk.

The hatchments and boards are at a lower level here than in the other two churches and so are much easier to see.

When I visited there was an excellent display explaining more about the Greenwich and naval connections.

Also in 1885 a new stained glass window was installed by Michael Spencer Esq. and his wife Isabella, of Walbottle Hall, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and also of Greenhaugh. Several branches of the Spencer family were landowners in the Greenhaugh area - they made their fortune through their steelworks at Newburn in Newcastle, and it is likely that Michael Spencer was a relation to the Margaret Spencer commemorated at Greystead..

Greystead Church

is now in private ownership and called ‘Greystead Old Church’ - originally it was St. Luke’s, Greystead - so it is not possible to view the interior.

It was also restored and renovated, in 1879. It is understood that the current owners restored the 1910 stained glass East Window in 2013. The window was by the firm of Powell of Whitefriars, London and dedicated to the memory of Margaret Spencer, wife of Thomas Spencer, of The Grove, Ryton, near Newcastle, who died in Madeira December 20th 1865, aged 22 years. She also has a commemorative window in Ryton Church, which reveals her middle name to be Isabella - the same as Michael Spencer’s wife at Thorneyburn - perhaps another connection?

The surrounding graveyard remains open for church burials and visiting graves. There is a lay-by for nearby parking, but take care of the busy and twisting road!

The parish originally also included the townships of Chirdon and Smalesmouth but is described in Kelly’s Directory of 1890 as consisting ‘principally of moors and mountains and high Forest’. They are still there!

I hope you have enjoyed this short photographic trip, and feel inspired to visit the real thing.

It would be a good day out!

If you do decide to do the trip, to help you find them on your satnav postcodes for the churches are - 

St. Peter’s, Humshaugh    NE46 4AA

St. Michael’s, Wark            NE48 3BF

St. Aidan’s, Thorneyburn   NE48 1NA

Greystead Old Church       NE48 1LE

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