Harry Jones

Harry Jones 940 © David ForwardDEDICATED
—TO THE—
FRIENDS OF
HARRY JONES,
MALMESBURY,
WILTSHIRE.
October. 1908

Introductory

Ladies and Gentlemen, –

That the keeper of an Inn, like myself, should have been considered by an enterprising journalist to be of sufficient importance to justify him in devoting considerable space in his valuable columns to a sketch of myself took me with considerable surprise. To those who have taken such trouble, and also to Mr. H. D. Piper, editor of the “North Wilts Herald,” I return my sincere thanks for their perhaps too flattering remarks concerning your humble servant and also my good wife. It is the more gratifying to me to know that it was purely spontaneous on the part of those concerned and not done with any ulterior motive. It struck me that as I have so many good friends both in my own little town (of which I am ever proud), and also in various parts of the globe, amongst them there might be some who would like a memento of Harry Jones. That being so, at the suggestion of a friend I have had produced in this little book a reprint of the article which appeared in the columns of the “North Wills Herald” on July 17th last, in the hope that it will prove acceptable to many of my old and present friends.

HARRY JONES.
King’s Arms, Malmesbury, Wilts.
October, 1908.

Harry Jones King's Arms © Malmesbury Memories

Harry Jones King's Arms © Malmesbury Memories

A few weeks ago Mr. Harry Jones, landlord of the King’s Arms Hotel, Malmesbury, had the unique honour of receiving by one post communications from His Majesty the King and the Prime Minister. Both were letters of thanks in reply to dutiful expressions on Mr. Jones’ part, and the latter communication, which acknowledged Mr. Jones’ condolences on the lamentable affair at Easton Grey, was in Mr. Asquith’s own handwriting. Mr. Jones has a remarkable collection of these epistles, all framed and adorning the principal rooms of his hotel. He is a loyalist to the back-bone, and believes in giving practical expression to his most commendable sentiments. Any event of importance which happens in the lives of the Royal Family calls forth Mr. Jones’ respectful congratulations or sympathies, and replies to these from the late Queen, the present King, the Prince of Wales, the German Emperor and the King of Spain, amongst others, have almost as strong an interest to visitors to the dear old Wiltshire town as the beautiful and stately Abbey church. As may be supposed, Mr. Jones has a distinctive personality. His outward appearance proclaims this, for he is one of those rare and isolated individuals who once seen are never forgotten. He has been described as a veritable John Bull in the flesh, and also as the embodiment of the spirit of Charles Dickens, either of which generalisation fits him exactly. His portly form and jolly red face are set off to perfection in the old-world habiliments which he delights to affect – trousers turned up to the ankles, a long loose-fitting coat of a cut of other days, a white or brightly-coloured waistcoat of the Dick Swiveller pattern, and on his head a tall, straight-brimmed hat of a style which was popular 50 or 75 years ago, and which is, in truth and in fact, his crowning glory. In winter and summer, in sunshine and shadow, his features wear a perpetual smile, and he is perhaps as well known as any man in the West of England. This has been proved in rather a curious way. On several occasions friends across the seas, on writing to him, have merely sketched Mr. Jones’ familiar delineaments or adorned the envelope with his portrait, accompanied with the injunction “Find him in Wiltshire,” and in every instance the letter has reached its destination in safety. Indeed, in one instance, the only instructions to the postal authorities were a few lines scratched in the resemblance of an overturned colander, with the accompanying words “His Hat, Wiltshire” – like the naively-written explanations on ancient Greek pictures – and even this found its way to Mr. Jones’ hands. Possibly the official who solved this mystery was a student of picture-puzzles. Mr. Jones is the pride of his town and a joy to Americans, but the latter have not the privilege of seeing him at his best. The time when he really shines is at a hunt or market dinner, with a duke or peer of the realm in the chair. To see him directing the feast and tenderly nursing the wine takes one hark to the old days when eating and drinking and good living generally were almost a religion. Mr. Jones would have made an ideal presiding genius of a monastery refectory.

Mr. Jones is by birth a Londoner, but he has spent 54 out of his 55 years of life in Malmesbury. He first saw the light at an inn bearing the sign of “The Hand and Flower,” in January, 1853. He was one of a twin – both boys ….. and history says that his brother and himself were brought by their father to Malmesbury in a cigar box when they were just one year old. The brother, it may be mentioned, became a draper, and after serving in several good situations, including one at Whiteley’s, London, he went to America, and died in Cleveland in 1885. Mr. Harry Jones received his grounding of useful knowledge in an elementary school, and finished his education at Chippenham Grammar School in 1867. After being at home for a little while he was apprenticed to the grocery trade, serving his time with the firm of Chiddell & Co., of Winchester. Soap, candles and lemon peel had, however, no attractions for him, and in January, 1871, he returned to Malmesbury, and for the past 30 years he has adorned the calling of licensed victualler. It was in 1878 that he first contributed to the State coffers in this way and became proprietor of the Railway Hotel in the Gloucester Road. His father was then the esteemed landlord of the King’s Arms Hotel, the Railway Hotel being a sort of branch establishment. But a year later the elder Mr. Jones died, and in 1880 “young Mr. Harry” took up his abode in his present home. Old customs and well-worn methods have continued to prevail in this ancient inn – Mr. Jones has been heard to express abhorrence of the “foreign” designation “hotel.” If there were any significance in a name – and the Shakespearian inference is to the contrary – the creeper-clad and white-arched hostelry in Malmesbury’s High Street would never have been anything more than an inn, simply because that word is genuinely English and nothing but English in word and things is tolerated in Mr. Jones’ establishment.

The King’s Arms Hotel (or Inn) and its host would have delighted the heart of Mr. Pickwick, for Mr. Jones is not harassed by nightmares of fashion and his house is unassailed by the artificiality of the upholsterer or the inventions of modern tawdriness. The stables are a delight to any decent-minded horse and the inn accommodation is the last word in comfort, sweetness and abundance. In the bar everything is plain and solid. Hospitality comes primarily from the landlord and not from the chairs and tables, and the impression of the stranger is that customers are attracted first and foremost by a “bit of chat.” And Mr. Jones is sufficiently versatile in conversation to suit its character to the company. In this respect he may be called a man of many dialects, all of which come naturally to him and are devoid of affectation, with perhaps the good broad Wiltshire as the most entertaining. warmed by the glow of a log-wood fire in the winter, when the cold without invites debate within, Mr. Jones will lead the way in an exchange of ideas and extend his range of unconventionality by his independence of thought. Whilst a keen scrutineer might detect his leanings both denominationally and politically, it would be impossible to accuse him of slavish allegiance to any prescribed set of opinions. Without divulging any of his beliefs, it may be stated, in order to relate two curious experiences, that Mr. Jones worships at the Abbey. On one occasion he was present when the banns of marriage were forbidden, and on another occasion he heard them published three months after the couple had been wedded – and the “asked” pair happened to be in the sanctuary at the time. Mr. Jones oft-times entertains his friends with recollections of this nature and, maybe, embellishes them with appropriate extracts from his fund of humour and wit. For instance, he tells an amusing yarn about a worthy clergyman who was announcing the banns in church and opened with the solemn but agitated declaration:-

“I publish the banns of holy matrimony between …..” He repeated the words several times and looked about him concernedly in the hope of finding the register of names. The parish clerk noticed the trouble and shouted from below “Between the cushion and the seat, sir.”

Harry’s stories are never deficient in point; he clothes them in the fewest words and emphasises the humour with a skill worthy of Mark Twain. Indeed, he is a born raconteur, and as he rattles off his yarns in his inimitable style his audience keep up a constant roar of merriment. These are one or two samples, but of course they lose a good deal of their flavour unaccompanied by the personality of the teller. The finest literary art would be a poor substitute for Mr. Jones’ delightful mannerisms.

“An old gentleman drove into my yard the other day.”
‘You’ve got a good sort of horse there,’ I said.’
“Yes, I bought him n years ago,” he replied, “and I have driven him ever since.”
“‘You’re lucky,’ I ventured to remark, ‘for a man who finds a good horse or a good wife ought to be very nearly satisfied. They are the rarest things on earth, and much more to be desired than riches or honour.’
“‘Yes, I have a wife,’ the gentleman said. ‘I stole her years ago, and if God will forgive me I will never steal another.'”

Mr. Jones is always on the spot when the stables are in use, as the comfort of his equine guests is as much a matter of concern to him as the wants of their masters.

“I remember being in my yard one market day superintending the starting of the farmers’ horses, when a well-known agriculturist from the district called out: ‘Let’s have my pony.’ I knew the old pony very well, and searched high and low, but in vain. The beads of perspiration stood out on my bald head, and I had made up my mind that the brute had been spirited away by some mysterious means, when its owner cooly informed me that he remembered he had taken it to the blacksmith’s to be shod.”

If ever a person walks up and down High Street more than half a dozen times and fails to encounter Mr. Jones he can once conclude that the genial host of the King’s Arms is no more. He is one of the essentials in this busy thoroughfare, and is usually on hand to inform motor-car drivers the best road to take, the right turns and the most comfortable places to stop at. Once a queer-looking customer who had the appearance of having been born and bred in a stable halted in front of him with a Sam Weller grin and, looking at his hat, said:-

“I say, old sport, can you tell me the winner of the Lincoln Handicap?”

On another occasion Mr. Jones was standing in his favourite position under the ancient archway of his hostelry when a man asked him the way to Crudwell. After the directions had been given the traveller invited the landlord inside his own house and then told him he thought he was one of the drivers, and he would like to stand him a drink. By the way, Mr. Jones boasts that no man has ever stood him a drink in his own bar. But he has been taken for a waiter as well as a Jehu. Once when collecting money at the market dinner a stranger who had dined asked how much there was to pay. He was told two shillings, and the stranger said:-

“There’s your two shillings and here’s twopence for yourself. You’re a very good waiter, Harry.”

He had heard Mr. Jones’ friends calling him, as usual, by his Christian name.

There is another story Mr. Jones is fond of telling against himself:-

“I remember once a clergyman from a neighbouring village driving in and bringing two little village lads, whom he asked me to keep an eye on whilst he went shopping. They were noisy brats and their stamping and shouting quite got on my nerves. At last I could stand it no longer and, thinking I should be able to get rid of them for a time, I gave them a penny a-piece, telling them to go to the confectioner’s across the road and buy a bun and sit on the door-step until they had eaten it. But instead of buying a bun they each bought a trumpet and came straight back and sat on the hall door-mat and blew them : so I lost my twopence and gained more trouble.”

There are some funny incidents in an inn keeper’s life, as the following anecdote illustrates:-

“A nice old commercial traveller – one of the old school who wore a silk hat and frock coat – stayed one night at my house. I noticed that before he went to bed he had smoked one cigar too many, and, thinking that he might not find his room, I watched him from the bottom of the stairs. Sure enough, he passed his door and I called out: ‘You’ve gone too far, sir.’ He turned sharply round on hearing my voice, and the result was that the candle fell on the floor and was extinguished. ‘All right, sir,’ I said, ‘stand still while I get you another candle.’ But instead of doing as I requested he went down in the dark on his hands and knees searching for the candle. I knew nothing about this, and when I ran upstairs with another light and turned quickly round the corner in the passage I fell over him. This put us both in the dark, and both on the floor, and it took us some time to sort out our legs and tall hats. But he was a jolly old boy and treated the affair – as I did – in the light of a joke in the dark.”

The final story, another favourite of Mr. Jones’, is told by him with great gusto as follows:-

“An old friend of mine and a prominent public man was taken ill and the doctor was sent for. When Mr. Pitt arrived he said: ‘I believe he is dead.’ My friend at once retorted: ‘I beant dead.’ Whereupon his wife said: ‘Be quiet, Oliver, the doctor knows better than you do!’”

A short time ago the representative of a well-known London financial paper, whilst on a motor tour, happened in the course of his journeyings to visit Malmesbury, and naturally he called at the King’s Arms Hotel. The treatment he received prompted him to make public the following eulogy:-

“The ancient Abbey, the Market Cross, the long wide street, all combine to form a most harmonious whole. Nor can we pass over the King’s Arms Hotel, where we lunched like Epicurus – a plain lunch, but of the very best. It was worth making a long journey also to see and speak with the landlord and his amiable wife – the former a true example of the old style, with his spotless white coat and hard black hat, tilted at a knowing angle. We can confidently assure anyone passing this way that they will not find a heartier welcome nor better fare than at the King’s Arms at Malmesbury.”

This commendation possessed all the more value from the fact that it was written by one who did not fear to criticise – as he did somewhat severely in some cases – where he thought the conditions warranted it.

In a conversation Mr. Jones gave this characteristic summary of interesting facts concerning himself:-

“I have attended without exception the market dinner at the King’s Arms since 1871. I rarely go in a train – not more than once a year. When I go to Great Somerford Flower Show I always ask for a first-class return ticket, which they have never got, and I always ride with a written order. I have called ‘Time’ at closing time at the King’s Arms door every night this century and have never slept out of the King’s Arms since 1899. I have been a licensed victualler over 30 years and have never drunk a glass of whiskey nor seen a game of billiards played. I attended Divine service at the Abbey 51 Sundays last year and was shaved by the same barber 364 days during the same period. I never go to sea. The last time I went was in 1873, and I was so dreadfully bad that I vowed that if ever I saw Malmesbury Abbey again I would never go to sea any more – and I have kept my word. I have rented under only one landlord – Col. Luce – during the whole time I have been in business and I hope I shall never have another.”

By the way, the King’s Arms Hotel is one of great antiquity. It is at least 300 years old, and has always been prominently associated with the events of the town. Possibly hardly a single person out of the many thousands who yearly attend the Beaufort Hunt Steeplechases is aware that the famous meeting had its inception at a dinner party at the King’s Arms Hotel, in a match between two horses, owned respectively by Captain Richard Cook and Mr. Charles Gardener, of the Temple, Goring, who was hunting from the ancient hostelry. This was in 1869, and great interest being aroused in the match, several members of the Hunt approached his Grace with suggestions. The result was that a comprehensive meeting was arranged and held on a farm known as Bishoper, between Malmesbury and Crudwell, and it was such a great success that it has been held annually, with few exceptions, ever since. The course has been found in various parts of the country, and the Steeplechases are still extremely popular. At the time the first meeting was held in 1869 Mr. Jones was in Malmesbury attending the wedding of one of his sisters, and of course he took advantage of the opportunity of going to the races. He has been present at every subsequent meeting, and is naturally proud of a record which is truly remarkable, and one which is equalled by very few others of his Grace’s admirers. The present proprietor of the King’s Arms Hotel can remember Malmesbury when there was no telegraph office and when the postman used to go round carrying the letters in his hand. In those days it cost 7/- to send a telegram to a Malmesbury inhabitant. The message was sent to Minety – the nearest receiving station – and the “little buff envelope” had then to be conveyed on horse-back at a shilling a mile. On the rare occasions when the Post Office emissary was seen to enter the town the population turned out en masse, moved by curiosity and sympathy. Telegrams were associated with calamity – even in these days the impression is not entirely dead outside business circles – and the desire to share the fateful tidings was prompted by feelings of true neighbourliness. It must be remembered that the Malmesbury of 40 years ago was different to what it is to-day. There was no railway, and the means of communication with the outside world were of a primitive character, so that the population were more like one big family. The recipient of the telegram was soon surrounded by a crowd of friends, and usually the suggestion was made that he or she should have a little brandy before opening the missive. Talking about methods of communication, it may be mentioned that in the days to which Mr. Jones refers the only public, conveyance was a leisurely-moving carrier’s cart driven by an old lady named Salter. It started from Malmesbury at 8 o’clock in the morning for Chippenham and returned in the evening. A great advance was made when a pair-horse omnibus was put on the road, and Mr. Jones well remembers that the whole town turned out to see it off the first morning and there was keen competition as to who should be the first person to ride or send parcels. The world and Malmesbury have moved along since then. Says Mr. Jones:-

“I have lived to see the railway, the telegraph and the telephone brought here; three postmen substituted for one postman and three bags of letters instead of the primitive old chap who ran round with the letters in his hand.”

During Mr. Jones’ career as a hotel proprietor he has entertained many notabilities, including Lord Roberts, Sir John and Lady Fisher – relatives of Admiral Neeld – General Gatacre, the Right Hon. Jesse Collings – in the early ‘7O’s, when he travelled for his firm in Birmingham, and followed in later days by his nephew – the Duke of Norfolk, and Bishop Potter, of New York. The last named was highly taken up with his host when he stayed at the King’s Arms Hotel on the occasion of his visit in connection with the restoration of a Washington memorial in Garsdon Church. These were the poetic expressions of the worthy Bishop, and may be seen in Mr. Jones’ visiting book:-

Three savages from far New York
Found rest, refreshment here;
And grateful for the King’s Arms,
Bear memory of good cheer!

All blessing rest on Hostess Jones
And her good spouse as well;
Of their kind thoughts for tired bones
Our countrymen we’ll tell.

It may also be stated that the American episcopate was charmed with the inn and preached a sermon on Napoleon at Garsdon, the inspiration for which was gained from a portrait of the French Emperor hanging in his room at the King’s Arms. The pictures in the house, by the way, convey manifold intimations that neither the late nor the present Duke of Beaufort was a stranger to Mr. Harry Jones’ particular earth-spot. To say that the King’s Arms is a feature of the great Beaufort country may be a compliment, but it is nevertheless a fact – and how many times have the ducal quadrupeds from Badminton been sheltered in the boxes of this inn!

As an impromptu speaker Mr. Jones is excellent and exceedingly entertaining, as the following example, given at last year’s Mayoral Banquet, in reply to the toast of the “Host and Hostess,” will prove:-

“I am very proud to be the host of the King’s Arms, which is an ancient inn. I am as proud to be the host of the inn as the Vicar is to be the Vicar of Malmesbury. The Abbey of Malmesbury and the old King’s Arms go together both in antiquity and renown. I do not say that the King’s Arms is renowned because I live there, but it is an historic inn, of which, as I said before, I am proud to be the occupier. The King’s Arms is associated with the Abbey. There are very few people who go to the Abbey who do not get hungry or thirsty, and who do not come to this ancient inn to be refreshed. It is a most extraordinary thing that when they arrive at this inn they find antiquity – I do not say as old as the Abbey, but very much like it. Everybody who comes here says, ‘Here we are gone back to Dickens’ time; here we have a landlord who gives us the roast beef of old England and plum pudding; here we have a hearty meal – no mongrel food or foreign waiters.’ If I stay here much longer I shall be prehistoric. A gentleman who wrote a book, ‘A drive through Nine Counties,’ stated that when he drove into the archway of the King’s Arms, Malmesbury, for the first time in the, whole of his journey he had seen John Ball in the flesh. Well, I am very proud to be likened to John Bull, and I hope I shall never lose any of the characteristics of that type of gentleman. ‘I remember when I was a boy I was considered a bit of a curiosity! then after some years I was looked upon as a novelty, and now I am an antiquity.”

The highest ideal of citizenship has been attained by Mr. Jones. In November, 1895, he was elected Mayor of Malmesbury, and antiquity has given that position a sentimental importance and made the honour of holding it especially coveted. But it was deserved by the subject of this sketch, who put in a round dozen of useful years’ service on the Town Council and retired some six years since. He was the first member of the Town Council to propose the Mayor taking the Corporation to a place of worship and the first Mayor of the ancient borough to wear the robes of office, and whilst in the position of chief magistrate he presented a mace to the town. It is fitting that his connection with the Board of Guardians should be more protracted, for both Mr. and Mrs. Jones are known for their practical help to their less blessed neighbours. Mr. Jones was not originally elected by the present method. It was at the Lady-day vestry for Westport of 1879 that he was made a member of the Poor Law Board, and he has been connected with this administrative authority ever since and is now Vice-Chairman. Amongst other positions held by Mr. Jones are those of Chairman of the Burial Board, Chairman of the Cricket Club Committee, County Council Representative amongst the School Managers, and President of the Bowls Club, following the “jack” being his chief recreation. Apart from the permission of the ratepayers and upon his personal promptings he has helped along any cause for the commonweal and continues to do so. Mr. Jones is popular with all classes; he as readily acknowledges the dustman as the Duke, and his bonhomie is extended to high and low with equal generosity. A very few words will suffice to give Mrs. Jones the best of compliments – her good spouse could never have had a better partner.

In conclusion, we may quote the following verses written many years ago by the Rev. Charles Pitt, who was Vicar of Malmesbury for 45 years:-

Good horse and fly, with safe linch-pin,
Always to be hired at Jones’s Inn,
For never a bone nor never a skin
Was ever broken from Jones’s Inn;
Stable warm and full corn bin,
Are always open at Jones’s Inn.

Beef steaks and chops and cutlets thin,
Ready to be served at Jones’s Inn;
Wine, brandy, rum and London gin,
In prime condition at Jones’s Inn;
Of public favour a share to win,
Is the constant aim of Jones’s Inn.

Malmesbury Past & Present

This chronicle would not be complete without a brief sketch giving the chief historical facts connected with such an interesting town as Malmesbury. It can truly claim to be ancient, for the records of its past extend backwards to the very dawn of civilisation, and its name was familiar amongst scholars when London and nearly every other big city in the Kingdom had not been thought of. Its elevated position and the fact that it is almost completely surrounded by the waters of the river Avon eminently fitted it for military occupation, and there can be no doubt that in the early days it was a fortified place of some importance. At one time it was surrounded by a wall – remains of which are still to be seen in several places – and of its four gates the Holloway Gate, the last left standing, was removed in 1778. Few towns have so many open spaces – St. John’s Bridge, the Cross Hayes, the Market Cross, the Triangle, the Horse Fair, etc. – and probably these are a legacy from the Saxon Kings, who used them for troop manoeuvring. However, it is ecclesiastically and as a centre of learning that Malmesbury has left its greatest mark on national history. Its importance began in 676, when Ældhelm, cousin of Ina, King of the West Saxons, became head of the school which had been started some 36 years previously by Maeldulph, an Irish teacher. Ældhelm incorporated the school into an Abbey under regular rule; he enlarged the basilica said to have been erected by his master and hallowed it in honour of the Holy Saviour, St. Peter and St. Paul; he built a new church in honour of the Blessed Virgin and another to St Michael. When in 709 he died at Doulting his body was brought to Malmesbury and buried in St. Michael’s Church. From time to time the monastery received gifts from various rulers until in King John’s reign it held property to a total amount of nearly 40,000 acres. The monastery was suppressed on December 15th, 1539, and was then valued at £803. 17s. 70d. King Athelstan was the town’s greatest luminary, and his benefactions are enjoyed to this day. Amongst Malmesbury’s most interesting possessions is its Corporation of Athelstan commoners, who have a share in certain important rights and privileges. In some battle against the Danes the men of Malmesbury supported King Athelstan so nobly that he made a grant of nearly a thousand acres of land to the burgesses in the neighbourhood of the town. At the present time qualified freemen occupy it free of rent and taxes, over 500 acres being in two-acre allotments and the remainder in rather larger plots. Bachelors and spinsters are exempted. On entering into possession the new owner – who must be a son of a former owner or married to the daughter of one – is conducted to the plot. He is handed a sod cut from the land and struck across the back three times with a twig whilst the following lines are repeated:-

Turf and twig I give to thee
As freely as King Athelstan gave to me
And hope a loving brother thou wilt be.

Other famous figures who move vaguely in the mists of the past are William of Malmesbury, the greatest historian of the early English times; Oliver of Malmesbury, a monk of the 11th century, who wrote a treatise on mathematics and astrology; Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher; and Mary Chandler, a poetess.

The borough of Malmesbury was originally incorporated by Edward the Elder in 916 and re-constituted in 1886. Until the Reform Act of 1832 two Members of Parliament were returned for the borough.

There are many places and monuments of great interest still extant within the town boundary. At the head of the High Street is the Market Cross, described by Leland, the historian, who said:-

“This costly piece of worke, made al of stone and curiously voulted, was for poore folkes to stande dry when rayne cummeth.”

It is the least disfigured of any like structure in the Kingdom by so-called restoration, and is octangular in form and much enriched with sculpture.

The chancel of St. Paul’s Church, except the south wall, incorporated into the back of some houses, and retaining two blocked 15th Century windows, was pulled down about the middle of last century. The tower and spire of the 14th century remain and form the belfry of the present church.

The Church of St. Mary is of comparatively recent erection, the site being that of an old structure, the font of which was preserved. The chief ornament of the town, however is the Abbey Church. Writing in a recent number of the “Bristol Diocesan Magazine,” the Vicar (the Rev. C. D. H. McMillan) said:-

“Apart from Glastonbury the most interesting ecclesiastical building in the West of England, historically considered, is undoubtedly Malmesbury Abbey. It is well worth a visit at the cost of a long journey. The vast Norman porch, with its arch recessed in eight orders, and covered with sculpture and scroll work, is said to be unrivalled in Europe. Within the Church, the round massive pillars, the pure Norman triforium above, and over all the lofty clerestory and groined roof sixty-five feet above the floor, greatly impress the visitor. But old as the present Abbey Church is, it is only the last successor of a long line of sacred buildings stretching back into the remote past. When William the Norman landed in England there existed in Malmesbury an Abbey with the Church built by St. Ældhelm still standing; earlier still, when the Danes made their marauding expeditions into Wessex, they found Abbey buildings to burn, monks to slay, and ecclesiastical possessions to plunder; yet earlier still in the dawn of our history, when our English forefathers landed in Britain, we are told by an early and credible historian that there was at Malmesbury a community of British nuns. When our Bishop came to guide and direct the work of the revived Diocese of Bristol, he found Malmesbury Abbey in a state of great decay, and threatening to go completely to ruin. This was particularly the case with the West Front, and had that been allowed to fall, as it threatened to do, the glorious South Porch would have been in imminent danger also. Our Bishop, then, early set on foot a plan of restoration, which was completely carried out by the year 1905. By it the noble fragment of the original West Front was completely restored, and with it, the two western bays of the South Aisle. These now form a convenient little chapel, which it is intended to fit up for daily services. Thus an important step has been taken towards the restoration of the nave and its two aisles, and the completion of the West Front on its original line. Yet any plan for setting this great work on foot was most effectually barred until the month of August in this present year. Some seventy years ago, the owner of an adjacent house, itself built on part of the walls of some domestic buildings of the Abbey, was allowed to enlarge his house by building on a small wing which crossed right over the line of the original West Front. Consequently this part could never be restored without obtaining possession of the usurping wing of the adjacent building. This has now been done. The necessary purchase money, £400, has been advanced by a friend, and efforts are now being made to repay this sum. If these lines chance to be read by any Churchman who would like to help on this necessary part of the work, the Vicar of Malmesbury would be glad to receive subscriptions, large or small. Alterations are contemplated at the east end of the Church also. A dead, blank wall (rising to a height of over sixty feet) meets the eye of the worshipper. It is intended to brighten this part of the Church by the insertion of a large rose window, from a beautiful design drawn by Mr. Harold Brakspear, the well-known architect. This east wall is in no part of the original building, and it was a little difficult to determine the right treatment of it. An ordinary Gothic east window, or any modification of Gothic, would have clashed not only with the Norman arcading and triforium, but also with the Norman arch above, whereas the design now submitted harmonises both with the Norman and with the fourteenth century work. The window is of a most beautiful design, and with the glazing complete can be carried out for less than £1,000. The present building is some eight hundred years old, and, apart from accident and so far as solidity is concerned, appears likely to last another eight hundred years. Where is the man who would like to make a permanent and glorious addition to such a building? It is further contemplated to enlarge the present Sanctuary, and place within it a more suitable Holy Table than the present, which will be required for the Chapel at the west end. Then, further, the organ and choir should be brought down from the existing nineteenth century gallery, and the gallery itself removed, as suggested in the joint report of the Society of Antiquaries and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. These improvements can all be effected for quite a reasonable sum of money, and it is to be hoped that before long, and with some outside help, they will take concrete shape.”

Mr. Harold Brakspear, the eminent architect and antiquary, in an interesting contribution, points out that in the east bay on the north are the original procession doorway to the cloister. “The south porch,” says Mr. Brakspear, “is one of the grandest in the country; the outer arch comprises eight richly-carved orders, without capitals, three of which are divided into panels containing subjects of Bible history in the arch, and the vices, virtues and seasons in the jambs, and the remainder are carved with foliage. Inside the porch on either hand are wall arcades resting on stone seats, and above, in semicircular panels, are sculptured the twelve apostles seated, six a-side, with a flying angel above their heads bearing a scroll. The inner doorway to the church is as rich as the outer arch, but is of only three members; but the head is filled with a tympanum, on which is carved Our Lord in Glory, supported on either side by a censing angel.” The western front is much decayed, but there is reason to believe that in its perfect form it was a magnificent piece of architecture. In the south aisle is a fine effigy of a king on a simple altar tomb, and it is traditionally supposed to represent King Athelstan. It had the head broken off by the Rebels in the Civil War, but so great was the respect of the townspeople for their benefactor that it was promptly restored. The organ is said to have been obtained from a pawn-shop after it had been rescued from the great fire of London. The work of restoration, which was completed in 1905, occupied four years of continuous labour and cost the sum of £4,850. Mr. Brakspear acted as architect and the Bishop of Bristol (Dr. G. Forrest Browne) entered heart and soul into the undertaking. His love for the old Abbey is well-known, but he is not alone in the hope that some day this unique building will be restored to something approaching its former magnificence.

The Malmesbury of to-day is entirely unspoiled by the modern spirit. No huge factories belch forth clouds of black smoke or poison the surrounding country with their chemical breath. All is sweet and clean and delightfully antiquated, whilst the townsfolk are genial, hospitable and loyal with that loyalty which age and honour can command to their fine old town. Its charm is a fitting theme for poets, as ere now it has repeatedly been the subject – and a worthy one – for the artist’s brush. The quaint old buildings with their stone or stucco walls, their tiled roofs, and soft tones which age has given them, make up a series of attractive pictures, the composition being completed by the Abbey, which dominates the scene from every point of view.

Towns claiming far fewer attractions have by means of judicious advertising earned a considerable reputation as “show places.” Why should not Malmesbury do the same?

15 January, 2015
All images and written works by David Forward are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License