St Marks Church at Highcliffe is a 19th century building of some historic importance. It was erected in 1842 on land donated by Charles, Lord Stuart de Rothsay, a distinguished diplomat and British Ambassador distantly related to the royal line. He also built Highcliffe Castle between 1831 and 1835 after he had re-aquired most of his ancestral estate back after it had been sold off by his grandfather, another Charles Stuart. Today, after a troubled history, Highcliffe Castle is a Grade I listed building owned by Christchurch Borough Council. Lord Stuart de Rothsay, was the great grandson of the 3rd Earl of Bute (who was a founder of Kew Gardens), and he also contributed to the cost of the Highcliffe church building. He died in 1845 and is remembered inside St Marks, in the chancel, as its founder.

The Rothesay Tablet

The Parish Magazine for February 1968 carried an article which says that the foundation stone of St Mark’s was laid on 14th April 1842 by Lord Stuart’s wife, but in her book of Recollections, Rothsay’s daughter and heir, Lady Louisa Waterford, refuted this. She stated that the honour of laying the first stone was hers. Unfortunately between then and now the actual stone has been lost. The church was consecrated on 27th January 1843 by the Bishop of Winchester, Charles Sumner. The service was attended by Lady Canning, Rothsay’s other daughter, and she wrote to her parents, then in Russia, that the service had been more that 3 hours long; that the sermon was not very good; but “you would have admired a very Papistical procession down the middle and up again….”.

The builder of St Marks was John Bemister. He, it is thought, was both its builder and its unqualified architect. He came from a local and well known Christchurch family, as did another, much more distinguished architect, Benjamin Ferry. The latter, it would appear from his obituary published in September 1880, was also involved in later restoration and additional work at St Marks, but his most well known, comparatively local designs, are Holy Trinity Church in Yeovil, and Lufton church not too far away.

Just what Benjamin Ferry did at Highcliffe is not known but he was probably responsible for the first enlargement of St Marks in 1867 when it is believed a westward extension of some 20 or 30 feet, and a gallery were added. It was from this gallery that the Australian born Dame Nellie Melba, the opera diva, is reputed to have sung Gounod’s “Ave Maria” one Sunday morning. She was often the guest of Edward Stuart Wortley and his wife, and her singing career spanned from 1888 to her death in 1926.

Old pictures of the church show that the original entrance to it was in the north transept, but other pictures show that another entrance was opened after the extension was built, in the new part of the north wall of the nave. In 1881 further work was carried out, records showing that this was when a completely new roof was added. The roof was supported by a simple kingpost, but in order to support the continuous series of rafters from one end to the other, a further supporting arch was placed across each transept. These are, in turn, supported on corbelled padstones.

In 1932 the chancel was extended to make room for choir benches; a new organ chamber was built; and the vestry was enlarged. Funds unfortunately ran out and a proposed north aisle was never built, although a north porch was erected over the main entrance. The church architects at this time were Reynolds and Tomlin’s from Bournemouth.

In 1948 Church Avenue was sold to the Church Commissioners by the then owner of Highcliffe Castle, the Earl of Abingdon, for £5. Until then the lychgate had stood at the Church Avenue end but was moved to where it is now, on Lymington Road, after the sale. The reason for this was two fold. From a practical point of view the gate was too close to the newly built porch; but also lychgates traditionally mark the boundary of church property. The boundaries were now changed and so the lychgate was moved.

In recent times further alterations have been made to the church fabric under the guidance of advising architect, Richard Scott, and the vicar, John Seaford. In 1990-1 the west end was redesigned and a new entrance created; the porch and doorway were removed and replaced by the stair tower; and the library, cloister, and choir vestry were built. A service of commemoration was held on 14th April 1991 by the Bishop of Winchester, and when the additions and alterations were complete in August 1991, the church was rededicated. The service was attended by the Bishop of Southampton, John Perry.

The latest work to be done at St Marks was the refurnishing of the west porch. This was paid for by individual donations and from a grant given by the Friends of St Mark’s to mark the millennium.

Lord Stuart de Rothesay, when he built Highcliffe Castle, collected much of its decorative features from abroad. Some of the items that were left over from the Castle are presumed to have been incorporated into the church building. This means that much of the beautifully carved wood and decorative stonework of St Marks is therefore considerably older the church itself, and is Continental in style and origin. Some of Rothsay’s peers, and even people today, were disparaging about the hodge-podge of different styles, and materials from different places and periods, that were incorporated into both buildings, but it does make for an interesting visit.

The stone arch above the door in the east wall of the north transept of the church is considered by experts to be of 14th century origin, and part of the pulpit is thought to be medieval. The story that the pulpit was in use at the Abbey of St Peter at Jumieges in Normandy can, however, be discounted. Part of it may have been, but even the most casual visitor can see that the various pieces of its construction are a patchwork of different periods. Similarly, so is the credence table in the sanctuary, which according to the September 1932 Parish magazine, was made up of left over bits from the renovations done in that year.


The font is Victorian with a later cover. It may have been given to the church in 1842 by Lord Canning, Lady Waterford’s brother in law, husband of her sister, but there is no recorded proof of that. The benches and the carved panels of the bench fronts in the chancel were given anonymously in 1934, and are presumed to be Jacobean.

The single bell of St Mark’s was Russian according to Lady Waterford’s Recollections. It was brought back by her father when he was Ambassador to the Court of Czar Nicholas I, and it has quite a high silver content to improve its tone. Until recently, however, a bell dated 1904 was in use and this was made by John Warner’s Foundry at Spitalfields. In 2000 this had to be replaced by a new bell because the old bell’s fittings had become unsafe. It was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry; weighs 3 hundredweights; measures 2 feet in diameter; and is described as being harmonically tuned “on the five tone principle to note F”. The old bell was often criticized locally for its flat and harsh sound.

The organ, which was given to the church in 1894, originally stood in the gallery. It was made by the firm of Norman and Beard but was moved to where it is now to a specially built chamber in 1933. On its casing is a brass plate commemorating Lady Louisa Waterford, who died in 1891, and the painted pipes are a notable feature of it.

The balcony  at the west end showing the west
window, this was the former site of the organ

The two windows in the north wall of the nave are a memorial to Sir John Hardy Thursby who died in 1901. They were designed and made by Claydon and Bell and have verses from the Te Deum in Latin.

In the north wall of the north transept the window there is a memorial to Edward Pardoe who died in 1870. In the lower panel there is a scene from the garden after the Resurrection, and in the opposite panel are the Risen Christ and Mary Magdalene. The upper panels of both lights show a group of Christ’s followers looking upwards toward – in the quartrefoil above – Christ’s Ascension. Texts between and below these panels are from the Gospel of St John.

The two windows in the south wall of the nave match those in the north wall. The one on the left depicts the parable of the lost sheep and commemorates George Astell Pardoe, second son of Edward Pardoe. He was killed at the Battle of Ulundi, the conflict that brought the Zulu War in Africa to an end in 1879. The window on the right was given in memory of Ellen Mary Lindon who died in 1886. She was the wife of Highcliffe Vicar, Thomas Angell Lindon.

The Archangel Gabriel and the Archangel Michael are to be seen represented in a window in the east wall of the north transept. The Victorian painter, HT Bosdet, was the artist and the window commemorates Albert Llewellan Nugent, 3rd Baron Nugent of the Austrian nobility, along with his wife, Elizabeth, and his son, George Frederick.

Bosdet would probably turn in his own grave if he knew that today some of his paintings of classical gods such as Apollo and Adonis are used as gay icons.

The group of lancet windows above the altar at the east end of the church were paid for from a legacy from Honoria Thomson, one of Lady Waterford’s friends. They were a replacement for the original east window which had been broken during the extension work. The original had been painted by Lady Waterford herself. The new windows were made by James Powell and Sons from Whitefriars, London, and tucked in the bottom left hand corner of the window their trademark of a White Friar can be seen.

The Stuart family are remembered on a commemorative window in the south transept. The window was given to the church in 1866 by General Charles Stuart and commemorates his parents, Captain John Stuart RN. and his wife, Albinia. Captain John was Lord Stuart de Rothsay’s younger brother. Also commemorated on this window is General Stuart’s only child, John, who died in infancy. He was the last direct male representative of the fifth generation of this particular Stuart family.

Although not considered amongst the greats of the art world, Lady Louisa Waterford was certainly an extremely talented amateur artist, and her beauty is said to have been the inspiration behind the pre-Raphaelite movement. One of her rare oil paintings can be seen at St Mark’s. It is a representation of the disciples, Peter, James, and John asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. A smaller, water colour version of it is in the Tate Britain Gallery. The painting was given to the church in 1932 by Edward Stuart Wortley, Lady Waterford’s second cousin, who had inherited Highcliffe Castle. It hangs in the chancel opposite a rather splendid oil painting of “The Crucifixion” which is over the pulpit. There is much learned argument still going on as to whether this latter is the work of the 17th century Spaniard, Murillo, and there are contradictory records of its acquisition. It is almost certain, however, that it was once the altarpiece of the Chapel of Brownsea Castle.

Louisa Waterford’s preferred painting medium was watercolour, and in the church office is another of her renderings, usually called “Suffer the Little Children”. There are no records of how the church acquired it, but it is the style of her best known work, the Biblical murals and decoration of the schoolroom at Ford in Northumberland, now called Lady Waterford Hall.

Lady Waterford particularly admired the work of 15th century Italian painter, Antonello da Messina. She painted a copy of his “Christ with St John and the Virgin Mary” which hangs in the clergy vestry at St Marks. It is not known who gave it or when it was donated to the church. The original Messina once hung in Highfield Castle but it is now in the National Gallery.

Lady Waterford and her sister, Lady Canning, were fortunate enough to see the original painting of “The Light of the World” in William Holman Hunt’s studio in 1853. There were deeply impressed by it, so it is fitting that a print of this famous painting should hang behind the font. It was given to the church by retired clergyman, Herbert Bloomfield.

Because of the position that the Stuart and Waterford, and later, the Wortleys, had in society, several well known people are known to have attended services in St. Mark’s. Gladstone came in 1899 and commented in his diary that it was a rare sight to see the whole party at church. Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s son, came in 1892, and in 1900, the Prince of Wales, soon to become Edward VII, was a guest with the Princess and their five children.

Perhaps the most famous worshiper, however, was Kaiser Willhelm II who attended Matins whilst at Highcliffe Castle in 1907. His visit had unhappy and unpleasant repercussions. The Kaiser was the summer guest of Colonel Edward Stuart Wortley (later General Wortley) and discussed with him the best way to put over to the British his friendly feelings for them and Britain.

Later, Colonel Stuart Wortley visited Germany as the Kaiser’s guest, and between them they decided to issue a statement from the Kaiser in the form of an interview. The Daily Telegraph put together and published the interview but instead of creating harmony, it caused sensational resentment in Germany and exacerbated any ill feeling and distrust felt in Britain. Eventually because of the reactions of his own people, the Kaiser was forced to officially deny that the interview had ever taken place. Some historians have put forward the view that this “disaster” of public relations helped bring forward World War One.

And old photo of the church before modernisation   The interior of the church with the pulpit on the left
Another view of St Mark's   The church tower
Part of the old wall can be seen in the new

Vicki Turner 2003

Some Sources:
The King’s England, Hampshire with the Isle of Wight by Arthur Mee
St Mark's Church Highcliffe, Dorset (church guide)
Dictionary of National Biography
Burkes Peerage
The Stuarts of Highcliffe by Robert Franklin Natula Publications
Christchurch Borough Council

Useful Websites:
Lady Waterford

Highcliffe, Highcliffe Castle, St Marks church

Benjamin Ferry

Dame Nellie Melba