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The Tatham family and Ryburgh parish, Norfolk

The story of the Tatham family's church connections with Norfolk begins in 1816, not at Ryburgh but at the nearby village of Colkirk, a few miles to the west. The patrons of the Colkirk living, and the lords of the manor, were the wealthy and influential Townshend family, of Raynham Hall. It was on the nomination of the 3rd Marquess, George Ferrars Townshend, that Ralph Tatham, a fellow of St John's College Cambridge, was instituted on 10 February 1816 to the Rectorship of Colkirk with Stibbard, worth £805 a year.

How and why Ralph Tatham obtained this valuable living is not now clear. Many years later his nephew Charles explained that he had been for some time Tutor to the Marquess's sons, but this account raises difficulties. George Townshend was the same age as his supposed tutor, he had been disinherited by his father the 2nd Marquess, and he definitely had no sons of his own. Presumably Ralph Tatham had been nevertheless useful to George Townshend in some way or another, perhaps when they were contemporaries at Cambridge University 15 years before.

Even at Cambridge the two young men can hardly have mixed socially. The future 3rd Marquess Townshend, schooled at Eton and now a nobleman undergraduate at Trinity College, represented one of the richest and most powerful families in England. In contrast Ralph Tatham's family was plain north-country middle class. His father was the vicar of Bishopton, near Stockton-on-Tees, and although he and his wife had each inherited some money from their families' interests in coal and lead, they were not by any measure wealthy. Indeed Rev Tatham had to borrow heavily – some £1500 – in order to meet the expense of sending Ralph and two of his brothers to his old college, St. John's, Cambridge.

Once installed as Rector of Colkirk, Ralph Tatham did not take up the duties himself, but instead appointed his brother Thomas as full-time curate. Such an arrangement was not uncommon at the time. Ralph was by then a fellow and tutor at his Cambridge college, and also the university's Public Orator, and he was already nominally the curate of another parish in Cambridgeshire. In due course in 1839 he was elected Master of St John's, and later served twice as Vice-Chancellor of the University, all the while holding on to his position as rector of Colkirk. Ralph's nephew Charles later wrote dutifully in his defence: “My Uncle was therefore a Pluralist, but the Mastership of St. John's College, was a poor Mastership. I may add that my Uncle Thomas cost his brother, I am told, about £1300 a year, although the Colkirk living was worth, as I have already said, only £800 a year.”

Ralph Tatham could plausibly have claimed that did not neglect his duties as rector of Colkirk. The parish records show that he officiated from time to time at baptisms, weddings and funerals, and himself formally nominated the rector's churchwarden each year. Now and then he sent his other brother William, also a fellow at St John's, to officiate in his place. The outcome was that the Tatham family seems to have grown fond of the village of Colkirk. It was there that Ralph's mother died and was buried in Oct 1847. Thomas Tatham continued to live at Colkirk after he had retired as curate, and was buried in the churchyard on 30 Mar 1850.

Ralph Tatham carried on in the position of rector for the rest of his life. In 1851 he arranged for the building of the Colkirk village school, for 90 pupils. The last time that he officiated was at a funeral in August 1855. He died on 19 Jan 1857, at the Master's Lodge, St. John's College. His nephew Charles relates that not long before his death, in anticipation of the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Cambridge, he had a fall from a stool on which he was standing while fixing up something on the wall of the Senate House. It is supposed that the shock of the fall - he was a big man - brought on his last illness. He was buried in the ante-chapel of the college of which he had been a member for sixty years.

Upon Ralph's death the Tatham connection with Colkirk came to an end. George Townshend, the 3rd Marquess and the patron who had appointed him to the living 43 years before, had died in Genoa in 1855, after spending most of his life abroad. His successor as patron can have known nothing of the Tathams. He appointed as rector the Rev James Bradby Sweet, an energetic man, at the time the secretary of the Additional Curates Society and author of a number of pamphlets, including “Reasons for Refusing to profane the Order for the Burial of the Dead” and “A Statement of the Case in Favour of a Restoration of Corrective Discipline”. Rev Sweet lost no time in bringing changes to Colkirk church. In his first week as Rector he dispensed with the orchestra in the west gallery and installed a harmonium and a choir in the chancel. In his first year he set out on a complete restoration of the church. Among the improvements was a new east window in memory of his predecessor Rev Ralph Tatham.

Ralph had one more brother, Meaburn Tatham. It is recorded that he was by no means a studious boy, but fond of sports and riding, and very courageous. Therefore his father decided not to send him to Cambridge, but into the Navy. He was entered as a midshipman on Lord Hood's ship when England was still at war, but when the war ceased - temporarily - with the Peace of Amiens in 1802 it was thought better that he should not go to sea, but seek his fortune as a lawyer. He went to London, became an articled clerk in a well-known firm and was admitted as a solicitor and attorney in 1812. He went on to develop a flourishing legal practice and married an heiress, enabling him to build an elegant house on Highgate Hill and to send his sons to university. Charles and Meaburn (junior) duly followed three generations of Tathams to St John's College Cambridge. However the second son, George Edmund Tatham, went instead to Oxford, first to Queen's College and later migrating with a Postmastership (scholarship) to Merton.

After taking his Oxford degree, George Edmund Tatham worked for a time as an assistant master at Sir Roger Cholmeley's School, Highgate, combining the job with that of curate at St Michael's after his ordination in 1854. It was in that church that he was married to Elizabeth Susan Block (“Betha”), daughter of a wine merchant, on 13 Oct 1857. Shortly after their marriage they went to Devon, where George had the post of curate at Selworthy. The following year they moved on to Norfolk, where he had been appointed to a living as Rector of Great Hautbois; there their first child Marion was born.

In the summer of that year, 1858, the living of Great Ryburgh fell vacant, with the death in Norwich of the 80 year old Rev William Ray Clayton. He had been rector since 1820, although he had installed a stipendiary curate there to carry out the clerical duties on his behalf and had spent little time in thr parish.

It was around that time that the patronage of the Ryburgh living came up for sale. Meaburn Tatham managed to purchase the advowson in 1858, probably from the Wodehouse family who were by then the lords of the manor. Meaburn is known to have been acting as lawyer for other Norfolk landowners in this period, and to have purchased a number of properties on his own account, including Keeling Hall, some 5 miles to the east of the village.

Whatever the circumstances, Meaburn lost no time in nominating his son George Edmund Tatham to the vacant living at Great Ryburgh. George was installed as the new rector before the year was out, and remained in the post for the next 25 years.

Like his neighbour at Colkirk, George Tatham soon brought changes to the life of his parish. Over the course of the next 15 years the church was thoroughly restored, with the aid of public subscriptions as well as contributions from himself, his brothers and his father Meaburn in his capacity as the patron. As time went by, stained glass windows were put up in memory of his wife's mother, his own mother, his brother and, finally, his father Meaburn, who died on 2 Apr 1875 and was buried in St Andrews' churchyard.

Meaburn Tatham made elaborate provisions in his will to ensure that after his death the Great Ryburgh advowson passed to his sons and remained thereafter in the hands of their male Tatham successors. The new patron was thus George's elder brother, Charles Meaburn Tatham, always known within the family by his nickname “Pubsey”. He was a barrister and company director, living with his family in Paddington. He was already 47 at the time but lived on as the patron for nearly half a century.

After serving as rector for 25 years, George Edmund Tatham left Great Ryburgh in 1884, moving with his family to East Molesey (var. Moulsey) in Surrey, where he was vicar of St Paul's Church for ten years until he retired. Meanwhile the family's links with Ryburgh were kept alive. The parish archives contain a copy of the programme of a remarkable concert given on 18 April 1891 in aid of church and parish funds. It consisted of 15 instrumental and vocal numbers, presented entirely by the six members of the Tatham family.

After his retirement George and Betha lived in a large house in St John's Wood, close to Lord's Cricket Ground. There they celebrated their golden wedding on 13 Oct 1907. They were presented with a leather and gilt commemoration book, bearing the 46 signatures of all their children and grandchildren. One hundred years later in 2007, the book turned up on eBay and was sold off for twenty pounds. The Tatham family missed the auction by half an hour.

The Tatham presence at Ryburgh was not long in returning. After two non-Tatham rectors, the living at Great Ryburgh fell vacant in 1910. Charles Meaburn Tatham was able to present his nephew, Frederick Hugh Tatham, the fifth of George and Betha's six sons.

The new rector had been ordained eighteen years previously at Qu'Appelle, Canadian North West Territories (later Saskatchewan), then a remote settlement on the newly constructed Canadian Pacific Railway. After seven years of missionary work, Frederick Hugh had returned to England with his young family in 1899. He took two jobs as a curate, before being appointed to a living as rector of Scawby, a small village in Lincolnshire.

Like his father before him, Frederick Hugh Tatham at once launched into a programme of improvements to St Andrew's church. It is fortunate that he used the services of Ninian Comper, one of the most distinguished church architects of the 20th century. Some fifteen years before, Comper had been retained by his friend William Tatham, Hugh Frederick's older brother, to undertake the complete restoration of St Wilfrid's, Cantley, near Doncaster. St Wilfrid's was only Comper's second such commission and is still considered as one of his masterpieces.

Ninian Comper's work at Great Ryburgh, though on a much smaller scale, was hardly less remarkable. As a memorial to the late George Edmund Tatham, who died 25 Oct 1910, the chancel was taken in hand, and the floor restored to its original level. The ancient piscina and sedilia were brought back into use, the roof was rebuilt and a new reredos and altar were provided, a beautiful altar frontal with white St Andrew's crosses on a blue ground being the work of Betha, the late Rector's widow. The total cost amounted to £1250.

The altar and new work were dedicated by the Bishop of Thetford at a High Mass on St Andrew's Day, 30 November 1912, in the presence of some 300 people. In his sermon, the Bishop stressed that the occasion was not only a great parish gathering, but one also of the family and friends of many past years.

Improvements to the church continued. A screen to St Thomas' chapel was erected to the memory of those who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 and as a thanksgiving for those who returned. In the tracery were put the coats of arms of the patrons of the living, finishing with those adopted (without any authorization) by Meaburn Tatham. The names of those who fell in the war were placed under the badges and colours of their regiments. Panels were included, depicting St Andrew and other saints linked to the parish. The rector pointed out that the screen was truly Norfolk, with architect, painters and carpenters being all Norfolk born.

The second Tatham patron, Charles Meaburn, died at his home in Torquay on 12 July 1924, and the Great Ryburgh advowson passed to his son, Meaburn Talbot Tatham. He had been a private tutor for young men preparing to go to university, and lived at Northcourt House, Abingdon, by then the family home.

There was a change in 1925, when by Order in Council the nearby parish of St Helen, Gateley, was united with the already combined parishes of Great Ryburgh, Little Ryburgh and Testerton. That meant that in future the Tathams would have to share the right of presentation with Christ's College, Cambridge, who had been the patrons of Gateley. However in view of the relative sizes of the parishes, it was agreed that the Tathams would be allowed two turns out of three.

Nothing else of note took place during the relatively short time that Meaburn Talbot Tatham was patron. He died at Northcourt on 4 Jan 1937, bequeathing the advowson to his only son, another Meaburn, who lived near Birmingham where he was Secretary to the cocoa and chocolate company Cadbury Brothers. Although not a strongly religious man, he took his responsibilities in Great Ryburgh seriously, paying regular visits to the village, corresponding with the diocese and playing his part in the affairs of the parish.

Frederick Hugh Tatham continued as rector for another ten years, seeing out the second world war as he had the first. All his three sons served in the armed forces. On 9 Feb 1942 his youngest son Paddy was killed in action at Changi, Singapore. The present Rood Beam in St Andrew's Church was erected in his memory, a beautiful replacement of an original that had been taken down or fallen into decay many centuries before.

He died at Great Ryburgh on 19 Jan 1947 and was buried in the churchyard. There are still some who remember him today, more than sixty years on. He had a distinctive personality, marked by his resolute adherence to the anglo-catholic wing of the Church of England as well as his exceptional devotion to his parish and his parishioners. His widow Helen lived on for a further twenty years. She died on 18 Sep 1967 at the age of 105 and was buried in St Andrew's churchyard beside her husband.

After Meaburn Tatham, the fourth patron of the family, died on 12 April 1976, the advowson was inherited by his elder son, (Meaburn) Roden Tatham, a former British Council official living in Blackheath. After careful consideration, he decided that it was no longer appropriate that the right of appointing the Rector of Great Ryburgh should be in the hands of the Tatham family. He resolved however to take no action during the lifetime of Frederick and Helen's daughter Drina, who had spent most of her life in the parish and loved it as her home. It was thus only after her death in 1984 that Roden felt able to write formally to the Diocese of Norwich, at last handing back the Ryburgh advowson that had been in the Tatham family for some 130 years.