St. John the Evangelist
The first record of East Holme is in The Domesday Book where it says 'Elured' held the area before the Norman conquest of 1066 and goes on to mention that "it paid a tax for 2 hides and a virgate of land (about 30 acres). Four villagers had 1.5 hides and a virgate and the value was 20s."
In 1142, Robert de Lincoln gave the manor of Holme to the large Priory at Montacute on condition that they provided four monks in a cell to chant there throughout the year for the souls of certain members of the de Lincoln family. A small 'alien' Cluniac priory was built, which stood behind the present Priory house. Alien houses were founded by wealthy French nobles and given as presents to their favourite Norman monasteries. Some were virtually independent of their foreign superiors while others were not and their priors subject to dismissal on a whim. The 'cells' were very much 'branch offices' and often places of punishment for disobedience or insubordination to a superior. The fortunes of all these establishments depended on the political scene with France and when the two countries were at war, they were subject to temporary seizure.
The priory church probably served the parish until the Civil War, but by 1746 it was certainly in ruins because bits, including a Norman arch, were salvaged for a new church at Creech Grange. For the next 150 years all baptisms, marriages and burials were carried out in the parish church of Stoke. By 1702 it was in the hands of the Odingsells family, but in September 1722, the estate was sold to Denis Bond of Grange, who being without an heir, gave it to his nephew, Nathaniel. He built the present mansion and in turn gave it to his nephew, Rt. Hon. Nathaniel Bond KC, a successful barrister (and Treasurer of the Inner Temple), who defended Jane Austen's aunt on a charge of shop lifting. (He was Vice-President of the Board of Trade (1804) and Judge Advocate General in (1806). He died a bachelor in 1813.
During the nineteenth century, the Church of England enjoyed a huge renaissance propelled by the twin, if very different, flames of the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement. In the first half of the century 2,000 new churches were built and the same again between 1851 and 1870. Old churches were modernised to bring them in line with the 'correct' ecclesiastical style, which many commentators regard as acts of quite unprecedented architectural vandalism and which resulted in countless important heritage buildings being destroyed. On the other hand, the neglect of the previous century had left many, including the priory church of East Holme, so decayed that if nothing had been done they would have certainly become ruins. In Dorset, hardly a church survived unscathed. Yet, despite all this patronage and enthusiasm, the national census of 1851, which also measured church attendance, showed that only 40.5% of the population went to any sort of church and a mere 21% were practising Anglicans. Disturbingly, the number would fall even further by the end of the century. Nevertheless, works went on unabated in a genuine attempt to encourage the population by providing places of worship that were ecclesiastically correct and usually within walking distance of their homes.
In 1864 Holme Priory became the residence of yet another Nathaniel Bond when he married Lady Selina Scott, a daughter of the 2nd Earl of Eldon, whose home was just five miles to the south at Encombe House. It was an excellent marriage because it joined two of the county's most illustrious families. The Bonds had been landowners in Dorset and elsewhere since the 15th century, while Lady Selina's grandfather had been a hugely successful London lawyer who had occupied the prestigious post of Lord Chancellor of England for a record of 25 years. Lady Selina brought wealth and enhanced social standing to Nathaniel's already secure independence. However more importantly, it was to be a quite exceptionally happy union, blest with eleven surviving children. Both families had a history of church-building. The first Lord Eldon was responsible for the complete refurbishment of the 'old' church at Kingston. In 1746 Denis Bond started building a church at Creech, which John Bond completed in 1840. Other members of the family were responsible for Tyneham, where one of them was the incumbent for 57 years until his death aged 95 in 1852. These traditions were to be carried on at East Holme by the young Bonds and, later, by Lady Selina's brother, the 3rd. Lord Eldon, who founded the magnificent and very expensive 'new' church of St. James (1880) at Kingston, to a design by the celebrated London architect G.E.Street (1824-81). Both churches were erected in memory of one of their sponsor's siblings: East Holme commemorates Nathaniel's brother Denis, who had died in 1863 and Kingston, one of Lord Eldon's five sisters. In both cases, the family deaths resulted in large bequests in response to which the recipients almost certainly felt an obligation to erect a memorial church.
John Hicks designed East Holme church to a commission of Nathaniel Bond, who paid the whole cost of about £1,500. Hicks was responsible for the building or restoration of at least 27 churches in Dorset, mostly in the gothic revival style, yet very little is known about him. However, we do know he was the son of a Gloucestershire rector and that he had been in architectural practice in Bristol before moving to Dorchester and setting up in offices at 39, South Street, some time before 1852. He was fond of telling the story of a dream he had in Bristol, which concerned a tower he had designed and was, at the time, being built. During the dream a large crack appeared. When he awoke he was so concerned that he immediately saddled his horse and rode out to inspect the structure, only to find the crack exactly as he had seen it!
Perhaps unfairly, he is often posthumously better known for his association with the author Thomas Hardy, who was articled to him from 1856 to '62 and, after gaining further experience in London, became his assistant from '67 until his death in 1869. (It is, therefore, unlikely that Hardy actually worked on the East Holme project, but he must have known about it.) As a result of this connection, Hardy's many biographers have bequeathed various sketchy descriptions of John Hicks, but most agree he was "an amiable, straight dealing man" and, being a classical scholar, exceptionally well educated for a provincial architect.
We know he was married because there is a reference to Mrs. Hicks "sending down" to ask Hardy and the other apprentice, Bastow, to "make less noise." Towards the end of his life he was severely afflicted by gout, which was why he was obliged to offer Thomas Hardy the position of assistant and probably the reason he was not present at the consecration ceremony. Hicks died at the early age of 53 on the12th February 1869.
Many scholars regard the church at North Poorton (1862) as his finest work, although similarities to East Holme can be found in Combe Keynes (1866) and Athelhampton (1861)
The site chosen for the church is remote from the house and raised above the surrounding land to avoid the risk of water logging the graveyard. The present apparent isolation of the building is misleading because when it was completed in 1865 the East drive to the house ran close to it, which meant it was the first building most visitors would have seen.
The main contractors were Messrs. Wellspring and Son of Dorchester.
The walls of this small building of just 49 feet in length are constructed from dark brown sandstone, which was quarried from Holme Mount, about a mile to the south. The roof is of Purbeck stone and a single bell is mounted in a bellcote at the west end. Slightly surprisingly, there is no separate priest's door giving direct access to the chancel, which was a feature so much appreciated by the Victorian clergy.
The rather subdued exterior leaves the visitor entirely unprepared for the riot of colour inside. The walls are richly decorated with leaf scrolls and texts and are the work of Lady Selina's own hand. She must have been a very remarkable person because apart from this artistic 'tour de force', which took 7 or 8 years to accomplish, and the demands of a very busy social and family life, her kindness was such that she still found time to read to the elderly of the parish. Her diary tells of an exceptionally happy if short life of only 48 years and her art is an eloquent testament to this. During 1996 and '97 her work was carefully restored by Richard Smith.
Running round the top of the walls is a bold cornice of Bath Stone, which has been beautifully formed into a floriated design and, at one point, frames the words "This church is erected, A. D. 1865, to the glory of God, and in the memory of Denis William Bond, obiit January 23, 1863". The north and south walls are punctuated by engaged shafts of Purbeck marble surmounted by generously sculpted corbels from which the roof trusses spring. Supporting each shaft is a stone boss, some of which were colourfully decorated by Lady Selina with family shields. In the chancel, there are exquisitely carved angelic stone capitals by Benjamin Grassby of Powerstock. The chancel arch, which rests on shafts of polished Purbeck marble, has been moulded from Bath and Ham Hill stone in alternate courses.
Throughout, the windows are of richly stained glass and the triple lancets above the altar, partially divided vertically by more engaged marble shafts, are particularly fine. Although there was no stained glass when the building was consecrated in April 1866, windows were probably added as memorials when family members died. The windows in the chancel represent St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, martyred in the late 3rd. century, St. John the Evangelist and St Sophia - Holy Wisdom. The memorial windows in the north side of the nave portray the agony in the garden, the road to Calvary with St. Veronica holding the handkerchief and the Risen Lord appearing to Mary. On the south side are the visit to Mary by Elizabeth; Martha and Mary and 'He set a child in the midst of them'. The east window shows the Wise Men with their gifts, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The Evangelists are in the four corners.
The altar table was a gift from the Rt Rev Walter Kerr Hamilton, the Bishop of Salisbury (1854-69) who performed the consecration ceremony. The attractive font carried on yet more marble piers, may have been a present from Lady Selina's mother-in-law, the wife of the Rev Nathaniel Bond of Creech.
In the chancel, the choir desks support finely carved oak praying angels that are the work of R.L. Bolton of Worcester and there is some very fine brass work supporting the simple altar rail that is clearly influenced by the emerging Arts and Crafts Movement. The floor is decorated with an excellent example of Victorian encaustic tiling provided by Messrs. Mawe.
For the size of church, the organ is generous. The bulk tends to dominate the chancel and overflows into the diminutive vestry behind, to such an extent that, before the days of electric fans, the bellows had to be mounted in the ceiling and operated by a lever and push rods, to allow any room at all. It is worth mentioning that many of Hicks's church vestries are smaller than their contemporaries, but in this case the church was originally designed to have a simple harmonium. The current magnificent instrument did not arrive until 1881and was a gift from the Rogett family of Sandford, who made similar contributions to Lady St. Mary in Wareham and the church at Sandford. Lady Selina's daughter, Miss Louisa Bond, the second baby to be baptised in the building, played the East Holme organ for 70 years and was a churchwarden for 46 years (1910-1956), which must surely constitute a record of service to any one church.
Although the building is now lit by electricity, artificial light to the nave was originally provided by very attractive double iron candle brackets and glasses. The chancel desks have fitted plain brass candlesticks and the altar is resplendent with two large lavishly decorated candlesticks.
Outside, the church is approached through a lich gate, which was erected in 1891 in memory of Lady Selina by her brother, Lord Eldon and her surviving sisters, Lady Cottesloe, Vicountess Boyne and Lady Eustace Cecil.
Beyond the gate, the path is paved and there are clipped yews on either side. The churchyard itself extends to just over a third of an acre with many monuments and tombstones, including two in the form of Celtic crosses, in memory of the founders. In spring, the solemnity of the place is cheered up by an exquisite carpet of crocuses and snowdrops.
Unlike the majority of parish churches, which have often evolved as a result of an amalgam of several styles as successive generations left their marks, East Holme is a rare example of high Victorian art at its very best in an entirely nineteenth century building.
East Holme is a tiny parish consisting of just seventeen households, including Holme Priory. Although always the parish church, it was originally designed for a congregation which consisted mainly of a large group of family and servants from the Priory together with local tenants, giving it the attractive feel of a private chapel.
From the consecration to 1913, the parish was served by the rectors of Steeple. After that, the vicar of East Stoke served both parishes. When East Stoke lost its vicar in 1974, it joined with Wool, and East Holme linked with Wareham. Since1980, the parish has been served by the team ministry based at Wareham, though still retaining its status as a parish church.
A connection with the village of Powerstock
Despite being completed in 1865, the consecration ceremony did not take place until the week ending the 12th April 1866, probably to fit in with the Bishop of Salisbury's schedule. A contemporary newspaper report refers to the fact that the officiating archdeacon was Thomas Sanctuary of Powerstock and that the harmonium was played by a Miss Gunning.
These two people form part of an intriguing connection. John Hicks was the restoration architect of Powerstock church between 1854 and '59. Benjamin Grassby, the sculptor, had his workshop in Powerstock. A Miss Gunning, (surely the same person who played the harmonium at the consecration ceremony?) who was herself the daughter of another archdeacon, was responsible for painting an exquisite floriated design over the windows of the Powerstock chancel. Thomas Sanctuary's wife painted further floriated designs on the walls of the nave. (both decorations can still be seen in Powerstock church). It cannot be stretching the imagination too far to assume that Mrs. Sanctuary and Miss Gunning were friends of Lady Selina, through their common interest in decoration. Although the two parishes are over thirty miles apart, the nineteenth century was a period of frantic railway building and by 1857 the benefits of the national network had extended to much of Dorset, which made travel between the two places simple. Powerstock had its own station on a branch line to Bridport and East Holme was (and still is) served by Wareham.
Thomas Sanctuary is himself worthy of comment, because apart from re-building Powerstock, he was responsible for North Poorton and West Milton, which was completed by G. R. Crickmay after Hicks' death. Before Sanctuary arrived, Powerstock had a reputation for being very wild and it was because he had been a boxing blue that he was offered the living!