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Historic Work of Art Rediscovered

April 2007 -- During the five and a half years of WW2, from 1939 to 1945, several bombs and other high explosives fell from the sky onto Waltham Abbey and its surroundings, causing extensive devastation. On the night of Saturday, 19th April, 1941, one of a pair of parachute mines, carrying either 500kg or 1000kg of high explosive, fell in a water-cress bed just north of the Romeland. The blast caused widespread devastation to everything in its path - many of Romeland’s old houses were completely destroyed, and most of Church Street’s windows were blown out. The Abbey Church, sited in the middle of this area, was also badly hit. Ted Carter, an ARP Warden, recorded the events in his diary:

A very loud wallop indicated that something was really near; a second or two after came the most appalling crash ever, and an awful sound of crashing glass and roof tiles… someone was yelling frantically for brandy, and the local residents were running into the shelters… Got on cycle to see what the trouble was, but had to walk before getting very far owing to the great quantities of broken glass all over the road… Went down to investigate and found bricks, tiles, slates, glass, timber and rubbish all over everywhere. The shelter was filled with an excited noisy crowd, some of them pot-black from dust and soot… Meantime more Jerries kept coming in and barrage kept up its din.

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Abbey Church Badly Damaged

Early the next morning, Ted Carter returned to the scene:

Turned out again at 5 a.m... In the half-light of morning, the mess at the bottom of the Romeland looked eerie… Arriving at the incident found that the parachute mine was in the watercress beds, and tons of wet black mud strewn everywhere. Severe damage to houses in Romeland… The old Abbey Gateway had caught a packet, and I was amazed that it had got off so lightly. Then it was “pick and shovel” work for all Wardens available. Went into the Church and found a horrible mess all over. Nearly all the black-outs down, and practically all the stained glass on the north side completely destroyed. Dust everywhere and lumps of masonry all over the floor. A very bad crack between the main structure and the ceiling of the north aisle where the whole roof had been drawn out about a foot. Vestry badly damaged through roof and ceiling and altogether a very sorry picture… found that the roof of the Nave, Lady Chapel and Tower were all affected.

The stained-glass windows which had been blown out were priceless and irreplaceable. The loss to the nation was great - many of the windows had been created by the celebrated Victorian artist and stained-glass window designer Henry Holiday, or had been designed by William Burges as part of his restoration of the Abbey Church in the early 1860's. The loss was equally great to the local community; proud memorials to numerous noted local families and benefactors, including Francis, Carr, Edenborough, Banbury and others, were destroyed forever.

Four years later, on 7th March 1945, a V2 rocket fell in the one place that everyone dreaded – the middle of Highbridge Street. As Ted Carter described it in his Diary,

Our one and only main road and link was hit fair and square where it would hurt most. The crater stretched right across the road and beyond… Warden’s Post A.2 had vanished completely… Gas mains were gone, all telephone communication through Waltham Cross exchange, water pipes were severed, and the sewage pumping system for the western end of the Town… So terrific had been the flow of water from the broken mains that the crater, itself 75 feet in diameter and probably at least half that in depth, was flooded to a level above that of the adjoining road.

Thought Lost Forever

The blast wiped out many of the buildings on either side of the street, about where the roundabout is today. The Ordnance Arms, the Drill Hall, and several houses had been smashed to pieces. The bodies of two small children were found in the rubble, and two lower legs found in the Town Mead were found to be all that remained of a missing lorry driver. So it is perhaps understandable that in all this commotion, the incidental destruction of another stained-glass window in the Abbey Church went unrecorded. The force of the explosion had been funneled along Highbridge Street in both directions, and the eastwards blast smacked into the western end of the Abbey Church, shattering the large window immediately above the west doorway. But this was no ordinary stained-glass window. This was the Bellringers' Window, a major work which had been commissioned especially for the church tower, and its loss was great indeed.

The original design was by William Burges, the "cartoons" (as the full-scale working drawings are called in the trade) were drawn and coloured by Horatio Walter Lonsdale, one of the many promising young designers whom Burges took under his wing. Lonsdale later became a renowned architect and designer in his own right. Manufacture of the window was supervised by Joseph Arthur Reeve, another of Burges' young protégés who also gained a reputation of his own, as an architect of churches. He first worked with Burges as a young apprentice on the restoration of the Lady Chapel in 1873-4 (the famous ‘Doom Painting’ was discovered by Burges and Reeve when they removed an old ceiling at this time). Later on, in 1906, Reeve was commissioned to restore the top half of Waltham Abbey Church's tower.

To make the loss of the church’s stained-glass windows in 1941 and 1945 even more painful, no plans or sketches of them were known to survive either, meaning that it would be impossible to restore them. This is why they are filled with plain uncoloured glass today. Furthermore, the creative product of all those who worked on them, designer, draughtsman, craftsman, artist, was thought lost for good. And, in most cases, it is.

Amazing Rediscovery

However, an amazing discovery was made recently by Janet Grove and Cliff Gould, the Hon. Assistant Secretary and Hon. Curator of Waltham Abbey Historical Society. Whilst cataloguing a collection of old glass slides in the Society's archives, they came upon a hand-coloured view of a stained-glass window. Within moments, no doubt thanks to their combined knowledge of local history, they recognised the scene as the lost Bellringers' Window from the Abbey Church tower! Careful comparison of the slide with contemporary written descriptions of the Bellringers' Window soon verified their discovery. Although the slide is in fact black-and-white, it has been hand-coloured in a very authentic manner. Though we may never know if the colouring is faithful to the original, it is thought to be so, not least because it has been done so carefully and intricately. Either the colourist was a practicing artist, or they had faithfully copied the original window from life, or (more likely) both are true.

View the Bellringers' Window slide.

No plans are currently in hand to restore the Bellringers’ Window, though Waltham Abbey’s rector, Canon Martin Webster, says that it would be a suitable project for the bellringers of Essex to take on. If the window should ever be restored, we now know what it should look like.

See a local newspaper article based on this press release

For More Information please Contact WAHS



Copyright Waltham Abbey Historical Society, 2007.