The Blessed Girls
St Michael and All Angels, Booton, Norfolk
Saints and Angels in the windows of Booton parish church. They are said to be drawn from the life, from the faces of the not inconsiderable number of blessed girls, the young female friends of the Reverend Whitwell Elwin, to whom he was the affectionate, almost intimate, counsellor, as the guidebook politely puts it. They are very lovely - you can see why he might have been tempted to seek their company.
Where there was money and a will to do so, parish churches were occasionally completely rebuilt in the late Victorian period. Sometimes, this responded to a real need if the church was very badly decayed, or remote from the centre of population. But often, it reflected the enthusiasm of a Rector with a rich patron. Sometimes, as at Booton, the Rector and the patron were one and the same person.
Elwin had inherited the Booton living on the death of his cousin, and would remain there for more than half a century. He was a nationally noted man of letters, the editor of the High Tory Quarterly Review, and a regular commentator and correspondent in the London press. It is said that the Booton postbox was installed by the Post Office specifically to meet his personal letter-posting needs. Over the course of about 25 years, he turned Booton parish church from a homely medieval building into a fantastic palace, with towers and minarets on the outside, and hosts of angels on the inside, the woodwork and stained glass spectacular in nature, the fittings elaborate and of the highest quality.
To see it now, you might think that Elwin was a high Anglican, perhaps even an Anglo-catholic; in fact, this appears not to have been the case. He was, rather, an individualist, an English Eccentric. With two of his blessed girls, he toured the cathedrals of England looking for architectural forms to use; one of them contributed, over the course of ten years, almost £300,000 to the project, about six million pounds in today's money. Meanwhile, his evangelically-minded wife kept the rectory, which he himself designed, devoid of carpets and curtains.
Booton church is a vision of heaven - or, at least, the Reverend Whitell Elwin's vision of heaven. But of course, there is no longer a congregation. He has been immortalised by his work here, but his church is now redundant, and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.