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A bust inscribed with the name of Francis Watt has recently been restored to its rightful location in All Saints Church, Bishop Burton. Francis Watt inherited the Bishop Burton estate in 1855. He became a major benefactor of the church, funding the major renovation that was completed in 1865 and the reredos (altar screen) installed in 1874.

Unfortunately we have at present no information about the origins of the bust. Is it really Francis Watt or just a present? Who commissioned it? Who made it? Who paid for it? The only clue is the inscription on the back which in addition to recording the facts of Francis’ name and date of death reads “A(followed by 4 or 5 illegible letters) Sculptor Rome 1857”. Francis would have been 44 or so in 1857 shortly after he (probably to his surprise) inherited the Bishop Burton estate on the death of his uncle.

The Bishop Burton estate came into the Watt family when it was bought by Francis’ great-grandfather. Richard Watt, born in 1751 in Standish, Lancashire. The estate had most recently been in the hands of the Gee family. Richard Watt was a man of acquired wealth, starting life as a coach driver before joining a merchant ship bound for the West Indies. There he bought a plantation and exploited slave labour to produce rum and sugar. He returned, a successful merchant and ship-owner. Twelve years after buying Bishop Burton he also purchased Speke Hall now near Liverpool Airport and a major National Trust property. Richard probably never lived at Bishop Burton but the village grew up as an estate development from the time of his tenure. When he died in 1798 it was inherited by his nephew, Richard Watt (d.1812) and then his grandnephew, also Richard Watt (1786-1855). The latter was a horse breeder who had four winners of the St Leger including Altisidora, now the name of the village pub. He divided his estates between his eldest son, also Richard Watt, who upset his father by marrying a housemaid and was given Speke Hall and this estate was held by the senior branch of the family until 1921. Bishop Burton was given to his younger son, Francis Watt, who became High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1865.

Francis never married, so on his death in 1870 the estate passed to a younger brother, William. It is believed that Francis lived in Low Hall and Woodridge House (opposite the Altisidora) as at that time the Hall was unoccupied and was then demolished by Francis. He left money in his will for the Hall to be re-built and this was done fairly sharply by his younger brother although William died in 1874 without ever having lived in the new Hall.

Francis was a keen horseman, owning several “fairly” good racehorses. He died in 1870 within a few days of contracting typhoid fever at Epsom on Oaks Day. He was a Captain in a cavalry regiment, the 3rd (Prince of Wales’) Dragoon Guards. His obituary in the local paper speaks of his generosity and his popularity in the village despite being of a retiring nature.

Francis Watt and the renovation of All Saints Church

A couple of years ago, I found through the internet some papers that probably belonged to a firm of local solicitors. They describe and specify the changes made to the church in 1865, and include original invoices submitted for works completed or items supplied. The project was financed by Francis Watt who contributed at least £3k; in today’s money this would be equivalent to £220k (using RPI) or £1.8 million (based on the growth of earnings).

The project was overseen by architect John L Pearson and among the papers is a 15 page handwritten account of the project. The preamble reads as follows:

Some 40 years ago [1825], the Nave and Aisles were rebuilt, the floor was then raised about 30 inches above its original level, the old Arcades between the Nave & Aisles were raised and new windows were put in the aisle and Clerestory walls, a large doorway was formed in the South aisle, towards its Western end, and the Western doorway opening into the Tower walled up, the floor was paved throughout with stone, and the Church seated with open benches, long narrow and inconvenient, and carried across the whole width of the Nave in one length without any centre passageway - some of them at the West end, were raised on a stepped platform; the roofs were of rough timber and with flat plaster ceiling, the lower portion of the Chancel arch and of the Western doorway were buried by the raising of the floor.

When these alterations were carried out, nothing was done to the Chancel, the floor of it was left at its original level some 20 inches below the raised floor of [the] nave, steps were fixed east of the Chancel arch to go down to this level.

A few years ago, it was determined to restore the Chancel, the walls were then in a very tottering state, the roof was almost flat & had a flat ceiling which blocked up the head of [the] east window, and all the stone work was thickly covered with color wash; the columns of the Nave arcade were painted.

The Chancel has now been entirely rebuilt in the style which prevailed during the middle of the 13th Century, that being apparently the date of the old walls. A new Vestry and Organ Chamber have been added to the east end of the South nave aisle and attached to the South wall of [the] Chancel.

The project included also the installation of a central heating system installed by Haden Young which is still partly working (??) today.

In 1865 Pearson’s work was mainly in the East Riding with commissions for the Sykes family of Sledmere but in 1867 he moved to London and business began to pick up. He became the architect for Lincoln Cathedral in 1870. In 1878 he was commissioned to renovate Truro Cathedral, and in 1879 became the Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey.

Francis Watt and the reredos

Francis Watt’s expenditure on the church did not cease with the 1865 project and in 1874 the Driffield Times reported on the new reredos that had been paid for by Francis before his death. A reredos is an ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of an altar. It is pictured below.

 

 

Bryn Jones
December 2016