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Mistley Church, Essex, for the Rt. Hon. Richard Rigby, c1776, as executed (11)

In 1543 the Mistley estate was forfeited by William and Elizabeth Ford to the Crown, remaining Crown property until Edward VI made a gift of the lands to Sir John Rainsford in 1552. In 1680 Edward Rigby, a London linen draper, purchased an interest in the estate of Aubery de Vere, the 20th and last Earl of Oxford. Upon the Earl’s death in 1703, his complex affairs were settled under an Act of parliament in which Edward Rigby received the Mistley estate. He was succeeded by his son, Richard Rigby the elder (d.1730), a successful financier, who had made his fortune in the South Sea Company. Richard Rigby the elder was responsible for the early developments of Mistley Thorne. Alongside his construction of Mistley Hall he is recorded by Morant as building ‘a village of about 50 brick houses, convenient for tradesmen and well inhabited. He also built several granaries, warehouses, a large malting-office; and made good quays and coal yards.’

Richard Rigby the elder died in 1730, leaving his estate to his eight-year-old son Richard. In 1738, Richard Rigby the younger took up a place at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge from which he passed to Middle Temple, but left with no qualifications, subsequently setting off on a Grand Tour. Following his return, in 1744 he joined White’s Club alongside his friend Horace Walpole. Shortly afterwards Walpole’s brother, Robert Walpole 2nd Earl of Orford introduced Rigby to politics, encouraging him to stand for Castle Rising in October 1745. During the early stages of his career Rigby became associated with Frederick Prince of Wales and his Leicester House circle. Horace Walpole records that the Prince promised Rigby £1,000 to stand in his interest at Sudbury in the elections of 1747, in which Rigby succeeded ‘though so populous a town, and in which he did not know one man’. Subsequently a petition was made against him, in which Rigby was accused of intimidating the electors, after he brought a group of prize fighters to the polling. The petition was rejected and £900 of the £1,000 offered to Rigby was paid by the Prince; however, the post of Groom of the Bedchamber, which had been promised with it, instead passed to William Trevanian. As a result Rigby and Walpole broke away from the Leicester House circle, and on 29 April 1749 they were struck off the Prince of Wales’ list of persons intended to receive office.

Rigby subsequently aligned his interests with John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford, sitting for his pocket borough Tavistock in 1754, a seat which he held until his death in 1788. When Bedford was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in January 1757, he named Rigby as his secretary. Upon the Duke’s death in 1771, his will absolved Rigby of all debts owed to him, a sum of £5,000.

Initially a supporter of the Whig party, Rigby was seen to quarrel with Henry Fox, and eventually became a keen supporter of the North administration. In June 1768 Rigby was rewarded with the post of Paymaster of the Forces, a lucrative role which he held for twelve years. With the half-a-million pounds of public money entrusted to the post Rigby was seen to spend liberally, and Mistley Hall became the centre of lavish entertainments held for his society friends.

Following the fall of the North administration, Rigby lost his position as Paymaster in March 1782. He was replaced by Edmund Burke, who subsequently demanded the repayment of a large sum of public money. Threatened with disaster and suffering from ill health, Rigby gave up his London residence in St James’s Place and retired to Bath in 1785, where he died on 28 April 1788. He was buried in the family vault at Mistley, and a monument to him was set up in Adam’s church, now preserved in the Church of St Mary and St Michael, Mistley.

Rigby was unmarried, but left legacies to his natural daughter Sarah Lucas and her mother, with a further £100 a year set aside for his mistress, Jenny Pickard. The remainder of his estate, including the house and grounds at Mistley, was inherited by his nephew, Francis Hale. Three years after Rigby’s death, a debt of £150,000 in public money still remained unpaid.

Adam’s scheme for Mistley Church was for the alteration of an earlier plain brick building which, according to Morant, was consecrated by the Bishop of London on 6 June 1735. Morant’s account of 1768, some eight years before Adam’s additions, records: ‘it is a neat edifice. In the Tower are 5 Bells’. King surmises that the original church was comprised of four bays along the north and south sides, by one wide bay to the east and west. It is also clear from Morant’s account that the original building included a bell tower.

King notes how Robert Adam was involved in comparatively few church designs; most of those produced by the Adam office were by James Adam. Mistley is one of three known church schemes by Robert Adam, alongside Gunton Church and the internal alterations to the church at Croome.

Adam’s scheme for Mistley church consisted of a cross-shaped central block, set between two towers to the east and west, which altered the end bays of the earlier building with the introduction of arched entrance ways. Adam’s alterations appear to have been executed primarily in brick, with Portland stone used for columns, entablatures and ornamentation. King notes Mistley Church as an interesting example of Adam’s variation on the Tuscan order; he breaks with convention, introducing roundel ornamentation to a traditionally plain frieze.

For the interiors of the church, Adam designed a number of features, including a pulpit (SM Adam volume 41/70) and an altar, surmounted by a frame enclosing the Ten Commandments (SM Adam volume 41/71). As the main body of the church does not survive, it is difficult to surmise to what extent the interiors were executed. King compares these designs to the scheme shown in The Works. He notes a number of alterations, including the omission of the dome skylight and the ornate ceilings for the nave and transepts, suggesting these were not executed. However, within the east tower the frame for the Ten Commandments, flanked by small Corinthian columns, survives in situ. The ceiling of the east tower also preserves a painted representation of the Holy Trinity, suggesting that some ceiling ornamentation was executed.

Adam’s impressive scheme for Mistley was perhaps an unconventional design for a church, and Bolton suggests that it fell victim to the Gothic Revival. Following the construction of St Mary’s Church in 1870, the main body of Adam’s church was pulled down. Adam’s towers are all that remain, with columns from the church portico reused to dress the previously blank sides where the entrance to the church had once been. The towers were then sold on to local families, with the intention of their being adapted as mausoleums. This scheme, however, was not adopted and as a result they fell into disrepair. In the 1950’s the towers underwent a restoration project, led by local architect Raymond Erith and the Georgian Group. They are now in the care of English Heritage.

See also: Mistley Hall and Village, Essex

P. Morant, The History and antiquities of the County of Essex, 1768, pp. 460-463; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, pp. 146, 154-55, Index, pp. 23, 85; D. King, The complete works of Robert James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 3, 9, 66, 69-71, 346, pls. 82-84; Volume II, pp. 58, 169; ‘Pocket Histories of Essex Parishes, No. 29 Mistley’ Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury, Jan 26th 1934, pp. 1-4; J. Bettley & N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Essex, 2007, pp. 50, 52, 598-600; ‘Mistley Towers’ www.english-heritage.org.uk; R. Thorne, ‘Rigby, Richard (1722-1788)’, 3 Jan 2008, www.oxforddnb.com; ‘Rigby, Richard (1722-88) of Mistley Hall, Essex’ www.historyofparliamentonline.org (accessed April 2019)

With thanks to Peter Cross for information regarding the surviving Adam buildings in Mistley.

Anna McAlaney, 2019
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