By Glen Huntley, November 2022
In Ladykirk church, just over the border into Scotland, is an oak chest that originated from St Nicholas’ church in Liverpool in 1651. The mystery of how this ended up in a Scottish church made national news in 1892. When the church of St. Nicholas was devastated in the Blitz of 1941, many historic artifacts were lost forever. 200 miles away, the oak chest survived. It is an extremely rare and important relic of our past.
Over 370 years have passed since this historic relic of Liverpool’s history was made. 130 years have gone by since it was discovered in Scotland. Is it now time for it to be returned?
The oak chest was made in 1651 as a gift to the poor and aged of the Parish Church of Liverpool, Our Lady and Saint Nicholas (referred from here onwards as St. Nicholas’ church). The function of the chest was to store the churches Communion vessels and prayer books. The chest then vanished in some unknown period of our history.
In the 1880s, the oak chest turned up in the parish church of Ladykirk, (Our Lady Kirk of Steill). How the chest ended up in Scotland made the national newspapers in 1892. But, when and how the chest disappeared from Liverpool is a mystery.
Ladykirk church was erected on the instructions of King James IV, after he fell into the River Tweed and attributed his survival to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. The church is just over the border of England and Scotland, 9 miles from the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed on the east coast.
How the chest may have been lost
It may have simply been mislaid in storage during several enlargements and modifications of the original 14th century church.
By 1775, the church was in a ‘ruinous state’ and orders were given to practically rebuild it. There were plans to completely remove all that was ancient – ‘all that was hoary with age or bore the impress of antiquity must go.’ In the end, that wasn’t entirely the case.
Once the edict had gone forth there was no hesitation in sacrificing every ancient feature. All that was hoary with age or bore the impress of antiquity must go; but incredible as it may appear, the parishioners were so deeply attached to the unsightly galleries they had erected round the interior of the building, that they decided to allow them to remain in the grotesque situations they occupied, to disfigure the new church they were building.ST. NICHOLAS’S CHURCH, LIVERPOOL: ITS ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY, Henry Peet, M.A., F.S.A., 1913. HSLC
Another possible reason, is that it could have been moved to safety after the church spire collapsed in 1810. This caused the deaths of 25 people, mostly children. It also destroyed the roof of the church and some of its interior.
Less likely are the suggestions that the chest was stolen during the English Civil War, or two Jacobite rebellions. A theft is far more likely to have been recorded in the annals of the church. But if the chest was presumed to be in storage, no-one would have investigated its disappearance from the rebuilt church.
Rather than further speculate as to how the chest was lost, I will instead concentrate of how it was found.
‘A Curious Find in the church of Ladykirk’
Public knowledge of the oak chest came about in 1892 when a tourist spotted it in the Scottish church. He took a photograph, and sent news of his discovery to St. Nicholas’ church in Liverpool. St. Nicholas’ church just so happened to have for as its churchwarden an eminent Liverpool historian Henry Peet (a chemist by trade). Peet already knew of four lost chests that used to belong to the church. He must have been thrilled when he saw the photograph.
One of the earliest mentions in the press is on the 4th August 1892. The Liverpool Mercury ran a story about the chest. It mentioned how that Peet was puzzled how it could have ended up in Scotland. And, as well as speculating how it was lost, the Mercury suggested it should be returned to Liverpool:-
At present we are constrained to believe that it left Liverpool because it was sold, because it was stolen, or because it was given away, and of these three probabilities, the first is the most improbable.
If it come back to Liverpool – and it would, we should imagine, be difficult to dispute the claim of the parishioners – it will come back to a home very different from that which it left. It will find more noise, more wealth, and more people, and less fresh air, fewer green fields, and a muddier river.Liverpool Mercury – Thursday 04 August 1892
The Scottish minister was furious the story was made public
Rev. William Dobie, the minister of Ladykirk was angry that someone took a photograph without his permission. Peet then wrote to Rev. Dobie to investigate:
A CURIOUS “FIND” IN THE CHURCH OF LADYKIRK
Our Jedburgh correspondent writes:-
Some months ago, a gentleman who was sojourning by the Tweed near to “Norham’s Castled Steep,” paid a visit to the votive church of St. Mary at Ladykirk, an edifice founded in 1500 by James IV. to commemorate his preservation from drowning when crossing the river by a ford in the neighbourhood.
After examining the architectural features of that interesting Gothic structure outside, the gentleman entered the interior, and during his survey there he unexpectedly came upon a dark oak chest, which naturally aroused his curiosity. It was of massive construction and elaborately carved, and was further enriched with numerous mouldings, panels, and coats-of-arms. On the centre panel of the lid were carved the words ” Saynt Nycholas, Liverpoole;” above were inscribed the words, ” It is more blessyed to give than to receive;” and below, “God’s worst is better than the worlde’s best.” On the front of the chest was a representation of the Flight into Egypt and the date 1651. There was also the representation of a chalice borne by crossed crosiers, and a Bible, this being repeated on another of the panels. On the rail above, the date was again given, with the donor’s name between the figures, thus:-
“16. Edward Williamson’s gift to ye trulye poore and aged of ye psh. 51.”
Below the front panel was the motto, “My trust is in God alone, and under this again, over a rich moulding, were the following words of Jesus:-‘ I was hungrie and ye gave me meat, I was thirstie and ye gave me drinke, a stranger and ye tooke me in, naked and ye clothed me, I was sick and ye visited me.”
The chest, which was in an excellent state of preservation, measured 41/2 feet in length, 21/2, feet in height, and 22 inches in breadth, The gentleman above alluded to was greatly puzzled as to how so valuable a relic had got across the Tweed. He had a photograph of it taken, and wrote to the churchwarden of St. Nicholas, Liverpool, on the subject.
A search was at once made among the parochial archives there, with the result that some old inventory lists were come upon, and from these it was found that about the middle of last century the church possessed several chests, in which the register and vestry-books were deposited, and these chests were all Minutely described. All these had since disappeared, but when or how was quite a mystery.
That the chest at Ladykirk was one of them there could be no doubt, and it is believed that the representations of the chalice and the Bible upon two of the panels indicate that it was the receptacle for the sacred vessels and the altar service books when not in use.
The churchwarden of St. Nicholas, being naturally anxious to recover the long-lost property, has with this view entered into communication with the Rev. Mr. Dobie, minister of Ladykirk, who, it is not too much to say, has been as much surprised as any connected with this curious and, as yet, unexplained affair.
The Liverpool people plead that they have a good claim, and that it will be difficult to dispute it; while the Rev. Mr. Dobie feels somewhat indignant that anyone should have entered his church and taken a photograph and measurements of the chest without his knowledge and consent. We are informed that the chest was placed in the church of Ladykirk within the last five or six years, and it would be satisfactory to know something of its wanderings since it left Liverpool more than a century ago.The Scotsman – Monday 29 August 1892
The story made national news, including of course, in Liverpool. The Liverpool Weekly Courier stated that the Liverpool parish church did indeed once own a chest such as this, but it (along with some others) had disappeared. How they came to have been lost was not known. The paper suggested it could have occurred during one of the two Jacobite rebellions. The article ends with a suggestion that the oak chest should be returned to Liverpool:-
We know that in ”the old days of relying “they stole the beeves that made the broth, From England and from Scotland both.” It is also alleged that the reivers penetrated much further south than is generally supposed. As one sails over the placid bosom of Ullswater, a lady in strident voice, and pointing with the finger to a huge bars crag appearing to rise perpendicularly from the lake, exclaimed—” That is where the Scots were defeated they got no ‘ further then that !”
As to the historical accuracy of this statement nothing need I said. The confiding auditor cannot wonder that the Scots got no further ; the marvel is that they ever got so far, and to so ridiculous a mountain edge. But all that was much more than a hundred years ago, when Oak chests are supposed to have disappeared from St. Nicholas Church, Liverpool, and oak chests from churches I, can hardly be supposed to have much in the line of the katheran or of the Jacobite, we can imagine some poor fugitive of the ‘Forty-five being transported from point to point as an precious relic. That the beautifully-carved oak chest which has lately been ” discovered” in the Church of St. Mary at Ladykirk, just across the Border, once belonged to St. Nicholas’s, Liverpool, there can be no doubt whatever. “Saint Nycholas, Liverpool., ” is plainly carved on the lid, and, further, it proclaims itself as “Edward Williamson’s gift to ye trulye poore and aged of ye psh 1651.
Who was Edward Williamson? How and when did the chest get removed front St. Nicholas? How, when, and by whom was it placed in the Church of St. Mary at Ladykirk, on the northern bank of the Tweed? We are told that in the case of the great pile at Byzantium, though the carvers carved “Justinian, emperor,” the writing on the wall afterwards appeared – ” Euphrasia, widow ;” but these are not the days of niceties. We have ceased to produce legend, like that which accounts for the carving of the pig on the church on the top of the hill at Winwick.
Yet the mystery the transfer of this oak chest from the Mersey to the Tweed is as complete as if it belonged to the dark ages, wherein powers of the air and of darkness were wont to play all sorts of pranks with the weeks end the intentions of men. The Evil One may still inspire and the designs of the wicked, after a fashion, and it may still be in the power of modern St. Dunstan to figuratively take him by the nose ; but, however much cause there may be from the poetic point of view to regret the fact, nothing but the most prosaic explanation of this strange incident need be expected—that I, to my, if any explanation at all should be forthcoming. Whether this be so or not must evidently depend upon the energy and perseverance of the St. Nicholas’ churchwarden, of today.
According to an antiquarian correspondent’ of the “Scotsman,” the Mr. Dobie, minister of Ladykirk, feels surprised and “indignant” that anyone should entered, his church and taken a photograph and measurement of the chest without his knowledge and consent.” No doubt. “An Englishman’s house is his castle,” and in the same way a Scottish parson’s church is, in all probability, his citadel, though sometimes more care seems to be bestowed upon the furnishing and maintenance of the manse. In this case the ubiquitous and inquisitive tourist, probably armed with ‘ that invention of Satan, the Kodak, invaded the sacred precincts of a votive sanctuary founded by James IV in 1500. There he saw a chest where no such chest should be, at least one that bore upon it a tale of mystery. It was too much to expect in such circumstance that no “snap-shot ” would be taken.
Somebody at some time must have done a worse thing than photographing the chest. There is to fear that it must have been wrongfully annexed. Of course Edward Williamson may have been, offended in some way, and may have withdrawn gift to “ye trulye poore of ye psh” of St. Nicholas. It is possible that he may have gone north of the Tweed, carrying with him his bag and baggage, laces and penates, oak chest and all. There is historic ground for this suspicion.
We are told that Edward Williamson was a drugseller* in Liverpool, and an alderman of the borough. He deprived of this dignity in 1662 because he would not I conform to the restored Episcopacy. But if it be a fact that the oaken chest has found its way into the church in which it now is within the past five or six years, there must exist in the district a clue capable of tracing it back. Nay, the nature and the import of the carving on the chest must have been known to those who presented to St. Mary of Ladykirk what once belonged St. Nicholas of Liverpool. It is, of course, impossible to excuse the conduct of the churchwardens of St. Nicholas of byegone time. It has been made clear that church once “possessed several chests” and now it appears to own none at all. Nor can anyone say what became of any of them.
The Low Churchism of that day cannot account for the loss of them all. But for the casual researches of a traveller of an inquiring of mind, the parishioners of to-day would have remained in ignorance, perhaps blissful, of the fact that there had even been such property. But all this does not make the surprise and indignation of the Rev. Mr. Dobie the only thing worthy of consideration. If the church at Ladykirk came rightfully into possession of an oak chest which assuredly is no part of its original votive furnishing, the fact can be demonstrated. If not, surely St. Nicholas is entitled to restoration in spite of the remissness of a former generation of churchwardens, and should insist upon its rights. Anyhow, as the antiquarian correspondent suggests, it would be very interesting to know the history of the chest from its first to its present resting place.Liverpool Weekly Courier – Saturday 03 September 1892
Once it was discovered, Henry Peet started to investigate further. He was told it had been in Sheffield and then was purchased at an auction at Edinburgh in 1885 by James Melrose on behalf of Lady Marjoribanks of Ladykirk. Lady Marjoribanks then donated it to her parish church.
The story then took a twist, when the auctioneer and Rev. Dobie attempted to deter Peet by claiming the chest was not the original.
*Edward Williamson was actually a draper, it was Peet who was the drugseller.
The auctioneer who sold it claimed it was merely a ‘modern antique’
Thomas Chapman (the auctioneer of 11, Hanover-street, Edinburgh) wrote in to answer the question of how the chest ended up in Ladykirk. He also stated that the chest was ‘a modern antique, and very clever reproduction‘. Note; this was printed in the local paper for the Ladykirk church, the Berwickshire News and General Advertiser :
I am able to answer this, and perhaps save a fierce feud between the churchwardens of St Nicholas Liverpool, and the Rev. Mr Dobie, of Ladykirk. On the 11th April, 1885, I had a sale of carved oak furniture, named in the catalogue as the property of bankrupt estate in Sheffield. Lot 131 is catalogued as, “A very fine oak communion chest richly/ carved with ecclesiastical emblems and designs, and with panel: the flight into Egypt, coats of arms, mottoes, etc., and inscribed Edward Williamsons gift, etc., Saynt Nycholas, Liverpoole, 1651.”
This chest was purchased by the late Mr Melrose, solicitor, Coldstream, and is undoubtedly the one that has caused so much anxious speculation and correspondence. The chest is a modern antique, and very clever reproduction. How the maker got access to the original I cannot tell, but I daresay he can answer this question. Mr Melrose purchased at the same sale another communion chest” and various pieces of carved furniture, and may have gifted the chest to the Church; or at the dispersal of his I collection after his decease, some friend may have bought the chest and made the gift. This Mr Dobie can explain. The chest, though a reproduction, is very fine piece of work, and will not disgrace the quaint old church in which it is now found.Berwickshire News and General Advertiser – Tuesday 20 September 1892
The same article reproduced a letter from the Rev. Dobie, this was addressed to Peet in Liverpool. Dobie also insisted the chest was a forgery. Revealingly, Dobie wrote that the chest ‘will be taken good care of so long as I am here to do so, not only for its own worth as work of art, but also for the cherished memory of the donor’:–
The Rev. W. Dobie has requested us to publish the following letter which he has addressed to Mr Henry Peet, churchwarden of the parish of Liverpool:—
“Manse of Ladykirk, 16th September, 1892. To Henry Peet, Esq., churchwarden of the parish of Liverpool.’
Sir, —I have no doubt you will ere this have seen the letter in The Scotsman of 10th September curt., anticipating my promised inquiry as to the facts regarding the oak chest. It turns that said chest was purchased on the 11th April, 1885, at a public sale, and is, after all, not the original, but merely a cleverly executed modern antique, and all the while it may or may not be a correct copy of the original, which is yet to be found for comparison. However that may be, Chapman, the auctioneer, disposes of the assumption that the chest now in Ladykirk is the original one of date 1651, gifted to Saint Nicholas Church, Liverpool, by Edward Williamson.
The chest here was purchased at the date above given by the late Jonathan Melrose, then factor to the now deceased Lady Marjoribanks Ladykirk, and gifted by her ladyship to the Church of Ladykirk, where it has remained since October 1885, and will be taken good care of so long as I am here to do so, not only for its own worth as work of art, but also for the cherished memory of the donor.
I have again to express my regret the methods adopted by parties still unknown to me to substantiate the claim made by St Nicholas Church, when for nearly seven years the chest has been present to every visitor, when there never was any attempt at concealment, when my manse is within two minutes walk of the church, and when I have never been ready to give all information in my power to every candid inquirer regarding the history of the chest, now known as the curious find,’ as I have already done to yourself in communications previous to this date.
Allow me, in closing my correspondence on this still mysterious affair, to say that, notwithstanding certain perfectly gratuitous expressions in the public prints, our inter-communications have been of the most friendly nature.—
I am, always yours most sincerely, William Dobie.Berwickshire News and General Advertiser – Tuesday 20 September 1892
“A lie in oak”
The story was not limited to the newspapers, the publication The Antiquary also covered it twice in the same year. The first article reveals that Peet was looking for the chest(s) before he was contacted about the one in Ladykirk.
Mr. Churchwarden Peet, of St. Nicholas’ Church, Liverpool, to whose good work with regard to roisters and old documents we have more than once referred in the Antiqury has for some time been searching for a parish chest frequently mentioned in the inventory lists of the old church. The result of much correspondence has been that a beautifully-carved oak chest, which, in the year 1651 was presented to St. Nicholas’ church by Edward Williamson, has turned up in a parish church just above the Tweed, near Norham Castle.
The next article (quoting Peet) proposed an interesting question. If was indeed a forgery, why would a church want to own it? If it was authentic, why would one church want to own an historic relic of another church?
Rev. W. Dobie, minister of Ladykirk, Berwickshire, writes to us about the carved chest in that church, which is described as pertaining to St. Nicholas, Liverpool, together with the date, 1651, and the name of the donor, on which we recently commented.
Mr. Dobie contends that the chest is a modern forgery. It was bought at a public sale on April 11, 1885, and was given to the church by the late Lady Marjoribanks. This is another instance of the miserable dodges of modern forgers in oak to procure purchasers.
There is no accounting for tastes, but we wonder much that Mr. Dobie and the members of the church of Ladykirk cared to possess a chest which claimed to belong to another church, and which we suppose they at first believed to be genuine. And we now wonder still more that Mr. Dobie should be so anxious to keep in the house of God that which he admits to be a fraudulent piece of roguery, or, as he euphemistically prefers to style it, “a cleverly-executed modern antique”! A lie in oak had surely better be in a secular building.
When the Duke of Norfolk discovered how he had been imposed upon by fraudulent dealers, he made a holocaust in his castle courtyard of the various pieces of falsely-dated and initialed furniture that he had been persuaded to buy at high prices. We should be glad to hear that like honest treatment had been meted out to this Ladykirk chest.The Antiquary 1892-11: Vol 26
After 1892, the story almost disappeared from the newspapers. But in 1895, John Thompson in his book ‘Liverpool and Neighbourhood in Ye olden time’ suggested that Rev. Dobie was trying to keep hold of the chest:-
The clergyman of the church will not allow a sketch or photograph of it to be taken, and simply states that was presented to Ladykirk by Lady March.” One thing appears be plain, any rate, and that is that the clergyman means keep it, and doubtless his right possession is legally and morally goodJohn Thompson via Liverpool Daily Post – Thursday 18 July 1895
Dobie wanted to keep the chest, not for its monetary value, but for its sentimental attachment to Lady Marjoribanks:
It is almost certain that Rev. Dobie was keen to keep hold of the chest (even though he insisted it was a fake) because it was a gift of Lady Marjoribanks who had died in 1889. Her death was just four years after donating the chest to Ladykirk church, and three years before the chest made national headlines:-
Visitors are divided in opinion, while the minister of Ladykirk thinks, be it the original or “a modern antique” it is worthy of being preserved, and he intends to do so, were it only because it was purchased for, and gifted to this church by the now deceased Lady Marjoribanks of Ladykirk, whose memory he cherishes with sincere affection.The churches and churchyards of Berwickshire, James Robson, 1896
Just one of many gifts
The chest was just one of many gifts from Lady Marjoribanks (Marianne-Sarah Marjoribanks (born Haggerston) . Another was the church’s clock in 1882. In the year the chest was donated she also promised to install ‘Grundy’ heating in the church. Her last act of charity was a gift of ‘sacred Vessels for Holy Communion.’
Lady Marjoribanks’ funeral was held at the church on the 23rd August 1889, the service was taken by Rev. Dobie. His sermon mentioned Lady Marjoribanks many acts of kindness to the church and parish. The Sacred vessels would ‘proclaim her personal faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and her attachment to this church and people’. (Berwickshire News and General Advertiser – Tuesday 27 August 1889.)
It is perhaps understandable that Rev. Dobie would be unwilling to depart with a gift from the recently departed Lady Marjoribanks. But are we still of the same view 130 years later?
In 1904, twelve years after the oak chest debate, the Rev. William Dobie died, aged 82.
35 years later, Peet renewed his quest
A year or two elapsed, when suddenly a lengthened correspondence sprang up (having its origin at Liverpool), in magazines and by letter, between the church wardens of St. Nicholas Church, Liverpool, and the Rev. William Dobie, minister of Ladykirk. The Antiquary, Liverpool Mercury, and even The Scotsman had a hand in the discussion which arose as to whether the chest was the “original” or a mere “copy,” and no definite conclusion has, as yet, been arrived at. The subject has in the meantime dropt.The churches and churchyards of Berwickshire, James Robson, 1896
Almost immediately after the oak chest made the national newspapers, the story vanished from the news – and almost every history book on Liverpool that’s been written ever since. Ladykirk were able to keep their chest without any further calls from the Liverpool church or historians. All historians apart one that is – Peet wasn’t done yet.
Peet may have gone quite, but he hadn’t given up. He was also a valued contributor to the journals of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. In 1927 he followed up his original research in his paper The Ancient Chest of St. Nicholas’s Church, Liverpool.
Peet wrote about his initial correspondence with his late adversary Rev. Dobie, and the minister’s claim that it was a ‘modern antique’. But Peet wasn’t satisfied, he tracked down Chapman the auctioneer in Edinburgh who sold it. Chapman (reluntantly) gave Peet some valuable information from the original seller:-
The auctioneer, he (the buyer Jonathan Melrose) informed me, was Mr. Thomas Chapman, of 11 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, and Lot 131 was catalogued as the property of a bankrupt estate in Sheffield. I thereupon wrote to Mr. Chapman for further information. He was not at first very communicative, but gave it as his opinion that the chest in question was a ” modern antique.” Upon pressing him still further he replied in a letter under date 24th September, 1892, in which he says:-
“After I got your letter I wrote the party who had to do with the goods I sold from Sheffield, and I quote a portion of his letter applying to the chest,” as follows : “The chest was a genuine old chest, have never made a chest yet, and should not think of doing so as I can buy them at the price of the wood. I remember that one very well and found all the details of it. There had been some carving done to it.”
Mr. Chapman declined to put me into direct communication with this mysterious man from Sheffield and I had to be satisfied with the cryptic explanation given above.The Ancient Chest of St. Nicholas’s Church, Liverpool. Henry Peet, 1927, HSLC
Peet believed the chest to be authentic, but he wondered if the two armorial crests on the lid were later additions:-
I do not profess to be an expert or judge of old furniture. My opinion must therefore be taken for what it is worth. I made a very careful examination of this elaborately carved chest, and if it is a ” modern antique ” the work has been most cleverly and skilfully executed. The chest itself is undoubtedly a very ancient one. The hinges (one broken) are rusty and apparently of wrought iron of antiquated make. The keyhole is not in the middle of the chest, but slightly to the right side. Some portion of the carving on the lid, notably the two coats of arms, appeared to me to be, if anything, more modern than the carving of the centre panel, or the carving on the front, and somewhat more evenly and finely cut.
But the interior of the chest was rough, worm-eaten and certainly not modern. I know, of course, the miserable dodges to which modern forgers of oak furniture resort in order to procure purchasers, and the decayed parts and the worm-eaten appearance may have been manufactured, but the carving, other than the coats of arms, impressed me as the patient, painstaking work of an unusually skilful workman.
The opinion I formed was that this was the original chest presented to the Church of St. Nicholas, Liverpool, by Edward Williamson in 1651, but that it had been manipulated and slightly added to by a modern carver.The Ancient Chest of St. Nicholas’s Church, Liverpool. Henry Peet, 1927, HSLC
I will return to Peet’s idea of the later crests in the section Authentic, or a forgery?
A call to return the chest to Liverpool in the Liverpool Echo, 1937
Just one year before Peet’s death in 1938, a letter was printed in the Liverpool Daily Post that strongly suggested that the chest should be returned to Liverpool:-
How the chest originally left St. Nicholas’s and reached Sheffield we do not know, but plainly its present abiding place should be the church to which, beyond all dispute, it was originally given.
Since my return to Liverpool I asked a veteran elder of the Church of Scotland. and a clerk of session how a noble lady could devote to one church an article of furniture plainly belonging to another. His reply contained a reference so uncomplimentary to the Scottish nobility that I cannot ask the editor to print it. We know that on the Borders they had a “good old rule, a simple plan.” regarding property. They who had the power took, and they kept who could. But surely we live in more enlightened times?Liverpool Daily Post – Friday 31 January 1941
St Nicholas’ church is bombed during the Blitz of 1941
Liverpool was Britain’s second most bombed city in WWII, only London suffered worse. Along with a great portion of Liverpool city centre and beyond, Hitler’s Luftwaffe almost completely destroyed the church of St. Nicholas with incendiary bombs. The tower remained but the body of the church was reduced to shell. Hundreds of years of history were lost. Most of the memorials that commemorated the city’s past residents were badly damaged or completely destroyed. The stained glass windows were shattered in the blast, one of these of the south wall was of the Williamson family and included the name of the donor of the oak chest Edward Williamson.
Shortly after the bombing of the church, an article in the Daily Post wrote that the old oak chest now had a new significance:-
The Old Oak Chest
In view of the destruction of Liverpool parish church by German bombers. one incident in its history now acquires a new significance.
In 1661, Edward Williamson (who became Mayor of Liverpool two later) presented the church a specially made and richly carved oak chest. It was probably intended as a receptacle for the sacred vessels and altar service books, and was carved with Scriptural quotations, the Flight into Egypt, sacred emblems, and “The arms of the Williamsons and Blundells”. At some unknown date it disappeared from the church, and in it turned up in a bankrupt Estate from Sheffield, and was Auctioned in Edinburgh. It was bought by Jonathan Mellrose, of Coldstream, factor to Lady Marjoribanks, of Ladykirk, she presented it to Ladykirk Church, Berwickshire, where it is placed altarwise at the east, Thus the ancient chest, which bears the name of “Saynt Nycholas, Liverpoole,” has escaped the fate of church’s other treasures, the window which contained Williamson’s coat of arms.Liverpool Daily Post – Friday 31 January 1941
A few days after the article was published, a call was renewed to return one relic that still survived – ‘so that at least it should boast one of its ancient treasures’:-
St. Nicholas’s Chest Sir, —
I was much interested in the paragraph, in Day To Day in Liverpool,” which pointed out that the 1651 oak chest formerly belonging to St. Nicholas’s Parish Church, Liverpool, and bearing its name amid a wealth of carving, now rests in Ladykirk Church, Berwickshire, having been bought at an auction sale in Edinburgh.
I cannot help thinking—and I am sure many thousands of readers will agree with me—that when the war is over and the task of rebuilding and restoring St. Nicholas’s from the devastation recently wrought German bombers comes to be undertaken, it would be a most gracious and Christian act if the Ladykirk parishioners were to present this historic chest to St. Nicholas’s, so that at least it should boast one of its ancient treasures, though practically all the others have been lost through enemy action.
Yours, &c., AULD ACQUAINTANCE.Liverpool Daily Post – Monday 03 February 1941
In 1943, a small temporary church was erected within the shell of the church.
New discoveries about the chest
The auction of the chest
Using the British Newspaper Archive, I have been able to track down the sale of the chest in April 1885, This advertisement was placed the day before the auction on the 11th of April. It was included in a sale that included Communion chests and coffers that had been the property of a bankrupt estate in Sheffield.
The sale rooms of Thomas Chapman & Son were at 11 Hanover Street, now occupied by Bella Pasta. This building can be seen on the far left of this engaving below by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.
An earlier auction
A search of the newspaper archives revealed that the same chest had been in an earlier sale of ‘Antique carved English oak furniture’ at the auction rooms of Messr’s Hardwick & Young of 26 Park Row, Leeds 1880. The sale was addressed to ‘Connoisseurs and collectors of Antique Carved English oak furniture’.
There can be no doubt that this is the same:-
“A communion chest, carved with keys, chalices, open books, &c., and the name Sainte Nycholas in bold letters”.
This is identical in every way to the Liverpool chest, one of the two matching front panels is shown below.
With the auction taking place in Leeds, this is likely how the chest ended up in Sheffield. This discounts Sheffield as the original location of the chest after it was taken from Liverpool.
Hardwick & Young were quite the experts on 17th century furniture. Just one week before, they had sold ‘A very fine choice of Antique Carved English Oak Furniture, including Hisporical Specimens, many dated from 1601 to 1749, and bearing initials, names, mottoes, coats of arms and crests, some pieces being relics of the poet Milton.’
The number of items on sale from country estates could be a reflection of the economy in that period:
The slow decline of the English country house coincided with the rise not just of taxation, but also of modern industry, along with the agricultural depression of the 1870s. By 1880, this had led some owners into financial shortfalls as they tried to balance maintenance of their estates with the income they provided. Some relied on funds from secondary sources such as banking and trade while others, like the severely impoverished Duke of Marlborough, sought to marry American heiresses to save their country houses and lifestyles.English country house
A complete description of the oak chest
The following description comprises of notes from Peet, accompanied by photographs kindly supplied by Revd Canon Dr Crispin Pailing, Rector of Liverpool and author of God’s Town: Liverpool and her Parish since 1207 (2019). This book featured the Ladykirk Chest, but did not provide an explanation as to how it ended up in Scotland.
You can read the full description by Peet in his paper The Ancient Chest of St. Nicholas’s Church, Liverpool.
The armorial crests of Edward Williamson and Blundell:
Shown below is a photograph of the chest’s lid with notes from Peet in italics. I have added the crests that appear on the left and right panels according to Peet’s description:-
‘The panels on the lid, other than the centre panel, contain two raised escutcheons, on which are coats of arms and crests’.
The central panel on the lid:
‘On the centre panel is carved in bold lettering, ‘ Saynt Nycholas, Liverpoole ‘ ; on the top of the frame-work, ‘ It is more blessyed to give than to receive,’ and below the centre panel ‘ Gods worst is better than the worldes best.’ The centre panel also contains the following : ‘ Man shall not live by bread alone but by everie word that proceedeth out of the mouth of ye Lord.’
The front panels
‘On the front of the chest are three carved panels, also richly moulded. The centre one contains a representation of the Flight into Egypt, below which is the date 1651. On the left-hand panel is depicted a Chalice, borne by crossed Croziers and a Bible, beautifully carved ; and a similar design occupies the right panel. This would indicate the use for which the chest was intended a receptacle for the sacred vessels and the altar service books when not in use’.
‘On the upper rail the date is again carved, and the name of the donor, as follows : ‘Edward Williamsons Gift to ye Trulye Poore and Aged of ys Pah.’ Below the panels on the lower rail, ‘ My Trust is in God alone,’ and on the plinth (which rests on an enriched moulding) there appears in bold antique letters the words of our Blessed Lord, ‘ I was hungrie and ye gave me meat, I was thirstie and ye gave me Drinke, a stranger and ye tooke me in, naked and ye clothed me, I was sicke and ye visited me.”
The upper rail:
‘On the upper rail the date is again carved, and the name of the donor, as follows : ‘ Edward Williamsons Gift to ye Trulye Poore and Aged of ys Pah.’ Below the panels on the lower rail, ‘ My Trust is in God alone,’ and on the plinth (which rests onan enriched moulding) there appears in bold antique letters the words of our Blessed Lord, ‘ I was hungrie and ye gave me meat, I was thirstie and ye gave me Drinke, a stranger and ye tooke me in, naked and ye clothed me, I was sicke and ye visited me.’
Peet did not include descriptions of the end panels, probably because they are plainer and do not reference Liverpool.
Authentic, or a forgery?
Like Peet, I also ‘do not profess to be an expert or judge of old furniture‘. Whether the chest is authentic or a forgery would have to be decided by an expert. But I can offer my observations on the likelihood of it being ‘A lie in oak’ or not.
Crests ‘more modern than the carving of the centre panel’
Almost 100 years have passed since Peet made the remark about the crests being of a more modern date. Looking at the chest now there is little to indicate from the tone of the wood that they were made at different time to the rest of the chest. Also, we have to bear in mind different lighting on the photographs, and the lid being subject to more wear and tear than the front.
We know Williamson died in 1669 (see Edward Williamson section), if Peet was correct it’s possible they were added after his death, but this would still make them 17th century.
Actually, it’s difficult to agree with Peet that the crests are a later addition. A comparison of the workmanship of the armorial crests and the front panel is shown below. In fact, the relief work on the chalice is superb. Although the carving is less than a centimetre deep, the chalice is remarkably three dimensional. The symmetry of the front panel also points to a very experienced hand, the keys and suns on both sides are identical mirror images of each other.
Even if the crests are ‘more evenly and finely cut’ as Peet thought, could this not be because the carver wanted to ensure they met the approval of the person who paid for it?
Peet also did not mention that both the crest and front panels have a design feature in common, both are topped with a curved Roman arch and squared imposts.
I will return to the armorial crests in the section What if another, almost identical chest existed?
The same Roman arch appears on the central panel on the front. This is the beautiful carving of the ‘Flight into Egypt.’ The quality of the carving on this panel has been neglected because it does not refer to Liverpool, but in every respect the craftsman devoted his best workmanship to this scene. The date of 1651 is repeated below the figures. Again, this rules it being a spurious addition.
The information on the lid and front match
The name of Edward Williamson and his crest appears on both the front and the lid of the chest. This rules out the carving on the lid being a later addition – merely to add a Liverpool provenance.
The keyhole not central
The fact that the keyhole is not placed in the centre of the chest indicates that the inscription to Williamson was made before the keyhole was cut.
‘Edward Williamsons Gift’ evidently required a larger font size than ‘to ye Trulye Poore and Aged of ys Pah.’ This forced the location of the keyhole to the right. Therefore, the inscription predates the chest’s lock mechanism. The lock was made to fit the text, not vice versa.
The interior of the chest
Although I have no photographs of inside the chest, Peet informs us it was ‘rough, worm-eaten and certainly not modern’:
But the interior of the chest was rough, worm-eaten and certainly not modern. I know, of course, the miserable dodges to which modern forgers of oak furniture resort in order to procure purchasers, and the decayed parts and the worm-eaten appearance may have been manufactured, but the carving, other than the coats of arms, impressed me as the patient, painstaking work of an unusually skilful workman.
Typographical styles on the front and lid match
The typestyle used on the lid is exactly the same as the front of the box. Both also feature the capital A as Ā, – a grapheme, a Latin A with a macron.
The shapes of the capital N, L, O, and S are also identical on the front and lid. Both feature carvings above the smaller capital letters.
Why would a forger chose Edward Williamson’s name?
Edward Williamson was by no means a well known historical figure in 17th century Liverpool. He is hardly a suitable case for a Victorian forger. Even with the advantage of the internet, little can be discovered about him even today.
Edward Williamson’s name appeared in lists of Liverpool’s mayors that were included in history books from the early 19th century. Because of this it cannot be ruled out that craft forger scoured these names for a candidate to carve. But, He was mayor in 1653, not 1651. Why would a forger chose a date with no historical bearing to the name? In the first half of 1651, James Williamson was finishing his second year as Mayor. He was succeeded in the second half of 1651 by Thomas Williamson (of Chapel Street). Both were no doubt close relatives of Edward. Wouldn’t James or Thomas Williamson have been more suitable names for a forger to pick?
There is little to link the names of Blundell and Williamson that appear in the form of crests on the lid. They were prominent merchant families at the same time, and in the same town when it had a very small population. Other than that, there is little to suggest the two were linked – other than on that oak chest of course.
But, at some point in history these two families must have been joined by marriage to have both of their names on the same crest. A will of Gilbert Balshaw in 1642 named Edward Williamson as his brother-in-law and John Blundell as the son of his wife.
Relevance of the inscriptions to Liverpool in 1651
Could the two inscriptions on the chest provide clues to its authenticity? Were there any events that occurred in Liverpool in 1651 that would make these particularly relevant?
Edward Williamson’s gift to ye trulye poore and aged of ye psh (parish)
I was hungrie and ye gave me meat, I was thirstie and ye gave me drinke, a stranger and ye tooke me in, naked and ye clothed me, I was sick and ye visited me.
If you search for the date 1651 in any Victorian history book on Liverpool (and some more recent ones also), you’ll discover in that year, 200 people died of plague in Liverpool, these had to be buried in the aptly named ‘Sickman’s Lane’:
In the Annals in Gore’s Directory , the circumstance is mentioned , and the date of the event is given as 1651 , and “Sickman’s – lane , now Addison-street,” is mentioned as the place of interment.Liverpool as it was During the Last Quarter of the Eighteenth Century, Brooke, 1853
In the same year, on the 16th March, over £58 was raised for ‘the relief of the poor and infected persons within Liverpool’. The plague had indeed returned to the town in the same year the chest was made.
“the said Hundred [of Amounderness] by the Justices of peace and Quorum att a Generall meetinge held att the Sherriffs Table on Saturday in the assize weeke att Lancaster the I3th day of March 1651 . . . fifteene amountinge to 58′ 09 s O2d for Relieff of the pore and infected persons within Liverpoole, which Laye was Collected by usuall waye of Fifteene by theise Accomptants . . . hand over to Mr. John Winstanley, deputed treasurer for Receipt thereof, except the Towne of Preston which comes to 2 1 13 s 4” which was by him
taken in returne . . . liew thereof accepted of a Contribucion in the same Towne.
Perhaps then that the Biblical reference to taking in sick strangers referred to sufferers of the plaque?
There is little chance of that! First, the measures taken by the town during outbreaks of sickness were very familiar to us after going through the Coronavirus pandemic. Movement was restricted, lockdowns were enforced, and sick people had to isolate. Furthermore, any visitors had to camp outside of the town in specially constructed cabins. In 1557, an Irishman named John Hughes was blamed for bringing the plague from Manchester into Liverpool when he had his dirty linen washed in the ‘Polehouse’ belonging to Nicholas Brayes.
The town would not be welcoming sick strangers during a plague outbreak.
Although there is no dispute that the plague had returned in 1651, the often quoted story of 200 people being buried in Sickman’s Lane is almost certainly a myth. As Brooke wrote, it first appeared in a timeline of Liverpool’s history in Gore’s street directory. It’s likely that the story was an invented etymology of the name of the place they were buried. Actually, this lane was known in 1361 as “Secmonlone”, and “le Sokemons outlane” in 1406 (see page 47). A ‘Sokeman’ merely refers to ‘a freeman enjoying extensive rights, esp over his land.’
In the period 100 years before the chest was made, Liverpool is often quoted as being a small coastal town. There was a contributing factor for that – the population was actually half what it was 200 years earlier; from 1,250 in 1346 to around 600 in 1548. In 1361, the mortality from the Black Death in Liverpool was so high that the town’s burial ground at Walton was full. Over 240 people died in Liverpool because of the 1557/58 ‘plague’ – between a quarter, and a third of the entire population. It’s likely the population was only around 500 after the last outbreak. But, the population of Liverpool had more than doubled by 1600.
If anything, the fact that the chest does not mention the plague, and refers to feeding sick strangers, strongly indicates that it is authentic. A Victorian forger would not know the 1651 plague mortality figures was almost certainly a myth. If a forger had scoured history books for information pertaining to 1651, they would have surely added an erroneous reference to so many people dying in that year.
What if another, almost identical chest existed?
While searching the internet for a similar chest, I was amazed to find another chest that is remarkably similar. This chest is dated 1640, a mere 11 years before the Liverpool chest. It had been sold by Randall Tysinger Antiques, High Point, North Carolina, USA. I am indebted to Randall for allowing me to share images of the chest, and also for finding photographs of the sale ticket, and the original description that was inside the chest. This was a huge help as it provides the origin of this particular chest.
This is also a communion chest. The date of 1640 is carved in exactly the same location as the Liverpool chest. This time the date is shown complete instead of split over the two corners. But the date also appears split in the centre of the top rail. The lid also features armorial crests. The front has three panels of similar proportion to the Liverpool chest. The central panel also features a Biblical scene, this time it is the Presentation of Christ at the Temple. Like the Liverpool chest, this scene is more more recessed and deeply carved than the rest of the chest.
The most striking similarity are the two end panels on the front. They are virtually identical to those on the Liverpool Chest. The Roman arch is identical, as is the chalice and the crossed crosiers (Bishop’s staff). Beneath those is a bible between two keys and suns.
The crest belonged to Johannis Lloyd. The top rail bears the inscription:
SAYNT PETER – 16 – SALOPIA – 40 – SAYNT PAUL
Salopia is derived from Salop, being the name for Shropshire. The old description states that the chest was from an old farm near Bridgnorth in Shropshire, and that it may have originated from Shrewsbury Abbey.
A footnote on the description makes reference to a monument in the Abbey dedicated to Johannis Lloyd. This monument is described in detail below
A further coincidence, is that Johannis (John) Lloyd was a draper like Edward Williamson. And also like Williamson, Lloyd was mayor, in his case of Shrewsbury in 1668.
It’s difficult to imagine a more similar chest. So similar in fact that it is not too fanciful to wonder if it was made by the same craftsman or workshop.
Surely this proves beyond any doubt that Liverpool’s chest in Ladykirk is authentic?
Research on Edward Williamson
We are once again indebted to the tireless work of Henry Peet for our first piece of information about Edward Williamson. In another paper for HSLC he listed the inscriptions on the windows and monuments of St. Nicholas’ church as they were in 1907. The first inscription on the south side window dedicated to the Williamson family included:-
In Memory of
Ralph Williamson, Died 1736, aged 74.
Edward Williamson, Mayor of Liverpool 1653. Died 1669 aged 80.
This gives us an approximate birth dates of 1662 for Ralph (who must have been of a younger generation of the same family), and 1589 for Edward.
Edward Williamson was a bailiff in 1645 when Thomas Blackmore was mayor. In the year the chest was made Thomas Williamson had taken over James Williamson as mayor. Two years later, Edward was mayor and John Blundell was a bailiff.
Blundell was of course the other armorial crest on the oak chest.
Williamson was a draper, and one of at least 14 merchants who issued trade tokens during the period of the Commonwealth and Restoration that resulted in of a lack of coins. This featured the Arms of the Draper Company (Azure, three clouds radiated proper each adorned with a triple crown or). Elsewhere he is recorded as a Mercer (Trader of textiles).
For this, Williamson was amongst 7 men who were fined £10 for producing his half pennies without a licence:-
1669, March 8th,Municipal Records, vol. i. p. 313
WILLIAM LORD STRANGE Mayor.
Great Port Moot.
Wee present Mr. Thomas lohnson, Mr. George Bennett, Mr. John Pemberton, Mr. Richard Crompton, Mr. William Bushell, Mr. EdwardWilliamson, and Peter Atherton, all for puttinge forthe halfe-penyswithout the townes lycense. Am’ced in xls a peece.” Liverpool
Discharged as Alderman in 1662
Williamson was discharged as Alderman in 1662 because he refused to subscribe to the declaration for the proper governing of corporations. At the same time a man named Richard Percival was also discharged. One of the daughter’s of Percival (of Water Street then lived at Allerton Hall from 1670) married Thomas Williamson, son of Thomas Williamson (Mayor 1651):-
On the enactment of the est and Corporation Act in 1662, we find the following entry in the town’s books:
Picton, Memorials of Liverpool Vol 1
“November 10, Thomas Blackmore, Thomas Williamson, Ralph Massam, Edward Williamson, Gilbert Formby, and Rd. Percival ordered to be discharged from their offices, as aldermen of the town, for refusing to subscribe to the declaration contained in the Act 13 Charles II. for the well governing of corporations.”
The Liverpool Corporation went even further, by not subscribing to the declaration, they were considered ‘naturally dead’:-
And that the sayd offices, and places of Aldermen and all other theire offices of Magistracy, or places, or trusts, or other imploymts relating to, or concerning the governmt of the sayd respective Corporacon are herby declared and adjudged to be void to all intents and purposes, as if the sayd respective persons who refused were naturally dead. And be it further ordered, adjudged and declared, That Thomas Weaver, John Chandler, John Sturzaker, Thomas Story, Peter Lurting, Raph Mercer, bee and are herby nominated, constituted, and appointed, to be Aldermen in the places of the p’sons above named.”
The actual Act that Williamson refused to submit to included a law making it unlawful to arms against the king, but also to ensure that any alderman had to ‘receive the communion according to the rites of the Church of England’
Act 13 Charles II, c. 2, directs that all magistrates shall take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, as well as an oath renouncing the doctrine that it is lawful to take arms against the king; and provides that they must receive the communion according to the rites of the Church of England within a year before election.www.biblicalcyclopedia.com
This may suggest that Williamson suggest that Williamson was a Catholic. Many of the prominent land-owning families in Liverpool and the surrounding areas were Catholic. The Blundell family of Ince (whos crest is also of the chest) had a private chapel and even funded the building a secretive ‘Romish’ chapel in Edmund Street in the mid-18th century. But the fact that Edward Williamson donated a Communion Chest, of all things, to (the then Presbyterain) church of St. Nicholas certainly rules this out.
A Presbyterian Parliamentarian
In fact Williamson, and his whole family, were Presbyterians, along with Richard Percival, and John Fogg, the curate of St. Nicholas’ church.
These Williamsons, with Percival, Formby, and their friends, composed the presbyterian party in Liverpool, and from these, Colonel Moore, as he attached himself to Cromwell, separated, whilst Edward Moore, never joined them. Fogg, [the minister of St. Nicholas’ church], was a young, moderate, and sincere divine, he is always mentioned with respect, and lived a consistent life, dying poor and ejected… On the passing of the Corporation Act, Percival did not, with the Williamsons, resign his civic dignities. Still his leaning to the presbyterians was obvious.ON THE FAMILY OF PERCIVAL, OF ALLERTON, LANCASHIRE, Thomas Heywood, Esq., F.S.A, HSLC
In the 1660s, Edward Moore, a prominent landowner wrote instructions to his son, advising him how to manage his property portfolio. Edward was the son of Parliamenterian Colonel John Moore who had regained the castle of Liverpool from the forces of Prince Rupert. Within the fascinating pages of The Moore Rental, Moore is often insulting to his tenants. He was paticularly insulting to the Williamsons:-
A most notorious knave, I mean as to me and mine ; upon all occasions hath been always against me.
Remember, you never trust any of that name in this town, for there is a great faction of them and their relations, and what is in them always lies underhand. They have always been enemies to me, and all your predecessors, time out of the memory of man, I pray God keep you and yours from their malice. Amen.The Moore Rental, Chetham Society, 1847
Turmoil at St. Nicholas’ church in the year the chest was donated
The curate of St. Nicholas’ church in 1651, when the chest was donated by Williamson, was John Fogg (from 1645). He signed the Harmonious Consent of the Ministers within the County Palatine of Lancaster. Because of this it was suggested that he should be replaced by Peter Stananought (rector of Aughton in 1651) and Michael Briscowe (later pastor of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth Park). Briscowe declined the offer; as he was “otherwise ingaged to the place where hee formerly lived’. Stananought may have stayed in Aughton. It’s possible that Fogg clung on to his position as he was still there until 1662.
In 1662 (the year of the Test and Corporation Act) Fogg was ejected for Nonconformity:-
He was son of Lawrence Fogg of Bolton, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford; M.A. 1646; Foster, Alumni. He signed the ‘Harmonious Consent’ in 1648. Refusing to take the engagement, he had to abandon his charge in 1651, Peter Stananought (afterwards of Aughton) and Michael Briscowe being appointed. Shortly afterwards John Fogg was reinstated, and remained at Liverpool until he was ejected for Nonconformity in 1662Liverpool: Churches, British History Online
The Act of Uniformity (1662) required that Presbyterians accepted the Book of Common Prayer:-
Following the Restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II, and of the episcopal (bishop-led) system within the Church of England, Anglican ministers who favoured a Presbyterian polity found themselves in a dilemma. The Act of Uniformity 1662 required that they accept the Book of Common Prayer in its entirety, as well as the requirement of episcopal ordination. Ministers who did not accept, some 2,000 of them, were removed from their posts (and, usually, their homes as well) on St Bartholomew’s Day, in what became known as the Great Ejection. This was followed by more than a century of persecution, including further acts of Parliament such as the Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753.English Presbyterianism
It’s may’s likely that it was also been for political, as well religious grounds, that William refused to comply. The Williamson family had been supporters of Parliament during the Civil War. Furthermore, all six men who were discharged had held civic seats during the Commonwealth.
The regime of Cromwell had produced a reaction here as throughout England; and when the Restoration came most of the burgesses were doubtless glad to return to the old ways, and saw, without very keen regret, the extrusion of the Presbyterian minister, the Rev. John Fogg, who had occupied the pulpit of St. Nicholas’ during the Commonwealth period, and who, with the ministers of Walton and Toxteth Park, was driven out by the Act of Uniformity in 1662. At the same time the town clerk, five aldermen, and seven ordinary members of the Town Council were deposed from their positions; perhaps they also were not very deeply regretted ; and no less than thirty-eight new freemen, all powerful landowners of the neighbourhood, and all good cavaliers, were admitted in a batch to strengthen the Royalist element in the town.A history of Liverpool, Ramsay Muir, 1907
The reason the chest was donated?
Perhaps it is too much of a coincidence that the Presbyterian Edward Williamson, donated the chest to John Fogg – in the very year Fogg was threated with expulsion for being a Presbyterian?
It is also, surely, too large a coincidence that the Civil War ended in the year the chest was donated? The Williamson family had supported Cromwell, John Fogg had been curate through most of the Civil War and the Common Wealth afterwards. The poor that it was donated to may have referred to the town after the ravages of war.
The evidence points to the chest being 100% authentic. Peet was being a gentleman towards Rev. Dolbie, he was reluctant to become embroiled in a personal spat again a church minister. As churchwarden at St. Nicholas’ church he had to chose his words about Rev. Dobie very carefully.
As one of Liverpool’s most eminent historians, Peet also had to consider the possibility that the chest could have been a forgery. But there is little or no evidence to prove that was the case. The original seller of the chest was sure it was authentic. It was only after Chapman sold it in 1885, and after it was donated to Ladykirk church, that the claim of forgery was made.
It is highly probable that Chapman and Dobie invented the forgery claim in a desperate attempt to deter Peet from recovering this relic for Liverpool. With Peet acting as both the leading expert on the Liverpool church, and its churchwarden, Dobie had a worthy adversary. Perhaps the fact that Dobie was an ordained minister made it difficult for Peet to fully argue his case? – Peet could not accuse the Reverend Dobie of telling an outright lie.
With my discovery of a near-identical chest from 1640, there can now be very little doubt that the Liverpool chest is authentic.
Two questions were raised in 1892 that still stand.
1: If it’s a fake, why would a church want to keep it?
2: If it’s real, why would a church want to keep hold of another churches historical artifact?
The answer to both if of course – sentiment. Rev. Dobie was not concerned about the historic significance of the chest, or its monetary value. Instead, Dobie was concerned about losing a treasured gift from Lady Marjoribanks.
Lady Marjoribanks never lived to witness the national interest her gift created. Perhaps if she had have lived long enough she would have given it back to Liverpool?
Ironically, we can thank the Scottish custodians of our oak chest for its survival. If it had been in Liverpool during the intense bombing campaign, it unlikely that a wooden chest would have survived.
Lady Marjoribanks’ descendants, in the shape of Ladykirk Estates recently purchased the church to ensure its future safety from developers. Maybe 130 years after Peet’s first request, the chest could make a return visit to its home?
I hope this investigation into the chest renews interest in it. Furthermore, I hope that a dialogue is opened with the present owners to return the chest to its rightful home, even on a loan basis, be that temporary or permanent.
Other events in Liverpool in 1651
1651 is of course the year the English Civil War came to an end. King Charles I had been beheaded in two years earlier, his son Charles was crowned King of Scotland on 1st January 1651. But after being defeated by Oliver Cromwell on 3rd September he fled to France and was to live in exile. Two years after the death of Cromwell, the monarchy was restored and Charles was made king of England.
In March 1651, a butcher named William Mee was up in court at the Port Moot. When he was judged he publicly cursed the jury with ‘The Devil goe with you all!”. He was also reprimanded for pointing his finger at the judge while he said it.
On the 15th October, James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby (of Knowsley and Lathom) was executed at Market Cross in Bolton. Stanley had charged with of conspiring with Charles II during the Civil War. He was taken to Bolton because of the part he played in the Bolton Massacre. Prince Rupert (who had previously taken Liverpool) was alleged to have slaughtered up to 1,600 of Bolton men defending the town.
Rents of Liverpool’s Town Field had been £5, 2 shillings, 6 pence in 1637 (about £800 today) had rocketed to over £13 in 1651 (about £2,000 today).
Williamson Square and Williamson Street
It is said that both these streets were named after Edward Williamson. What evidence that was based on is not known. William Square was laid out decades after Edward Williamson had died. No trustworthy maps of Liverpool in the 17th century exist to prove the existence of Williamson Street in Edward’s lifetime. But it’s almost certain that they were named after members of this family. The land on which many of the streets and squares in Liverpool would be built in the 18th century, had been owned by families almost a century before.
The following names belong to the period from 1660 to 1680, although some were not adopted until nearly three quarters of a century later. James, Fenwick, Preeson, Rainford, Williamson, Lord (then Lord Molyneux street,) Pemberton, Bixteth, Tarlton, Litherland, Rigby, Rimmer.
From 1680 to 1710 we find, Derby, Stanley, Atherton, Norris, Sir Thomas, Johnson, Hall, Earle, Gildart, Richmond, Houghton, Tyrer, Benn, Squire, Case, Basnett, Sweeting, Clayton, Cleveland, Cunliffe…The Moore Rental, Chetham Society, 1847
The Williamson stained glass window destroyed in the Blitz of WWII.
All of the original windows in the church were destroyed during the Blitz. Thankfully, Peet comes to the rescue again. He listed all the windows and memorials in the churches of St. Nicholas and St. Peter in his HSLC paper ‘Liverpool in the Reign of Queen Anne’.
[Stained Glass Window in South Aisle]
In Memory of
Ralph Williamson, Died 1736, aged 74.
Edward Williamson, Mayor of Liverpool 1653. Died 1669
Revd. John Williamson and Frances Basnett, of Goulborn.
Died 1799, aged 44.
Ralph Williamson, Captn of the 3oth Regt and Deputy Lieutenant of this County. Died 1808, aged 66.
Erected 1843 by Ralph = John = Thos Williamson.
At the top of the window are two crests :
(A.) Out of a mural crown Gules, a demi-dragon Or
(£.) On a wreath Argent and Gules, an arm embowed, in
armour, holding a cutlass all proper [……].
(A.) Argent, a chevron Gules between three trefoils slipped
Sable [ Williamson}; impaling, Sable, three mullets Argent [. .. .].
(£.) Williamson, impaling Sable, ten billets, 4, 3, 2 and i.
(C.) Williamson, with an escutcheon of pretence, Argent, a
chevron gules between three esquires’ helmets proper \Basnett\
(D.) Quarterly, ist and 4th Williamson; 2nd and 3rd Basnett;Liverpool in the Reign of Queen Anne, Part Two, Appendix, INSCRIPTIONS ON THE MONUMENTS, AND IN THE WINDOWS OF THE TWO PARISH CHURCHES,’ ST. NICHOLAS’ CHURCH. Henry Peet, F.S.A, 1907, Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire
impaling, Argent, a chevron between three roses Gules, tufted and
seeded Or [….. .]
Thanks to Revd Canon Dr Crispin Pailing, Rector of Liverpool for his assistance in the post and for kindly supplying the photographs of the chest. These were taken as part of his research for his book God’s Town: Liverpool & her Parish since 1207.
Thanks also to the Goldstream and District Historical Society for permission to reproduce the photographs of the memorials in Ladykirk church.
Lastly, thanks to the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire for digitizing their journals and for allowing free access to them.
Locations relating to Henry Peet
The death of Mr. Henry Peet, on 5 November, 1938, at the age of 82, occasioned warm tributes to his long and public-spirited services in many spheres of Liverpool life. Of his notable work as a historian, particulars are given below.
Apart from this, he was an active member of the Liverpool bench of magistrates from his appointment in 1894 until his death. He served for lengthy periods as a churchwarden of Liverpool Parish, a member of the now-defunct Liverpool Select Vestry, a member of the judicial body administering the Lunacy Act of 1890, and a trustee of the Warbreck Charity. He was a senior member of the Liverpool Athenaeum, a Diocesan lay reader, and a member of the commission appointed by the bishop to report on the ecclesiastical records of the diocese. He had wide experience as a traveller in Europe, North America and the East.
Shown above it the introduction to Peet’s obituary by the Historic Society of Lancashire. You can read it in full here.
Rather than repeating his biography, I will just add survivings locations. The first of which has been overlooked by the society, and also the Peet collection at the University of Liverpool.
The obituary states that Peet was born in 1858 at Holbeach, Lincolnshire. He came to Liverpool in 1878 and founded the Adelphi Pharmacy at the foot of Mount Pleasant. The location for this was given by the Liverpool Echo on the 5th November 1938. It was at Ranelagh Place, on the corner of Mount Pleasant and Renshaw Street:-
The Adelphi Pharmacy, run by Mr. Henry Peet, VI.A., J.P., being close to the Mecca of American millionaires during their stay in Liverpool, has a very appropriate announcement in the window : “If it’s American, we sell it. Dollar bills taken.”The chemist and druggist, 1926
Mr. Peet. Adelphi Pharmacy, ” The American Drug-store,” shows everything that an American might find himself short of and unable to obtain except with difficulty in this country — e.g., dental floss.The chemist and druggist, 1912
Peet made regular appearances in the Chemist and Druggist magazine. They covered his work as a historian, Justice of the Peace, and of course as a chemist. In just one edition, Peet reported the use of drinking methylated spirits to the police, then offered to debunk the manifestations that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had witnessed during a seance:
Supplementing a communication to his fellow-magistrates on the drinking of methylated spirit (C. & D., January 25, p. 34), Mr. Henry Peet has approached the police and Excise authorities on the subject.
In a letter to the local Press, Mr. Henry Peet offers to exhibit to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle an apparatus which will reproduce all the manifestations witnessed by Sir Arthur lately at a seance, and reported with much circumstance in the daily papers. In former years Mr. Peet gave entertainments of this class to personal friends, and on turning up the lights they saw how simply the objects floating in the air were controlled.The Chemist and Druggist, 1919
Peet had been selling at least 20 bottles of (almost 100% proof) methylated spirits a day to women, before he realised they were drinking it. ‘The sale of methylated spirits to women for their perosonal consumption was increasing in Liverpool’ he warned.
Peet’s Adelphi Pharmacy was taken over by Boots in 1927.
Boots (Lancashire), Ltd., have taken over the business of Mr. Henry Peet chemist and druggist, 9 Ranelagh Place, Liverpool, whose nephew, Mr. M. F. Peet, chemist and druggist, will continue as head of the dispensing department.The chemist and druggist, 1927
The same building today:-
Peet’s first pharmacy
What is missing form the obituary is that Peet’s had an earlier pharmacy at number 97 Mount Pleasant from 1878, the year he arrived in Liverpool.
He is a Lincolnshire man, and served an apprenticeship of five years with Messrs. Donington & Co., Spalding, and passed the Minor examination in December 1877. Then he was an assistant with Corbyn & Co., New Bond Street, London, and left them in 1878 to take over an old-established business at the corner of Mount Pleasant, Liverpool. A few years later he acquired the business of the late Mr. John Flint, Ranelagh Place, and carried on the two pharmacies until 1903, when he accepted an offer for the Mount Pleasant premises, and concentrated the two connections at Ranelagh Place. About the same time the Corporation required a portion of the latter premises for street improvements, and the present commanding and palatial building was erected on the site. It is one of the most prominent business positions in the city, being quite close to Adelphi Hotel, and in consequence Mr. Peet has a cosmopolitan connection. The interior of the pharmacy is wedge-shaped, and every inch of space is utilised, both on ground-floor and basement. It is notable for its stock of American and Continental medicines and specialities, and the personal attention which the proprietor gives to business.Mr. Peet, J. P., of Liverpool, The chemist and druggist, 1907
On New Years Eve 1880, Peet made Police News section of the Liverpool Echo when he refused to return a suitcase belonging to his domestic servant Alice Locke. Alice had gone out in the evening and not returned the next day. Peet claimed she had forfeited a months wages of 15 shillings and insisted on keeping her case until she paid him back. The bench came to the conclusion that he had no right to do so and forced him to return her property. His address was 97 Mount Pleasant.
The 1890 list of members for the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire also has him listed at this address.
In an advertisement for toothache ‘Extract’ Peet gave the location of 97 Mount Pleasant as being on the corner of Clarence Street (as it remains so today).
This charming building still survives and is part of a block of Grade II listed late 18th century buildings. Peet’s chemist is currently Address Properties on the left corner. This had been ‘Student Homes‘ previously:-
This building has beautiful Victorian leaded windows, these were possibly on the shop when it was Peet’s chemist, but it was a glazing company from 1960. It’s doubtful though that a 20th century glazing company would have gone to such extent to decorate their shop.
It had been a dispensing chemist from at least 1850 when it was ran by W. and H. Jacksons. In 1878 it was still ran by by William Jackson. Peet had taken it over by October 1880.
The building was still a pharmacy in the 1950s, ran by H. E. Harriman. By 1960 it had been taken over by Clarence Glass who had it until at least 1993.
In 1892, the year the oak chest was discovered in Ladykirk, Peet had also opened his Ranelagh Place pharmacy at the bottom of Mount Pleasant:-
He had also just been re-elected as Churchwarden to the church of St. Nicholas.
Peet lived at Manor Cottage, 3 Cavendish Road, Birkenhead.
His impressive home also survives:-
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