A BRIEF HISTORY.
The Church of St John the Baptist started life in 1827 in the neighbouring village of Tixall, some 2 miles away as the family chapel for the Clifford Constable family.
Tixall Hall, of which only the Gatehouse and the stables now remain was the ancestral home of the Aston family from approximately 1550 until 1762 and thereafter the Clifford family when Barbara Aston, the heiress, married Thomas Clifford of Chudleigh.
Following the Reformation, the Aston family adhered to the Protestant faith as strong supporters of their Monarch. However, in 1638, after spending time in Spain as Ambassador for James 1, Walter 1st Lord Aston of Forfar announced his allegiance to the Catholic faith. For the next 120 years the Astons maintained a Catholic presence at Tixall and were viewed as recusants. With the marriage of Barbara Aston to Thomas Clifford, the Catholic allegiance continued.
It had long been known that throughout penal times there was a chapel or chapel room within the House at Tixall where the family and their Catholic tenants worshipped. By the time Thomas Clifford inherited the Hall through his wife, Barbara, it was in a very dilapidated state and he set about demolishing much of the old Hall and building up a new one. From the outset there was a chapel in this new house, initially disguised as a dining room as Catholics were still not allowed to practise their faith openly.
THE BUILDING OF A NEW CHAPEL AT TIXALL.
In 1787 Thomas Clifford died and his son Thomas Hugh Clifford inherited the Hall. In 1791, the English Relief Act was passed and after two centuries of worshipping in secret it was possible for Catholics to acknowledge & practise their faith openly. Immediately after the passing of the Relief Act the chapel in the house was registered as a place of worship and it quickly became apparent that there was a thriving Catholic population in the area.
In 1821 Thomas Hugh Clifford inherited an Estate in Yorkshire (Burton Constable) and the family name was changed to Clifford Constable. By 1822, records indicate that Thomas Hugh Clifford Constable had determined that a new chapel should be built outside the Hall. However, although it is thought that some work had commenced in 1822 it was halted whilst Thomas Hugh and his daughter, Mary Barbara went on a European tour. Sadly, he did not return, he died in Ghent in February 1823.
Thomas Aston Clifford Constable, Thomas Hugh’s 17 year old son, inherited Tixall and Burton Constable from his father and with great enthusiasm set about refurbishing Tixall Hall, building new stables (now Tixall Mews private dwellings), and building the new chapel.
Joseph Ireland (a renowned architect who designed many Catholic churches in this period) was engaged to design and supervise the building of the new chapel in Tudor Gothic style. No expense was spared and on completion between 1827 and 1829 an elegant chapel with a large bay window at the eastern end stood behind and slightly to the north of the Gatehouse. Recent research has confirmed that this bay window was in fact the remnants of one of the windows that had graced the front of the original Tudor mansion built by Sir John Aston in 1555. Always keen to re-cycle old stone the Cliffords made good use of their Bay window. The carving and window design within the new Chapel mirrors that of the style of the original Hall having a distinctly Tudor appearance. On the completion of the renovations of the Hall & the building of the new Chapel in 1829, the 23 year old Thomas Aston Clifford Constable was deeply in debt. His lifestyle was lavish and he failed to heed warnings that the Tixall estate was in deep trouble. By 1833 it was put on the market but it was not until 1845 that the estate was finally sold to the Chetwynd Talbot family of Ingestre (15 years later to inherit the title of Lord Shrewsbury).
GREAT HAYWOOD, A CHURCH RELOCATED.
Prior to the eventual sale of the estate, the beautiful Stone Chapel described with pride in the Sales catalogue was withdrawn from the sale. The Chetwynd Talbots were not Catholics. They did not want a Catholic Chapel that would be used by the Catholic population of the surrounding area on a regular basis on their land. Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable, despite his reckless lifestyle, was very aware of his responsibility towards his Church and his Catholic tenants and made provision in the sale of his estate for a piece of land to be put aside in Great Haywood in order that the Chapel could be moved stone by stone to that location. Much of the work was carried out by local labour and regular worshippers and in 1845 the first foundation stone was laid at Great Haywood.
On the walls inside the present Church, marks & numbers can be seen denoting which stone should be placed in which position. Many of these marks were removed when the Church was refurbished in 1979 but some have been deliberately left to record the great achievement of the relocation of the Chapel. By 1846 the re-erection of the Chapel was complete and it was dedicated in October 1846. The acquisition of a fine bell was made which was hung in the belfry in October 1845 and was the first bell of Irish manufacture (John Murphy of Dublin) to be hung in a Catholic Church in England.
Following the move, the Chapel retained most of its original features although it is probably shorter than when it stood at Tixall. Moreover, the Gothic Bay window for some unknown reason did not make the move and the east wall of the Chapel is now flat. The side chapel on the south side of the building disappeared and its window is now known to have replaced the eastern bay window. The bell tower was moved from the centre to side of the main door.
FEATURES OF INTEREST IN THE CHURCH.
On entering the Church through the porch, the Clifford family coat of arms can be seen. It is a composite one representing the three principal families connected with Tixall. In the first quarter are the Arms of the Constable family, the second quarter the Arms of the Clifford family, the third quarter the Arms of the Aston family and the fourth as the first, the Constables. The hand in the centre is the sign of a Knight Baronet and the three crests are those of the Astons (a bull’s head), the Cliffords (a wyvern) and the Constables (a dragon’s head).
It is known that when the Chapel stood at Tixall many of the windows contained beautiful mediaeval glass which had been purchased from Europe during the early 19th century when there was a thriving trade in such artefacts. These windows moved to Burton Constable with the family and are now installed in the Long Gallery there. The stained glass in the present church is early 20th century. The glass behind the Altar was installed in 1910 in memory of members of the Bromley family (significant parishioners) and produced by Hardman & Co of Birmingham. The window in the north facing window was designed by George Philip Hill, a parishioner, skilled craftsman and employee of Hardman’s, who died in 1917.
The majority of the stone carving is original to the chapel as it stood at Tixall and is extremely fine. The carving of a ‘Green Man’ amongst the oak leaves around the pulpit and the date 1827 carved into the masonry beneath the gallery are worthy of note. The Stations of the Cross around the walls were added in around 1912 as a memorial to Fr Benjamin Butland who served as Parish Priest from 1851 until his death in 1912. They are believed to be of Caen stone.
The Chapel (now the Church of St John the Baptist) remained mostly unchanged from the date of its erection in Great Haywood in 1845/46 until 1979. At this time, it was completely refurbished and re-ordered in line with the liturgical requirements of the 2nd Vatican Council. The Sanctuary was remodelled with the removal of the Altar rails and the High Altar being re-located in reduced form to enable the Celebrant to face the congregation. Moving the font from the north to the south side of the west end of the church made room for a statue of our Lady which was commissioned from the sculptor, Carmel Cauchi, cast in weathered bronze depicting a mother presenting her child to the onlooker.
THE BEAUTIFUL GOTHIC WINDOW.
The beautiful Stone Chapel described in the sales catalogue had a Gothic bay window at its eastern end. By the time the church had made the 2 mile journey from Tixall to Great Haywood and been re-erected in its present position the bay window had disappeared and the east wall of the church was flat.
The fate of the Gothic Bay window was for a long time an uncertainty to more recent generations of parishioners although ‘rumours’ abounded as to its whereabouts. A garden folly had stood for many years in the grounds of the Wharfinger’s house at Great Haywood junction, the home of Thomas Corvesor who was a parishioner and one involved in the moving of the Chapel to Great Haywood. An article in the Staffordshire Advertiser in 1926 featured this garden folly and stated that it:
‘once formed a beautiful window in the Roman Catholic Chapel at Tixall Hall’ and
‘in the removal the handsomely carved stones of the window got damaged and were collected and carried away by the late Mr Corvesor to whom they were given, and who built the artistic arch’.
Recent research carried out in 2013 proved that not only was this indeed the case but that the window itself had initially been one of the bay windows of the 1555 mansion at Tixall.
During the 1980’s the garden feature was demolished and believing it to be of significance it was rescued by the parishioners of St John’s, placed in the Presbytery garden and eventually reconstructed so as to depict its original form as far as possible. Significant features and in fact the conclusive proof that this was the Gothic window from Tixall Hall are the shields now placed inside the re-erected window of the Aston and Aston/Littleton/ Sadler family. Moreover, the decorated first course of stonework now seen on the outside of the window has a deeply incised quatrefoil and lozenge pattern. Both the shields and the decorated stonework are known from documented evidence to have been part of the 1555 Hall.
The remnants of the beautiful Gothic Window can now be viewed in the Church garden in close proximity to the building whose east end it once graced.
THE TERRACOTTA STATUE of ST JOHN the BAPTIST
A more recent ‘find’ has been a terracotta statue of St John the Baptist, now very much in need of renovation. This statue once stood in the niche over the front porch of the Church. In 1979, when the Church was renovated it was replaced by one carved in stone. Having stood in a cupboard for many years it has resurfaced and has been found to be the work of an accomplished and relatively well known local artist and sculptor, Samuel Peplow Wood. It is most likely that the terracotta statue was commissioned for the newly re-located Chapel in the early 1850s when Samuel is known to have returned to the area having studied sculpture in Milan.
The statue is now located within the confines of the ruined Bay Window and its future is an ongoing story.