At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Akenham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Akenham Akenham Akenham

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East Anglia has plenty of churches which are more remote than St Mary, Akenham, but can any of them be so lonely? Here we are, just four miles from the Cornhill in the centre of Ipswich, with the Whitton housing estate and the little spire of Whitton parish church punctuating the landscape beyond the fields and trees to the south. But we are almost a mile from the nearest proper road, and there are just two old farmhouses for company. Akenham church has been redundant for decades, falling out of use in the years after the Second World War, and not just because of its remoteness.There is no village and the parish is now almost entirely given over to intensive agriculture. Hardly anyone lives in Akenham anymore.

Standing here on a narrow, muddy track through the fields you can easily find yourself transported back through the centuries. All there is to hear is the skylark spiralling invisibly above you, the gentle rush of the wind in the hedgerow, the sound of a dog from nearby Rise Hall. But if Akenham church is remote, its story is less obscure, for along with Rise Hall this little lost church was the scene of one of the great ecclesiastical scandals of the 19th Century, a scandal which occupied the national press for a year or more, a scandal which reached the highest courts in the land, and which ultimately led to a change in English law. It is the story of a conspiracy, a tale of manipulation and persecution. Even more than this, it was a watershed in the controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement, and the irresistible rise of Anglo-Catholicism within the Church of England.

To find out what happened here you need to go back to the 1850s. The minister in charge of this parish was the rector of nearby Claydon, one Father George Drury, one of the new breed of ultra-ritualists. His introduction of candles and a cross on to the altar at Claydon, as well as vestments, daily communion and even incense, scandalised the local protestants, and led to his admonishment by the Bishop of Norwich. For all these things were quite illegal of course, and several priests had been prosecuted, and a few of them imprisoned, one for more than a year. Others were persecuted into breakdown, early death and even attempted suicide.

Incumbents like Drury were notorious at this time not least for calling themselves priests, which was considered by some to be a suspiciously papist word. As the 19th Century reached its middle years it was not enough for a Church of England minister to be a protestant, he had to behave like one too. And Drury's greatest crime in the eyes of his opponents was the establishment at Claydon of two religious communities, firstly of men, and then a convent of sisters. We may well imagine the effect on a Suffolk village of Father Ignatius, the exotic monk who had led the men's community here, later moving it to Norwich and then on to Wales where it still survives as a Catholic community on the island of Caldy. What enraged popular opinion most though was the convent. Father Drury was accused of keeping a harem, which was an outrageously offensive slur in the 19th Century. On one occasion a local mob broke into the convent and 'rescued' a nun. She was conveyed to a lunatic asylum on the orders of her father, and had to remain there until his death. Anti-Catholic slogans were painted on the side of Drury's rectory, and he built a nine foot wall around it to protect it, which still survives to this day.

But Claydon is a big village, and we may presume that he found enthusiasts as well as enemies there. Supplemented by adherents from the wider area, his Anglo-Catholic services at Claydon were increasingly popular, despite constant interference from the Bishop of Norwich, who on one occasion threatened him with suspension for saying services in an unlicensed preaching house - that is to say, he celebrated communion in the convent. He was also accused of calling communion 'Mass'. This all seems very amusing today, but we need to remember that burning passions were inflamed. Wider popular opinion, and at times the Law, were on the side of the Bishop, not George Drury. And yet Drury appears to have been a determined character, fully equal to the Bishop's interference. There was perhaps a grudging admiration in the nickname he acquired of 'Firm Father George'.

If Claydon was a busy church, then Akenham was quite the opposite. As I say, Claydon was, and is, a large village. Now combined with Barham, it is virtually a small town of ten thousand people. But Akenham, in the 19th Century, could muster barely seventy souls (and a fraction that number today). More than this, virtually all its inhabitants were non-conformists, largely because the two major landowners, Mr Gooding of Akenham Hall and Mr Smith of Rise Hall beside the church, were both members of Tacket Street Congregational Church in Ipswich. Each Sunday, they would load up their carts, and take their employees off to chapel. Akenham sexton Henry Waterman could rightly claim in 1878 that he was the only Anglican left in the parish.

Then, as now, it was left to the people of the parish to elect one of the churchwardens. Unsurprisingly it was usually a local landowner, and the people here elected Mr Smith of Rise Hall, despite the fact that he wasn't a practising Anglican. Equally unsurprisingly, Firm Father George refused to recognise the appointment (although of course it was recognised by the Bishop of Norwich) and he also refused to allow Smith to hold copies of the keys to Akenham church.

Every Sunday, Father Drury set off across the fields from his rectory beside Claydon church to hold a service at Akenham church. You can still make this journey on foot today along a bridleway. It is less than a mile. He would wait by the gate, and if anyone turned up he would unlock the church, go in with them, and a service would be held. Otherwise, he turned back across the fields to his rectory at Claydon. Estimates varied as to how often there was a service here. Drury guessed once or twice a month, but locals claimed no more than four times a year. It is important to remember that, in canon law, Drury was not allowed to hold a service without a congregation. The Sexton did not count. Ironically, this legislation was often used against Anglo-Catholics like Drury to stop them saying private Masses.

It was, and is, the responsibility of the churchwarden to ensure the upkeep of the church. But, since Drury refused to recognise Smith as warden and denied him access, the inside of Akenham church was reported to be in a dreadful state, with dirt, decay and dead birds. This state of affairs suited both parties, for from Drury's point of view it reinforced the impression that there was no warden. From Smith's point of view, it showed the results of Drury's stubbornness and High Church fundamentalism. On top of all this, a further pointed inflamed Akenham feeling against Drury. Although Claydon had by ten times or more the larger population out of the two parishes, Drury received a stipend of just 240 a year for his incumbency as rector there. By contrast, he received 266 a year for fulfilling the role of perpetual curate at Akenham. This total of about 500 a year is equivalent to more than 100,000 today. This anomaly was not unusual in the 19th Century, and it was the responsibility of the patron who presented to the living. In the case of Claydon and Akenham, the patron of the two parishes was the Drury family themselves.

The whole thing then was a powder keg waiting to explode. The fuse was lit in a quite unexpected manner.

Shortly before five o'clock in the afternoon on Friday the 23rd of August 1878, Drury set off along the bridleway towards Akenham church to bury a two year old boy, Joseph Ramsey, the son of one of the farmworkers employed by the non-conformist Mr Gooding of Akenham Hall. Drury had been told during the week that the boy's parents were Baptists, and the child had therefore not been baptised. Adherents to the Baptist tradition practise adult rather than infant baptism. The only difference this would make to Drury would be that, in canon law, he was not allowed to read the Book of Common Prayer burial service over the coffin of an unbaptised person. It is important to note that it would actually have been an offence for Drury to read the service even if he had wanted to, and he was already in enough trouble with the Bishop of Norwich. However, Drury would still be expected to accompany the coffin from the church gate to the burial site, and to be present at the interment, perhaps saying a short prayer.

At Akenham it appears that unbaptised infants were usually buried on the north side of the churchyard, although there was no particular reason in canon law for this to happen. The tradition was maintained at Akenham by Henry Waterman the sexton, who had dug the grave earlier in the day and seems to have taken a dark pleasure in informing the Ramseys of this arrangement, allegedly telling them that their son would be buried 'like a dog'. In most churchyards, the north side of the church is not as severely cut off as it is here. However, contrary to popular belief this was not unconsecrated ground. That many people believed the ground to be unconsecrated emerged at the later trial.

What happened when Drury arrived at the church is unclear, and depends on whose evidence you believe. What all agreed on, however, was that the little coffin arrived accompanied by an Ipswich Congregationalist minister, the Reverend Wickham Tozer of St Nicholas Street Chapel. Also present were the two main landowners of the parish, Mr Smith and Mr Gooding, along with a crowd of twenty or thirty farmhands, mostly members of one or other of the Ipswich non-conformist chapels. Drury arrived to find the Reverend Tozer beginning to hold a service at the edge of the field across the track from the churchyard gate, a field owned by Mr Smith of Rise Hall.

Drury approached the group impatiently. He later claimed that this had been to take charge of the coffin and to accompany it to the grave. However, Tozer claimed that Drury had attempted to break up the service. Whatever, both sides agreed that firm words were spoken, Tozer waving his fist in Drury's face. Both sides agreed that Drury gestured towards the coffin with his umbrella, and that the parents implored Tozer to ignore Drury and continue with the service. Both sides agreed that Drury eventually stormed off without burying poor Joseph Ramsey, unwisely locking the churchyard gate before he left.

The others then conveyed the coffin through the hedge and buried it in the grave that Waterman had prepared, later making it clear that they had not held any form of service in the churchyard itself. For the part of canon law that had prevented Drury reading the burial service over an unbaptised infant contained another, even harsher clause. This was that it was an offence in the eyes of the law for a clergyman from another denomination to read a burial service of any kind in a Church of England parish churchyard. Now, given that 95% of burials at this time, and almost all outside the great cities, took place in Church of England churchyards, this was an increasingly harsh piece of legislation. There had been a recent lobbying of parliament for a change in the law. After all, if an Englishman abroad could be buried in a Catholic or Orthodox graveyard with the service of the Church of England, why could not a Catholic, Orthodox or non-conformist corpse receive the rites of its own tradition in this country? A Burials Reform Bill was talked up in all parts of the land, as a way of putting right this injustice.

Some non-conformist chapels had their own burial grounds (as at Tacket Street in Ipswich, for instance), but there was none in Akenham, and surprisingly none in Claydon, where despite the size of the village there wasn't even a resident non-conformist minister. In normal circumstances, the non-conformist dead would receive a service in their own chapel before being conveyed to their grave in the parish churchyard. In a place like Akenham, where there was no chapel, that service might take place in a cottage. But the service over the corpse of the young Joseph Ramsey in the field beside the parish church was quite unprecedented. Although there seems to have been no law against it, it was a wholly unusual situation, as unusual as such a great crowd being at the funeral of an infant from a working class family.

Presumably Drury went back to his comfortable rectory, seethed for a while, and then forgot about what had happened. However, on the Monday morning he received a nasty surprise. A detailed account of the incident appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times, the local newspaper with the largest circulation. This purported to have been written by a witness. Had one of the crowd been a reporter? How had he come to be there?

The report accused Drury, amongst much else, of trying to prevent a Christian burial, and of saying in response to Tozer's entreaties that "religious convictions... and feelings have nothing to do with it - your proceedings are altogether wrong and I must teach my parishioners that I cannot sanction them". It accused him of saying that the child was not a Christian, and of storming off and locking the churchyard gate when Tozer refused to cut short his service. Tozer had told Drury to go to Heaven, the report continued, but instead he had gone to Claydon, which "as far as the rectory and adjoining nunnery are concerned, is a very different place". The piece concluded with the editorial comment: "We leave the facts to tell their own tale, reminding our readers that this staunch upholder of ecclesiastical law is already under admonition from his own bishop for lawless proceedings in his own church." Newspaper readers in the 19th Century would have immediately understood this to mean that Drury was guilty of High Church practices.

The report in the East Anglian Daily Times brought down an avalanche of brickbats upon Drury's head. Letters poured into the newspapers, both locally and nationally. He was accused of being an unfeeling monster, the embodiment of unfair and unjust laws. It was not long before lurid accounts were being published of his liturgical practices and lifestyle, as well as innuendo about the convent, and his run-ins with the law. And then it emerged that the original report in the East Anglian Daily Times had been written by none other than the Reverend Wickham Tozer himself. Several of the letters attacking Drury and increasing the ferment had been written by people directly involved in the case. For instance, letters signed 'A Protestant Churchwarden' had come from Mr Smith of Rise Hall

The report seemed carefully calculated to provoke some sort of response from Drury. Whatever, Frederick Wilson, the editor of the East Anglian Daily Times, seems to have thought legal action likely. Wilson wrote letters to several people concerned with burial law reform, suggesting that they might finance his costs in any court case. "Such an action would do more to further the burials bill than any step I can imagine", he wrote to Tozer. "I trust the friends of religious liberty, now so thick around you, will come forward to help us. I want to form a guarantee fund of 500 to defend this action, and if he brings it, to attack him simultaneously under the Public Worship Act." This was the legislation that prevented Anglo-Catholic priests from introducing ritual into their churches, on penalty of imprisonment. "If there is any bottom in this talk about the Burials Bill, there should be no difficulty in getting plenty of money to fight such a cause."

Firm Father George Drury, a contemporary newspaper illustration Reverend Wickham Tozer of St Nicholas Street chapel Frederick Wilson, the scheming editor of the East Anglian Daily Times

Well, Drury had the courage to sue, and sue successfully, Frederick Wilson for libel. (In English law, it is the publisher rather than the author of a piece who is liable). However, the jury only awarded Drury damages of 40 shillings plus costs, thus presenting a moral victory to Wilson, and, by extension, to Reverend Tozer, Smith and Gooding.

During the trial, a number of curious facts emerged. Firstly, Tozer had not been the Ramseys' minister. In point of fact, he had never met them before that day. He had been asked to conduct the 'impromptu' service by Smith and Gooding, who had known that Tozer was an experienced journalist. Furthermore, Smith and Gooding were both related to the editor of the protestant Christian World magazine, which would quickly pick up the story as though from an authoritative source, and gleefully run with it.

Tozer would surely have thought it odd when he arrived to find a group of twenty to thirty farmworkers present, as well as the two leading landowners of the parish. An infant burial, after all, was a wearily common occurence. Tozer himself stated that he had buried ten of his own children. But it also emerged that the two landowners, Smith and Gooding, had asked Tozer to compile a written account of the proceedings, a request with which he complied. He had incorporated their contributions, and had even allowed them to correct the final draft before it was passed on to Frederick Wilson at the East Anglian Daily Times.

Was this a conspiracy, intended to discredit Drury's High Church practices? Or was it simply designed to provoke a change in the burial law? Whichever, popular opinion remained against Drury. A national fund was set up to pay Wilson's costs, raising over 1000, almost a quarter of a million in today's money. A small amount of this went to provide a proper headstone for the little boy.

Drury soldiered on at Claydon until his death in 1895, and the events were increasingly forgotten as the years went by. And then in the 1970s the writer Ronald Fletcher discovered a scrapbook of press-cuttings about the incident in a Southwold junkshop, and put together an excellent account of the scandal in his book The Akenham Burial Case, a reworking of a chapter in his book In A Country Churchyard. His books showed that the incident had led directly to the passing of the Burial Law Reform Act of 1880. There's no question that this popular change in the law was bought at the expense of George Drury's reputation. As recently as the 1980s, the Churches Conservation Trust guidebook to Akenham church stated that this churchyard was the site of a famous incident in which the rector, George Drury, refused to allow the burial of a child of non-conformist parents. I've seen this claimed elsewhere as well, but Drury was not at the time accused by Tozer of this, and certainly strongly refuted any suggestion at the trial that he might have considered such a course of action. Perhaps the confusion arises from a misreading of Fletcher's books.

And so, you stand outside the gate, at the very spot where Joseph Ramsey's coffin rested. On the other side of the track is a gate into the field where the incident took place. Beyond, Rise Hall sits in a dip.

Rise Hall from the churchyard gateway Rise Hall from the churchyard gateway

The gate has been renewed since the unfortunate afternoon that Drury, in his anger, locked it against the burial party, but the gateposts that you step through are the very same ones. The church, on rising ground, presents a slightly curious aspect. The 14th Century tower is a south one, common enough in the Ipswich area, but a 17th Century brick mausoleum has been built to the east of it, today forming a south aisle. From the east end of the aisle, two modern steel joists protrude, a reminder of another unhappy day in the life of this church.

In 1940, a German bomber returning from a foray over a Midlands city dumped the rest of its load here before the hazardous recrossing of the North Sea. A mine hit St Mary directly, wrecking the building. It remained derelict until the 1960s, when the energy and enthusiasm of the local people, and the resources of the Friends of Friendless Churches, rescued the little building and restored to use, as part of the benefice of Whitton and Thurleston. In 1976, the Anglican Diocese declared it redundant; not, perhaps, unreasonably. It was vested in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund, now the Churches Conservation Trust.

The Tower is stark, but the whole thing together is so pretty that one can forgive this. The interior is bare and tidy in the CCT manner, no doubt neater than in Drury's day. As at Claydon he probably designed and made some of the furnishings with his own hands. As if a sense of melancholy has infected the building, there are two other moving features not associated with the burial case. One is the war memorial. It bears just three names, but they are all members of the same family, Purkiss. The other is a ledger stone for Elizabeth Fynn, who died in 1683. The inscription reads:

For nineteen Yeares I liv'd a Virgin life
For seaventeen more beeing marriid liv'd a wife.
At thirty six Pale Death my life Assaild,
And as I liv'd I dy'd belov'd bewail'd.

There are a couple of curiosities. In the chapel, which is clearly post-Reformation, there is a medieval piscina. Was it placed there, as seems likely, by Firm Father George? Or was it there already, the aisle built on the site of an earlier one? Just inside the door, there is a medieval brass inscription, asking in Latin for prayers for the soul of Sissilie Joly. It seems an unlikely survival in puritan Ipswich and can't be in its original position.

Like all CCT churches, Akenham is admirably cared for. The great irony is that for many years the main custodian and keyholder was at Rise Hall, the farm where Drury's 'protestant churchwarden' Mr Smith lived, whom Drury had not allowed a key. The narrow path between the Hall and the church cannot have changed at all in the years since. But coming back here in the summer of 2019 I was disappointed to discover that there was no longer a keyholder notice. Wandering down to Rise Hall I found it empty, the rooms visibly bare through the windows.

Before leaving, there is one last thing to do. You walk round to the north side of the church to find a disconcerting corrugated iron fence separating the churchyard from a neighbouring farm. Here in the gloomy shadows of the church there is just one headstone of the dozen or so that were here in the 1870s. It is small, and it is Joseph Ramsey's, of course.

Joseph Ramsey

The inscription reads In memory of JOSEPH, son of Edward and Jane Ramsey, who died at Akenham on his second birthday August 19th 1878. 'Suffer little children, forbid them not to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven'. In 1978, Ronald Fletcher found this headstone leaning against the church wall, so it has been reset since then, perhaps not quite in its original place. On a cold winters day, with the wind furrowing the grass, it would be easily overlooked.

And there are other graves elsewhere, now equally overlooked and forgotten. Wickham Tozer lies under his sinking headstone in a quiet corner of Ipswich Old Cemetery, his inscription telling us that he was pastor of the Congregational church, St Nicholas, Ipswich, chairman of the Board of Guardians, the labour bureau and the free library. Died September 9th 1908 aged 76. "After he had served his own generation... fell on sleep." The headstone also remembers his wife Emily who died in 1904 and, poignantly, also of 9 children of the above, interred elsewhere. Closer to Akenham, George Drury lies under a tree against the wall separating Claydon churchyard from his rectory, now a private house. His memorial is a cross-shaped tombchest surrounded by rails.

Rev T Wickham Tozer's grave: the Akenham Burial Case Grave of Reverend George Drury

I thought back to the 1990s when I first stood outside this gate where the whole thing began, looking out towards Ipswich's Whitton estate to the south. The tower block of Thurleston High School was prominent on the horizon. This school, which served the estate, was named after the vanished village of Thurleston, which was once in the valley below. The ruined church of Thurleston was demolished under Drury's direction in the 1860s to provide materials for the rebuilding of Whitton church. It is said that Drury used some of the medieval masonry from here to construct the grotto which you can still see over Claydon churchyard wall in the garden of the former rectory.

The fields of Akenham are rugged in winter. Frantic, relentless gulls clamour behind the plough as a tractor drags it up the flinty soil of the rise. Electricity pylons criss-cross all the land around about, and perhaps if Joseph Ramsey had lived he might, as an old man, have seen them going up. I thought about how all of this happened a century and a half ago, but that a century and a half was not such a very long time. When you are exploring medieval churches, it's a very short time indeed.


Simon Knott, February 2021

I'd like to acknowledge my debt to Ronald Fletcher, and in particular his two magnificent books on the subject, In a Country Churchyard and The Akenham Burial Case.

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arch to the south aisle sanctuary looking west
pulpit font Akenham lancet
Amos, George and Philip Purkis for nineteen yeares I liv'd a virgin life candelabra
Here lyeth the body of Margery Lewys pray for the soul of Sissilie Joly under this marble stone resteth the body of Elizabeth Fynn


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