The Medieval Font at St. Leonard’s Church Swithland
The original medieval stone Font, probably dating back to the 12th century, was removed from St. Leonard’s Church in 1740, when the then Sir John Danvers replaced it with the existing marble Font we know today. Thereafter, the Font has had a somewhat chequered history!
It lay in the Rectory grounds for many years, and eventually was moved to Hall Farm where it was said to have been used, amongst other things, as a pig trough. It was then rescued by the 8th Earl of Lanesborough, taken to Swithland Hall, and placed in the rose garden where it remained until the 9th Earl of Lanesborough, sold the Hall in 1978, and moved to Kegworth and thereafter Melrose in Scotland, taking the Font with him. As a point of interest, it was lucky the Font survived as at the time when the Font had been removed from the Church, around the mid 18th century, it was not unknown for such pieces to have been buried in the churchyard.
The 9th Earl of Lanesborough died in 1998 and had stated in his will that one day the Font should be returned to Swithland. In 2014 the Parish received a letter from Lady Lanesborough saying that the house in Melrose had been put on the market and that she considered this was now the time the Font should be returned.
This then was the start of an interesting exercise as to how to get it back to Swithland. It was known to be large, over 41 inches / 123 cm in diameter and 21 inches / 53 cms high, mounted on a concrete pedestal. How heavy was it ? Calculations were made to determine its mass and Lafarge was asked to determine the density of the stone to calculate the weight. This information was then passed on to a transport company, Shore Porter, who specialised in the transport of antique goods. A quote was obtained for the transport of the Font to Swithland, but before it could be picked up, the Font had to be removed from the middle of a large lawn at the house in Melrose, and onto the driveway. A local farmer having been contacted, agreed to carry out this work, and after some weeks it was picked up by the transport company and driven to Hall Farm in Swithland where Mr. Brian Beeby, the farm owner, had kindly agreed to keep it until permission was received from the Diocese for it to be taken back to St. Leonard’s Church. At least the Font had safely returned to Swithland, but it would be many months before permission would be granted to bring it back to St. Leonard’s Church and all the work could be completed. The intention of the Church Council was for the font to be placed in the South porch of the Church. However Church regulations state that only one Font is allowed in a church so it was decided it should be placed just outside the porch door on the South side of the Church in the Churchyard.
Finally, permission was granted by the diocese, and our stone mason, James Toon was contacted, with instructions to place the Font at the side of the South door. This was to prove no simple matter, as the considerable weight of the Font meant it had to have a firm base foundation on which to stand, otherwise it would sink into the ground. Coincidentally, at the same time work was being carried out at Leicester Cathedral for the reburial of King Richard III and there was a quantity of old paving stones surplus to requirements, so one of these was obtained by the Church in order to act as the base foundation. With this in place, all was ready for the Font to be moved to its final position in June 2015. The cost of this work was kindly funded by Swithland Parish Council.
The Font was then moved by Mr. Beeby, who drove it from the farm on his forklift truck which was no easy feat. The wheelbase of the forklift was wider than the path and as the ground was wet, the combined weight of the Font and machine started to sink into the ground. But aided by large sheets of wood, a track was made so the load could move safely without getting stuck. Finally the Font was lifted safely, placed on the slab, and securely cemented in place. There was a huge sigh of relief!
The story does not end there. When the Font was inspected by the Church architect, Mr. John Dodson, it was found unsurprisingly, that the Font on account of age was showing signs of wear and perhaps needed some delicate ‘pointing up’. This idea was rejected in order not to detract from its historical provenance and instead it was agreed that a substantial glass cover should be made and placed over the Font to protect it from the weather and further erosion. This work was finally completed on December 19th 2016, the beautiful glass cover having been kindly donated by Mr. Andrew King of Mawby & King Leicester, the firm that had so skilfully produced the cover.
The Font now stands in its glory for posterity in Swithland Churchyard and becomes once again part of the heritage of the church and village to be admired by all.
Sadly, Lady Lanesborough died in March 2015 and did not live to see her late husband’s wishes carried out.
Thanks are due to the following who were involved in the return of St. Leonard’s Medieval Font to Swithland
John Palmer – Fisher German
Revd. Canon R.A. Horton
St. Leonard’s Parochial Church Council
Sally Allen – Church Warden
Chris Watts – Church Warden
Rupert Allen – Leicester Diocesan Office DAC
Mr. Pinto – Melrose+
Shore Porters’ Society
Brian Beeby – Hall Farm
Sarah May – Chairman Swithland Parish Council
John Dodson – Parkinson, Dodson & Associates Ltd
James Toon – Stone Mason
Martyn Taylor – Martyn Taylor Ltd,
Andrew King – Mawby & King Leicester