Chapter Two: The Portman’s & the Church of St. Mary, Hestercombe
“I remember well how, when I came to St. Andrews (Taunton) in 1947, I was faced with a very large and run-down parish, & no curate . . . and no car. You can perhaps imagine how I thought when I was told that I was expected to take services for an old lady in her private chapel, which was not even in my parish!!”
The Revd. Prebendary, 19 Feb. 1984
In December of 1895, the Somerset County Gazette reported that:
‘the Hon. E. W. B. Portman is having an iron church erected in Hestercombe Park, near the mansion.’
The modest timber-framed structure that resulted was to play an important role in Estate life over the coming decades. The Church of Saint Mary’s, Hestercombe, stood not in front of the House as the Warre chapel had up until the late 1760s, but out of sight of the main approach in a small apple orchard located to the east of the Estate saw mill and south of the ‘old road’ to Gotton.
Clad with corrugated iron sheeting and lined internally with match boarding, it featured a bell tower and brick porch and stood on a brick foundation. Internally, the Church consisted of three rooms: a vestry and vestibule, which were located just inside the main doors, beyond which lay the main seating area with the organ and altar.
The construction of the little thatched church was officially undertaken by newly resident E.W.B. (‘Teddy’) ‘for the use of his family and household and residents on the Hestercombe Estate’. With his wife, Constance Mary Lawley, widow of Captain the Hon. E. Vesey, Teddy was currently one year into an ambitious programme of building and improvement that had begun following the young couple’s arrival at Hestercombe in 1894. In addition to the new church, there would before long be ‘extensive additions’ to the House, impressive new Boulton & Paul glasshouses (1895), a well-appointed Keeper’s Cottage (c.1898), a state of the art Dynamo House with hydroelectric turbine (1895), spacious Reading Room (c.1912), model dairy (c.1906), and a cricket pitch ‘as good as a county ground’ (c.1895).
An extremely devout individual, Mrs. Portman played a prominent role in the twice weekly services that were held at St. Mary’s. Estate employees, who by 1911 numbered over 70, were expected to attend with their families each Sunday at either the 9:00 am or the 6:00 pm ceremonies wearing their livery.
Mrs. Portman reportedly stood on a stool to toll the bell and ‘was very keen that people who lived on the place should attend the services. If you didn’t go, you got reckoned up!’ recalled Andy Thomas, Head Gardener 1951--56.
Margaret Ford, Thomas’s daughter, remembered the services as following a well-ordered pattern: ‘We all had special seats to sit in and Mrs. Portman always played the organ. You could hear her coming in with all her (gold) bracelets rattling.’
Mrs. Portman’s personal leather-bound prayer book, The Treasury of Devotion: a manual of prayer for general and daily use (1869) survives to this day.