The Simcoe sisters: Victorian craftswomen in Dunkeswell
We hear accounts of Dunkeswell Chapel, Somersetshire: it was built by six ladies, the ornamental part being done by their own hands. The altar is stone, and good: the seats of oak, and well panelled. Some tiles, dug up from Dunkeswell Abbey, are laid down before the Altar.
– Ecclesiologist, 1842
The Simcoes were a wealthy family with a home at Wolford Lodge near Dunkeswell. Elizabeth Simcoe (1762-1850) was a diarist and artist whose work is well known to historians. Her husband John Simcoe (1752-1806) was Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.
The Simcoes were drawn to romantic medievalism and erected gothic churches on medieval sites within the parish of Dunkeswell. Wolford Chapel was built by John Simcoe in 1801 on the site of a building of Saxon origins. Several decades later, in 1842, Holy Trinity Church was built by Elizabeth Simcoe on the foundations of Cistercian Dunkeswell Abbey.
Elizabeth didn’t just commission the build, she was very much involved in the design of the church. By the 1840s both she and her seven daughters had developed an active interest in ecclesiastical design. As women of wealth and leisure, the adult Simcoe sisters poured their time and energy into mastering the craft skills needed to create architectural fixings for their churches.
In the early 1840s the Simcoe workshop was developing furnishings for both Wolford Chapel and the Holy Trinity. Using a large drawing room at their home as a workshop they produced stained glass windows, altars, reredoses, a font, a pulpit, a reading desk, capitals, corbels and furniture reconstituted from antique carvings.
Only Eliza and Caroline Simcoe lived long enough to contribute to the much later restoration of the parish church, St Nicholas, Dunkeswell. The carving in the church shows that their skill had developed considerably. Although the reredos is similar in design to that in Holy Trinity, the carving of the miniature capitals is far more sophisticated.
The work of six of the sisters is commemorated in St Nicholas by six corbels in the nave, each carrying the face of one of them. It is likely that the seventh sister, Anne, was involved in the workshop in the 1840s, but married a servant after her mother’s death and was ostracised by the rest of the family.
The work of the Simcoe sisters and their mother Elizabeth, seems to anticipate later C19th ideas about the nobility of making. It also expresses an artistic and religious vision that showed an independence of thought: influenced by Romantic medievalism yet rejecting the Anglo-Catholicism more usually associated with it. The family was in fact part of the growing Evangelical movement, which is reflected in their restrained decorative choices
Whilst women of the time might have been expected to participate in ephemeral craft activities, the Simcoe sisters were different. They chose to construct and ornament permanent architectural fixings. Six of the seven daughters chose not to marry and devoted themselves to ecclesiastical design, perhaps a further statement of independence.
The creations of the Simcoe workshop survive in at least four churches in the Dunkeswell area and one in Canada. Dunkeswell Abbey Church, however, is the most complete product of the women’s workshop and expression of their worldview. The altar, font, capitals, corbels, stained glass, pews and pulpit are all thought to have been produced by the Simcoe women in their workshop.
If you’re interested in discovering more about the Simcoe sisters, come along to a Community Open Day at Dunkeswell Abbey Church (Holy Trinity) on Saturday 7 May 1-4pm. Find out more at www.dunkeswellabbey.co.uk.
Do you have memories to share of Dunkeswell Abbey Church?
Dunkeswell Abbey Church Trust is creating a new archive of material about the church and would love local stories, memories and anecdotes to be at the heart.
- Did you visit the church when you were younger?
- Do you have any photos?
- Could you help us create a community archive?
Please get in touch with email@example.com or say hello at our community open day on Saturday 7 May 1-4pm at Dunkeswell Abbey Holy Trinity Church.
This guest blog was written by Heritage Arts People. Much of the information is reproduced with the kind permission of Jim Cheshire from the following article: Cheshire, Jim (2008) Elizabeth Simcoe and her daughters: amateur ecclesiastical design in the 1840s. In: The 1840s. Studies in Victorian architecture and design. The Victorian Society. ISBN 9780901657503