History, Bearers of the Cross, Collection Highlights

Henry Walter Fincham FSA

Museum of the Order of St John Curator

This blog post was originally published on the Bearers of the Cross website.

The first Museum room, with Henry Fincham in the doorway
The first Museum room, with Henry Fincham in the doorway

Henry Walter Fincham FSA (1860 – 1952) was central in shaping and developing the Museum of the Order of St John’s collection, in particular the excavated stone and associated records that form a significant part of the AHRC Bearers of the Cross project’s database.  Not only a keen photographer and antiquarian, but also an athlete and box manufacturer, Mr. Fincham is an eccentric, engaging and influential character in the history of our Museum.

In Mr. Fincham’s obituary, friend and colleague Theodore Veevers-Thompson remembered fondly:

‘Mr. Fincham possessed that rare gift – a flair for nosing out treasures.  He rarely made a mistake, and his uncanny ability for sorting out the literary wheat from the tares rendered him an international figure as an authority on the Order of St. John.’

In around 1925, these qualities earnt Mr. Fincham the role of first Curator of the Library and Museum of the Order of St John, a role he held until his death in 1952.  His connection with and commitment to the ancient priory site and the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, however, predated this appointment by some 37 years.

A black and white photographic portrait of the rector, wearing a surplice and stole
Reverend T.W. Wood, photographed by H.W. Fincham in 1901

From 1888, with Mr. Arthur Millward, Mr. Fincham was a Churchwarden of the Parish Church of St John.  It was not until the 1930s this church would become the Grand Priory Church of the Order, and the church and Order would once again be formally connected.  Mr. Fincham was extremely active in his role as Churchwarden for a number of decades.  His duties ranged from the distribution of charity to the needy of Clerkenwell, through to the oversight of the ongoing restoration works at the Church and supporting the Order’s ceremonial events held there.  While the relationship between the church and Order was at this time still an informal one, Mr. Fincham was known for his willingness to assist the Order in all matters.

It was his proactive role in the Church Restoration Committee that attracted special praise from colleagues.  Thomas Wood, the Chaplain of the Order and Rector of the Church, commented:

‘…Mr. H.W. Fincham has taken the keenest interest in the work now going on, and has been chiefly instrumental in preserving the stones of the Priory Church, which have recently been discovered, and these have been placed by him in a convenient position so that they can be inspected by the members of the Order and the public.’

A black and white photograph of fragments of stone display on shelves and arranged on the floor
A collection of worked stones in the crypt, photographed by H.W. Fincham in 1907

It is these stones, so carefully preserved and documented, that form much of the Museum’s archaeological collection.  Fragments were unearthed and collected over a number of years from 1898, with Mr. Fincham carefully obtaining examples found in the foundations of demolished neighbouring buildings, as well as from excavations at the church.  An active member of the Restoration Committee for the Church, Mr. Fincham worked tirelessly to ensure the preservation of the most ancient parts of the building amidst the extensive building work, as well as working to raise the funds to realise this great project.

Mr. Fincham’s support of the Order in his role as Churchwarden was first acknowledged through his admission to the Order, first as an Honourary Serving Brother and Honorary Clerk to the Library in 1900.  In response to is admission to the Order, Mr. Fincham wrote:

‘For the past twelve years it has been my delight to help to protect & preserve the ancient buildings connected with the history of the Order.  And I am very proud of being admitted to this illustrious Order which has been so closely connected with our Parish for so many centuries.’

The ongoing contribution of Mr. Fincham to the Order was further recognised with promotions to Esquire in 1916, and then Knight of Grace in 1924. Mr. Fincham was also admitted as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1920.

a black and white photograph of fragments on stone displayed on shelves
A collection of worked stones in the crypt, photographed by H.W. Fincham in 1907

Mr. Fincham published extensively on the history of the Order and its Priory site buildings in particular, frequently giving talks and lectures to societies, as well as writing articles for the wider St John membership, in the magazine First Aid.  With Mr. Wood, in 1903, Mr. Fincham wrote and published the first of the many works he would produce.  An Illustrated Guide to the Remains of the Ancient Priory, and the Present Parish Church of St. John at Clerkenwell includes reconstructed floor plans, photographs, etchings and sketches, in addition to a thorough history of the site and interpretation the surviving structures.

Another significant contribution made by Mr. Fincham was the many series of photographs submitted for the National Photographic Record and Survey, a national endeavour that was well suited to his enthusiastic inclination to record.  Many of the photographs were of the priory site, a particularly valuable resource following the destruction of much of the Church by an incendiary bomb in 1941.

Mr. Fincham’s contribution to the Order and to the Museum was not only his work to record and preserve the history of the order and its ancient priory site, but also to popularise it, ensure it was accessible, and create champions and advocates of the heritage of the organisation.  The Chaplain commented:

A black and white photograph of a church interior, looking towards the altar at the east end, with large windows, pews and mezzanine levels
Interior of St. John’s Church, photographed by H.W. Fincham prior to its destruction in 1941

‘Mr. Fincham’s urbanity to all – his wide antiquarian and historical knowledge – and his great interest in all matters connected with the Crypt and its surroundings have been appreciated by every Member of the Order with whom he is brought in to contact…’

Mr. Veevers-Thompson observed:

‘He was always unselfish in diffusing information, and many students – now famous scholars – have cause to thank the dear old gentleman who afforded them such generous assistance in their pursuit of knowledge.’

Many of Mr. Fincham’s catalogues, publications and extensive documentation have been of great help in completing the records that will be made available through the Bearers of the Cross website.

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