Simon Walsh remembers Sylvia Hearn : 23 December 1933-20 August 2020


“You can see her vocation, I’m wearing it now,” said Fr James Elston SSC at the requiem mass of Sylvia Hearn in September as he held out his arms to display a fine purple chasuble and stole. A dedicated member of Old St Pancras, held to be London’s oldest parish church, Sylvia was one of the most talented ecclesiastical seamstresses of her generation and worked for Watts & Co for over half a century. She was still going in twice a week until the national lockdown was imposed in March and after a brief spell in University College Hospital, she died peacefully at home in August, aged 86. Fortified by the sacraments at the end which had sustained her throughout a long and faithful life, Sylvia’s witness was especially strong in her work.

Remarkably, Sylvia spent almost her entire life in two London postcodes. The first was where she was born and remained: NW1 – the Regents Park and Somers Town area, just north of the Euston Road. The youngest of nine children, she attended the parish school of St Mary Magdalene Munster Square, the local Anglo-Catholic church in which her family worshipped. After a brief wartime evacuation in Bedford, it was to where she returned and would remain until her final days. 

Her working life began in a nearby clothes factory but she soon moved to Faith Craft in Westminster, SW1 (the second postcode), which had been founded during WWI to make affordable vestments and in 1951 organized the Festival of Britain Exhibition of Church Art at Lambeth Palace. By the time the Society of the Faith closed Faith Craft in 1969, due to rising costs and changing tastes, Sylvia had joined the iconic Watts & Co, a few floors down in Faith House. Established in 1874, this venerable firm with noble lineage had been boosted in the 1950s by the arrival of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hoare, great-granddaughter of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Running the firm solo from 1965, the redoubtable Mrs Hoare had declined to take part in the post-Vatican II polyester wars, knowing that long-lasting, classic designs were best. She was aided in this by a reliable and skilled team of fabric and embroidery experts with a feel for the beauty of holiness. Sylvia settled naturally into this environment, valuing people who would be guided by experience. (Many clergy appreciated her pointer that cotton makes a better lining for vestments than satin with its tendency to slide.) 

The Tufton St shop with workroom behind was a whirl of sumptuous fabrics, high-quality vestments, and revived furnishings. Discerning clergy of refinement would often appear for sherry and a chat, gathering around the regal Mrs Hoare as she held court. Mindful of history, many archive patterns were reproduced and a constant stream of quality garments and frontals from the previous century were painstakingly restored; new lines complemented this seemly stable. Many items were saved from oblivion or the moth, benefitting from the Watts watchwords of continuity and quality with no truck for the latest passing fad. Its reputation continues to this day and is receiving a new lease of life, particularly in Italy where English Gothic Revival is proving a popular option.

Sylvia was dedicated and had practical church experience in addition to her professional career. She was the Sacristan at Munster Square, itself a Tractarian parish with fine Victoriana; its founder had been friends with Dr Pusey and Keble preached at its inauguration in the 1840s. It was in the 1970s that Sylvia moved across from her childhood church to Old St Pancras, seamlessly picking up the Sacristan role which she maintained until the church was closed for the first national lockdown this year. A regular attender at mass, be it Sunday or weekdays, and never pious, she took her responsibilities seriously and was still setting up at the beginning of this year. 

She was a regular pilgrim, including the Holy Land, Turkey, Bruges, Oberammergau, and annually to Walsingham. Parish trips were rarely missed, especially to the seaside with their promise of tea and an ice cream. She had lifelong friends in these parishes too and most of them were fellow worshippers, becoming servers, sacristans and churchwardens. She was often to be found with her neighbour and pal, Sylvia Brantingham, who worked at Church House and they would travel into Westminster together on the 24 bus. (The other Sylvia died this year at Pentecost; obituary, ND Jul-Aug.) They were part of a no-nonsense generation with firm catholic principles which were upheld with pride.

Sylvia never truly retired; she was still going into Watts twice a week until lockdown restrictions prevented her. Robert Hoare, the current managing director and Betty’s grandson, believes her to be the firm’s longest-serving employee in its history: “Sylvia was a real hard worker and totally dedicated. Though not a fan of working with velvet, she had a good eye and a loyal following. One priest recently called by, not having seen her for 40 years; she had made all his vestments throughout his whole vocation. We all miss her greatly.” As a tribute, her former colleagues at Watts made a pall to adorn her coffin, and the parish clergy wore vestments for her requiem which she had created. 

She was constantly in demand among north London clergy and churches for commissions; she knew what ‘made up well’ and worked ad hoc with ex-Watts director and old friend Donald Denham who ran a small retirement service in Somerset until his death in March this year. The loss of such friends, routine, and contact in both work and church were hard for Sylvia. She never married but was cherished by her family, and loved being among people – particularly in church where she was devout and the aspects of her life came together like the best combination of faith, fathers, fabric, and friends.