Saturday 21 May 2016

50 Miss Olive Talbot and Nicholaston Church

50 Nicholaston Church (photos: drawing of church, statue over porch) - 21 May 2016

One south Gower church is a reminder that wealth and privilege cannot guarantee immunity from life’s tragedies.  St Nicholas Church stands in isolation three-quarters of a mile west of the hamlet of Nicholaston.  The fourteenth century building was extensively rebuilt and restored in the late nineteenth century by Miss Olive Talbot, in memory of her father CRM Talbot of Margam Castle.  The church re-opened in December 1894, but Olive Talbot had died two months earlier in London aged 51.

Olivia Emma (Olive) Talbot was born in 1842 at 40 Belgrave Square, London, the youngest daughter of CRM Talbot, who had inherited the Penrice and Margam estates from his father, Thomas Mansel Talbot.  CRM Talbot married Lady Charlotte Butler in 1835; they had one son and three daughters, but his wife died in Malta in 1846, while they were on holiday in their yacht "Galatea".  Olive was aged just four when her mother died - her father had been ten when his own mother died.   

Thirty years later tragedy again struck this family: Talbot was devastated when his only son Theodore was killed in a hunting accident - thus his eldest daughter Emily Charlotte would inherit the Penrice and Margam estates.  Furthermore Olive, a close friend of Amy Dillwyn of Hendrefoilan House, was disabled for much of her life through a spinal condition.  She spent her last 20 years housebound in London, unable to attend her father’s funeral at Margam Abbey in 1890.  She used her inheritance to finance the building of new churches in Maesteg and Abergwynfi, and to restore or enlarge others such as St David’s, Betws, and Nicholaston.

Olive Talbot died in 1894 at the Talbots’ London house, 3 Cavendish Square, without ever seeing the results of the work she had financed.  She was buried in the Talbot family vault in Margam Abbey; her sister Emily Talbot had St Theodore’s Church in Port Talbot built in 1895-97 in memory of Olive and their brother Theodore.   

Olive Talbot was much influenced by the Oxford Movement, which during the nineteenth century sought to re-introduce ritual and ceremonial into Church of England services.  She funded the building of St. Michael's Theological College in Llandaff (it began in Aberdare), and had St Nicholas Church completely rebuilt in High Church style, at a cost of £2,000 (over three-and-a-half million pounds today). 

Stone from Cefn Bryn was used for rebuilding the walls, while materials used for the interior included teak and oak, alabaster and coloured marble.  The font is said to be made from a solid block of stalagmite, and the hanging pulpit (as opposed to being attached to the floor) is decorated with alabaster figures of John Keble, Edward Pusey and Henry Liddon, Anglo-Catholic clergy prominent in the Oxford Movement.  St Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors, pawnbrokers, children and Russia, so the west window portrays him holding the three balls signifying pawnbrokers, with a ship above and an anchor below; elsewhere children feature in several of the windows, though there seems to be no mention of Russia!

The antiquarian Rev. JD Davies, rector of Llanmadoc and Cheriton, described Ncholaston Church as “the most elaborately treated ecclesiastical building in Wales, if not in the west of England”.   

In the churchyard the Portland stone cross was designed by Llandaff Diocesan architect (this was before the formation of the Swansea and Brecon Diocese) George Eley Halliday of Cardiff.  Perusing his drawings and architectural plans did provide Olive Talbot, housebound in London, with some conception of the work that she was financing.

On the north wall inside the church is a memorial to those of the parish who died in the 1914-18 war, and a plaque which was “erected by the grateful parishioners of Nicholaston in loving memory of Miss Olive E. Talbot who restored this church in 1894”. 


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