20 February 2023

Six tower blocks dominate
Tamworth’s skyline, but
also recall historical figures

Weymouth House bathed in the last night’s sunset … the six tower blocks have dominated Tamworth’s skyline since the mid-1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was honoured to be invited to say grace at Sunday’s lunch celebrating the work of the Tamworth and District Civic Society.

The lunch in the Castle Hotel, Tamworth, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Tamworth Civic Society in 1973, and the guests included Founder Chairman of Tamworth Civic Society, Dr FGA Noon, and the Mayor of Tamworth, Councillor Moira Greatorex, who proposed the Loyal Toast.

The guest speaker, Professor David Evans of Chester, is a Trustee and Board Member of Civic Voice, and Councillor John Harper, Deputy Mayor of Tamworth a local historian and former journalist at the Tamworth Herald, spoke of the important work of the society the post-war era, when Tamworth was in danger of losing much of its built heritage.

Before Sunday’s lunch, I visited the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha's Church and had some short time to walk along the banks of the River Anker, between Lady Bridge and the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street.

The Moat House House has been dwarfed by the six tower blocks that dominate Tamworth’s skyline since the mid-1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Towering above the Moat House and the river bank for almost 60 years are six 15-sorey modern tower blocks off Lichfield Street. They dominate the skyline of Tamworth, and have become more visible landmarks of Tamworth than, say, Tamworth Castle, Saint Editha’s Church, the Town Hall, Guy’s Almshouse, or the Moat House which is dwarfed by their size and scale.

As John Harper said yesterday, without the work of the society, Tamworth might have lost more of its historical heritage in the post-war era decades to developers whose vision was to transform Tamworth into another Coventry or Birmingham. There was a key difference, he pointed out: unlike Birmingham and Coventry had been destroyed by German bombs during World War II.

This riverside development along Lichfield Street was built in 1967, and includes six 15-storey houses, each with 58 dwellings. Between 1965 to 1981 the population of Tamworth doubled from 32,000 to 64,000, with the development of major new housing estates including these high rise tower blocks on the edge of the town centre.

When it came to naming the six blocks, the planners paid some tribute to the history and heritage of Tamworth whose loss they were contributing to in the 1960s, including previous owners of both Tamworth Castle and the Moat House.

Weymouth House on the corner of Lichfield Street and Silver Street recalls a 17th century MP for Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Weymouth House is the closest to the town centre, at the east end of Lichfield Street, almost on the corner of Lichfield Street and Silver Street, and diagonally opposite the corner of Aldergate and Church Street.

Weymouth House takes its name from a title held by the Thynne family, whose connections with the Lichfield and Tamworth area begin with Thomas Thynne (1640-1714), 1st Viscount Weymouth, and his marriage in 1671 to Lady Frances Finch, a granddaughter of the Dowager Duchess of Somerset who was a close friend of William Comberford of Comberford Hall and who also held properties in Comberford, Wigginton and Tamworth.

Through this marriage, Lord Weymouth inherited large estates and political interests in the Tamworth area, including Draycott Bassett, and extensive Irish estates in Co Monaghan. His mother-in-law, Lady Mary Seymour (1637-1673), was a daughter of William Seymour, 2nd Duke of Somerset and Lady Frances Devereux (1599-1674), who, as the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, she also held properties in Comberford, Wigginton and Tamworth.

Weymouth inherited more estates through a division of land between the heirs of the two daughters of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Earl Ferrers, who lived at Tamworth Castle, inherited the share of his grandmother, Lady Dorothy Devereux, while Weymouth succeeded to the inheritance of Lady Frances Devereux, Duchess of Somerset.

Weymouth was MP for Tamworth (1679-1681), High Steward of Sutton Coldfield (1679-1714), High Steward of Tamworth (1681-1714), and High Steward of Lichfield (1712-1714). His sons including son Henry Thynne (1675-1708), MP Tamworth (1701-1702) with Thomas Guy, one of Tamworth’s great benefactors.

The Thynne family later owned Comberford Hall for almost 30 years (1761-1789), and Weymouth’s descendants held the title of Marquis of Bath – but, perhaps, the planners thought it injudicious to give a tower block the name Bath House.

Strode House recalls Grace Strode, who married Henry Thynne, briefly MP for Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Strode House is southwest of Weymouth House, and recalls Grace Strode, who married Weymouth’s son, Henry Thynne (1675-1708), briefly MP for Tamworth (1701-1702).

Grace Strode was the daughter of Sir George Strode and a wealthy heiress, and at her marriage in 1695 she brought her husband a fortune of £20,000.

Peel House takes its name from the Peel dynasty who dominated political life in Tamworth for much of the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Weymouth House and Strode House are separated from the other four blocks by New Street.

Peel House, to the west of Weymouth House, obviously takes its name from Sir Robert Peel and the Peel family who dominated political life in Tamworth for much of the 19th century, beginning with Sir Robert Peel (1750-1830), MP for Tamworth (1790-1820), who lived at Drayton Bassett.

Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), was twice Prime Minister (1834-1835, 1841-1846), and also bought up the mortgages on Comberford Hall.

Other members of the Peel family included William Felton Peel (1839-1907) was living at Comberford Hall from 1900 to 1902, and the Revd Maurice Peel (1873-1917), Vicar of Tamworth, who was an army chaplain when he was killed by a sniper during World War I.

Townshend House takes its names from a family who inherited Tamworth Castle and the Moat House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Townshend House, in the middle of the development, takes its names from the Townshend family, who inherited Tamworth Castle by marriage in the mid-18th century. The Townshend family also became proprietors of the Moat House. They were was forced to sell the castle to pay off debts in 1821.

The Townshend family bought back Tamworth Castle in 1831, but they never recovered the Moat House. They finally put the castle up for sale by auction in 1891, when it was bought by Tamworth Corporation, to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.

Stanhope House … Philip Stanhope was a roalist colonel and MP for Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Stanhope House, at the west end of the development, overlooks the high rise development of Devereux House, which separates these high rise blocks from the grounds of the Moat House.

The name of Stanhope House recalls Ferdinando Stanhope (1619-1643), a younger son of Philip Stanhope, 1st Earl of Chesterfield. He was MP for Tamworth (1640-1643) and a Royalist colonel in the English Civil War.

Stanhope and Colonel William Comberford of the Moat House were among a group of royalist officers who were created MA of the University of Oxford by Charles I. Stanhope fought at the Siege of Lichfield when he was killed in a skirmish near West Bridgford in 1643.

Shortly before his death, Stanhope married his step-sister Lettice Ferrers, a daughter of Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth Castle, and their daughter Anne was born after his death.

Harcourt House recalls a family who were intermarried with the Comberford family and who once lived in the Moat House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Harcourt House is in the south-west corner of the development. The south side of Harcourt House overlooks the banks of the River Anker and towers above the Moat House to its immediate west.

Harcourt House recalls a family who were intermarried with the Comberford family and who once lived in the Moat House. Under an agreement made in 1554, the ultimate right to the Moat House passed the heirs of Humphrey Comberford (1496-1555). Humphrey Comberford’s daughter, the widowed Mary (Comberford) Ensor had married her second husband, Walter Harcourt of Tamworth, by 1563.

When Mary Harcourt died ca 1591, the title to the Moat House reverted to the Comberford family, although Walter Harcourt continued to live there until he died in 1598, when he was buried in Saint Editha’s Church.

Meanwhile, the title to the Moat House inherited by Mary Harcourt passed to her nephew, William Comberford, who moved to the Moat House from Wednesbury.

Devereux House borders the remaining lands of the Moat House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In the same area off Lichfield Street, the low-rise housing developments include Balfour and Devereux House. Devereux House, between the tower blocks and the Moat House recalls a family closely linked with the political life of Tamworth and Lichfield in the 16th and 17th centuries and with the Comberford family.

I once thought Balfour was named after Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), 1st Earl of Balfour, who was Prime Minister in 1902-1905. But, instead, perhaps, Balfour recalls Jabez Spencer Balfour (1843-1916), MP for Tamworth (1880-1885), but later jailed for financial fraud. A series of companies he set up and controlled, starting with the London and General Bank and culminating in the Liberator Building Society, left thousands of investors penniless. Instead of advancing money to home buyers, they advanced money to property companies to buy properties owned by Balfour, at a high price.

After the swindle was uncovered, Balfour fled Britain but was arrested in Argentina in 1895 and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Hardly an inspiring MP for Tamworth, even in these days!

Recently, Tamworth Borough Council began an improvement programme on the blocks, which are almost 60 years old. About £1.75 million is being spent to replace soil and ventilation pipes. But this aging development needs more attention.

The tower blocks frequently provide a stark contrast to the prevalent scale and character of Tamworth, and have long had a significant impact on Tamworth’s skyline, contributing to the disproportionate poor image and perception of the town.

Recent reports have recommended addressing the issues by reconfiguring the layout of the estate around more conventional streets and urban blocks and through the selective demolition of houses and maisonettes. This will enable the development of a number of contemporary high density dwellings to wrap around and integrate the tower blocks at the ground floor-level and take maximum advantage of the riverside setting.

The reports also recommend reconfiguring the entrances to the tower block to integrate them into the street-scene and to create a more welcoming arrival point. They also recommend addressing the visual impact of the blocks by individually recladding them to create a softer and less uniform appearance and exploring innovative approaches to roof treatments and lighting design to create some character and visual interest to the Tamworth skyline.

The high-rise towers are unlikely to be demolished in the decades to come, so they will continue to have a significant impact on Tamworth’s skyline

Walking along the river bank, behind the Moat House and the tower blocks, on Sunday afternoon (Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Invasion of Ukraine
has both united and
divided churches

A Ukrainian refugee among choirs singing in a square in central Budapest (Photograph Charlotte Hunter)

Orthodox churches
in Russia and Ukraine
are divided while
churches in countries
bordering the war
share a common mission

Rite & Reason
Patrick Comerford

The first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine looms on Friday. The war has deepened the rift separating the Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine, and has caused further divisions within the Orthodox churches inside Ukraine.

However, the response of churches to the refugee crisis in countries bordering Ukraine and Russia has strengthened ecumenical partnerships, giving many of those churches a new understanding of sharing a common witness and mission.

For six years I was a trustee of USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), one of the oldest Anglican mission agencies. In recent weeks, USPG invited me to visit the Anglican churches in Hungary and Finland to see how they are responding to the crisis and to the needs of refugees.

Hungary has a long border with Ukraine, and people have long memories of the cold war era, including the Soviet role in suppressing the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Fr Frank Hegedűs, the Anglican priest in Budapest, is a former board member of Next Step Hungary, where volunteers help 500-600 people at weekends, providing food, meals and clothing.

With support and funding from USPG and the Anglican Diocese in Europe, Fr Frank and his parishioners at St Margaret’s Church are working with support groups like Ukrainian Space and with other churches, including the Jesuit Refugee Service and St Columba’s, the small (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland in Budapest.

This ecumenical co-operation has helped the Jesuits to provide accommodation, furnish a chapel and develop community space in Uzhhorod inside Ukraine. Ukrainian Space is providing a day-care and after-school programme in Budapest for Ukrainian children.

Finland was occupied by Russia throughout the 19th century, was invaded by the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and now shares a 1,300 km border with Russia. The Anglican Church in Finland was formed by refugees who fled St Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, and who were forced to flee further west again during the Winter War.

The Anglican priest in Helsinki, Fr Tuomas Mäkipää, brought us to visit the Vallila Help Centre, where Eeva (she prefers that her surname not be used) and a team of volunteers respond to the urgent, daily needs of Ukrainian refugees. A grant from USPG and the Anglican Diocese in Europe funds her work as the Humanitarian Aid Co-ordinator.

The centre was up and running a week after the invasion of Ukraine and has become a shared space for several relief organisations and an information and assistance point for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. It began providing food for 140 families, but this number has reached more than 3,360 families.

Four of us – Rebecca Boardman, Charlotte Hunter and myself from USPG, and Amber Jackson from the Diocese in Europe – spent a morning working with Eeva’s volunteers, packing bags and essential food for distribution among 100 Ukrainian families.

One Ukrainian refugee, Natalia (42), who also asked that her surname not be used, told us how she fled to Finland, leaving her husband behind to look after elderly people in their apartment block. He was not involved in the fighting, but was killed by Russian troops after they took over the empty apartments in their block. Natalia has been back for his funeral, but now does not know whether she can ever return home again.

Fr Tuomas works closely with the Lutheran Church and the Finnish Orthodox Church. In Holy Trinity Church, the oldest Orthodox church in Helsinki, Fr Heikki Huttunen celebrates the liturgy in Finnish, Church Slavonic and Russian, reflecting the diversity of his people and the conflicts that are redefining their identities.

“We are the closest church to these Ukrainians,” he says, “and we should be the first to open our arms to welcome them.” Vassili Goutsoul of the Ukrainian Association in Finland admits that in the first few months of the crisis everyone expected the situation to have stabilised by now. In a similar vein, Ákos Surányi of Menedékház, a refugee facility in Budapest, says: “No one expected the war to go on for this long.”

I asked Fr Frank how many families hoped to return from Budapest when the war ends. “They have nothing to go back for,” he says with sadness in his eyes. “They have lost not just their homes, but their entire towns and cities.”

Fr Tuomas says the response to the crisis has transformed the mission and outlook of his churches in Helsinki, and they are starting to learn the impact of what they are doing.

Sarah Tahvanainen, a Cambridge theology graduate, is administrator of St Nicholas’s Anglican Church in Helsinki. She sees the present crisis as “a gifted time” and “an opportunity to put faith into practice, an opportunity to show love and compassion. It’s faith in action.”

Rev Canon Prof Patrick Comerford is a Church of Ireland priest and a former Irish Times journalist now living in retirement in the Diocese of Oxford

This ‘Rite & Reason’column was published in The Irish Times on Monday 20 February 2023

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 20 February 2023

‘Love is the motive of all things that move’ (Christina Rossetti) … graffiti or street art in a laneway off Radcliffe Street in Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Lent is only two days away, beginning on Ash Wednesday. This time between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, is known as Ordinary Time, a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a time of preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

I am back in Stony Stratford this morning, after yesterday’s lunch in Tamworth celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Tamworth and District Civic Society. But, before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday, I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Yesterday was the Sunday Before Lent, also known to many as Transfiguration Sunday and traditionally known as Quinquagesima. Yesterday, I reflected on John Keble’s poem ‘Quinquagesima Sunday.’ This morning, I am reading Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Quinquagesima.’

Less than a week after Saint Valentine’s Day, this poem is a reminder that love is at the heart of Christian belief, and at the heart of the message of Lent and Easter.

Quinquagesima, by Christina Georgina Rossetti:

Love is alone the worthy law of love:
All other laws have presupposed a taint:
Love is the law from kindled saint to saint,
From lamb to lamb, from dove to answering dove.
Love is the motive of all things that move
Harmonious by free will without constraint:
Love learns and teaches: love shall man acquaint
With all he lacks, which all his lack is love.
Because Love is the fountain, I discern
The stream as love: for what but love should flow
From fountain Love? not bitter from the sweet!
I ignorant, have I laid claim to know?
Oh, teach me, Love, such knowledge as is meet
For one to know who is fain to love and learn.

‘God is Love, God is Light, God is With Us’ … thoughts in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Mark 9: 14-29 (NRSVA):

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ 19 He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ 23 Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 29 He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’

‘God is Love’ … Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Farewell, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Social Justice in Sierra Leone,’ which was introduced yesterday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (World Day of Social Justice), invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the people of Sierra Leone. May they move towards a just and fair society where all can benefit from the country’s rich resources.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

‘Love is alone the worthy law of love’ (Christina Rossetti) … the Menedékház refugee centre in Budapest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org