In 1895 the Huntingdonshire village of Holme received a new priest. The Rev. George Broke, BA, mountaineer, ex-diplomat and all round sportsman ran into a problem with his new parish almost immediately.
Due to centuries of assorted fenland drainage projects which had slowly clawed arable land from the fens, all the parishes on the edges of the fens were very long and thin. They spread away from the established settlements with established churches and off into the reclaimed fens. In Holme parish, a third of George Broke’s parishioners were more than 3 miles away from St. Giles Church, where he preached each Sunday. This was a long trek on a summers day when there was farm work to be done and come winter, when the bad roads became impassable, was a near impossible journey.
The Diocese of Ely had long been concerned about declining church attendance in its largely rural population and had in its possession three church vans. These ‘pop up churches’ visited rural populations many miles from their official church to hold services, and generally return the farmers into the church’s fold. Although the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon had a church van at its disposal, the vehicle was ill suited to the fen roads around Huntingdon, rutted in summer and flooded in winter – another solution was needed, and so George Broke floated a different idea…
The idea of a floating church had a slightly rocky start: initially George wanted to fit a second hand railway carriage (widely available for around £7 at the time) to a second hand barge (£30). This idea, whilst cost effective (just under £5,000 in todays money), was not so practical. In 1897, with the Bishops consent and a £10 donation from his father, a £70 customised house boat was commissioned from William Starling (the barge builder) at Stanground.
The floating church – the only one of its kind – was 30 foot long, 9 feet wide and 7 foot high. It had everything a conventional church would have; an altar, a stone font for baptisms, a folding lectern, a small organ, a curtained off vestry, seating for fifty congregation, and large windows which would be thrown open for extra congregation on the bank. The church was received by the reverend on 1st April, frantically outfitted by Mary Broke and others and on April 5th 1897, dedicated by the Archdeacon of Huntingdon to St. Withburga, a Saxon princess buried at Ely.
On Easter Day, the flags of St George and St Andrew were run up a flag-pole to signify the first official church service was to begin. It was held at Stokes Bridge, where the barge was to be moored when not in use. The first Holy Communion at 9.30am was underwhelming with a congregation of just four. The undaunted George Broke pushed on, and the Evensong service was so busy the congregation spilt over onto the bank – that day alone five children were baptised!
At first the church’s itinerary was in no way fixed and St. Withburga’s visited all fenland communities on a navigable river, whether they had a church or not. Services were held for parishioners not only at Holme, but also Woodwalton, Ramsey St. Mary, Farcet, Pondersbridge and Yaxley. The nature of the church seems to have affected the congregation very little, although some ladies reported sea-sickness! Inevitably there were also occasions of people in their Sunday best falling off the rough plank leading onto the church; one such unfortunate was pulled from the river with the cheery admonition “thank God, you’ve got the parson here to attend ye in yer dying moments”.
In the late 19th century the rivers were still crucial for freight, communication and transport and the need to maintain water levels saw a preponderance of pumping stations across the reclaimed land. As a result, the majority of George Broke’s congregants were not just agricultural workers but pumping engineers, river men and their families, eventually George decided on four regular ‘stations’ to be visited:
– Stoke’s Bridge, on the old river Nene at Ramsey St. Marys
– Charter Farm, on the south edge of Holme Parish
– Allen’s Engine (or Mere Engines), a pumping station and hamlet on the old River Nene
– Black Ham, on the north edge of Holme Parish
Unfortunately, George ran into difficulties visiting Black Ham. The bridge on the approach, known as either Bradford or Froghall Bridge, had insufficient clearance for St. Withburga to pass under. The church was a mere three inches too tall, and even during August when the river was running lower than usual he was unable to pass under. Despite approaching the commissioners of the Middle Level (waterways in the area) to ask for the bridge to be raised, he would only be able to visit Black Ham once (30th August 1897) when the bridge had been removed for maintenance.
The other three stations were visited in rotation, services were held at 2.30pm in the summer and late morning in the winter to allow George to travel back to Holme in daylight. Easter or Christmas was celebrated at whichever station St. Withburga’s was due at on that day and celebrations would be planned for the congregations on these high-days. The church continued to draw “great crowds” whenever it docked. It was taken from station to station by the church caretaker (who was also landlord of the Exhibition Inn at Stokes Bridge), towing it along the river in advance with his horse, Boxer.
On a Sunday, George Broke would hold at least two services at St. Giles in Holme, before riding across the fens on horseback to hold a service on St. Withburga’s – a round trip of least seven miles across unsurfaced roads, in all weathers. Experiments with cycling to St. Withburga’s were mixed, the heavily rutted roads proving dangerous for bicycles, and in September 1897 George “nearly went into dyke riding back. The pedal smote my calf … so that I can barely walk”.
As well as Sunday services George and Mary visited St. Withburga’s for choir practices and evening classes. Bible study and needlework classes were offered for the young women of the rural communities and a weekday men’s class was also started but seems to have been abandoned fairly promptly.
By 1898, after a year of active riverine services, George Broke reflected back on “much welcome and encouragement, even in the depth of winter the services have been well attended”. Indeed, in the eight months active in 1897 more parish baptisms were recorded than in the entire previous year! That summer the additional arrival of the church vans saw an even greater turn out amongst the rural communities and increased collections as a result. St. Withburga’s seemed to be a great success, until the seasons turned.
Winters in the late 19th century were especially brutal; a Christmas night temperature of -8° centigrade in 1898 resulted in St. Withburga’s being dragged through the ice-bound river to Allens Engines for a congregation of just four hardy souls. George, riding or cycling seven miles through heavy snow in conditions below 0°, could not be sure that the church would have made it to its designated location, or that any parishioners would turn up!
Some winters the river froze over entirely and the church could not be moved at all for weeks on end. Then when heavy snows melted the river level rose to such a degree that bridges could not be passed under. In February 1900, St. Withburga’s lost her chimney passing under Stoke’s Bridge. For a succession of summers from 1899 to 1901 the opposite problem was encountered, hot weather saw river levels drop off so that St. Withburga’s could not be floated down river. Other prosaic problems could also be a hinderance, such as when Boxer the towing horse was spooked by pigs and as a result the church turned up late for the service!
After five years of active service, St. Withburga’s needed major repairs. She was no longer rain-proof and was sent back to the yard at Stanground. It is not known who paid for these repairs as there was precious little money in the parish fund, and the floating church had always been a financial burden – so St. Withburga’s days were sadly numbered.
In 1904, a combination of the expense, declining congregation, and strain on George Broke’s health saw St. Withburga’s pass into the hands of the vicar of Manea, the Bishop deciding the church would better serve the diocese there. George noted in his diary on 30th October, “To Allen’s Engine with “Yeast” [his horse] for last time”. The following week, he explained all about the barge to the new incumbent vicar, who towed her away later that day. The following Sunday, George’s diary simply read “My 1st Peaceful afternoon”.
George Broke continued at Holme until 1908, when he moved to a new parish in Suffolk. In 1914, his health broke down, and he was advised to retire to the south of France. He refused and retired instead to Norfolk where Mary had inherited Holme Hale Hall. He continued as a licensed preacher until his death in 1932, and Mary lived on in the hall until her death in 1949.
St Withburga’s went on to serve the population of Manea for just three years, before being towed back to Stokes Bridge. In 1907 it was returned to the boatyard and converted into a houseboat known as the “Saints Rest”. The converted boat could now pass under Bradford Bridge and was moored at Orton Thicket on the River Nene, in what is now Nene Valley Country Park. In the summer of 1912, the flooding was so bad it was long remembered as “the year the harvest was got in by boat”. During this heavy flooding, the “Saints Rest” sunk at her mooring. The wreck lies there still.
This blogpost is based solely on “The Fenland Ark – St Withburga’s: The Floating Church of Holme and Manea” by John Bennett. This is available to purchase at Holme church and provides an excellent and more in-depth history than this brief summary could ever hope to.
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.