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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >> │

Cathedral Outrage
by Bob Norman

The 1st July 1950 was coming to a close. At 7.30 pm the Cathedral was locked up as usual, as rainclouds promised another damp day for the holiday-makers.

Next morning, a verger opened up and began to make his rounds for the first of the Sunday Services. As he came to the golden gates, he noticed that the High Altar Cross, which weighed one hundred weight and stood five feet six inches high, was not there.

The Head-Verger, Mr E R Hart, arrived a few minutes later. “Have you locked the Cross away for any reason?” asked the junior verger and was staggered when the reply was – “No”.

They both rushed to the spot unable to believe their eyes. The Cross which had been made from the Newman family plate in Exeter, under the supervision of a city jeweller, J H Elliot-Lake had definitely gone.

The magnificent Silver Cross, which had been stored away during the War, had three circular diamond brooches affixed, at different points and a diamond tiara halfmoon shape in the centre. Held in safe custody were six diamond earrings in horseshoe shaped clips for hanging, and display of a large number of small Brazilian diamonds which had not been replaced after the war.

Mr Hart’s mind flashed back to a curious experience he had the previous night. At 11 p.m. his phone had rung furiously for a time and then gone dead. Later it was discovered that the wires leading to it had been deliberately crossed.

A train of dusty footprints crossed the Sanctuary to the South side, where it was found that the interior and exterior doors, leading to the crypt had been forced from the outside, with cold chisels. One man, with a distinctive barred pattern to the crepe soles of his shoes, had entered the building whilst his accomplice waited for him at the door.

The Cross decorated with the Newman family jewels, was at that time valued at £20,000 and have been presented to the Cathedral, for its use, in Dean Gamble’s time, in 1923. However it remained under the control of the Lumley family Trustees, rather than the Dean and Chapter. A magnificent memorial to late Mrs Mary Lumley, the sister of Lord Mamhead of Exeter – formerly Sir Robert Newman, who was a member of Parliament for the City.

Mr Hart had immediately informed the Police, who sent two search parties under Inspector Arnold. In the grounds were discovered two chisels which had been burred over by heavy hammer blows. The cutting edges exactly fitted the marks made on the strong door. They also set about checking all vehicles which passed through the City in the early hours of the previous night.

A reward of £450 was offered by Messrs Charles E Ware and Son, loss adjusters, of 20 Richmond Road, acting on behalf of the Insurers.

Soon after 11 am the Police received news that a farmworker, Tom Wooton, an employee of a Mr G Hayman of Gittisham Farm, had found the Cross just inside the gate of a field. This was on the main Exeter-Honiton Road near Fenny Bridges. The precious gems had been removed during the course of the twelve mile journey.

Naturally all the choristers awaited news with baited breath. Everyone had a theory. The sight of those dusty footprints had made our imagination run riot.

Soon the news came that an almost new 30 hp late 1949 Bentley saloon – of an unusual maroon colour – have been found abandoned 4 miles East of Salisbury with false number plates. It had been stolen in Chiswick on 14th February and had travelled 7,000 miles in the intervening period.

Police officers compared the stolen Cross with damage marks to the woodwork, upholstery and a broken roof light to the interior of the car. Home Office forensic scientists from the laboratory at Bristol, confirmed that there was no doubt that this was the vehicle used by the raiders. Despite heavy thundershowers, crowds of visitors came to gaze at the vacant space on the High Altar. Coach firms ran special trips from all over Devon. The sympathetic public sent donations including a sixpence from a small boy from Swindon called David Money. He received a small Cathedral badge from Mr Hart in recognition of his generous gift.

Fortunately, the Cross had not been badly damaged and following restoration work by experts, it was returned to the Cathedral in time for the Royal visit on 10 July. His Majesty King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth (our Queen) and Princess Margaret visited the Cathedral in connection with the 900th anniversary celebrations, commemorating Exeter becoming the seat of the diocese.

If you want to see the Cross, pay a visit to All Saints Church in Kenton, where it can be viewed standing on the Rood Screen. The plaque on the South wall, in enduring memory of Mary Jane Cosens Lydston Lumley, born on the 15th November 1868, states that the Cross was placed there in 1963. The income from the Lumley Memorial Trust, established in 1923, is now dedicated to the maintenance of that Church. Perhaps someone could tell us why it was relocated. I suspect there is an interesting tale to be told!

Incidentally, the Choir desks in the Church, built in the reign of Henry IV, where the design and work of Herbert Read in 1911. You will remember from the previous article that he did so much to restore the Cathedral after the Blitz. Restoration was still in progress at the time of the theft. I am indebted to Sheila Brown, the Librarian at the Western Times, who provided photocopies of articles which appeared at the time. Please help to refresh my memory of an incident 36 years ago when I, like my contemporaries, stood and gazed in amazement at the empty spot in the High Altar.

Exeter Cathedral Library and Archive © 2013

Bob Norman was at the Chorister School between 1945 and 1951.

Re-published by permission of Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives

The Exeter Cathedral Website

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