Eleanor Relle on Mrs Scudamore and the Green Altar Cloth


Knitting, sewing and the care of textiles were the element – or one of the elements – in which Frances Scudamore lived and moved, and this diary entry of November 13th 1876, about three weeks after the burst of excitement surrounding the consecration of the new St Michael’s Church on the west side of Maidstone, in which she and her solicitor husband Frederick had invested so much time, energy and money, is characteristic. The purple and black socks were perhaps the “socks, worsted and silk” that she was to present to their son Freddie on Christmas Day. 

“I to needlework,” she writes at intervals when her other areas of activity have gone quiet for a few hours; and the black and purple socks would have been a typical example of the way in which the work of her hands expressed and reinforced her family life. But her diary reveals that her interest in knitting and needlework – in which she evidently excelled – had additional spheres of operation, and incidentally connected her with the wider Tractarian network of her time.

“Haymaking – worked under tree,” she reports in June 1875. Of course she did. Haymaking was much more likely to be productive and well-behaved if she was sitting in the shade keeping an eye on things, without making it too obvious that that was what she was doing. While Frederick was at his office in the centre of Maidstone, it fell to Frances to oversee what went on on “the farm” – at this point about 15 acres of meadow, hop-garden and orchard, with livestock – and the careful account pages in her diaries (including “Beer for the haymakers, £1.2.6”)  and the satisfaction with which she reports the arrival and sale of lambs, calves and piglets, make it clear that she was determined to get it right, although she, like her husband, came from a legal family, and her agricultural experience, before she and Frederick bought the Manor House property, would thus have been limited.

Her needlework took her further afield as well. Her 1876 diary begins with a scheme for school needlework, apparently intended to bring the school in her own parish into line with the teaching at the parish school of All Saints’, Maidstone, which she must have researched – All Saints’ being the dominant parish in the county town. She was herself regularly in and out of her own parish school (which was becoming the joint responsibility of the parish of St Peter’s and the new parish of St Michael’s),  partly because its large schoolroom did duty as a parish hall and, for a while, as a temporary church, but also to offer encouragement and, no doubt, advice to the pupils – witness an entry on Thursday, November 16th, 1876:

“To 10 service….To knitting class at school from 2 till 4.30. Gave good conduct tickets. To 5 service with dearest Fred.”

That she, and often her husband and grown-up daughter Sissie, were so frequently present at daily worship at St Michael’s (a daily Eucharist lay decades in the future, but Holy Communion was always celebrated on Sunday and the Offices were said in church every morning and evening) made it almost inevitable that, once the new church was in action, items of its needlework in need of attention came the way of Frances, who lived almost directly opposite. Matters had, however, been moving in that direction well before the foundation stone was laid. In 1874 a Needlework Society (NWS to Frances) came into being, beginning with approaches to “divers needlework people,” and acquiring a committee and charging a small subscription as it became more organised. From the number of references to it in her diary it is clear that Frances was its mainstay, and she probably founded it. By December 1876 NWS was holding a meeting in the church with “76 women!” present. The terminology and the number – though the exclamation mark indicates that the number had grown –  makes it clear that this was not a group of like-minded ladies with a penchant for embroidery (Frances would certainly have called them ladies if that had been the case), but a group of local women who met to sew with the encouragement and guidance of Frances and her committee members. The 1874 diary, especially as winter draws on, shows Frances regularly engaged in “cutting out”, which suggests that basic items of clothing like pinafores were probably on the agenda, and that the plan of the Needlework Society was to help mothers with limited means to sew for their families; but it was also probably a way of involving the “women” with their future church and perhaps enlisting their improved skills to help equip the church itself.  The fact that by 1876, when the church was open, 76 of them were sewing together in the building itself, in December, says much for the inspiration that had been at work.  Meanwhile, at home, Frances and Sissie had been making “red scarfs” to be given to the children of Sissie’s Sunday school class for Christmas. 

Despite the endeavours of ladies and, no doubt, women, September 1876 had seen Frances sending out hasty “appeals for cushions etc for St Michael’s” in preparation for its consecration early in October. One wonders whether, in addition to what keen needlewomen could produce in the available time, some articles from drawing-rooms were pressed into service and reclaimed afterwards. The Manor House family had at his stage been thrown into disarray because a violent thunderstorm had dislodged a chimney pot over the principal bedroom – “much stone thrown down” – and when the repairs were put in hand, “a man named Smart fell from the scaffolding of the chimney pots down on the roof. Bruised only.” Frances went “to see poor Smart” a few days later. A visit from the church architect just after the lightning strike coincided with “No fire in either kitchen. Bathroom tap repairing.”  But meanwhile, the altar linen – evidently not made by Frances – appeared, and Frances was sewing fringe to it two days before the consecration. “Covers for lectern and altar table” had been in place since August, and there was already presumably at least one altar frontal, although Frances does not mention it. The first autumn in the new church brought heavy rain, and the clammy atmosphere of the new building took its toll -“Mr B[i e Mr Buckmaster, the vicar] brought the altar cloths here on acct of damp”.  Two days later, “Gilham mended the superfrontal,” although the nature of the problem there is not clear. The church flag, flown proudly from the tower for the first time on July 7th, had also fallen prey to the weather by December: “Mr Buckmaster brought in the flag to be mended”.

After Christmas, and in good time for the Epiphany season, Frances reports on 28th December: “To 10 o’clock service. Green altar cloth arrived from Clewer.  Mr Buckmaster unpacked it.” This marked the beginning of a struggle that extended over several days: “Sewed the rings on new altar cloth with Mrs Hoar’s help…..Very wet day. To 10 service and to try to make the new altar cloth hang right. Over school registers till 4…..To church and sewing rings to altar cloth….”

This green altar cloth, though it evidently presented difficulties, suggests an interesting Tractarian connection. Frances writes as if it had been despatched from Clewer, near Windsor, and perhaps it was; but it was almost certainly made in London. Beginning with a small rescue home for prostitutes in 1848, the rector of Clewer, Thomas Thellusson Carter, had gone on to found in 1854 a convent of Sisters – the Community of St John the Baptist, Clewer – whose primary object was to enable ex-prostitutes to find a new life, and which had opened branches in several other places, including a London branch in Gower Street. This last branch operated as a School of Church Embroidery, the intention being to provide stability, training and employment, not for ex-prostitutes, but for young women who might otherwise fall into prostitution, and it continued at least into the 1890s. This, rather than the Clewer convent itself, is the likeliest place for the green altar cloth to have been produced. Several factors may have encouraged St Michael’s, Maidstone, to commission the altar cloth through the Clewer Sisters. First, there would have been a general principle: the controversial rediscovery of the religious life in the Church of England had created a major division of opinion, and the moving spirits at St Michael’s would have wanted to show which side they were on and to support the Sisters’ work. Additionally, there is a more personal dimension to explore. On 26th November, Canon Carter himself had visited St Michael’s and preached at Evensong. Frances, who regularly mentions the sermons she hears but very rarely comments on them, describes this one as “Perfect sermon”, but unfortunately it seems not to survive. Tempting though it would be to imagine her placing the order for the altar-cloth on the spot and sending Carter back to Clewer with it, this would have presented a challenging time-frame for a piece of embroidered needlework made to measure, given that Christmas was then approaching.   It is more likely that the order had already been placed, and it is conceivable that the engagement of Carter to preach had in fact arisen out of it. I feel almost sure, indeed, that the commission had its origin in a Scudamore connection.  Clewer was not the only place where work among ex-prostitutes was then being done by Anglican nuns. In 1854, a small “House of Mercy”, run by the All Hallows Sisters, was founded at Shipmeadow in Suffolk, moving in 1859 to larger premises in Ditchingham, Norfolk.  Its founder and first warden was the rector of Ditchingham, William Edward Scudamore – a cousin of Frances’ husband Frederick. Carter and William Scudamore would naturally have taken an interest in each other’s work, and there is some evidence that they corresponded. Directly or indirectly, it seems probable that the order for the green altar cloth, and possibly the perfect sermon,  originated in what the Maidstone Scudamores knew of T T Carter at Clewer through William Scudamore in Norfolk. Certainly Frances noted the price of the altar cloth in her diary – £10.2.6 – which suggests that the commission itself had been the Scudamores’ commission, and that they paid the bill.

Sewing has never appealed to me; at one point in my school career I took up Greek to get out of it, though my Greek never amounted to much either. Yet the threads I have been able to follow into Mrs Scudamore’s needleworking world unite to create a sense that more was going on than the sewing – and, as I observed in a previous article, Mrs Scudamore must have been not only an individual but a type, not prominent in history yet active all over the country, where parishes conceived or reconceived in the wake of the Oxford Movement had got off the ground. She was the wife of a successful man and, compared with the local dressmaker who made her a dress for the County Ball out of 20 yards of black satin chosen in London, she certainly led a privileged life; but as one who did not sew for a living, she shows a conscientious determination,  perhaps indeed a sense of accountability, in her contribution to the work of the parish school, in her efforts to make the church needlework express the beauty of holinesss,  and in the hours she spent with the Needlework Society, supporting its members’ efforts to clothe their families and encouraging them to feel part of the life of the new parish. I don’t know whether the green altar frontal St Michael’s uses today is the one that arrived from Clewer in 1876 – probably not – but I shall think of Mrs Scudamore next time I look at it.

Eleanor Relle enjoys researching Mrs Scudamore 

from the Diocese of Canterbury.