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Wimborne St. Giles

Wimborne St. Giles – The Parish Church

The parish of Wimborne St. Giles extends to nearly 6,000 acres from the East Dorset heath land in the south-east north-westwards to the edge of Cranborne Chase; in the middle is the village that gives its name to the parish and in the middle of the village is the parish church.

Hutchins records that in 1732 the nave and the tower of St. Giles Church were almost entirely rebuilt. Similarities with the church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Blanford have led to speculation that the architects were the brothers John and William Bastard, although no documentary evidence exists to support this opinion. In 1887 north and south arcades designed by G.F. Bodley were incorporated into the nave and a north chapel was added. Fire struck the church in 1908 destroying everything except the tower and two walls of the 18th century nave.

A report from the time tells us that on Tuesday the 29th of September workmen had been doing lead soldering work in the tower rafters. At about eleven o’clock on Wednesday evening Thomas Blake, George Bennett and Walter Cutler, all estate workers, noticed smoke coming from the top of the tower; they obtained a key and took buckets of water up and put-out the fire. The fire rekindled itself and at thirty minutes past one o’clock on the morning of the 1st of October  the bells, which had been left in the up position after ringing practice, were released by the flames licking around the belfry; they started ringing and raised the alarm.

Many villagers turned out of bed including the Rev. J. Bouquet and Police Constable Arnold. Mr A.S. Wilbratham (the Shaftesbury’s estate manager) carried out church fittings including some recently purchased new oak benches, the pulpit, altar table and linen, thirty-five chairs and the church registers. First light revealed all that remained was a burnt out shell.

What we see today is a church rebuilt and refitted to the plans of Sir Ninian Comper but his work here has not met with universal acclaim. Pevsner in the Dorset edition of his ‘Buildings of England’ series criticises both structure and fittings. Appearing as an early Georgian building the walls are of Greensand ashlar chequered with panels of squared and knapped flint, and slate covered roofs. The church comprises a west tower, home to eight bells; nave; south porch; chancel; north aisle; north chapel and vestry.

The chancel and nave are structurally one separated by an oak rood screen which continues into the north aisle. Some are critical of the way Comper “tampered” with the inside creating a “preposterously” narrow south aisle separated from the nave by tall round piers. The seating in the nave is by Comper but the benches in the north aisle are those saved from the 1908 fire, as is the carved wood pulpit. The screen, very Gothic in appearance and also by Comper; the adjoining box is the Shaftesbury pew. Also by Comper is the West Gallery of wainscot oak; it has seating for choir and bell ringers and holds a fine organ. The Royal Arms on the front of the gallery are those of George II.

The west tower is in three stages with the lower two stages having corner buttresses. At the top a plain parapet with a balustraded panel at the centre of each side and at each corner a stone vase with a cast iron finial.  Under the tower is the west door leading into a fine wide vestibule

The east window above the altar, a memorial to the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury and Harriet his wife, is by Comper. The small window at the east endof the south wall above the Shaftesbury family entrance depicts Mary the Mother of Jesus and is a memorial to Mary Sibell, a daughter of the 9th Earl. East of the south porch entrance is a window reconstructed from fragments of German and Flemish glass collected after the fire from a window originally given by the 5th Earl in 1785. To the west of the south porch one small light commemorates the golden wedding of the 9th Earl and his wife Constance in 1949. The other light is a memorial to the Rev. Robert Harkness, Rector here at the time of the 7th Earl.

On the west wall at the back of the gallery a window of five lights is made up of two windows formerly in the north wall; they survived the 1908 fire. On the north wall in the gallery is another window by Comper to commemorate the silver wedding of the 9th Earl and his wife. Under the gallery a small window by Comper serves as a memorial to Miss Edith Milner a friend of the 9th Earl and his wife. The two large north wall windows are in memory of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and his wife Emily and the second is a memorial to Mrs John Ashley. The window behind the large Jacobean tomb in the North Chapel is “A Commemoration of the Coronation of King George V” on June 22nd 1911 and is also by Comper who is also responsible for the window over the Lady Chapel Altar – a memorial to the Duke of Westminster who died at St. Giles House.

To the right hand side of the Altar is an unusual memorial. It seems that during the building of the arcade in 1887 a robin nested here. The workmen of the time placed the nest and a letter in a bottle and this was discovered during the work carried out after the 1908 fire when another robin nested in the same spot. The bottle and the second nest have been replaced in the wall and the spot is known as The Robin Memorial.

Of the many monuments to the Ashley-Cooper family Pevsner says “the Ashley monuments are a splendid series, though desperately displayed. If only a museum-like mausoleum or gallery could be built for them.”

There is a memorial to the 7th Earl in the family pew in the south wall and he is buried in the family vault under the north side of the church. Also in the south wall, a much restored monument of a crusader believed to be Sir John de Plecy who died in 1313. The Plecy’s are Shaftesbury ancestors.

In the north wall is a memorial to the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury complete with a bust of the man. Lower down there are three carved female heads representing the Earl’s three wives. Other memorials recall the lives of the 3rd Earl who was a philosopher and the 4th Earl who was a friend of Handel. It was the 4th Earl who built the 18th century church. The grand tomb in the Lady Chapel is that of Sir Anthony Ashley.

Since 1672 when Anthony Ashley Cooper was created the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury the family have played an important and distinguished part in the history of England. For six hundred years the family seat has been at Wimborne St. Giles and St Giles House, the grand building we see today, was built in the mid 17th century replacing a modest manor house that originally stood on the site. The house is not open to the public but a visit to the parish church of St. Giles will tell you much about the family’s history.




Pioneering Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury

What does Eros the archer on his plinth in Piccadilly Circus have to do with what one guide book calls “the Bible-thumping social reformer who campaigned against child labour?”  The world-renowned figure high above the London crowds is not in fact the God of Love, but the Angel of Christian Charity, and it commemorates the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, whose family is closely linked with Dorset. Children were still climbing into chimneys to sweep them when philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury began his quest.  Today, as a result of his work, Community Regeneration Projects are improving some of Britain’s most deprived areas.

In his day, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh earl (1801-85), an MP from 1826 to 1851, was the leading spirit in the reform of factory working conditions. He was chairman of the Ragged Schools Union for over 40 years. As late as 1863, young children were still working 16 hours a day.

Shaftesbury’s zeal was directed to the children on his Dorset estate as well as those all over the country. The Wimborne St. Giles School was a model of its kind; it was light and airy with windows small children could see out of and by 1870 it had central heating. He regularly visited the school and Lady Victoria Ashley took a weekly sewing class. The school Log Book records numerous visits by other members of the family. In 1882 there were 120 pupils on the school roll and The Rector of St. Giles came in to help the mistress and her assistant by taking twice weekly scripture classes and pupil teachers also helped. The school had a well-stocked library and pupils were allowed to take books home. The Seventh Earl’s school at Wimborne St. Giles supplied a long-felt need. A Parliamentary Inquiry (1818) revealed that St. Giles children attended a school at Cranborne, necessitating a two-mile walk each way.

There is a story that serves to illustrate Shaftesbury’s concern for the needs of destitute children. He was visiting a Ragged school in London and noticing the distress of a little girl who he asked how she felt, she told him “Ise hungry – Ise cold”. He was moved to tears and had two urns of soup sent to the school from his home in Grosvenor Square. That winter 10,000 bowls of soup and bread from his own kitchens were distributed to hungry children.

The Shaftesbury family had much earlier encouraged the education of local children.  The third earl, who lived from 1671 to 1713, was a philosopher and moral reformer who taught that man is guided by a “moral sense”. His housekeeper was instructed to find out which children on the estate needed encouragement and help with their education and she was to report “of their schooling (which my Lord allows them)” and also to say which of them ought to receive further education.

In 1885 the seventh earl came home to Wimborne St. Giles and attended the church where he read the lessons. During July he became ill and sought relief by the sea at Folkestone. His health deteriorated and he died there.

In memory of the man who changed the lives of the poor, Shaftesbury Sunday is celebrated every year near the anniversary of his birth in April, when people recall how he was inspired by his deep Christian faith to pioneer education of the young, to make illegal the use of women and children underground, and to limit factory working hours. 

The Shaftesbury Society is the means by which the present generation continues the work. Some of the world’s social reformers have been poor men eager to advance the prospects of their own class but the seventh earl is today remembered in the popular mind more than his antecedents, because although one of the gentry, he could see the need. He went to boarding school, Harrow and Cambridge. Many of the residents of homes for the elderly and those who grew up in orphanages have reason to be thankful for him.

The First Earl of Shaftesbury

The first Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, was a quite amazing man who in a frenzied, tumultuous and almost feverish life changed from the Royalist to the Parliament side in the Civil War, later serving under Charles II.  He lived from 1621 to 1683, and was only 10 when he succeeded to huge estates at Wimbourne St.Giles in Dorset and elsewhere, his mother having died in 1628. He entered Exeter College, Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, and was elected MP for Tewkesbury in 1640.

In 1642 he was accompanying King Charles I at Nottingham and Derby, conveyed the offer of the Dorset gentry to support the king, and actually raised foot and horse at his own expense. Yet when it seemed he might become governor of Weymouth he resigned his commission and joined with Parliament. Soon he was in charge of the forces in Dorset, capturing royalist strongholds and taking Corfe Castle in 1646.

From 1646 to 1648 he was Parliamentary High Sheriff for Wiltshire, and in the succeeding years he sat for Wiltshire in Cromwell’s parliaments, served on the council of state and was actually imprisoned as a political suspect in 1659, seized the Tower of London and persuaded the Fleet to declare for Parliament.

In March 1660 he was negotiating with Charles II. Two months late he was admitted as a privy councillor and in June he received a formal pardon for his past actions. In 1661 he was created Baron Ashley and became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in the following years he received grant of land in Carolina and an interest in the Bahamas. In 1667 he became Lord Lieutenant of Dorset.

He was a supporter of the Duke of Monmouth, and in 1672 we find him approving Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence for Protestant dissenters. The same year he was created Earl of Shaftesbury. He once annoyed the king’s mistresses by refusing grants of money to them, and he was also opposed to the prevailing despotic rule in Scotland. In 1673 he was dismissed as chancellor, and the next year from the Privy Council and as Lord Lieutenant.

Refusing to obey the king and leave London, he was imprisoned with others by order of the House of Lords in 1677 but released the following year, when he supported the ‘Papist Plot’ scare movement. The same year he was leading the Opposition in Parliament and president of the Privy Council, though he was soon dismissed from office.

After bringing in a Bill to repeal penalties against Protestant dissenters, he was committed to the Tower and charged with high treason in 1681 but was released by a Whig grand jury, and soon after he was planning a revolt in London, Cheshire and the West of England. Escaping to Holland via Harwich, he was made a burgher of Amsterdam in 1682. There he died: his body was brought back to be buried at Poole in Dorset.

The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury

The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury

The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury