27 June 2019

High Leigh: a house
with connections with
a missionary family

High Leigh, once the home of the Barclay family, could easily be a setting for any TV period drama (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The High Leigh Conference Centre on the edges of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, where the USPG conference took place this week, is a beautiful Victorian country house, set in extensive parkland and landscaped gardens.

The garden at High Leigh is set with 40 acres of some of Hertfordshire’s most beautiful countryside, and the parkland is dotted with formal areas, woodland, lawns and ponds. Some of these features were created by the Pulham family of landscape gardeners in Broxbourne, just over a mile from High Leigh. The house could easily be a setting for any TV period drama.

The house was built in 1853 by Charles Webb, a gold lace manufacturer, and was bought in 1871 by Robert Barclay, a member of a well-known banking dynasty and a committed Christian, who renamed it High Leigh.

For generations, members of the Barclay and the Pulham families had been leading Quakers, and they may have attended the same Friends’ Meeting House on Lord Street, leading from Hoddesdon out to High Leigh. Although the Barclay family were once one of the leading Quaker families on these islands, by the time they came to live at High Leigh they were committed Anglicans, and their family story also has interesting links with Anglican mission work in the Far East over a century ago, and with the Diocese of Lichfield.

The impaled Barclay coat-of-arms with an episcopal mitre at High Leigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the stairs to the room where I was staying in High Leigh this week, the walls are lined with Victorian photographs of the Barclay family and their staff, and a stained-glass window in the original parts of the house shows an impaled Barclay coat-of-arms that has a bishop’s mitre as one of the two crests.

Robert Barclay was born on 13 December 1843, in Walthamstow, Essex, the son of Joseph Gurney Barclay and Mary Walker Barclay. Over the generations, his ancestors had married into many other prominent banking families, and he was responsible for merging 20 banks into Barclay and Company Ltd.

Robert was an Anglican, and his immediate family played key roles in the life of the Church of England. He married Elizabeth Ellen Buxton (1848-1911), a granddaughter of the 19th century reformer and campaigner against slaver, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, and they had a large family that included CMS missionaries.

One son, Joseph Gurney Barclay (1879-1976), was born at High Leigh on 9 February 1879 and was baptised in Stanstead Abbots, Hertfordshire. He was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, and married Gillian Mary Birkbeck (1882-1909) in 1905.

Joseph entered the family banking empires. But he left Barclay’s Bank to be become am Anglican missionary. Joseph and Gillian were in Japan with the Church Mission Society (CMS) when Gillian died in Kobe in 1909.

Joseph remarried and returned to England in 1926. He was working on the staff of CMS in London while he lived in Rose Hill, close to High Leigh. When he died on 15 April 1976 at Troutstream Hall in Chorleywood, Rickmansworth, he was buried in Saint Augustine’s Churchyard, Broxbourne. His obituary in The Times was written by his nephew, Bishop Robin Woods of Worcester.

Joseph Gurney Barclay’s son, Sir Roderick Barclay (1909-1996), was born in Kobe, Japan and educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. A career diplomat, he was the British Ambassador to Denmark (1956-1960) and Belgium (1963-1969).

The house at High Leigh faces onto open, rolling Hertfordshire countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Another son of Robert Barclay, the Revd Gilbert Arthur Barclay (1882-1970), was born in High Leigh, baptised in Stanstead Abbots, and educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a vicar in Cumbria (1912 -1915), and during World War I he became an army chaplain in Flanders (1915-1916) and a hospital chaplain in London and Leicester (1916-1919).

Later he was a vicar in Leicestershire and a rector in Essex. His wife Dorothy Catherine Topsy Studd, who was born in Chin Shih Fang, Luanfu, Shanxi, was the daughter of pioneering missionaries in China, Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931) and Priscilla Livingstone Stewart (1864-1929), who was born in Belfast.

A daughter of Robert Barclay, Rachel Elizabeth Barclay (1885-1932), who was born in High Leigh, worked as a CMS missionary in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). She is buried at Saint Augustine’s Church in Broxbourne.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of Edward Sydney Woods, Bishop of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Rachel Barclay was a sister of Clemence Rachel Barclay (1874-1952) married the Right Revd Edward Sydney Woods (1877-1953) in Hoddesdon in 1903. He was a son of the Revd Frank Woods, but also had a long line of Quaker ancestors through his mother, Alice Octavia Fry, a granddaughter of the prison reformed Elizabeth Fry.

Edward Woods was the Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge and Suffragan Bishop of Croydon, before becoming the 94th Bishop of Lichfield (1937-1952). Their daughter, Josephine Priscilla, married the Revd John d’Ewes Evelyn Firth in Lichfield Cathedral in 1939.

The war-time story is told of how Bishop Woods survived a German air raid by hiding under a dining room table with Ann Charteris, the future wife of Ian Fleming.

Clemence and Edward Wood were the parents of an archbishop, a bishop and an archdeacon.

The Most Revd Frank Woods (1907-1992), who was born in Davos, Switzerland, became the Archbishop of Melbourne (1957-1977) and Primate of Australia (1971-1977). He died in Melbourne in 1992.

The Ven Samuel Edward Woods (1910-2001) was the Archdeacon of Christchurch, New Zealand. His son, Canon Christopher Samuel Woods (1943-2007), was a Canon of Liverpool Cathedral.

The Right Revd Robert ‘Robin’ Wilmer Woods (1914-1997) was born in Lausanne, Switzerland. He was the Archdeacon of Sheffield, Dean of Windsor and Bishop of Worcester.

Robert Barclay continued to live at High Leigh until he died in 1921. His family then sold the property on favourable terms to First Conference Estate, a company he had been a director of, so that the house could become a Christian conference centre. The generosity of the Barclay family is celebrated in a plaque in the Oak Room, where I was taking part in two workshops on Tuesday afternoon.

A plaque in the Oak Room recalls the Barclay family’s connection with High Leigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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