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Grateley Pond Altar Pieces

A Story of GB Allen
the Originator of the Pieces


Grateley Pond

The finding of some altar pieces in Grateley village pond in the 1990’s created a minor stir thinking that it may be some ancient treasure. This idea was soon discarded when the date on the damaged altar pieces was examined. It had been thought that the pieces lay in Grateley Pond have been stolen from St Leonard’s Church in Grateley as there had been thefts of furniture etc in the past. It soon became clear that this also was not the case when the inscription was found to refer to GB Allen and Pembroke College.

In 2005 I was given sight of the pieces and felt that it would be nice to restore them to the rightful owners, if only for historical value as the intrinsic value was so little due to the extensive damage.

My first action was to scour the Internet for GB Allen. This resulted in an interesting amount of information on ‘Gubby’ Allen, the famous cricketer of yore. I then wrote to all of the Pembroke Colleges that were listed and found the reference I required from Oxford. The colleges of Oxford were most helpful but were unable to shed any light on the disappearance of any altar pieces. Similarly with Sherborne Abbey who had knowledge of Allen but no knowledge of stolen or lost altar pieces.

My quest to prove who the rightful owners were was not successful but I was able to record part of the interesting ecclesiastical life of Gerald Burton Allen

Gerald Burton Allen and the recovered altar pieces
The renovation of Grateley Pond became necessary in the 1990s as the clay liner had been damaged and would therefore not hold water. The village pond now on the land of the Grange, present owners David and Rhoda Bucknill, was drained for repair in August 1995 and in so doing a sack containing three fine altar pieces was recovered. The altar pieces were recovered in poor condition: the ewer crushed and the candle sticks and cross sawn into three pieces. Whether this was for ease of carrying or preparatory to melting down under the misapprehension that they were made of precious metal is not known.

The sack in which the pieces were found was a fertiliser bag not available before 1960. This leads to one or two possibilities: 

  1. that the theft was soon before that date, the pieces placed in a convenient sack and dumped as soon as it was established that the metal was not precious
  2. the bag was used to carry the spoils of the theft which could have occurred after 1960 and before 1995

 I favour the first option only because there is no easily available information of their loss which one would expect if the theft had occurred in more recent memory. Why Grateley pond was used is open to many suggestions.

The best lead was an inscription on the base of the cross relating to GB Allen and Pembroke College, as shown in this picture.



I wrote to the secretary of Pembroke College, Oxford and found that I was lucky in finding the right college and person at first attempt. Not only was I lucky in finding the College immediately but extremely fortunate in receiving so much help from various individuals in identifying GB Allen and his position in Oxford. For this help I am truly grateful.

I then investigated his origins and found that Gerald Burton Allen was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on January 5 1885 to Thomas K Allen and Frances Susannah Burton Pearman: Burton being the maiden name of her mother. He was a ‘son of the Manse’ his father being curate of St. Luke’s, Cheltenham, recorded in 1881 as being the sole occupant of Fern Lea, St Luke’s. Thomas, Gerald’s father, was born in Islington in 1857 and Frances in Warwick in 1860. By 1881 Frances had moved to Cheltenham (3, Pitville Parade) with her widowed mother and aunt and two servants. The family were financially secure living off investments in land and housing at this time.

By 1891 the Allen family had moved to Dorset and lived in 271, Southwalls Road, Fordington. From this address Thomas was rector of St. Peter’s Dorchester. The household comprised Thomas and his sons Gerald and Francis plus mother-in-law Frances S Pearman (b.1836), a visitor, three servants and a nurse; the nurse probably for the younger child Francis, born 1888, as by now Thomas was a widower.

1901 saw Thomas move to Christchurch Vicarage, 24 Brunswick Place, Cambridge. The census of that year indicates that Thomas had re married (Lucy) and Gerald was either visiting his maternal home or had left his home to live with his maternal great grandfather (Pearman) in Herbalville, St Luke’s, Cheltenham. At this time Gerald is (unusually) not recorded as having a profession or employment and it is assumed that he was a scholar preparing to enter Wadham College.

The memoriam on the death of GB Allen, in the St.Edmund Hall Magazine for 1955-56 (kindly copied to me by Martin Slater), records that he was educated at Cheltenham College from which he gained a scholarship to attend Wadham College. He gained a First in Theology and several theological distinctions and then had a spell at Wells Theological College from whence he entered holy orders and returned to Wadham as Chaplain in 1908.

Two years later he went to Oxford as Probationer Tutorial Fellow of Pembroke College and a year later admitted as Chaplain-Fellow and Dean October 13 1911. By this time he had won the University (Denyer and Johnson) Scholarship and the University Ellerton Theological Essay Prize.

He served in the latter part of the First World War as an Army Chaplain and later as a Chaplain in the Royal Air Force. He was interviewed for service on 28th February 1917. The card index of the interview still exists and the contents are here reproduced (footnote 1). 

Date of interview 28.2.1917
Rev G B Allen
Address - Pembroke College, Oxford
Age 32
Preaches Extempore
Had 3 Months in France with the YMCA
Rides. Speaks French
Would take - 'Anything'
Accepted 'YES'
Remarks - 'Like Glass: or Gwyn, Hughes (footnote 2)
Posting '? Oxford or B.E.F. - Rugeley
No 1484

One month later was commissioned as ‘Temporary Chaplain to the Forces (4th Class)’ which is recorded in the London Gazette of that year. His service as Chaplain in the Royal Air Force lasted from 1918 to 1919. During this time he remained a Fellow and Tutor of Pembroke College.

He returned to his post in Pembroke in 1920 where he was elected Senior Proctor, but almost immediately the Governing Body of Queen’s College appointed him Principal of St. Edmund Hall. The date of 1920 is obviously of significance as the base of the cross refers to Pembroke, and not St. Edmund Hall, and the reference to protection from many dangers. The latter is considered to be reference to the recent World War rather than his move to St. Edmund Hall. The date also makes it difficult to establish the whereabouts of the altar pieces as it is not known whether Allen donated the pieces to Pembroke College on leaving or whether Pembroke College gave them to him as a parting gift. If it was a parting gift he may have taken them with him on his later, extensive, ecclesiastic career. He had donated a silver cigar/cigarette box, made in 1919, to the college engraved “dd Geraldus B Allen STB per X annos socius AS MCMXXII”. This gift was after ten years association with Pembroke College as Chaplain. Whether he donated the altar pieces is not known.

From St. Edmund Hall GB Allen became Bishop of Sherborne in 1928 and Suffragan to the Bishop of Salisbury. In this position he made a great impression by personally visiting every parish and by the pilgrimages he made on foot through many of the rural deaneries.

It was during his tenure as Bishop that a large, brass cross became surplus to requirements in St Edmund Hall Chapel. It was to be replaced by an antique cross in memory of Dr H P Liddon. Allen suggested to the new Principal that this cross might be donated, through the Vicar of Osmington, to a small church at Pokeswell, near Weymouth, which had just been restored and was in need of a cross. The cross was duly delivered in March 1932 (footnote 3). I found that the church of Pokeswell (now Poxwell) was demolished in 1969 but that the heavy cross has been kept and is now in the vestry window of Osmington Church (footnote 4). I had hoped that the connection of Allen, Oxford and Dorset with a cross might give a further lead in our mystery: but no.

In 1936 he was recalled to Oxford becoming Canon of Christ Church and Archdeacon of Oxford. He was soon granted the title of Bishop of Dorchester, with Dorchester Abbey as the church specially appropriated to him.

His long service to church and academia ended on the onset of ill health in 1952. He retired to Cheltenham where his stepmother (Lucy?) looked after him with devoted care during a trying illness which he bore with his usual fortitude. His death occurred at the age of 71 on 27th March 1956 and the funeral service took place at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on 31st March. His body was then later laid to rest in Salisbury and a memorial service held in Dorchester Abbey on 6th of May.

Although it has not been possible to determine without doubt the owners of the pieces it is my belief that they were the property of the Chapel, Pembroke College Oxford: being the gift of Gerald Burton Allen on his leaving to take up his appointment as Principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 1920.

I am indebted to the following individuals who responded to my requests for information based on rather scanty evidence. It was so heartening to receive so much help from busy people on such a minor quest. I extend my apologies to those that may have been inadvertently left out.

Martin Slater, Pro Principal, St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
David Blake, Curator, Museum of Armed Forces Chaplaincy, Amport, Hants.
Rev. Dr. J E Platt, one time chaplain of Pembroke College, Oxford
The Reverend Canon Eric Woods, Vicar of Sherborne.
Joanna Cope, College Secretary, St. Edmund Hall, Oxford.
John Barlow, Development Office, Pembroke College, Oxford.
Phillipa Lane, Poxwell

Michael Longyear


  1. Compliments of David Blake, museum curator of Amport House
  2. This must have a personal meaning to the interviewer that is not known to me 
  3. This information was discovered by a secretary of St Edmund Hall and kindly forwarded by Martin Slater in January 2007
  4. Mrs P Lane of Poxwell.

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