21 August 2011

A window tells the tragic story that inspired a novelist

The East Window in Kenure Parish Church remembers Mary Ellen Peel who died in 1863, ten days after the birth of her baby daughter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

After my attempt to reach Lambay Island from Skerries Harbour on Friday night, I was back in the area this morning for three services in the churches in this part of Fingal or north Co Dublin: presiding and preaching at Holy Communion in Kenure Church, Rush; leading Morning Prayer and preaching in Holmpatrick Parish Church in Skerries; and celebrating the Eucharist and preaching in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan.

In Kenure, I was asked to make an interesting announcement about a local fund set up almost 200 years ago to benefit young women in the Rush area. The fund, which makes no discrimination on religious grounds, is administered by the local St Maur branch of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and was established in 1820s by Sir Roger Palmer of Kenure House. Later, standing at the altar or Holy Communion table in Kenure Church, I was conscious of the beautiful stained glass window in memory of Mary Ellen Peel and the tragic story this window tells about another member of the Palmer family from Kenure House.

And, little more than a week after another visit to Lichfield, her story also reminds me of how searches for family origins in south Staffordshire brought my great-grandfather into contact with the Peel family.

Mary Ellen Peel was born Mary Ellen Palmer, and was the daughter of Sir Roger Palmer (1802-1869), the 4th baronet, of Kenure House. She grew up in Rush and on 25 May 1857 she married Archibald Peel.

For Ellen and Archie, life must have offered many promises on their wedding day. Archie came from a distinguished political family. His uncle, Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), had been the British Prime Minister, while his father, General Jonathan Peel (1799-1879), had been Secretary of State for War. Soon after Archie Peel and Ellen Palmer were married, his first cousin, Sir Robert Peel (1822-1895), became the Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1861 – a post that made him the head of government in Ireland, I suppose the equivalent in pre-independence Ireland of being Prime Minister or Taoiseach in those days.

Ellen and Archie Peel moved to Broxbourne in rural Hertfordshire, half-way between Cambridge and London, close to Hoddesdon and the present High Leigh Conference Centre, where I attended the USPG Conference earlier this summer. Ellen and Archie had three children, but only one of those children – their third child, Ellen – survived. To compound the tragedy, Ellen Palmer died on 9 September 1863, only ten days after giving birth to this child.

The East Window in Kenure Church which recalls this sad story is the work of James Powell and Sons, who worked on so many of the Pugin churches in Ireland and England. The three-light window depicts the Crucifixion, with images on either side of Christ in Gethsemane and the Empty Tomb on Easter Morning.

Three years after Ellen Palmer’s death, Kenure Church was built in 1866. A year later, on 15 August 1867, Archie Peel married his second wife, Lady Georgiana Russell, aunt of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Lady Georgiana Peel was a daughter of the former British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, and through her mother, Adelaide Lister, she was direct descendant of Nathaniel Lister and the Lister family of Armitage Park or Spode House, halfway between Lichfield and Rugeley.

In 1899, Archbishop Joseph Peacocke of Dublin consecrated the burial grounds around Kenure Church. On that occasion, Ellen Peel’s brother, (1832-1910), Sir Roger Palmer read the lesson, and his wife Lady Gertrude presided at the organ, and “conducted the psalmody of a hearty and efficient choir.” Afterwards, it was reported, the congregation and clergy dined in Kenure House.

A novelist’s story

Ellen (Peel) Graham, whose mother is commemorated in this window in Kenure Church, survived the tragic death of her mother and grew up to be a successful writer. She wrote under her first married name as Mrs Henry Graham, even after she married her second husband, Lord Askwith.

Ellen Peel’s tragic yet colourful and romantic life was also described by her grand-daughter, the novelist Betty Askwith (1909-1995), only daughter of the Askwiths. In her introduction to Crimean Courtship, she draws on the diaries of the two Ellens, her mother Ellen (Peel) Graham and her grandmother Ellen (Palmer) Peel.

Comberford Hall … home to Archie Peel’s cousin, William Fenton Peel, when James Comerford visited around 1900 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, sometime around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), in search of his ancestors, turned up on the doorsteps of Comberford Hall, then the home of William Fenton Peel (1839-1907). This other member of the Peel family was a son of Archie Peel’s second cousin, Captain Edmund Peel (1801-1871).

William Felton Peel was born in Tamworth and worked as a cotton and foreign produce merchant in Alexandria in Egypt and in Bombay in India, where five of his eight children were born between 1868 and 1874. He later returned to England, and was in business in Broughton, Salford, near Manchester, where the other three children were born between 1876 and 1879. He lived at Hawley Hill, Blackwater, Hampshire, before moving to Comberford Hall with his wife Sarah Edith Willoughby and their children around 1900.

Almost a century earlier, Sir Robert Peel had foreclosed the mortgage on Comberford Hall and other estates in the Lichfield area owned by the Chichester family, forcing their sale to the Howard family.

When James Comerford turned up on his doorstep that year, I wonder did William Peel know the tragic story of his cousin’s Irish wife, Ellen Palmer Peel, who is commemorated in the window in Kenure Rush?

James Comerford died in 1902, shortly after publishing privately his account of the Comberford family, based on his travels through south Staffordshire; William Felton Peel died five years later in 1907.

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