The East Chancel Window at Stoke Damerel Parish Church

(Dedicated to Elizabeth Jane Cawthra)

Stoke Damerel Parish Church

Stoke Damerel Church isn’t dedicated to any particular saint although the three who are regularly associated with it are St. Mary, St. Andrew and St. Luke. Representations of the first two of these can be seen in the East Window, which is located above the high altar, at the east end of the building.

Three figures are depicted in the larger glazed panels of the window – St. Mary on the left, Christ in Glory in the central panel and St. Andrew on the right.

There are three quatrefoil windows above them. The left-hand quatrefoil contains Plymouth’s coat-of-arms while the right-hand quatrefoil contains Devonport’s coat-of-arms. Above them is the crossed-keys coat-of arms of the Exeter cathedral church of St. Peter, in which Diocese Stoke Damerel Church is located.

An inscription runs along the base of the window: 

TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN LOVING MEMORY OF ELIZABETH JANE CAWTHRA’

Stoke Damerel Chancel window by Clayton and Bell
Photograph: Tony Barnard

Records state that the ‘Gothic revival’ window tracery was constructed by Fouracre and Sons of Stonehouse, using Ham Hill stone [from the Yeovil area], during major renovations undertaken at the beginning of the 1900s. 

Originally glazed with plain ‘Cathedral glass’, the stained-glass we see today was inserted into the window in 1923 and designed by Clayton and Bell. The work of these stained-glass manufacturers can be found around the world, as well as on the richly decorated mosaic panels on London’s Albert Memorial in Hyde Park and in Truro Cathedral. 

At the height of the company’s popularity in the late 1800s, it employed around 300 people in its factory who worked night shifts to ensure orders were completed on time. Even after the founders passed away (Alfred Bell in 1895 and John Clayton in 1913), it continued to produce a great deal of work up until 1993.

Detail of one of the mosaic panels on the Albert Memorial
Photograph: Tony Barnard

The window is dedicated to Elizabeth Jane Cawthra. Her maiden name was Elwell and she is buried in the Elwell family tomb, adjacent to the north boundary wall in the churchyard. An inscription on the front of the tomb indicates she passed away on 19 August 1921, at the age of 76, the widow of John Cawthra from Canada. The quality of the tomb and the stained-glass window suggest that costs were not a factor. It’s sad to note that, along with other members of the Elwell family, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Winifred, is also remembered in one of the inscriptions on this vault. She was born late in 1875 but lived for less than four months.

The Elwell tomb in Stoke Damerel Churchyard
Photograph: Tony Barnard

Cawthra is quite a rare surname, but probably originated in the north of England. One person from that locality, a Joseph Cawthra, emigrated with his family from Yorkshire to Canada in 1803. Initially, he was granted 200 acres of land by King George III, in what was to become Toronto. He also purchased 200 acres of adjacent land, intending to farm once the ground had been cleared. However, seeing the need for supply of medicines, he opened a Drug Store. This was very successful and became a General Store which expanded further. He also developed his land, providing some of the early buildings in the city. He became very wealthy and famous. 

When he died in 1842 one of his sons, William, used his inheritance to become a property developer, as well as undertaking charitable works. At the time of William’s death in 1880 he was reputed to be the richest man in Canada, probably a billionaire by today’s standards. Today the Cawthra family is remembered in the names given to roads, schools, parks and other buildings in the cities of Toronto and Mississauga.

It’s no coincidence that Elizabeth Jane Cawthra’s husband, John, also hailed from Toronto. Thanks to a digitised version of ‘Past and present: Notes by Henry Cawthra and others’, originally published in 1924, we know he was born in Canada in 1824 and baptised at St. James’ Church in Toronto. He was the grandson of the Joseph Cawthra who had emigrated from Yorkshire and the nephew of the wealthy William Cawthra.

John founded the first of his businesses, a drapery store, in King Street East, Toronto, which he ran until he retired from the firm in 1857 at the age of 33. He must have been a wealthy prominent citizen.

Elizabeth and John married in London in 1864 when he was 40 and she was 19. She was reputed to be a very energetic young lady. After their wedding they went on a 135-day tour of Europe for their honeymoon, the pace of which, apparently, almost killed John. 

After he died just 11 years later on 11 February 1875, we can only assume that Elizabeth returned with her children (sons John Elwell and William Herbert, sand daughter Ann Mable) to Plymouth. She would also have been heavily pregnant at the time with another daughter who would be named Winifred.

Detail, Memorial window to Thomas and Mary Elwell
Photograph: Tony Barnard

Some other key findings from this research include:

  • Another stained glass window close to the east window is dedicated to Elizabeth’s parents. From the inscription it appears her father Thomas was a local civil engineer
  • There is a ‘Burne Jones window in St. George’s Church, Toronto’ in John Cawthra’s memory
  • Stained glass work by Clayton and Bell is apparently located in St. James’ Cathedral in Toronto where John Cawthra was baptised
  • Looking at available photographs of John and Elizabeth Cawthra, it’s possible (and intriguing to think) that the two saints in the east window could be stylised images of both Elizabeth and John Cawthra
  • The digitised version of the book about the Cawthra family is free to download online.

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