Churches,  Heritage,  Heritage Crime,  The Churches Conservation Trust

Houfe Memorial Chairs

In 2018, two highly decorative commemorative chairs were stolen from St. Martin’s church in Allerton Mauleverer, North Yorkshire.

The chairs were a matching pair, made in 1902, in memory of Mr and Mrs Thomas and Elizabeth Houfe, who made their living farming in Allerton.

Having been abandoned in a cupboard in St. Martin’s and left to decay for many years, the chairs were cleaned and restored to their rightful location in 2015 by a volunteer (a professional conservator) for The Churches Conservation Trust, in whose care St. Martin’s was vested since 1973 when it was declared redundant.

Each chair was made from a dark oak and on the back of each seat was affixed a decorative brass plate, inscribed with a dedication to Thomas and Elizabeth, beloved mother and father respectively. The chairs were decorated with hand-carved eagles, spirals and leaves with turned legs, cross-stretchers and foliage on the aprons, all reminiscent of 17th-century decorative carvings. This type of chair is often referred to as a ‘Wainscot’ or ‘Yorkshire’ chair in the antiques trade. This pair was commissioned by Mary Elizabeth Agnes Houfe, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth, in memory of her beloved parents. Mary, a spinster, had no children of her own and died at home in Knaresborough on 3rd July 1952, aged 85.

The Houfe family had been members of the farming community in this part of North Yorkshire for many years. Thomas Houfe was born into a well established farming family in Allerton Mauleverer in 1811. In 1857, aged 46 years, he married Elizabeth (nee Pick), the daughter of a farmer from nearby Great Ouseburn. Elizabeth had been born there in 1826 and was 31 when she and Thomas were married. Thomas was Elizabeth’s elder by fourteen years and together they had four children, Mary being the youngest. Thomas Houfe demonstrated his commitment to St. Martin’s, his local parish church – on 21st July 1898 he was championed in the local newspaper for lending a marquee to the organisers of a stall at a special fair to raise money for much-needed maintenance work.

Thomas died in February 1899 aged 57, leaving Elizabeth in charge of their landholdings. She is recorded in three subsequent censuses as the head of the household and farmer, increasing her landholdings from 155 to 200 acres in Allerton Mauleverer and employing three labourers. Elizabeth outlived her husband by thirty-three years and died in January 1902 aged 75, leaving £3500 18s 7d to her sibling. Thomas and Elizabeth are buried alongside one another in the churchyard in an enclosed family plot immediately to the east of the chancel, surrounded by ornate iron railings.

The author, at the time working for The Churches Conservation Trust, first discovered the chairs in 2010 locked away and long forgotten. They were discarded in a storage cupboard alongside an array of old bottles and boxes and left to the elements, damaged by bat and bird droppings and through exposure to mould spores and damp. The surfaces of the wood, having been neglected for so long, were developing a patina which would be difficult to remove without specialist cleaning techniques, had they been left much longer.

In July 2015 the chairs underwent a programme of conservation cleaning using approved techniques by Rachel Arnold, a qualified conservator who volunteered her services to the CCT. Rachel now manages conservation projects for historic buildings and artefacts – www.raconservation.co.uk.

Rachel explains how the chairs were cleaned:

"Like any material, wood is affected by its environment. As temperature and humidity levels fluctuate in the damp church, the wooden chairs absorb and dispel moisture. As they do so, their surface expands and contracts which can cause cracks. Light exposure, especially UV rays, cause the surface of the wood to dry out and can weaken the structure. Dust and other debris, including bird droppings have fallen on the chairs over the years. These contain chemicals which will degrade the wood and stain. A build-up of dust can harbour moisture and be a breeding ground for pest activity and microbiological growth. Pest activity is a big problem in a lot of wooden objects. As insects bore through the natural material they make holes, weaken the structure and cause permanent damage.

The houfe chairs are made from high quality oak, likely to be the heartwood of the tree. This means they are less prone to insect attack and have survived relatively unscathed.

To protect and conserve the chairs, I cleaned them using handheld equipment. Brushes, cotton buds and a blunt wooden skewers helped me access all of the intricate carved areas. I then removed more stubborn stains (like the bird droppings) using a damp cloth. I used a tiny bit of conservation grade detergent to make sure all of the residual, and possibly damaging residue of the dirt was gone. I waxed the chairs using a small amount of natural bees wax. Before applying any wax I waited for the chairs to be completely dry. If I put wax straight on after washing, it would trap moisture, creating damp areas under the wax, which would leave unsightly white blooms and potentially lead to rot. Wax was applied in a thin layer and buffed up. the wax was applied all over because I knew that they hadn’t received attention in many years. In the future, only some areas might need attention, like the seat, lower legs and braces between the legs. Areas that are touched more frequently will require more frequent waxing, while others can be left a little longer. for a little used item like these chairs, waxing may only be needed once every five years. It is important not to build up layers of wax, especially in the carved areas as thick layers of wax will cover the carved details and make them illegible. I took care to use a soft brush to buff around the carved areas and make sure that this did not happen. The painted metal plaques on the back of the chair seats were left alone, taking care not to get any moisture or wax on them. These were in a good condition.

Overall the chairs are very high quality and have seen little use over the years. As such, they did not require a huge amount of cleaning, and did not need any repair work. This conservation clean and wax will help them to withstand the elements in a dusty damp church for a few more years."

Several years prior to the conservation work being undertaken, a letter had been received by the CCT from a Houfe descendant, explaining the significance of the chairs to the family and questioning their concealment in the cupboard. With the blessing of the family, the chairs were therefore returned to their rightful place within the body of the church, their display at the east end within the sanctuary rails perfectly complementing an early-twentieth-century communion table. This return was celebrated by the CCT, the charity’s objectives being to make their collection of historic churches, along with the fixtures and fittings, “open, loved and visited”.

St. Martin’s had previously escaped criminal activity inside the building. The church had succumbed to lead theft in 2010 when more than fifty per cent of the leaded roof had been removed. By 2016 the lime wash on the internal walls was still flaking as a result of the time taken for the saturated walls to dry. The painted glass in the upper lights of the east window, of eighteenth-century date and possibly by the well-known 18th-century glassmaker William Peckitt, have suffered damage – minor shattering from projectiles, the result of vandalism.

Nevertheless, the transepts of St. Martin’s are home to numerous artefacts of greater historical significance, including a figurative memorial brass and some (albeit) crude alabaster effigies. Of greatest importance, two of the oldest wooden effigies in England lie in the north transept, secured to the floor on conservation frames. The latter probably depict 13th-century members of the Mauleverer family. No evidence of any attempts to steal or damage these or any other furnishings in St. Martin’s had ever been recorded and the church seemed to present a safe place for two early 20th-century chairs.

It was therefore decided that the chairs would remain on display at the east end of the chancel with little risk to their security. Bolting them to the floor with locks and chains was discussed with the CCT’s regional conservation manager but the items were never purchased.

By May 2018, the chairs were gone.

North Yorkshire Police were immediately alerted but at the time of writing (August 2022), the investigation remains closed with no potential lines of enquiry. It has not been possible to establish anything approaching a precise date or time the chairs were last in situ. With the perceived low value of the chairs – their community and heritage value far outweighs the monetary, the theft was probably allocated to local officers with little specialist knowledge of this type of crime and with very few investigative opportunities being available. With neither CCTV nor any independent witnesses at their disposal, notwithstanding the church’s remote setting, no suspect has ever been identified. The crime would have been treated as an isolated occurrence with research into crime patterns or similar thefts disproportionate for an overstretched police service.

Although their personal dedication plates would make the chairs distinctive, the complete removal of the plates would be a simple task for a professional dealer. Nevertheless, the chairs’ luxurious decorative scheme would make them highly recognisable if they turn up at a boot fair, an auction-house, antique dealer or should they be advertised for sale online.

If you have any information about the chairs or their whereabouts, please contact North Yorkshire Police on 101, quoting reference NYP-22052018-040, or contact The Churches Conservation Trust www.visitchurches.org.uk.

Graham White, 2022.

Please note, research into the Houfe chairs, the family and the investigation into their disappearance is ongoing and this article may therefore be subject to future additions and/or corrections.