Plenmeller Halt

The 18th century style oak sounding board from St. Thomas’s church, Stanhope

Gelt Bridge

Close up view of the sounding board showing the inlaid decoration

Title page of the Wear Valley Extension Railway plans of 1845

Example of a sounding board in-situ above the pulpit at St. Oswald’s church, Ravenstonedale, Cumbria

Sounding Board Original Location: St Thomas' Church, Stanhope
Current Location: Private Collection
Theme: Religious
Period: Post Medieval
Date: probably 18th century

What is it?
This oak sounding board was placed above a pulpit in St. Thomas’ church Stanhope but removed about 1867. It was used to amplify the preacher’s voice for the benefit of the congregation.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
St Thomas’ Church is of Norman origin but probably did not have a pulpit until after the reformation when changes in the order of service and language made sermons increasingly important. The preacher was raised above the congregation so that worshippers could see and hear him - and so that he could see them. Edward VI in 1547 and Elizabeth I in 1559 ordered that a pulpit should be placed in every parish church by the parishioners; this was repeated in 1624. The first reference to a pulpit in St Thomas’ Church, according to the parish records, is in 1642. However, the Stanhope sounding board is 18th century in style and may date from the refurbishment that was undertaken when Dr Edmund Keen was rector from 1740 to 1771. Parishioners had complained to the rector that trees in the churchyard needed replacing so the trees were cut down. The timber was sold for £61 and Keen ‘did voluntarily and by free gift’ allow the money to be spent ‘upon the repairing and ornamenting the body of the Church.’ The largest item was £20 for the ‘new Pulpit, Desk and Clerk’s desk’. The high cost indicates that this probably a two or three tier pulpit equipped with a sounding board, a widespread installation in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

There are no known examples of surviving sounding boards in situ in the North Pennines but an illustrative photograph of a pulpit with a sounding board at St. Oswald’s, Ravenstonedale, Cumbria is shown here. The Stanhope sounding board is made from oak inlaid with a striking marquetry sunburst pattern with dividers. It was removed during major refurbishment of the knave and chancel completed in 1868 to the designs of Ewan Christian, the architect to the Church of England Ecclesiastical Commissioners and the designer of the National Portrait Gallery. Thereafter the sounding board was converted into a table for the rectory as recalled by the late Mr John Shebbeare, whose father was rector from 1922 to 1942: ‘There was an excellent hexagonal table which had been the sounding board of the old pulpit. We did not habitually dine off it, but it was most useful at children’s parties, even if some of the children found themselves sitting with the points of the hexagon sticking into their tummies.’ It was recently discovered in a neglected state, stored in a local garage.

Why is it important?
The sounding board, as part of an elaborate pulpit, indicates the importance of the parish of Stanhope which stretched from Wolsingham to Alston, collecting tithes from the many lead mines and farms in this area. In the 18th century and first half of the 19th century the parish was known as “The Golden Parish” on account of its wealth.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Blackburn, Rev. J. ‘On a parabolic Sounding Board’, The Philosophical Magazine Vol. 11 July-Dec 1829
  • Letter from the late Mr Shebbeare – Private collection
  • Kleckhefer, Richard ‘Theology in Stone: Architecture from Byzantium to Berkley’
  • Bowes, Peter ‘Weardale – Clearing the Forest’ ns, Stanley C. 2001. The Alston Branch. ISBN 9780853615743

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