The octagonal carved oak font cover, now restored to the back of the church was carved by Major General Thomas Rennie Stevenson CB of Sunnyside, Lanark and presented to Christ Church in 1920. His initials are carved into the base and inside is a small brass plaque giving this information.
He was an expert wood carver and his work can be seen all around the Church, often with the motif of Scottish Thistles, which makes the location of our Church particular, as symbolised by the national flower of Scotland.
Major General Stevenson was born in Braidwood House on October 26th 1841, the third son of Nathaniel Stevenson and was married in 1870 to Isabella Friend of Ripple Vale, Kent. After a private education he started his army career in 1861 with the 67th Regiment of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Promoted in 1867 to Commander in 1882, he stayed with the RIF until 1886. He served in the Egyptian campaign in 1882 including the Battle of Tel-el-Kabir where his bravery was mentioned in dispatches. He was awarded the CB medal and clasp, as well as Khedive’s Star. Oddly enough, his recreations were listed as fishing and shooting, omitting his main passion for carving wood. It is not mentioned either in the old Who’s Who book of the time. His clubs were the army and navy and united service – no surprise there. In 1887 he became the Commander of the 26th and 71st Regiments until 1892 and was also Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Lanark. However, he devoted a large portion of his life to carving, particularly after retiring in 1898 when he became Colonel of the Royal Irish Volunteers and a Justice of the Peace in Lanark. He finally retired from this post in 1905.
At 3am on 9th November 1923 a fire took hold of his Sunnyside home at Mousemill Road, Kirkfieldbank completely destroying all the valuable carved interiors of the house. The story of this fire is linked with our Church because his unique,beautifully carved and decorated library was lost along with all of his house contents. We now have in our Church some of the few remaining pieces of the work of this remarkable man.
The Sunnyside fire was discovered at 3am by a Lady’s Maid Miss Ratcliffe on the second floor. Alerted by the smoke, she wakened the Major General and Mrs Stevenson and the five servants as well. The conflagration had started in unused room and took hold so quickly the no-one had time to rescue anything much, not even their day clothes or possessions. By 5.30am all was blazing and the flames spread to the wings of the house with 40ft flames lighting up the night sky for miles around. Giant clouds of smoke and huge volumes of steam hissed caused by the Lanark and Larkhall Fire Brigades. Their three hoses had to go down to Mouse River for a water source. The Major general and his wife were taken to their gardener’s house (a Mr Frame) and later accommodated in the Clydesdale Hotel. By 8am the fire had reduced the house to a smoking ruin with damage estimated at £30,000 (a lot of money now nevermind in 1923). This was partially covered by insurance. The silver plate was completely destroyed and 25 years of effort of extending and building up this house to twenty six apartments, with a fine west wing, was gone in one night with only a little jewellery and a few sticks of furniture saved.
At a later inquiry meeting of the Fire Brigade on 9th August 1924, a Captain Colville mentioned the long delay in identifying from where the first emergency call for help had come that fateful night, and so having to wait for a second message because of the confusion of the first call. The switchboard being of the old pattern did not automatically record the origin of the call. This was the start of the updating of the switchboard in Lanark, where the number of the subscriber would be noted. Was this delay fatal for the Major General’s house?
The Major General died on 19th November 1923, ten days after the fire, at the age of 83. It is said that he died of a broken heart because of the loss of everything that he had created. He never recovered from the severe blow of losing all his beautiful wood carving with which he adorned Sunnyside.
His wife Isabella died barely a year later on 24th August 1924 in Edinburgh and a funeral service was held in Christ Church conducted by the Rev Dean im Thurn. She is buried in Lanark. A large number of people attended her funeral with many tributes and flowers. Isabella had returned to where her husband’s carved work still furnished the Church he loved. As far as is known it is the only carved work of her husband remaining.
Take a look around our Church at the wonderful carvings of this talented and distinguished local man.
With thanks to Paul Archibald, assistant librarian, Lanark Library for his excellent help searching the archives.