1958 A Curious Incident

Sir John Betjeman befriends the church

John Betjeman visited St Peter’s church, shortly after WWII, with his friend, the artist John Piper. He wrote about their visit in this article shown below, which appeared in the Spectator in 1958 under his column ‘City and Suburban’.

john betjeman at wolfhampcote church
The Spectator, page 27, 3rd January 1958

‘I must recount a curious incident about the church at Wolfhampcote, near Daventry, for the removal of which to a building estate in Coventry proposals are now being made. It is a mottled stone building of mediaeval, consisting of tower, nave, aisles and chancel, and standing alone in a field below a railway embankment and approached by a gated, unmetalled roads. My friend John Piper and I visited it one autumn evening shortly after the war. It was locked and deserted and the sunset colours were scooped into the curves of the crown-glass Georgian windows, where they were unshattered. We discovered the key in a distant cottage, but it would not turn in the lock, and we eventually climbed in through one of the broken windows. It was a perfect un-‘restored’ village church, with traces of painting on the walls, fading monuments, old woodwork. The altar frontal was lifted up, revealing a black hole beyond it. In the failing light we could see steps going down from this hole to rows of coffins in the passage of a mausoleum attached to the east end of the church, and externally in the Strawberry Hill Gothick style. It was the vault of the Tibbets family, whose crest is a cat.

As it was now dark, John Piper visited the church to make drawings on another day with someone else. While they were there, a little man, neatly dressed and carrying a bag, arrived and walked into the church by the locked door without any difficulty. After a time they went in to see what he was doing, and found that he had rifled a chest in the church and had put on some vestments and was swinging incense about. He had list candles on the altar. They asked him what he was doing and he said he often came there and thought a little incense did the church good. He seemed anxious for them to go away, and indeed he outstayed them. Was he a madman or was he intending to say a Black Mass about the vault of the Tibbets? The question remains unanswered, but the atmosphere in the church was certainly creepy and if this lovely but mysterious building is to be moved I hope it will be speeded on its way with a Service of Reconciliation, which will have to be performed by the bishop, as this is a consecrated building.’

Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death.

John Piper’s painting of St Peter’s

John Betjeman writes in his article that John Piper made drawings of the church after their visit, which took place ‘shortly after the war’. This fits in with the painting shown below, which is believed to have been created in the 1940s.

john piper painting wolfhampcote church
John Piper’s painting of the interior of Wolfhampcote church, 1940s

More information about the painting can be found here.

A church saved

Reading the article, we can infer that John Piper was the person who first brought the church to Sir John Betjeman’s attention, for which we have to be thankful, as it was Sir John Betjeman who later founded The Friends of Wofhamcote Church society in 1970 which went on to help conserve the church.

The plan mentioned in the article; to move the church to Coventry obviously did not happen. In the 1950s the church was saved by The Friends of Friendless Churches and its founder Ivor Bulmer-Thomas. The society was given permission to carry out essential repairs to keep the church intact.

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