Stories on Whalls: Trinity House, Leicester.


These almshouses were founded in 1331 by Henry Earl of Lancaster and Leicester and were rebuilt in 1901. The original almshouses were known as the “Hospital of Annunciation of the Virgin Mary”. They were for a warden, 4 chaplains and 50 poor and infirm people, 20 of whom were to be resident there. By 1354 the number of resident poor people had doubled to 40. The almshouse survived the dissolution and was renamed Trinity hospital in 1614. Whall executed an East window for the Chapel. (List of works by Christopher Whall)

You never know who’s looking over your shoulder.

“The Vice-Chancellor and his senior staff are delighted that you are able to join them for lunch. The lunch will take place after the ceremony in Trinity House at 12.00 for 12.20pm.”

So I sit down amongst the finery and refinery sporting my guest badge meeting with a laudable gent from the Guild of Patten Makers (inserts in shoes not templates for sheet metal) and a lecturer in photography and before you know it there’s a very decent three course meal and then someone gives a welcome speech and then I’m chatting to someone from the arts and humanities department about the cross overs between arts and science education and evaluation processes and what’s causal and what isn’t then someone points to the bread and something in a bowl next to it and we’re not sure whether it’s pate or butter and then there’s a very nice glass of wine on offer but I’m not drinking as it’s midweek and if I have a glass now I shall be out like a light and then there’s some very appetising chicken so I give the wine a miss but the elderflower cordial is pretty lovely and think I’d better get off to work as it’s a busy day and I have a meeting in thirty minutes and then I have a train to catch and then there’s loads to do and it’s fifteen minutes until the next meeting and then and then and then and then.

What I didn’t do was stop in my tracks. Turn a corner and look up at the altar at the end of the chapel. If I had, I would have seen the magnificent window by Christopher Whall, benignly staring at us assembled hoards, albeit around the corner, just feet from where I was sitting.

I didn’t have a clue who or what was looking down as this whole stained glass window thing was news to me and anyway I was far to busy to stop in my tracks this time but I should have stopped I should have done and taken it in for a few minutes how something in our past can be just around the corner out of sight but benignly present if we were so inclined to see it.

We don’t stop often enough to take stock of what’s just around the corner, wishing us all good grace and offering to be an angel in the midst of our day. And we lose out, being engulfed in the mist of our daily routines.


Stories on Whalls: Church of the Holy Cross, Sarratt

Whall was responsible for the “Charity” window in this church. It is the East window in the North Transept. The window dates from 1923. The Church dates back to circa 1190. Whall was responsible for two other windows, “St Cecilia” and “Bringing the children to Christ”. The “Charity” window comprises two lights featuring angels. There is a panel below each light and in the panel below the left hand light is a heart and below the words “Deus Caritas Est”. “Bringing the Children to Christ” is the earliest of the three windows and was installed in the West of the tower in 1913. It is a two-light window and in the left hand light we see a mother with two children. They look towards the right hand light in which we see Jesus with a third child. In a roundel above the two main lights, two angels are shown and the inscription “In Heaven their angels do always behold the face of the Father.” The window “St Cecilia” was installed in 1921 and is the South window, South Aisle. St Cecilia sits at a piano. The window was commissioned in her memory by the children of Emily Catherine Hamilton Ryley. (List of works by Christopher Whall)

And then, there’s the M25, always present, always humming, always flowing. Or trying to. 50 years it wasn’t. It might have a glimmer in a planner’s eye but when we were growing up in the area, the challenge that the M25 was to become and the traffic it would generate was beyond our imaginations.

We were able to ride our bikes through the narrow country lanes out of Heronsgate, around Chorleywood, down Solesbridge Lane and up to Sarratt without having to dodge lumbering articulated HGVs which had taken the wrong SatNav instruction and now found themselves squeezing through bushes and demolishing rabbit warrens before they were forced to reverse perilously, jack-knife and bring the whole of South East to a gridlocked halt. It’s amazing how one errant truck can take a wrong turning and seize up the nation’s supply chain.

In those days, Holy Cross Church in Sarratt would have looked very much like it does today – and probably how it looked like 800 years ago. Motorways may wax and wane but these older churches are made of hardier infrastructural policies.

But these days, the M25 helps you makes a trip to Sarratt by car in a hop skip and a jump and within minutes you can find the village’ s now empty duck pond, the Village Hall (scene of my first young farmers disco) and the Cricketers Arms (home of beautiful cobalt blue cutlery which is unfortunately not for sale).

A ten minute walk down Church Road – greeted politely by locals (“lost your way? You’re not from ‘ere are you?”) making it clear there’s nothing more suspicious than a couple of blokes walking down a country lane – leads unsurprisingly to the church, in which Christopher Whall is present, jostling for attention with the likes of Powell and Alfred Fisher. In the Baptistry, there’s St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, dating from 1921; in the Bell Tower, Bringing the Children to Christ (1913) and in the North Transept, Charity (1923).

Back outside, you clock that the Church of the Holy Cross  is opposite another pub, The Cock Inn, with its promise of ‘fab fish weekends’, which no doubt complement the fish and loaves Sunday mission of Holy Cross itself. The pub and the church: constants in an ever changing flux of articulated lorries, traffic diversions and speed cameras.

Stories on Whalls: an introduction to the mini-pilgrimages.

Christopher and Veronica Whall were English stained glass artists who worked in the late 19th and early 20th Century and became recognised as two of the key figures in the modern history of stained glass.  They were also father and daughter; and, as it turns out, my great-great-Uncle and cousin.  They were perhaps, in our family, our earliest film makers given their ability to conjure up complex stories onto walls using, as Veronica herself said:  “glass, lead and light… for lead is our medium, and light is our colour.”

They were also widely recognised as great advocates for the arts for everyone and Veronica was also remarkable for crafting her career as a stained glass artist in the early 20th century when the tradition was heavily dominated by men. Consequently, they have both provided me with  inspiration over the years – even if I was unaware of their work and inspirational force at the time.

Their work can be seen across the UK and as far afield as New Zealand. So I thought it was about time to undertake a series of mini-pilgrimages to visit their works, record how the years have treated them, and to consider not just what’s on the walls in front of me, but what’s around and behind them, and what future they’re facing.

This blog will record those mini-pilgrimages, relay what stories the Whalls told to each other and the world on their walls: and imagine what stories we could be telling them, and how we would tell them,  if they were alive today.

I’m hoping it will turn into reflective and celebratory history of two English stained glass artists which at least honours Christopher’s mantra: “the design of the window must relate to the architecture of the frame” albeit written from the point of view of a distant family member as opposed to a stained glass expert: but time will tell on that one.  If you want a more authoritative account of their work, you can start by looking at a list of Veronica’s work here and a list of Christopher’s work here.

I start in Ilchester near Wellingborough on a cold, sunny Spring day in 2017. Where I end up, and how I get there? Just read on.