MENTION the name Mitford and most people will think of the sisters – some of whom achieved notoriety during the Second World War.
There was Unity, the friend and confidante of Hitler who tried to commit suicide; Diana, another Fascist who married Oswald Mosley and was imprisoned during the War. Then there was ardent Communist Jessica, novelist Nancy and Deborah, who became, and still is, the Duchess of Devonshire. And don’t forget their brother Tom, who refused to fight Germany, volunteering instead to fight against Imperial Japan.
The family can trace its origins in Northumberland back to the Norman Conquest and their roots lie in Mitford near Morpeth. But here in Tynedale, just south of Rochester, is a church whose story is also intermingled with the family – a connection that led to it being included in the Heritage Open Days this year, where guided tours are given around buildings of historic interest.
Every church has a story to tell, but most people motoring along the A68 towards the Scottish Border probably pass Holy Trinity without even realising it’s there. The building is on the main road, but hidden behind trees and easy to miss.
One man that certainly knows of its existence is historian and local resident Dr Ian Roberts, who has long being fascinated by the church and its links with the Mitfords. If you want to know the history behind the church, Ian is the person to speak to and he’s the man who gives the tours during the open days.
The family’s links with the local area began in the 1790s when John Mitford – who later became the first Lord Redesdale – bought the Redesdale estate.
But it was his son, John Thomas Freeman-Mitford – who inherited when his father died in 1830 – who transformed the estate. “John Thomas took an even stronger interest in the estate than his father,” said Ian. “He appointed a new agent in 1834, Edward Lawson who died in 1878 and was succeeded by his nephew, William Hodgson, who died in 1907. They were both competent honest men; really, really good.
“So John Thomas – who was also a Whip for the Tories under Wellington and became deputy speaker of the House of Lords – decided in the 1840s that his tenants needed a church.”
“In the 1980s we had electric organs, but the mice used to eat the capacitors.”
Work began on the church in 1842 and two years later it was completed. For the first 40 years of its life it was served by curates as a chapel of ease, but in 1844, it got its first vicar, the Rev. Thomas Stephens – a beneficent Victorian gentleman who presided over his flock for 40 years. His daughter was interested in meteorology and sent rain records to the records office.
John Thomas Freeman-Mitford died in 1886, having built up the estate to more than 18,000 acres from its original size of 12,000 acres. The family also had a large estate in Gloucestershire and a house in London. John never married and the estates passed to his cousin’s son – another character with the name of Algernon Bertram Freeman Mitford.
“He went to Eton, was well educated and joined the diplomatic service,” said Ian. “He worked in China and Japan and learnt Japanese and worked with Sir Ernest Satow, a linguist of very high status. Mitford wrote a book, Tales of Old Japan and then came back from Japan in 1874. He married the daughter of the 7th Earl of Airlie and was MP for Stratford on Avon. In 1904 he was raised to the peerage and made Lord Redesdale.
“He continued to provide money for the church, school and the village and when he died in 1916, his wife, Clementine Gertrude Helen Ogilvy, moved here and lived in Redesdale Cottage.”
This was no cottage, but the family’s country home in the parish and Clementine became a well-known figure in the local community. If a prize needed presenting at the school or a fete needed opening, Clementine would be there to do the honours. She also helped appoint the Rev Stephens’ successor, Frank Nelson Wright who was vicar for 27 years. She lived in Redesdale until her death in 1932.
After Algernon died, the estate passed to his second son David, the father of the Mitford sisters who often used to visit their grandmother in Tynedale. Their father lived at Redesdale Cottage until his death in 1958.
But although the Holy Trinity has inextricable links with the Mitfords, and attracts visitors because of that fact, it’s role has always been one of a flourishing parish church for the local people – acting as a place of worship and a focal point for the community.
“We are still a thriving church community,” said Ian, who is also a churchwarden. “The church has a vibrant life in the community.”
“In the 1990s we had a major overhaul. We put in an organ gallery and it is currently work in progress. It is an historic organ, over 100 years old from Tow Law methodist church. In the 1980s we had electric organs, but the mice used to eat the capacitors.”