Michael Newbery writes of one to whom the village owes so much in the story of
THE MAN WHO CAME TO STAY
The man destined to assume the cure of souls in the parish of Pirton for almost forty-five years was born in Durham, in the year 1819, to John and Isabella Loughborough (nee Lindsay) natives of that city and was baptised Ralph Lindsay. Members of both families subsequently moved to South London where, in the course of time, Ralph gained employment as a merchant’s clerk. In 1847, at the age of twenty-eight, he married Marianna Limperani, the daughter of Joseph and Christiana Limperani, at St. Giles Church Camberwell.
There is no record of Ralph ever having undergone any theological training but in those days, it was not uncommon for young men to join the ranks of the clergy after only a brief oral examination by the bishop. There are tales of bishops whose interviews were conducted over dinner and consisted of, “Can you say the Lord’s Prayer, and do you know a decent wine when you taste it? Good! I’ll ordain you next week”. One hopes that such tales are apocryphal. In any event Ralph was ordained deacon by Bishop Phillpotts in Exeter Cathedral on 21st October 1849 and appointed an assistant priest to the parish of Stoke Damerel, Devon. This was a large suburban parish which included the Devonport naval dockyards and Ralph found himself one of seven curates doing duty there. A year later he was priested in Phillpotts’ palace chapel and by 1851 he was installed as Vicar of Pirton.
It seems a far cry from Devonport to Pirton but there were wheels within wheels. In 1843 Ralph’s uncle, Ralph Lindsay MA, FSA, a London lawyer (a bust of whom exists in Durham Castle) had purchased the advowson of the living of Pirton. This gave him the right of presentation of the incumbents. In 1846 he had installed his niece’s husband, who rejoiced in the name of Revd. Richard Neate Duguid Brown, as vicar and when he moved on in 1851, he installed his nephew, the newly ordained Ralph Lindsay Loughborough.
When Ralph arrived in Pirton with his wife and three children he took up residence in the house, now known as Pirton Court, which had been built by his uncle on a piece of land purchased from the Lord of the Manor, Frederick. Delme-Radcliffe Esq. for £5. This was the first vicarage Pirton had possessed since the previous one was burnt down in 1535. They found the church in a derelict condition, with furnishings of the poorest quality. The pulpit was constructed from the doors of old box pews. A tottering tower was supported outside by huge, unsightly brick buttresses and inside by a mass of brickwork which filled half the width of the east and west arches. The Nave alone was used for Sunday services of Matins and Evensong and the chancel simply for Sunday School and three times a year for the statutory minimum number of communion services. However, since the congregation could not hear the priest at the altar and could only see him by standing in the middle of the nave it did not really matter. In any case they were probably far too occupied trying to keep dry under a leaking roof to mind that half the church was unusable.
The daunting task of attempting to raise sufficient money to restore such a dilapidated building in an impoverished agricultural community would have caused most couples to quail at the very notion. Not so the member of a family (Lindsay) with its own coat of arms (see the portals of Pirton Court) and his wife, the daughter of one of Napoleon’s generals They were made of sterner stuff and in the first year of his incumbency Ralph persuaded a relation, the distinguished Victorian architect, John Loughborough Pearson RA, to draw up plans for restoring the church. With no hope of his flock, who needed every penny they earned to keep body and soul together, ever raising the necessary cash he and Marianna set out to extract it from more affluent people further afield. This they did by writing hundreds of letters to acquaintances up and down the country and by inserting advertisements in national newspapers appealing for financial assistance to restore ‘ this ancient House of God’. Their efforts were rewarded by donations from a shilling upwards, much of it in postage stamps, but it was to be 25 years before they had accumulated sufficient funds to commence the work.
During this time not all the vicar’s energies had been devoted to fund raising. Between 1851 and 1863 Marianna had borne him another eight children and although two of them died in infancy the increased population in the vicarage caused severe accommodation problems. In addition to the family there were two or three scholars, whose tuition augmented the Vicar’s salary of £200 per annum and a female from Stoke Damerel who later accompanied Florence Nightingale to the Crimea. In order to enlarge the house Ralph had to borrow £800 from Queen Anne’s Bounty and spent the next 30 years trying to repay the debt. His evident relief at having finally discharged it is expressed in a heartfelt entry in the church register, “Thanks be to God! I have today repaid the last instalment with interest “.
It had been planned to start the restoration by replacing the leaky roof but due to the unsafe condition of the tower the long-suffering congregation had to continue suffering for a further seven years, while additional funds were collected. However, had the tower collapsed they might have suffered more than damp. So, in 1876 the tower was dismantled to ground level and rebuilt in its original form using much of the same material. The work was carried out by Messrs G.M.Bates of Stevenage under the direction of J.L.Pearson Esq.
Seven arduous fund-raising years later a new nave roof and parapet were constructed, a new tile and wood block floor was laid, and the nave walls were replastered. At the same time much of the church was refurnished with good English oak. The total cost between 1876 and 1884, including £420 for advertising, printing and postage was £3119.13s.1d. of which £340.11s.1d. was raised in the parish. Of course, these were enormous sums of money in the last century and the patience and perseverance of those involved invokes one’s unqualified admiration. Sadly, Ralph Loughborough did not live to see the completion of his plans to restore the chancel and the rebuilding of the south transept. The strain induced by his achievements took its toll of his health which gradually deteriorated until his death in November 1895.
Little is recorded of the pastoral care which this tall, bearded man of God exercised in Pirton. He was known to be outspoken and not averse to preaching forceful and controversial sermons but kindly and caring of his parishioners. His place in their affection may be judged by the crowds that thronged the church at his funeral on a stormy Saturday afternoon. His body had lain in the church overnight surrounded by requiem candles and at 8.00am the family attended a service of Holy Communion celebrated by the Curate. The funeral and burial service, which was shared between Canon Hensley, Vicar of St. Mary’s Hitchin was attended by the Lord of the Manor, Francis Delme-Radcliffe, and clergy from Shillington, Ickleford, Lilley, Holwell and Willian. It was fitting that the choral accompaniment was provided on the new organ (still in situ) which had been installed a few weeks previously to replace the Chappell harmonium; the last benefaction of a vicar who wore himself out in the service of his parishioners.
One is left to wonder what led the son of such a well-connected family to bury himself in a poor Hertfordshire village and devote more than half his life to the service of God and the people of this place. Perhaps one can detect the hand of God but whatever the cause we have reason to be grateful that, due to his dedication, the amounts of money we have to raise in order to keep our medieval church in good repair are small in comparison with neighbouring villages.
Ralph Lindsay Loughborough was laid to rest in a family tomb a few yards from the south side of his beloved church. Marianna lived on for another twelve years and at her funeral the Vicar, the Revd. Ernest Langmore suggested to her family that the rebuilding of the south transept would provide a fitting memorial to them both. So, it transpired and a brass plate over the vestry door proclaims ‘To the Glory of God and in grateful memory of Revd. Ralph Lindsay Loughborough and his wife Marianna this transept was built of local stone, partly by voluntary labour. AD 1907 – 1914’.