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Monday, 17th December 2007
A cross to bear

Stephen Mitchell is not a manufacturer which crops up too often in this website. A member of the ITC group of companies it remained somewhat aloof from the rest of this group in the contents of its cards. A lot of the sets were dedicated to the nation of Scotland and more power to their elbow for that stand. However it is not for the Scottish series that the company is being written about here. I know just typical, I talk about being out of the mainstream as being a good thing and then only deal with the mainstream set.

In 1923 they produced a set of 25 cards called Famous Crosses.

Dotted around the British Isles are crosses, although very few actually comply with the traditional image of a cross, more often than not they are buildings on road intersections or spires surmounted by crosses.

Britain has a rich history of public monuments. Many are dedicated to the people that failed to return from the World Wars with their names etched in the stone as a permanent reminder of the sacrifice they made. Many though have been forgotten and stand misunderstood in quiet areas of the countryside.

Bristol Cross is a prime example of such activity.

Banbury Cross might well be the most famous cross in Britain because of the nursery rhyme. Those that wish to emulate the fine lady will have to accept the original cross is no longer there. The reverse of the card suggests that disappeared in a religious riot (Catholics and Puritans) in the reign of Elizabeth I. The Puritans decided the cross was a sign of the Popish faith. The present cross was erected in 1859 which stands where the horse market was, very near the site of the original one.

Often crosses were erected in a place where there was likely to be a market or other such activity.

Card 23, Hempsted Cross illustrates this point nicely for us. The cross is described as a slender shaft of stone surmounted by a cross within a circle all mounted on a flight of four stone steps. The card explains, 'in olden times these crosses played a great part in the life of the village. Here the rustic inhabitants met to discuss the happenings of the day, and here proclamations and notices were read out and business transactions carried on.'

That was not to say the cross could not be shifted about a bit. Card 10, Bristol Cross is a prime example of such activity. Bristol High Cross originally stood in the High Street but it was taken down a re-erected in College Green opposite the Cathedral which all happened in 1733. It was to remain there only 30 years before being taken down and left as so much lumber in the Cathedral premises. It lay there till 1768 when the Dean presented it to a Mr Henry Hoare who carefully transported it to his house in Stourton, Wilts where the card notes it has remained ever since, carefully preserved.

However in 1850 a replica of the original was put up in the centre of College Green and that is the cross shown on the front of card 10.

March 1998: A Mr Shahin decided he wanted to renovate his business premises in Islington, South London, to its 19th Century splendour. He thought this was a job well done. The council did not agree and are threatening court action unless he washes the front of the building down with soot. The reason is simple, although the agreement had been to use 'weathered stock' in the renovation there is some suggestion new brick had been used instead. Thank goodness people spend hard earnt money paying the rates so bureaucrats can spend it so wisely.

To my mind this throws a few things into relief. Nowadays when almost the entire of Britain is considered some sort of twee theme park it seems a pile of rubble only has to remain in situ for a week or two and a preservation society is created for it. Not for the Victorians, the old tatty stuff which had stood before was just not up to scratch. That was the continuation of a fine tradition of destruction based largely on religious upheaval.

The answer they all had was, knock it down and build a better one. This attitude is probably why our infastructure is, in a large part, Victorian. Today the attitude has shifted, keep the rotting Victorian buildings in the city centres and just build on greenfield sites. Our national heritage is the land not the buildings, the resource we have to manage best is the resource of space. Anyway I am not sure how I have managed to get onto this simplistic analysis of complex issues, lets get back to something I know a little about.

Card six is Geddington Cross. Nowadays it is a matter of getting the map out to see where it is. Turn back a few centuries and this would not be the case. A royal palace used to be placed there and the early parliaments of King Henry II and King John were held there. So, the place that might have been. However the card describes the cross there as one of the most famous memorial crosses remaining in England.

It was part of about a dozen crosses which were erected by King Edward I to mark the places at which the funeral procession of his Queen, Queen Eleanor rested.

Only three of these crosses survived the centuries to 1923, Geddington, Northampton, Waltham.

Each gets a place in the set. Northampton appearing on card five with the fact the crosses are over 600 years old. Northampton memorial, missing its top, does have four statues of Queen Eleanor set into it. There is just so much history about all of us that a little study of your locality really does bring massive rewards.

The Cathedral of Iona was originally founded by St Columba about 563, but no traces of the original building remain, the present cathedral having been erected in the 13th century. The cemetery is said to contain the remains of 48 Scottish and 4 Irish kings, and at the time of the Reformation had over 350 memorial crosses, most of which were destroyed and thrown into the sea. The finest and most perfect one remaining is that of St. Martin, which is 14 feet high, and is covered in Runic sculpture.

To give you an idea of just how old 600 years is card nine finishes off the detail with Charing Cross, London. This was the largest of the twelve crosses set up but the cross standing there now is not the original one. The original cross was condemned by Parliament in 1643 (it was over 200 years old in 1643 and that was over 300 years ago) and pulled down four years later.

It was not until 1865 that a replica, as near as possible, was erected near the site of the original cross. The card notes the work of this replica cross was largely that of the late EM Barry.

From memorial crosses to market cross. These tended to be rather more advanced structures such as Malesbury Cross on card 3. Built in the 15th century during the reign of Henry VII, it is octagonal in shape with flying buttresses and could easily be used as a place of shelter for the market goers of that period.

By card 12 though things have almost got out of hand with Chichester Cross. The card does say it is probably the finest and most imposing of the market crosses in Britain, and I would agree. Octagonal in design, it stands about 50 feet high and was built around 1500 by Bishop Story. This man also left an estate of £25 per annum to keep it repaired.

The cross was badly damaged during the English Civil War but fortunately it was restored during the reign of Charles II. It gained its clock in about 1724. As illustrated it really is quite something to behold.

All this is fine but perhaps the most world famous of the British Crosses is on card 21, St Martin's Cross, Iona. I've included the text on the reverse of the card.

So there you have it a few cards from a set which dares to be different and at £15/$26 it is not breaking the bank either.