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Discovering the 1527 altar piece of Saint Thomas More

Local historians identify and track down early 16th-century mantelpiece 


The 1527 carved oak chimneypiece - Image from the Peter Miller collection
The 1527 carved oak chimneypiece
Image from the Peter Miller collection


Introduction to an exciting piece of historical detective work


In 1930, a carved oak Tudor chimneypiece that originated in More Hall, North Mymms, the Hertfordshire home of the father of Sir Thomas More almost 500 years ago, was sold to a buyer in Birkenhead.

It’s believed the item once stood above a small stone altar in a room where Sir Thomas, who was canonised in 1935 as Saint Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, would pray.

The chimneypiece is dated 1527, and has had five homes, survived one demolition, been salvaged from a fire, and was stored in stables for 39 years before being moved 200 miles north to the borough of Wirral in Cheshire, now part of Merseyside.

But mystery has surrounded who bought it and where the chimneypiece ended up.

Now, thanks to research by Peter Miller, historian, archivist, and one of the founders of the North Mymms History Project, and research and input from David Humphreys, a professional photographer and local history enthusiast from Liverpool, the current home has been identified as Hillbark Hotel in Frankby, Wirral, a Grade II*-listed building.

Below is Peter Miller’s account of the history of the mantelpiece up until 1930.

This is followed by the story of how the mantelpiece was tracked down in November 2019 - almost 90 years after it was moved from Hertfordshire.

Note: Throughout this report the item is variously referred to as an altar piece, mantelpiece, and chimneypiece.



The 1527 altar piece of Sir Thomas More


By Peter Miller

The late Dorothy Colville, in Chapter 10 of her 1972 book North Mymms – Parish and People, wrote about the two manors of Brokemans (Brookmans) and More Hall, later to be known as Gubbins, (Gobions) and, in particular, traced the history of a Tudor oak mantelpiece:
“Jeremy Sambrooke [former owner of Gobions] had antiquarian tastes, and he retained an austere little room which contained a small stone altar said to have been used by the famous Sir Thomas More for his private devotions. The mantelpiece that Holbein had used as the background for his picture of Sir Thomas was also preserved.”
Recent research has shed new light on the altar and fireplace and I will attempt to update and answer some of the points that she made.

Gobions was known as More Hall for most of the period between 1397 and 1693, when the last of the More family sold the estate. Jeremy Sambrooke bought Gobions in 1707 and is referenced by Colville as retaining the ‘austere little room’ because he substantially remodelled and enlarged the old More Hall, incorporating some of it into the new mansion.

However, the references to the stone altar and the mantelpiece being used by Holbein as a background are now known to be incorrect.

1) Hans Holbein the Younger 1497-1543 was a gifted German artist who came to England with a letter of introduction from Erasmus (a friend of Sir Thomas More) in search of work in 1526. Holbein also became a good friend with Sir Thomas More, the son of Sir John More who lived at More Hall. He later worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell and by 1535 was King’s painter to Henry VIII. In c1527, Holbein painted Sir Thomas More and his family, and the painting, which originally hung in More Hall, was destroyed in a fire in 1752. Fortunately, a study by Holbein for the painting still exists in the Kuntsmuseum, Basel. It is clear in the illustration below, that it does not feature the oak mantelpiece, but instead, a similar looking cupboard with linenfold panels.

Image by Hans Holbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Hans Holbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2) Unfortunately, Colville does not provide a source for her statement about the ‘austere little room which contained a small stone altar’, which conflicts with the information contained in the 1838 notice of sale (HALS 34418) for Gubbins estate. The auctioneer’s particulars for the sale provide a detailed description of the mansion at Gubbins and state the following:
“GENTLEMAN’S, OR CHAPEL ROOM, Twenty-one Feet by Twenty-four, In which is a finely Carved Oak Chimney Piece, bearing the date of 1527, formerly the Altar Piece of Sir THOMAS MORE.”
Colville further documents the history of the mantelpiece:
“In 1838 Gubbins came on to the market and was described by the agents, Shuttleworth and Son, as ‘being upon the scale of a nobleman’s establishment’. It was bought by Robert William Gaussen, of Brookmans, and the fortunes or misfortunes of the two manors were united. The new owner of Gubbins proceeded systematically to demolish it. Many of its treasures, including the famous mantelpiece, were used to enlarge and beautify Brookmans.”
Later in Chapter 10 of her book, Colville refers to 11 July, 1891, the day Brookmans was destroyed by fire - but the mantelpiece was saved:
“At Brookmans at midday it was found that a small fire had started below the eaves and the alarm was raised. When it became clear that their own staff could not cope with the blaze a stable lad was sent off to Hatfield to get the fire brigade. By the time he had scoured the park and rounded up the firemen much time had been lost. Water was low in the lakes and the fire had got such a hold that by the time the brigade arrived it was plain that the house could not be saved. Effort was concentrated on saving furniture, and among the things saved was the oak mantelpiece which had originally belonged to Gubbins. Of this mantelpiece Maberly Phillips, writing in the Home Counties Magazine in 1902, said, "It is still in existence, as it was fortunately saved at the time of the fire."
“The mansion was never rebuilt, but the stables were converted into a dwelling house, and it is this conversion which today is the Brookmans Park golf clubhouse. Unfortunately the oak mantelpiece was too large to be used in any one of the remodelled rooms and for some years was stored in a barn. In 1923 the estate was sold and among its attractions were listed “a rare old cork tree and a large tulip tree” and “a pretty Dutch garden with lily pond occupying part of the site of the old house”, but no mention was made of the oak mantelpiece, so presumably it was disposed of as “contents of a barn””.
Further investigation reveals that an article titled Gleanings of North Mymms, written by Merle G. Rafferty, which appeared in ‘Hertfordshire Countryside’ magazine and was published at the same time as Colville’s book in August 1972, states:
“A magnificent carved oak chimney-piece stored in the stables at Brookmans (now the golf clubhouse), and thus saved from the fire, was later sold by Mrs. Gaussen to Sir Charles Allom, antique dealer, and installed in a house in Birkenhead. It was described in the particulars of sale of Gubbins as being the altar piece of Sir Thomas More, but this is not proved.”
The accuracy of this statement can be further corroborated by the advert below for ‘A carved oak Elizabethan Chimneypiece removed from Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire’ which appeared in the October 1930 edition of  The Connoisseur magazine.

Photograph of the Connoisseur magazine cover  Image from the Peter Miller collection
Photograph of the Connoisseur magazine cover
Image from the Peter Miller collection
White Allom & Co was established in 1905 by Charles Carrick Allom (1865-1947). The company acted as decorators, furniture manufacturers, and antique dealers for many collectors and clients in the UK and USA. Charles Allom was knighted in 1913 following his work on Buckingham Palace. He spent the latter part of his life living at 36 Heath Road, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire.

Careful examination of the photograph used in the White Allom advert reveals the date 1527 carved in the bottom central panel identifying it as the altar piece of Sir Thomas More mentioned in the 1838 notice of sale.

Image of the carved oak chimneypiece from the Peter Miller collection
Close up of the carved oak chimneypiece
Image from the Peter Miller collection


Conclusion


It is thought that John More (later Sir), father of Sir Thomas More, either demolished or incorporated the old More Hall, home of the More family since 1397, into a new house in the early 16th century, probably installing the 1527 oak mantelpiece in the chapel at this time.

Jeremy Sambrooke bought Gobions (formerly More Hall) estate in 1707 and in 1732 employed architect James Gibbs to improve the house, incorporating some of the old house, including the chapel and oak mantelpiece into a new mansion.

In 1838 Robert William Gaussen of Brookmans bought Gobions estate for £23,000, incorporating it into his estate, and within two years had demolished the mansion. The oak mantelpiece was removed and installed at his Brookmans mansion.

In 1891 Brookmans mansion was destroyed by fire. The oak mantelpiece was rescued from the flames and stored in the stables. The stable block was converted into the Gaussen family residence. The oak mantelpiece was stored in the stable block until it was converted into the Brookmans Park golf clubhouse in 1929. It was presumably at this time that Mrs Gaussen sold the oak mantelpiece to Sir Charles Allom, who advertised the mantelpiece for sale in 1930.

The oak mantelpiece was sold and installed in a house in Birkenhead, probably in the early 1930s.

It is not known if the photograph of the mantelpiece used by White Allom in their 1930 advert was provided by Mrs Gaussen and whether it depicts the mantelpiece in situ at Brookmans before the fire in 1891, or whether it is a later studio mock-up by White Allom.

A glass plate of the same image is known to exist, but because the other plates in the same collection, held by the Potters Bar and District Historical Society, are mainly photographs of prints, it is likely that the plate is a photograph of the White Allom advert.

Researched and written by Peter Miller - 2019




Finding the oak mantelpiece in 2019


Since Peter Miller wrote the account above, the North Mymms History Project contacted several groups in Birkenhead, Wirral, trying to locate the house where the piece was said to be installed.

We approached Wirral Borough Council’s archives service, the Birkenhead History Society, the and the Wirral Globe newspaper, without any luck.

Then the Birkenhead History Society invited us to join their society’s Facebook page and post about our search for the item there.

That post drew many responses, including one from local historian and photographer David Humphreys, who decided he would take on to try to find the mantelpiece. He then undertook what he describes as “a fair bit of detective work, research and knowledge of the local area to solve the problem”.

When David eventually found the item he messaged to say that it was now a central feature in the great hall at the Hillbark Hotel at Frankby, Wirral.

The entrance to Hillbark, Frankby, Wirral Image by Leon Berg reproduced with permission
The entrance to Hillbark, Frankby, Wirral
Image by Leon Berg reproduced with permission

The great hall at Hillbark, Frankby, Wirral - the oak mantelpiece on the left
Image by Leon Berg reproduced with permission
The 500-year-old oak mantelpiece in the great hall at Hillbark, Frankby, Wirral Image by Leon Berg reproduced with permission
The 500-year-old oak mantelpiece in the great hall at Hillbark, Frankby, Wirral
Image by Leon Berg reproduced with permission

How the mantelpiece came to be installed at Hillbark


The background to how the mantelpiece came to be installed at Hillbark is a complex story, the following is from Wikipedia.
“The house was originally built in 1891 for the soap manufacturer Robert William Hudson on Bidston Hill, Birkenhead. It was designed by the Liverpool architectural firm of George Enoch Grayson and Edward A. L. Ould (probably by Ould), and was then known as Bidston Court. It was the home of John Laird, Chairman of Laird Brothers Shipbuilders of Birkenhead (later Cammell Laird) until approximately 1910. In 1921 the house was later sold to Sir Ernest Royden, and he arranged for the house to be dismantled and rebuilt on the present site, at Royden Park, between 1928 and 1931.This work was supervised by the architectural firm of Rees and Holt. In 2001 the house was being used as an old people's home, and later in the 2000s it was converted into a hotel.”
Considering Bidston Court was moved between 1928 and 1931 and the mantelpiece was sold to a buyer in Birkenhead in 1930, it’s possible it was installed as part of the rebuilding process.

This theory is backed up by a photograph of the great hall at Bidston Court taken in July 1894 on the Historic England site.

Bidston Court, Vyner Road, Bidston, Birkenhead  Photograph by H Bedford Lemere taken July 1894  Reproduced by permission of Historic England Reference Number: BL12842
Bidston Court, Vyner Road, Bidston, Birkenhead
Photograph by H Bedford Lemere taken July 1894
Reproduced by permission of Historic England Reference Number: BL12842
David Humphreys writes:

“If you look closely at the old image, particularly the stained glass windows, you will note that the leftmost window is a mirror image of the rightmost window in photograph of the rebuilt great hall at Hillbark [below]. Likewise, in the old image, the second stained glass panel on the left is a mirror of the second-from-right on the new image.”

The great hall at Hillbark, Frankby, Wirral - the oak mantelpiece on the left
Image by Leon Berg reproduced with permission

David Humphreys continues:

“This leads me to believe that one of two things have happened. 1) Either the old image was printed reversed, or, 2) when the property was dismantled and rebuilt, the windows were installed not only in reverse order but also with the inside facing out. I think the first is the most likely explanation. This means that the image is reversed and should look like this.”

Reverse of photograph by H Bedford Lemere taken July 1894
Photograph of the great hall at Bidston Court taken July 1894 reversed
Image by H Bedford Lemere

“You can now see that the four right-hand windows in the old image of the great hall at Bidston Court taken in July 1894 match as those in modern-day image of the rebuilt great hall at Hillbark.

“This shows that there is still the doorway on the right of the room and still a fireplace on the left - the difference being that the fireplace in the 1894 picture is a different one.”

Incorrect information regarding early ownership


As with many accounts, the Wikipedia entry had wrongly recorded that the mantelpiece once belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh, rather than Sir Thomas More. This mistake is repeated on several websites. The North Mymms History Project has corrected the Wikipedia entry following the publication of this article.

David Humphreys suggests the following explanation for the mistake in the original ownership of the mantelpiece.

“In 1891, the Hudson family built Bidston Court at its original location, but Mrs Hudson (a native of the southern states in America) found the Wirral climate a little too cool, so, six years later, in 1897, the family moved to a country estate called Danesfield, between Marlow and Henley-on-Thames. By 1901, Hudson had converted Danesfield to meet his requirements.

“The article below says that ‘nothing was spared in skill, luxury and ingenuity to make it [Danesfield] the finest Jacobean copy in the country’. It goes on to say that ‘In the hall ... the walls ... were panelled in oak from Sir Walter Raleigh's house in Devon’.

Cutting from The Liverpool Echo - Thursday 16 June 1938  Cutting courtesy of David Humphreys
The Liverpool Echo - Thursday 16 June 1938
Cutting courtesy of David Humphreys

David Humphreys concludes:

“Perhaps this is the source of the confusion over the Hillbark fireplace belonging to Raleigh? The Hudson family had some wooden artefacts in their house that belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh - perhaps they were just the wrong artefact and the wrong house?”

Rescued from the flames


Fascinated by the background to the piece, David Humphreys then wanted to know more about the fire that almost destroyed the mantelpiece almost 130 years ago.

He discovered and shared some newspaper cuttings from July 1891 when the mantelpiece was rescued from the fire that destroyed much of the manor house of Brookmans in Hertfordshire.

Morning Post - Monday 13 July 1891
Cutting courtesy of David Humphreys

Lichfield Mercury - Friday 17 July 1891
Cutting courtesy of David Humphreys

Herts Advertiser - Saturday 18 July 1891
Cutting courtesy of David Humphreys
Note: to read in detail use the pop-out button top right and zoom in

Acknowledgments and thanks


The North Mymms History Project thanks the Birkenhead History Society for inviting us to post on its Facebook page, and in particular local historian David Humphreys for helping solve the mystery of the current whereabouts of the mantelpiece, and perhaps the reason for the confusion over early ownership.

The project also thanks North Mymms historian and archivist Peter Miller for his research which helped track down the altar piece of Sir (Saint) Thomas More (7 February 1478 – 6 July 1535) to Hillbark Hotel in Frankby, Wirral, Merseyside in November 2019.




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