The Hague Family Travelling or Portable Baptismal Font was passed on to me by my parents many years ago, when I was very young. As you can see from the image, it has seen some adventures in its lifetime!
I have begun to research the font to try and establish its history, fully aware that to tie it in with a particular family member in the past would be extremely difficult. But it seems we might well have a strong candidate for the person who first acquired it.
The font is either plaster or a similar material. It is a little heavy, being 7" high and 4 1/2" wide, and would have been a noticeable addition to a priest's baggage around his ministry. It is very ornate, with carvings that do replicate a full size stone church font. It has a metal liner in the top, probably pewter. It was at some time painted, much of the paint has peeled away but enough remains for us to see its original colour, which is grey.
I did think of taking it to an Antiques Roadshow in 2009, to see if they could suggest any history. I looked up the schedule, to find that the weekend before, the show was in Lincoln Cathedral! It would have been the perfect time to have taken it. All the other shows afterwards were too far for me to do it comfortably. Since then, I have found out a bit myself.
On the under side is an impressed mark. This suggests it was a mass-produced item (relatively speaking, I suppose). I can make out very little, but the date 1842 is clear, and what I subsequently deciphered as "West Deeping Church Lincolnshire". West Deeping is in the south of the county beside the border with Northamptonshire. Interestingly, "The King's England" for Lincolnshire, published in 1949 of which I have a copy, lists West Deeping's church font as being octangonal and having 8 shields, as does our Hague Font. As it is only an hour or so from Potton, I went to have a look, and sure enough, our font is an almost exact copy. The only difference is in the eight shields. Both fonts have exactly the same shield patterns, but our miniature has them in a slightly different sequence.
The "zig-zag" pattern between each shield panel is identical, as are the supporting arches and the base. Even the rosettes between the portions are the same.
The upper portion carrying the shields is more in proportion in the full size version. It is located (as most fonts are) just inside the entrance to the church. Thought to be of Edward III's time (1327-1377), it is octagonal, with a shield on each of its eight faces. According to Holles Church Notes 1639-1642 and the British Library, the shields represent the families of Wake, Clare, Beauchamp, Verry and Clifford; three remain unsolved. Holles also records in his notes that the chancel window bore the arms of Bohun, Clifford, Wake, France and Lancaster. Unfortunately, this window was one of the many destroyed by the Cromwellian soldiers during the civil war, so although it is tempting to ascribe the 3 remaining shields on the font to Lancaster, France & Bohun, it cannot be proven.
I am confident it is truly a family piece, but I could find no reference to Hague either in the West Deeping church or the churchyard, though most of the stones were too weathered to read and I didn't spend time looking at them all (it was also absolutely freezing!). I know our great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Hague (1791-1864) had started working life as farm or agricultural labourer, but that in the 1861 census was recorded as a "Clark of the church"; spelt "Clark" does not seem to mean anything particular, so probably should be read as "Clerk". Exactly what that function was I do not know, but he probably was not a priest. He is not the only one to have such direct connections with the church, but does appear to me to be a good choice as the man to have originally acquired the font. Samuel Hague, another ancestor, was Churchwarden of Swinderby Church for many years, so might be another possible recipient. Equally, Samuel's father John is described as a "Chambers Vicar" at Swinderby, but I have no idea what that may mean.
The first thing I asked myself, was "Is it really a travelling font?" After all, I can understand a travelling chalice to administer the sacrament to infirm and bed-ridden parishioners, but is there really a need to take a baptism to a house - even if sick, and at death's door, a baby would surely have been taken to church? I guess that, even though I don't really understand its use, it does exist, so is possibly priest's equipment. On the other hand (and as seems more likely now), it might just be something like a souvenir.
As far as our font goes, then, the questions are: why did it come into the family? who did it come to? and when did it happen?
The why we'll probably never know. I don't think any of our family were priests (other than possibly the John and Samuel mentioned above), so it was probably a souvenir, or purchased as a gift for the recipient. Maybe a presentation in recognition of services rendered? If so, it was probably simply chosen as a nice object, and I don't think there is any Hague connection with West Deeping. Could a former vicar at West Deeping have brought it with him to Swinderby, later to present it to Robert?
Until a better candidate comes along, I'm going for Robert Hague as the who. The Church Warden at West Deeping kindly got in touch with me, and records the fact that they too have some miniature fonts. He thinks there may be a largish collection in nearby Burghley House. He checked the list of all West Deeping incumbents, and no Hague appears.
On Monday, 2nd August, 2010, I went to Burghley House, and in the chapel found a table with 7 Portable Baptismal Fonts, including one exactly the same as ours less the paint and pewter liner. None of the Burghley ones appear to have ever been painted, and none have a metal liner. The lady assistant in the chapel said they were "Font Models" but wasn't sure precisely what that meant. She suggested I ask at the desk to see if the resident curator could spare me a few moments about them, and Mr. John Culverhouse kindly did so. He printed off the computer inventory data regarding the Burghley fonts, reproduced below in red. He said they were almost certainly produced as christening gifts, i.e. purchased and used during a baptism, and retained by the person so baptised. Possibly, they would then be passed down the family for repeated use. The interesting thing is that the 7 Burghley ones appear to be the full set, comprising 6 Stamford Church fonts plus the West Deeping one. He didn't know who had made them, but Mr. W. Langley, Bookseller, of Stamford was selling them. Mr. R Hutt (mentioned below) was a terracotta object manufacturer, and as far as is known never worked in plaster. The first paragraph is the Burghley collection's manager's description of their pieces. The second is an advert from the local paper, the Stamford Mercury, but this 1847 reference omits the West Deeping font. The final paragraph of 1881 suggests the Burghley ones were, at that time, painted, and is an account in the paper archives of Burghley where presumably Mr. Robinson performed an action on the pieces (he painted them?).
Seven plaster font models, early 19th century, six from Stamford churches, the other from West Deeping, Lincolnshire, three with trade labels of W. Langley, Bookseller of Stamford, all 18.4 cm high. Published by R. Hutt.
Stamford Mercury, March 18 1847. "Langley, Stamford. Now publishing by the same; models of the fonts of the six Stamford churches; the White Friary, or Infirmary Gate, Stamford; and the Norman Arch, Tickencote Church, Rutland."
Recorded in an account from F W Robinson, Stamford decorator, March 19th 1881 '7 Church font models painted.'
The Burghley House curator was intrigued by the pewter liner, which is not recorded anywhere and was not known with his copies.
As for when it came into the family, it cannot have been before 1842 (the date on the base), and if it was Robert Hague, he died in 1864. So given the previous guess, the when is sometime between those dates. That does mean it has been in the family for getting on 150 years. It will probably have been bought as a baptism gift, but for whom? If Robert Hague bought it, his son Robert had been born in 1823, so it wasn't for him. The younger Robert's first son was John Hague born in 1848, so either Robert may have purchased it for that John Hague, but whilst it would then be surprising that it left that line to enter mine, as it happened, the John Hague born 1848 died in 1854 aged just seven years, maybe his father then kept it and that is how it came down eventually to me. I guess we will never know for sure. On a sad note, both seven-year-old John Hague and his five-year-old sister Elizabeth were buried on the same day, 9th December, 1854. Another family story I want to get details about, so far without success.
I'll keep trying to find out more. Part of the inscription is, I'm sure, a maker's identification, and even possibly an item identification number, but I just cannot read it. I have tried photography, illuminating the base from different angles, but nothing is any more readable. Perhaps a tracing might get somewhere?I did find this link which states "Published by T I White 1831 in London", and was it appears, gilded. Another reference is Google Books and Google Books. The site: here has a pristine version, but the inscription on the base is totally different to mine; it looks far too perfect to be of any real age, so I wonder if they are being manufactured again? I would doubt it, so maybe the "perfect" copy is, indeed, over 150 years old!