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St Thomas's Church, Ryde, Iow

Volume 893: debated on Tuesday 17 June 1975

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11.47 p.m.

I am greatly indebted to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being allowed to catch your eye so that I can raise the subject which I have termed "The plight of St. Thomas's Church, Ryde, in the Isle of Wight." I apologise to the Minister who is to reply and to his advisers who, no doubt, have had to do some pretty rapid research on the subject.

This is a strange tale, but one which ought to have an airing in this House, in the hope that it will at last bring about a satisfactory solution to what has been a long-drawn-out affair.

Ryde is now the largest town on the island, but originally was two separate hamlets which saw a rapid expansion between 1811 and 1832, during which time the population increased from 1,601 to nearly 4,000, which would be substantial, even today.

Today's permanent population, without the influx of visitors, is about 23,000. The original parish church is in New-church, a good six miles away across what in those days would have been little more than cart tracks. On 27th June 1719 a chapel to the parish church was consecrated at Ryde by Sir Jonathan Trelawney, Bishop of Winchester, who sailed over from Gosport for the occasion. It was built by a Mr. Player, at whose house the bishop afterwards dined. He spent a period in the Tower when he was Bishop of Bristol.

The somewhat rudely built structure remained, with additions, until 1827 when it was rebuilt by George Player, grandson of the founder, at a cost of £3,500 and it still stands in Ryde today.

Forty years later, under the provisions of the Newchurch Parish Act 1866, the spiritual supervision of St. Thomas's Church came under the Vicar of Ryde. Through marriage, the ownership of St. Thomas's passed from the Player family to the Brigstocke family. Several members of the Brigstocke family lie in the vault beneath the east end of the chapel. The income for maintenance was derived solely from pew rents—there were no collections taken—and what became an increasing liability fell upon the Brigstockes, who also paid the remuneration of the curate, the organist and the choir.

The last of the family, George Robert Brigstocke, died in 1956, although services continued in the church until Sunday, 28th June 1959, when the doors were closed for the last time. St. Thomas's Church occupies a prime site in the centre of the town, with a large unkempt burial ground and, with recent renovations going on all round it, including the attractively restored Brigstocke Terrace—a very tall building—it stands out like a sore thumb.

Were it not for the actions of a worthy group of local residents who call themselves the Friends of St. Thomas's Church, the building would probably by now have been damaged beyond repair. I am greatly indebted to the secretary of that society, Mr. Fred Wheeler, for the background history which I have been able to provide tonight. Unfortunately, there has been some vandalism, but a fine set of hatchments which used to hang round the interior of the church have been preserved, and one or two have been restored.

The Friends of St. Thomas's Church, the townspeople and the local council, would like to see the building put to good use and the grounds laid out as a memorial garden. A museum—which the island sorely lacks—is one suggestion. It could be used to house a valuable porcelain collection, also the property of the Brigstocke family, which was left to the town and which has languished virtually unknown in the vaults of the town hall nearby. As a former chairman of the county's Library and Museum Committee, I support the ideas of the people who would like to see the church made into a museum. It is a great pity that the island has not kept any historical records. For instance, Turner was a regular visitor to the island, Nash lived there and many well-known people, amongst them Tennyson, live in the island, but we have no proper record.

Unfortunately, because of a legal tangle, no one seems able to move. It is high time the tangle was sorted out. According to the terms of the codicil to the will of the late G. R. Brigstocke, his trustees had power to convey the freehold of the church to a body known as the Church Association, first obtaining from the association adequate covenants and guarantees that the church should be used and the services therein conducted in the Protestant tradition. The codicil said:
"And I direct the Executors of my Will out of the rents and profits of my property in Brigstocke Terrace Ryde aforesaid (which property was disentailed by me) to continue the services at the said Church in the same manner as heretofore for twelve months after my death and during that period to keep the building and curtilage in repair and wind and water-tight and also insured against fire and aircraft And it is my desire that after the expiration of such year the Trustees of the Ryde House Estate should consult with the Executors of my Will and the tenant-for-life of the said Estate as to the continuation of the services at such Church according to the terms of the Consecration Deed of One thousand seven hundred and nineteen and while arrangements can be made by them for the continuation of such services the Executors of my Will shall maintain such Church, furniture, and fittings and the Chapel Yard and fences in repair resorting for this purpose first to the income from my Marriage Settlement Fund (of which Hoare's Bank are trustees) and if such income shall be insufficient for the purpose then to resort to the rents and profits of my property in Brigstocke Terrace aforesaid."
I am assured that no money has been spent on the property since 1959. One explanation——

Order. From what the hon. Member has said so far, I am having difficulty in determining whether any Government responsibility is involved, and whether the subject of his Adjournment debate is strictly in order.

Would you agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Treasury Solicitor is a member of a Government Department? I shall in due course be reading letters from him.

I now quote from an article written by Mr. Henry Macrory that appeared in the Sunday Express of 1st June 1975. The article reads:
"Widower George Brigstocke's greatest wish was that the old church where he worshipped all his life, and which had been in his family for generations, should remain in good hands after he died.
To make sure of this he left the building to a church charity and endowed them with £12,000 to maintain it for 20 years. But today, 19 years after Mr. Brigstocke's death, St. Thomas's Church stands neglected, decaying and under threat of demolition. Parts of it have been smashed by vandals, the roof leaks and the churchyard is overgrown with weeds. Not a penny of Mr. Brigstocke's legacy has been spent on restoring it. Furious residents at Ryde, Isle of Wight, some of whom were baptised and married at the church, are demanding an explanation from the charity, the Church Society Trust. They want to know why elderly Mr. Brigstocke's wishes have not been honoured and what has happened to the money. They are also determined to see the church reopened."
The article continues:
"St. Thomas's Church, the oldest Anglican church in Ryde, was built in 1827 …"
I am not quite sure whether that last piece of information is correct.

I am not sure what that has to do with a Government Department. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will address his remarks to the Chair. It may then become clear which Government Department he considers has a responsibility in this matter.

If no Government Department is responsible, I would like to know who does take responsibility.

The report goes on to say:
"At the London offices of the Church Society Trust, secretary Mr. Michael Benson said: 'This is one of the most complicated matters I have ever come across, and we have tried every way to come up with a satisfactory solution. For the first six years after Mr. Brigstocke died we could do nothing because the terms of his will were disputed by some of the beneficiaries and the matter went to the Chancery Court. Eventually it was settled in our favour. We then took advice from two independent architects who found there was a major subsidence and estimated it would cost about £20,000 to make the church safe. Mr. Brigstocke's legacy is still intact. It is now worth a few thousand pounds more and we are obliged to spend it on a scheme connected with St. Thomas's. The Trust has now had the terms of the will varied by the High Court and is working on a plan to pull down the church and replace it with a Garden of Remembrance'."
Next, I refer to the terms of the Chancery Division's decision, which states:
"The Plaintiffs shall on or before 7th September 1972 raise out of the funds for the time being in their hands as Trustees of the Settlement constituted by the said Indenture dated 29th December 1880 (called the Ryde House Settlement) the sum of £9,000 and shall pay the same clear of all deductions to the Defendants Church Society Trust.
The Defendants Church Society Trust shall stand possessed of the said sum of £9,000 upon trust to apply the same in or towards the repair and beautification of and the supply of necessaries to the church or chapel of St. Thomas in the Borough of Ryde and the fencing of the Chapel Yard as provided in the Deed of Consecration dated 27th June 1719 made by Jonathan the Lord Bishop of Winchester or for such other purpose as shall be prescribed by a Scheme affecting the said sum of £9,000 made by the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales or other lawful authority.
Subject to the receipt of such payment as aforesaid …
It is clear that money was supposed to have been spent on the church. The Friends of the Society will dispute some of the statement, particularly the suggestion of a major subsidence. They would like to see the building restored and put to good use, and do not understand why the terms of an order in the Chancery Division dated 7th July 1972 have not been complied with, having endeavoured to negotiate a lease from the Church Society Trust.

On 18th November, having got nowhere with anyone else, they received a letter from the Treasury Solicitor, signed by Mr. Patterson, which reads:
"I have now had an opportunity of discussing with Counsel for Her Majesty's Attorney-General the question of the Brigstocke Endowment and I am advised that application of the same is a matter of construction by the Court.
If the Court were to hold that the Endowment cannot be applied in the repair and beautification etc. of the Church and that the same shall be applied CyPres by way of a scheme, it is by no means certain that it will be paid to the Friends of the Church for use in connection with the project referred to in the Friends' Resolution carried at the meeting which took place on 7th March last.
Meanwhile, Counsel has advised that certain further enquiries be made by me upon completion of which he will consider what steps, if any, are open to the Attorney-General to enforce the two court orders."
He wrote again on 28th January 1975, as follows:
"I am sorry if my letter dated 18th November last was not clear to you but the point being made was that if an application is made to the Court by the Attorney-General to enforce application of the Brigstocke legacy in the repair and beatification etc. of the church it would undoubtedly be answered by the Church Society Trust that the sum available is not sufficient to restore the church and would be a waste of the endowment in all the circumstances. Before advising as to further action in this difficult matter, therefore, Counsel for Her Majesty's Attorney-General has indicated to me that he would like to discuss the matter with Counsel specialising in ecclesiastical law. I have delivered instructions accordingly and await the outcome of these discussions between Counsel. The future of St. Thomas's Church is one of the points to be discussed."
It seems to me that the Friends of St. Thomas's are being constantly thwarted by legal niceties from carrying out a scheme of which I am sure Mr. Brigstocke would have approved. They are now at their wits' end as to whom they should turn to. That is the point I am trying to raise in this Adjournment debate.

12.3 a.m.

If I may say so at the outset of my remarks, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has shown great ingenuity in raising a matter upon which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, commented quite rightly in the course of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. When an hon. Gentleman gives notice that he wishes to raise a matter on the Adjournment, he also states which Government Department he wishes to deal with the matter. There was nothing whatever in the long catalogue that we listened to from the hon. Gentleman which is the responsibility of by Department, the Department of the Environment.

I will in a moment. The hon. Gentleman took 15 minutes to talk about nothing. I hope that he will allow me a minute or two to reply.

We had a long catalogue of fascinating history involving the church mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. We heard about codicils to wills and the rôle of the Attorney-General. However, none of those matters had anything to do with the Department of the Environment. I shall endeavour to be a little more constructive in a moment or two when I have heard the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

I rang the office of the Attorney-General this morning when I knew that I would have the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. However, I did not know that until 10.30 this morning. I gave notice of this matter and I have been in touch with the Department of the Environment and with the Minister responsible for the arts. Therefore, I have tried three different people and have tried to get somebody to take responsibility for this matter.

It does not follow, if the hon. Gentleman is trying to find somebody to accept responsibility, that it must be the Government. I understand that the Attorney-General is acting in his legal capacity and not in his capacity as a member of the Government. My right hon. and learned Friend is not answerable to the House if he is acting in his legal capacity; he is answerable only when talking from his position as a member of the Government.

As I understand this long history, we have reached the stage where the church has not been used since 1959. The only possible connection which my Department has ever had with the matter was on 16th March 1970. The church is a listed building and consent was sought for its demolition. That is the only occasion on which my Department had responsibility. But that was five years ago. Nobody has taken the matter up again with us in the last five years.

The hon. Gentleman said that the matter was the subject of a court decision. Apparently the courts have been concerned with funds amounting to £12,000. The sum may have accrued with interest since then and the action in the courts related to funds left as a result of the will mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. On that matter the Attorney-General cannot involve himself in respect of the £12,000 until the situation over the church is determined. My right hon. and learned Friend will then be able to take a view and either go back to the court for an order governing the disposal of that £12,000 or go to the Charity Commissioners.

At that stage he can take an initiative about the fund. He must act on the instructions or order of the court. The key to the matter is whether the church authorities intend to demolish the church. Until that has been resolved the Attorney-General advises me that he is not able to intervene. That is the fundamental issue.

Under the pastoral measure of 1968 the Church Commissioners and the local pastoral committee of the diocese—in this case the Portsmouth diocese pastoral committee—have power to deal with redundant churches or chapels in their care. The committee can make a recommendation to the bishop that a proposal be made to the Church Commissioners for a declaration of redundancy and a subsequent redundancy scheme. The diocesan authorites must first decide whether the church should stand, be restored, be disposed of, be used as a museum, or for any other purpose, or be demolished. Until that fundamental decision is taken it is impossible for anything else to happen.

I am told that the hon Gentleman has been in touch with the Minister with responsibility for the arts. He has no funds for this purpose. It would be for the local authority to act if it wished to turn the church into a museum, or for a trust to be established, or for someone else to raise the money. There is no Government responsibility there.

I find myself in a great difficulty, apart from the information which I have given—which I hope is helpful—in saying anything else to which the House can attach great importance, as I have no knowledge of the matter. My Department has no knowledge of this. We have no authority in the matter.

I appreciate the Minister's position. However, the fact that this position has been allowed to continue since 1959 is a reflection on the Department of the Environment. How can people preserve a building of this sort when they receive no answers to their letters from the people who are supposed to be running the trust? No money has been spent on the building. They have done this themselves. How do they ensure that attention will be paid to this matter, as I have tried to do tonight by raising the subject? This is important to the people of Ryde. The Department should take an interest in what is happening.

That is an unwarrantable suggestion. Many of our buildings are not used, although many people feel that they should be used. It is not for the Department of the Environment to take initiatives on a range of matters. It would be impossible for us to do so. We would need to employ double the number of civil servants. We employ too many now. Ours is a gigantic Department. We should need to double its size if we undertook this rôle.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman wishes to draw attention, legitimately, to a grievance within his constituency. I must direct his attention to the diocesan authorities. Those authorities should be made aware of the problem. I understand that if the church is demolished it is proposed to build a vicarage there for the vicar of a neighbouring church.

None of it is for me, thank goodness. I have enough to do answering for the sins of the Government without answering for the omissions of the Church.

I shall therefore direct the hon. Gentleman's attention to the diocesan authorities. He must first of all get them to make up their minds. Do they wish to retain this church or do they wish to dispose of it? When they have decided that the Attorney-General, I am advised—although I emphasise that it is not a responsibility of his to this House, but he wants to be helpful—will take an initiative about the disposal of the £12,000-plus of funds. These remain to be disposed of either in exactly the manner instructed, or my right hon. and learned Friend can go to the Charity Commissioners for their instructions.

That is where we stand at present. I am afraid that I cannot be more helpful. I hope that I have set the hon. Gentleman in the right direction and that he will proceed from Ryde to Portsmouth and deal with the appropriate authority when he gets there.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.