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  • Diana Wells

The Nuremberg Chest and the support of Ted Morris

For many years the “Ancient Chest”, so-called by local historian Ted Morris in the 1980s, has sat unobtrusively in a dark corner of St Mary’s Church, overlooked by passers-by and often used as a convenient place for storing books, boxes and toys. This impressively sturdy, solid and heavy iron chest is significant as one of the oldest objects in the Church, being one of only a few items which survived the collapse of the nave and roof in 1713, and it may therefore be justifiably claimed as one of the oldest objects in Twickenham!

A coffer for the parish documents

The history of the Church written by Anthony Beckles Willson, Archivist 1995-2009, records that it was used as a seat for the Chairman of the Vestry (the precursor of the Parochial Church Council set up in 1921) with the intervention of a cushion, and was also used to store the archives before 1900, when a safe was built in the base of the tower. It is of a type commonly described as a Nuremberg chest, dating from the 16th and 17th century[1], and there are references in the Church’s archives indicating that this may be the waynscott cheste with a locke and key to itt included with an inventory in the Churchwardens’ accounts for 1619. A later description in 1643 noted one old trunk in ye Steeple. By 1802, according to the Vestry minutes for 12 January, it had become a tripartite iron chest with 3 keys held by Twickenham, Isleworth and Heston. The chest was possibly obtained in response to Thomas Cromwell’s requirement for every parish to have a chest, often referred to as a coffer, in which to store the parish archives. St Mary’s started to keep records, as instructed, in 1538, and the chest may have been acquired for the purpose.

Key arrangements varied from parish to parish with a view to achieving security, usually involving more than one lock and several key-holders. Potential documents to store in the chest were kept loose until access to the chest could be arranged. Several have been shown on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, and an example in April 2014 was a similar church chest which had been modified with iron straps and a second lock, later gouged out perhaps due to the loss of the key. Donald Simpson, in a letter to Ted Morris dated 18 November 1991, refers to a “very similar chest in Tewkesbury Abbey, exhibited with the lid open to show the lock”.

But where was the key?

The chest occupied a quiet corner of the church until the discovery in the mid 20th century that its key had gone missing, a sure indication that everyone had for many years ceased to pay it any attention! The long-drawn-out process of opening the chest and having a new key made is recorded in the correspondence (1989-1991) between Ted Morris, the Vicar Rev. Alun Glyn-Jones, and the staff of the Department of Metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the file of correspondence in the Archives of St Mary’s, Ted Morris looked back over the sequence of events with a statement dated 1st October 1991: “Sometime in the autumn of 1989, I was with the Vicar in the Church when he barked his shin on the Chest which had lain useless and an encumbrance since the key had disappeared in the time of his predecessor. Sensing his feelings about the Chest, I volunteered to try to get a new key. He agreed that I might try. I first asked a local blacksmith, John Harris, to try; first to open the Chest and then to make a new key. After some months it became evident to me that he would not be successful although he would not admit it. I asked the Vicar if I might write to the Victoria & Albert Museum, believing that among the staff there was sure to be someone who could help.”

Ted Morris then wrote to the Curator of the V&A and A.R.E. North, a research assistant in the Department of Metalwork, replied that it appeared to be “one of the early 17th century German chests known to collectors as Nuremberg chests, used as safes in churches and similar institutions. The single key operated a large number of bolts arranged around the sides and back of the chest. Losing the key to such a chest is not an unusual event, and many show signs of being forced open.” Four months later, when Ted Morris had received no response from the suggested locksmith in Norfolk, he wrote again to the V&A Department of Metalwork and had a rapid reply suggesting that Alec Marshall, in the V&A Technical Workshops might be able to recommend a specialist.

The chest’s journey to South Kensington

At this point, of course, nothing could be done until the chest had made its way to the V&A in Kensington. Ted Morris contacted a local man, John R. Eydman, of 42 Kenley Road, Twickenham, who wrote: “Ted, Please find enclosed Quotation which I hope is in your budget…. Quotation: to supply necessary equipment and labour to Remove 1 no. “Nuremberg” chest (contents unknown) from St Mary’s Church, Twickenham, and Deliver to the Victoria & Albert Museum, Kensington, for scrutiny, date to be arranged. Inclusive charge £75

To return same at later date – Inclusive charge £65

Total charge £140”

This considerable sum was only the first problem Ted Morris had to address at this stage, as he wrote to the Vicar: “I now have a quotation from a St Margaret’s man for carting the Chest to the V&A Museum and return…. What I cannot say until the Museum have received the Chest and examined it is their charge for opening it plus a new key. I will now make the necessary arrangements. However there are considerations: Who is to value the Chest for insurance purposes while it is out of the Church and not in the care of the Museum? If the carter has some sort of cover it is not likely to be much. Do you want the Chest back? Would you wish to have it valued with a view to selling it to some rich American? If so would you like me to get the Museum to value it? Do you or a representative (not me please) wish to be present when it is opened or would you be willing to await the arrival of the contents, separately parcelled, with the empty chest? I am, I think, one of the few people alive who have seen inside – others may be Alan Rogers, John Davies and Henry Turner – and all I remember are old Bibles. The Chest was never completely turned out when I was around even when I was Churchwarden. Where will you place the Chest when it returns? You did mention the possibility of handing it to the new Twickenham Museum but that project seems to be “hanging fire”.[2] At least it will be easier, of course, to move around when empty. I will, of course, let you know the removal date and time. Yours ever …”

The locksmith’s work

Evidently the Vicar and Churchwardens agreed that the arrangements should go ahead as the next letter instructed Mr Eydman about gaining entry to the V&A site on 26 November (1990) and handing the chest over to the charge of Mr Grainger in the Locksmith’s Workshop. Ted Morris’s letter of 16 January kept the Vicar up to date, as the New Year 1991 began and the task was clearly not going to be a short one: “As I reported, the Chest was safely delivered to the V&A Museum on 28 Nov. and I have kept in touch. The work is in the hands of Mr Grainger who told me that he is doing it in his own time. He has made a key but the locking mechanism is broken and very rusty. I do not want to worry him too often so will let things rest for a month. This is one of the most frustrating assignments ever. Yours doggedly, Ted”.

In January 1991, rather less than a month later, Ted Morris was obliged to set aside more time to the matter in response to a phone call from Mr Grainger. One feels that email would have been very helpful in this situation! “Dear Alun, If I seem to overdo my letters to you it is because you are so difficult to find on the telephone during the hours of the day that I devote to business. Mr Grainger of the V&A Museum phoned to say that after 37 hours of effort he has opened the Chest, the lock of which was badly damaged. He needs to keep it while he does the repairs. He would like the contents to be collected as soon as possible but assures me that they will be safe meanwhile. I could ask Mr Eydman, the carrier, to collect but that would add to the expense; and so I suggest that you might ask someone with a biggish car to undertake the task. From what Mr G was able to tell me there might be something of interest for our Archivist…”

The bibles’ return to St Mary’s

Fortunately Ernie and Ida Curtis (the latter a Churchwarden at that time) were able to undertake the task of driving to the V&A to collect the contents “in convenient-to-carry packages”. Ted wrote to Ida asking if he could “survey the Bibles etc. before they are distributed. One Bible, in particular, I would like to see. It is very big, in a sort of suede leather. It was rebound by Dorothy Viner-Brady[3] who, in her youth, had been professionally taught book-binding”. At the same time Ted Morris wrote to Mr Grainger, enclosing a cheque for £185 as payment for the work completed so far, and adding, “Meanwhile please carry on with the repair of the lock”. He also assured the Vicar, “I am keeping an eye on the expenses and there is no need for you to worry.”

The chest’s return

Finally on 20 April he wrote to Ida Curtis and the Vicar: “At long last the Church Chest has been repaired and a new key provided. A carter of my acquaintance will pick it up at the Museum on Thursday next, 25th inst., and it should arrive at the Church about noon,” and to Mr Grainger: “If you will let me know how much you require in settlement I will send you a cheque. I am most grateful to you for all your hard work and expertise”. Mr Grainger’s final invoice and receipt for 64 hours work were accompanied by detailed instructions about using the new key to open the Chest both carefully and without incident:

“Dear Mr Morris,

I hope that you are pleased with the key. I am sorry that it has taken such a long time, but I could only work on it in my spare time. Inside the Chest you will notice two steel bars, these are to support the lid when open. The bars locate on the two lugs on the lock cover plate, to prevent the lid from falling. The key has a small locating pin on the end of the shank. It is most important that this engages in the bottom of the lock. The key will turn easily until it reaches the spring bolt. From this point on it requires great force to trigger the mechanism. Because this is very difficult, I have supplied you with a brass bar to assist you. But because so much leverage is possible with this, please take care not to try to turn the key more than is needed. The bar will pass through the bow of the key. The key was not designed to be used with this bar and if it is forced to (sic) far it may result in damage to the key or the lock mechanism. Should there be any problems or question you may wish to ask, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

T. Grainger

Restoration of lock 8 hours.

Restoration of Chest 6 hours.

Fabrication of key blank 12 hours.

Cut key to operate Chest 32 hours.

Packing Chest contents for safe transportation 6 hours.

All work undertaken at the rate of £5.00 per hour.

T. Grainger”

Ted Morris wrote to thank Mr Grainger for the completion of the work and to congratulate him: “The Chest arrived safely and Mr. Eydman (the carrier) was able to demonstrate to the Vicar how to operate the key. We were impressed by your evident expertise and much admired the quality of the key which to me is a work of art. If it would be proper to do so I would like to ask the Vicar to write to the Curator of the Museum commending your work.” It is unlikely that such a letter was sent as Mr Grainger modestly responded: “It is very kind of you to offer to send a letter to my Curator but it really is not necessary. I am pleased to hear that you liked the work that I carried out.”

The final reckoning

So there only remained the matter of the large sum of money disbursed over the previous 18 months by the long-suffering and infinitely patient Ted Morris!

“Dear Alun,

I am now able to present a Statement of Costs, following the return of the Chest to the Church after opening, restoration and provision of a new key. When, many months ago, you asked me to try to get a new key, the original being lost and the lid not openable, I asked whether the Church’s insurance would cover any outlay. I understood you to say that no claim would be admissible as there were no facts to go on apart from the absence of the key, cause unknown. When, after abortive efforts in other directions, I was able to secure the services of Mr. T.K. Grainger, Locksmith, you told me that there was a fund which might find up to £250.00. This appeared to me likely to go a long way to meeting the costs but the first setback was the charge for delivering the Chest to Mr. Grainger’s workshop in Kensington. The lifting of the laden Chest called for four men in all. Thereafter, Mr. Grainger was quite unable to provide an estimate of likely costs as the lock was damaged. My dilemma was how to proceed: stop the work and return the still useless Chest to the Church at further expense? Ask Mr. Grainger to sell it for scrap? These and other options I put aside and resolved to ask Mr. Grainger to carry on, mentally deciding to bear, personally, any cost which the Church could not afford. When the restored Chest was delivered, and I was able to say that I could now report how much the whole operation cost, you said that you could now claim on the insurance company. I trust that you will. You should succeed. I have paid all the bills and am willing to continue to bear the total cost until the insurer pays up. If the insurer rejects the claim in toto or in part I shall be pleased to pay half of the unpaid amount. If it comes to my paying anything, I would wish it to be anonymous.”

The Vicar’s reply in May was wholehearted: “What a marvellous job you have done with the chest – without your efforts it would have sat there unopened for years if not for ever. I am in the process of arranging the finance and am very grateful to the “anonymous” donor for his most kind contribution towards the work. I shall have to wait and see what the insurance company makes of all this. The key is now carefully labelled and placed inside the main safe in the hope that there will be no repeat disaster. Thank you again for all the time and determination you put into this task.” In June he was able to write: “I enclose a cheque for £350 towards the cost of the work done on the Chest. Thank you again for the contribution you have made in time, thought and towards the expense (£315). The key is in the safe, the books have been listed … If we do acquire a museum in Twickenham the chest could perhaps be on loan as an exhibit. Yours, Alun”.

The chest’s value

Ted Morris had also reiterated his request to the locksmith: “As I requested you, try to arrange for one of the Museum’s other experts to place a value on it in case the Church decides to sell it,” and at this final stage informed the Vicar: “The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, have identified this as a “Nuremberg” chest of early seventeenth century origin; and after restoration with a new key say that it would be likely to sell at between £9000 and £10000 at an appropriate auction.” As a rule museums do not give valuations as it is not their role to do so, so it is unlikely that this was an authoritative valuation. Such chests rarely appear on the open market, and indeed it must be unlikely that the Church authorities would give permission for such a sale. The Antiques Roadshow expert mentioned earlier was himself reluctant to quote a value for this same reason.

Ted Morris’s final words to the Vicar on the matter were: “The rehabilitation of the Chest was a challenge to me and I enjoyed taking it on.”. In a letter (30 September 1991) to Donald Simpson, Archivist at that time, he wrote “I would like to think that a record will be kept of the way in which a replacement key was obtained following the loss of the original … so that due note may be made of the circumstances by which a valuable Church muniment was restored from a useless unwanted piece of clutter to a treasure worth not less than than £10,000.” His wish has certainly been fulfilled, in that the folder of correspondence has been preserved in the Archives by the three successive St Mary’s Archivists, Donald Simpson, Tony Beckles Willson and Diana Wells.

The chest in the 21st century

As a codicil to the long-drawn-out saga outlined above, the chest was the focus of another – less prolonged – problem in 2014 when the key broke off in the lock during an attempt to open the chest and check the contents, very much as Mr North had warned in his letter above about careful use of the brass bar. As neither Tony Beckles Willson nor Diana Wells had seen the interior of the chest, this was a very frustrating moment! Fortunately a locksmith was able to extract the shaft from the lock and a welder was able to re-attach the two parts, and even strengthen the join. At last the large pile of leather-bound bibles and books of Common Prayer were revealed and catalogued. They were later joined by a further acquisition, a 19th century family bible donated to St Mary’s by Robin Lindholm, whose Chirnside grandmother and mother had lived in Twickenham before moving to Sweden. On Bible Sunday in October 2019 the chest was opened and the books were laid out on display for all to have a look, an unusual opportunity which was much appreciated by the congregation. There will surely be more stories to come surrounding the “ancient chest”!

he legacy of Ted Morris at St Mary’s

Ted Morris’s concern for the history and fabric of the church is clear from three long letters written to Donald Simpson (September-October 1991), in response to the latter’s request to recall all he could of interest over 1922-1980, and they reveal how much his concern was carried through into practical deeds which often incurred much personal expense. In a long list he recollected the subject of pews in the Clock Chamber and Bell Tower, work done on the candelabra hung above the nave, the lanterns, various minor repairs to the pews, the altar cross, the fitment for the verger’s staff as well as refurbishment of the Ringing Chamber over “a period spanning the Davies/Gann regimes with their approval” and at his own expense “when I could find the money”, curtains and runners for the west door, wall-to-wall carpet, an oak cabinet under the hand-bell case, set of chairs, special wooden fitment to deal with sunlight in high summer and re-painting of the bell motif on John New’s Peal Board on which he added: “John Davies was guilty of having all the peal boards over-painted while I was abroad.” He obviously loved the trees in the churchyard, and recalled that the fig tree outside the vestry, “a handsome, vigorous, mature tree disappeared in my time as churchwarden (1955-88) without trace. I asked the Vicar and he said it “blew down”, adding that he was also responsible for destroying an exotic climbing plant on the south wall, probably 100 years old, which bore beautiful red flowers although no-one knew its name, commenting only “It died” When the Strawberry Tree about 200 years old was blown over, Ted planted a seedling he had raised which is still to be seen nearby.


[1] See [2] The Twickenham Museum, registered as a Charity in 1993, was finally opened at 25 The Embankment after the house was left for this purpose by its last owner. [3] Daughter of Noel Viner-Brady who was the prime mover in the establishment of the York House Society in 1922.



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