Sheila White

In 2010 I contributed an article to the HWLHS Journal entitled All Saints’ Church – The disastrous fire of 1891. The article made reference to a Mrs du Pré Thornton, who in 1904-5 contributed two substantial sums of money towards the rebuilding of the church. It was not clear why this lady should have taken such a keen interest in the project, but further research has now resolved this mystery.

The old All Saints’ Church at Hertford was destroyed by fire on the morning of Monday 21 December 1891. Early in the new year, the Vestry took the first step in securing its replacement by appointing a Building Committee composed of local worthies. The Committee launched an appeal for donations in March 1892 and this proved so successful that work was under way on the site by the end of the year. It was decided to rebuild the church in two phases. Phase I would comprise the chancel and nave, Phase II the upper portion of the tower. The dedication service for Phase I eventually took place on Wednesday 20 February 1895.

By then the people involved in the project were feeling somewhat exhausted, and it was not until January 1901 that the first positive steps were taken to carry out Phase II. The Building Committee was reconstituted and a fresh bout of fundraising undertaken, but their efforts failed to rekindle the kind of enthusiasm which had been so evident in the immediate aftermath of the fire. In March 1904 the Committee decided to go out to tender and in May a contract was signed with the selected builder, but the work could not actually commence owing to the shortage of funds. By November 1904 the fund was still £3000 short of the required sum, and the Committee learned that the contractor would only hold his price until May of the following year.

Mrs Ann du Pré Thornton. This photo has for many years been hanging unobtrusively on the wall of the ringing chamber at All Saints’ Church where, again quite by chance, it was spotted by Philip Sheail during a visit made by the Friends of Hertford Museum on Tuesday 21 June 2011. Her image was captured by Terry Paque on his digital camera.

It was at this point that the Committee received a letter from Mrs du Pré Thornton of “High Beach”, Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. She had apparently learned of the Committee’s plight and was perturbed to hear that they might not be able to complete the church. She therefore offered to make a donation of £2000, provided that the Committee could guarantee to complete the building work in every respect. Naturally, the Committee concurred in this undertaking and, after a little more financial juggling, work was soon under way. The date chosen for the dedication of the new tower (to be known as the “Victoria Tower”) was 31 October 1905. The funds, however, remained precarious and by the time of the opening there was still a shortfall of £400. Once again Mrs du Pré Thornton came to the rescue with a further donation of £500. All she asked for in return for this generous support, was to have a plaque installed in the tower dedicated to the memory of her late husband, Mr Frederic Stephen du Pré Thornton.

In my research into the rebuilding of All Saints’ Church, I could find no evidence that Mrs du Pré Thornton had ever had any connection with Hertford. However, a few months ago Philip Sheail, quite by chance, came across an obituary to her while searching through the pages of the Hertfordshire Mercury for 1913. He followed up the clues given in the obituary and has supplied the following information.

Mrs du Pré Thornton’s timely support for the rebuilding of All Saints’ Church came about through her connection with the family of the incumbent, the Reverend Charles Forester Rainsford. Charles was the son of a clergyman and had been born in 1857 in Ireland, at Dundalk in County Louth. (His father Marcus Rainsford was Vicar at Dundalk and later at St John’s, Belgrave Square in London, where his evangelistic preaching drew huge congregations.) Charles was educated at Dulwich College and at Trinity College, Cambridge, from where he graduated in 1882. Ordained two years later, he served as Curate in a variety of posts, including Harrogate and Great Driffield in Yorkshire, Thorpe in Norfolk, and Battersea in London. Then in 1895 he became Curate to the Reverend George Ruthven Thornton, Vicar of St Barnabas, Kensington. He served in that post until 1902 when he was appointed Vicar of All Saints, Hertford, and then the following year he married the Reverend Thornton’s daughter Cecily.

Cecily had various family connections with the Hertford area. Her great-grandfather was Claude George Thornton of Marden Hill, Tewin, while her great-grandmother belonged to the Smith family of Woodhall Park, Watton-at-Stone. Her grandfather, Spencer Thornton, was born at Marden Hill in 1814 and served as Vicar of Wendover in Buckinghamshire from 1837-50. Her grandmother was Caroline Adelaide, the daughter of James du Pré of Stone Dean Park, Buckinghamshire. Spencer and Caroline were married in 1839 and had eight children, four of them sons. Spencer died suddenly in 1850 at the age of 36. For a time Caroline lived at Brighton, but then came to live at Little Amwell and in due course made her home at Eastfield House in Broxbourne where she died in 1898.

Two of Spencer’s sons became clergymen – Claude (1844-1921) and George (1845-1905). George attended Jesus College, Cambridge and was ordained in 1869. He served in two curacies, one of which was at Christ Church in Ware from 1870-72. Then, after serving as Rector of St Nicholas in Nottingham, he became Rector of Holy Trinity, Bengeo in 1876. He took up the post at St Barnabas in 1881 and remained there till his death. In 1869 he married Theresa, the daughter of John Labouchere of Broom Hall, Surrey. They had six children, the third of whom was Cecily, born in Nottingham in 1873. Thus, when she married Charles Rainsford in 1903, Cecily would already have been familiar with the Hertford area from her childhood spent at the Rectory in Bengeo.

Amongst her many relations was George’s elder brother, Frederic du Pré Thornton (1841-1903). Frederic appears to have trained initially as a bank clerk. Then in 1872 he married Anne Jane Hill, the daughter of a wealthy tobacco merchant in Streatham. They had no children and lived for many years on the continent. In the late 1870s they journeyed to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and as a result of this experience, Frederic developed a keen interest in the Arabic language. Over the following years he gave much time and money to promoting the accurate and scholarly study of Arabic amongst young Englishmen. He also devoted himself to the preparation of a work entitled Elementary Arabic, which was all but ready for publication when he died in January 1903. By that time he and Anne had settled at Westgate-on-Sea, where they lived in a substantial villa called “High Beach”. Anne continued to live there till her own death on 6 August 1913.

At the time of her death, Anne’s estate was worth £198,000 which, in today’s terms, would amount to more than £7 million. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Cecily Rainsford should have turned to her wealthy and childless widowed aunt, to see whether she could help them in completing the building work at All Saints’ Church.

This page was added on 03/01/2023.

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