An Eighteenth Century View of Bishop’s Stortford with St Michael’s Church

Picture of Pritchet Painting

This heritage painting[1], now owned by Bishop’s Stortford Town Council (BSTC), was a gift of Major Francis Skeet (1869-1943) in 1916. Windhill House, shown to the painting’s left, was his birthplace[2]. The painting was formerly owned by G E Pritchett FSA (1824-1912), an architect and antiquarian who built, and lived in, Oak Hall, Chantry Road. Skeet probably acquired the painting when Pritchett’s possessions were auctioned after his death – it was lot 84 in the sale catalogue. In 1894, Pritchett gave a talk on ‘Ancient Stortford’ reported in the local press[3]:

Mr Pritchett concluded his lecture by a few remarks upon the painting of ancient Stortford. One of the gentlemen on the painting was looking towards the Mount and Birchanger Wood with his telescope, while another gentleman was evidently giving directions to the artist who had his attention drawn towards the Church, which showed its good and original reticulated lead covered spire so different to the present debased one. To the west of the church was Windhill House, before it was cemented over. The dress of the gentleman with pigtails was interesting, also of the labourer with his leathern breaches who appeared to be levelling mole hills. The point of view from which the painting was taken appeared to be about were [sic] Portland-road now is, and there was a boy of the period looking over a gate from what they used to call Ushers-lane. The painting is about 150 years old.

Pritchett had it engraved (and inscribed ‘Ancient View of Bishops Stortford from an Original Painting in possession of GE Pritchett, FSA’). It was widely distributed; a yellowed copy hangs in the Belfry of St Michael’s Church – his autograph reads “To St Michaels Belfry Bishops Stortford 1892 / with Mr G.E. Pritchett’s comps”. Pritchett gave the talk in 1894, so his assertion that the painting was about 150 years old indicates a date of around 1750. What is the evidence for this date?

Judging from the viewpoint, the artist stood to the west of present-day Portland Road, uphill from its junction with Apton Road (Ushers Lane). Open fields stretch into the distance, with only a few houses. The church is carefully depicted before its spire was rebuilt in 1812 when a new belfry was added[4]: the brick infill and clockface seen today are absent. Town buildings are notably few, roofed in red tiles or shingled, but not slate (imported after the Stort Navigation opened in 1769). Many of the buildings are buff-coloured, indicating they are timber-framed with an earth-coloured stucco, daub, or plaster-and-lathe finish. But the chimneys are brick; the interesting gray (i.e. flint-and-mortar) octagonal building in Church Street has a large external red-brick chimney. Evidently the local brick and tile industry was active: it grew substantially with the Navigation when coal could be imported directly from London to supply local brick kilns much more economically[5]. The growth in brick supply presumably accounts for the increased brick encasement/facading of more prestigious buildings – for example Windhill House (to the left of the church), a 17th century (C17th) timber building encased in brick in the C18th; in the background at the far right is Rectory Manor – its buff colour shows its stucco/plaster-and-lathe finish; its brick-encasing would occur later in the C18th. More research might date this work.

Just to the right of the church is the two-gabled vicarage built c.1686[6]: it was enlarged in the C19th to its present-day four gables for the Rev Francis Rhodes and his large family. To the right of the picture is Waytemore Castle mound, with steps running up it; just to its right is the 4-gabled timber-built Cherry Tree Inn that replaced the former Bishop’s Prison demolished in 1649[7]. The church foreground is unlike today: it has no burial plots or yew trees, it resembles a park with sheep and long-horned cattle grazing. A lady walks along the footpath (still present). This part of the churchyard was first used about 1780[8]. The field is bounded to its east by a steep drop, just like today; but where there is a car park now, in the painting is a hayfield, a cart and smaller buildings, roofs just visible. The sharp height-change must be an ancient landscape feature. Beyond the hayfield is a picket fence bordering Church Street, behind the fence is a haystack and a thatched barn; beyond the haystack an old malting chimney is visible (the only one, probably in Bridge Street).

Thus the painting’s internal evidence suggests it predates 1780 (the churchyard’s extension), possibly also the Stort Navigation’s opening (1769) but it post-dates 1686 (the Vicarage’s construction) and the C18th date when Windhill House was brick-encased. The other evidence available is dress style. We see surveyors (surely not an artist?) around a table (the one pointing has a pigtail), and another bewigged person in red has a telescope; they wear tricorn hats and cutaway tailcoats with large decorative buttons. (Their depiction must be significant – perhaps they survey for the new Navigation[9]? Is their dress a uniform?) The gentleman walking towards the lady in the future churchyard is dressed similarly; she wears a high bouffant hairstyle (or possibly a dark bonnet) and a two-tone ankle-length gown (or a gown with an apron), perhaps with a ruff/collar. The agricultural labourer levelling molehills has leathern knee-length breaches and a loose white shirt or smock. The lad looking over the gate (possibly where the footsteps from Apton Road lead up to Portland Road today) has a dark cap and wears what appear to be dungarees. Bishop’s Stortford’s rural fashion-style probably lagged behind London’s: their clothes are compatible with mid-to-late C18th styles[10] (e.g. see Rowlandson’s 1785[11] satirical etching of Vauxhall Gardens).

So we conclude that, at the very least, Pritchett’s painting is of great heritage interest for its depiction of a moment in the town’s history. It looks carefully done. Perhaps we can agree it was painted in the 1750-60s, close to Pritchett’s estimate, when the town might be anticipating a boom due to the future Navigation? But who was the artist? Clearly he (or she) was very accomplished. There must be other works by this person still in existence. Hopefully we will one day find out.

If you have further information and/or insights about the painting and its subject, your input to Bishop’s Stortford History Society will be greatly appreciated.

Acknowledgements: Tim Howard-Smith for many informative comments; James Parker (BSTC CEO) for providing a high resolution copy of this painting from ArtUK. Mike James, 3 Feb 2023.


[1] (accessed 2 Feb 2023)

[2] (accessed 2 Feb 2023)

[3] Probably in the Herts & Essex Observer which reported many such meetings; the cutting, dated 8 Dec 1894, is archived at Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS), where a complete archive of the H&E Observer is searchable.

[4] Page W (1912) The Victoria History of the Counties of England: Hertfordshire: London, Constable & Co Ltd, p303.

[5] Rowe A (2015) Pollards: Living Archaeology. In: Lockyear K (ed) Archaeology in Hertfordshire: Recent Research, a Festschrift for Tony Rook. Hertfordshire Publications, Hatfield, p315-6. The Lea was navigable to Ware from 1570s, so possibly a small source of coal prior to the Stort Navigation.

[6] Chauncy H (1700, reprinted 1826) The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire, JM Mullinger, Bishop’s Stortford, p328: He says: ‘Mr William Cooper, the present Vicar, who An. 1686, built a fair House on the South Side of the Church-yard at the Charge of himself, and the chief Inhabitants there.’

[7] Page W (1912) Ibid, p299.

[8] Pearson J, Pearson J (2006) (eds) Monumental Inscriptions of the Parish Church of St Michael, Bishop’s Stortford. MI Series 83,  Hertfordshire Family History Society; p20. A headstone (A18) in this area recorded John Robert Kippage who died 30th March 1780; Joseph Liles (A10) died 21st Oct 1791.

[9] The 1759 Act of Parliament, re-enacted in 1766, gave the Navigation its financial go-ahead.

[10] See for example and later dates.

[11] Fig. 36 (accessed 2 Feb 2023).

Tribute to Wally Wright (1924-2022)

Wally Wright sadly passed away in May 2022. He and his wife Doreen were very active in the Bishop’s Stortford History Society.  Wally took on many key roles including Chair, Trustee and, more recently, President.  He also instigated the Bishop’s Stortford Museum and was its first Curator, bringing to that position his considerable skills as an ‘amateur’ archaeologist.

Here are some memories from our members. Please contact us if you would like to add your own tribute.

Memories of Wally Wright from Bill Hardy:

I first met Wally and Doreen 20 years ago at their Cemetery Road Archives Base when I was researching material about Thorley history. They were most generous with their time and expertise. I even persuaded Wally to come and talk to children at Thorley Hill School about local history. Being a natural teacher, he had no problems answering quirky questions from 11 year olds!

In 2008 The National Archives at Kew instigated a project for local history groups to record the original records of 19th century Workhouses for their website. Wally volunteered our Bishop’s Stortford History Society as our local 1837 Haymeads Workhouse covered 20 parishes across two counties, Hertfordshire and Essex.

Led by Wally, the team that worked on the 2008/2009 Project comprised Wally and Doreen Wright, Lesley Parker, Des Conridge and myself. We were each sent regular batches of 40 images of the original documentation from Kew and we were asked to edit and organise the content into pro forma templates and return them to Kew. Between us we processed over 3,500 entries.  For our group’s work The Bishop’s Stortford Local History Society was awarded a Highly Commended Award by the National Archive Volunteering Project of the Year 2009. Three representatives from our group were invited to the House of Lords in 2010 to receive the award.

Picture of Wally Wright and Bill Hardy
Picture 2 of Desmond Conridge and Wally Wright at the House of Lords

The images above were taken on July 7th 2010 on the House of Lords River Terrace following the Award Ceremony for the ‘National Archives Volunteering Project of the Year Awards 2009’ at the House of Lords.

Left: Wally Wright and Bill Hardy at the House of Lords.

Right:  Desmond Conridge and Wally Wright at the House of Lords.

From Doris Baker:

I can’t remember with any certainty when I first met Wally, probably late eighties. I already knew Doreen – we met when attending a 3 year course run by the WEA on the History of Stortford and, when it came to a premature end, she suggested I help at the Local History Museum which was then in Cemetery Lodge. I spent Tuesdays with them there for many years.

Wally’s interests were more with artefacts, archaeology and buildings, rather than people, which was Doreen’s forte.

Wally was instrumental in getting the museum started; he got the Council to let them use Cemetery Lodge and started collecting and recording artefacts.

He was always intensely enthusiastic about whatever he was doing, from archaeology on the M11 before it’s construction, to keeping in touch with Walter Gilbey about their family’s involvement with Bishops Stortford, to visiting places of historical interest. Also smaller things like taking us to look at a scarf joint in North Street, a peep-hole in the Boars Head, a shop front faced with some special tiles (Causeway), and a gas fitting in a cottage in Apton Road. He was always saying “look up”.

He had a particular interest in bricks and got very excited when a garden wall in Apton Road was being rebuilt and to find some of them were local Glasscock bricks. For a while, he was also overseeing young people who were having  to do Community  Service and a few “did their time” at the museum.

He will be much missed for his enthusiasm, knowledge, and kindnesses over many years.

From Helen Gibson:

Members of Bishop’s Stortford History Society and the East Herts Archaeological Society should be eternally grateful for the contribution to local studies by the late Wally Wright and his wife Doreen.  A former teacher, Wally spent the years of his retirement quietly keeping track of developments which revealed evidence of the past and ensuring that the information was conserved in the collection of Bishop’s Stortford Museum, properly indexed and accessible.  The setting up of the Cemetery Lodge Museum and the rescue of Miss Pye’s possessions are typical of the thankless work accomplished by Wally and Doreen.  It is particularly satisfying that he lived to see the publication of his paper on Thorley which was printed at last in Volume 17 of Hertfordshire Archaeology.