Celebrating Church Furnishings
Robert Thompson, born in 1876 dedicated his life to the craft of carving and joinery in English Oak. He taught himself to use the traditional tools and by 1919 he was experimenting with his own idea for producing furniture based on the English styles of the 17th Century. St. Andrew’s houses fine examples of the work of Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson.
In the July 1981 edition of the ‘Scots Magazine’ there was a feature on the Scottish ecclesiastical work of Robert Thompson the ‘Mouseman’ from Kilburn in Yorkshire. It was Robert and his descendants who made many of the oak furnishings and fittings in St Andrew’s Tain. The article has a short piece about St Andrews as follows:
We now return to the mainland, and cross Easter Ross to the ancient Royal Burgh of Tain on the Dornoch Firth. Here is the church of St Andrew, a lovely little building dating from Victorian times and adorned with more than one mouse.
In 1936 Robert [Thompson] installed the reredos, and his work on these is always worth examining closely. At the same time he fitted the altar rails, and what better tribute to him can be found than that from a Kent lady who tells me that she never passes through Tain without popping into St Andrew’s Church to see ‘the neat little mouse carved under a rail.” A lengthy enough mouse-hunting journey for anyone!
The congregation of the church must have been satisfied, too, because in 1967 they commissioned the grandsons Cartwright1 to carve a lectern and later to fashion a pulpit.
1 The sons of Percy and Elsie Cartwright (Robert Thompson’s daughter), John and Robert, joined the family business when they left school at 15 and worked under the supervision of their grandfather Robert Thompson until his death in December 1955 when they took over.
‘Mousey’s’ signature – the famous mouse symbol, found on every item crafted by Robert Thompson has an uncertain history. The story told by Robert Thompson himself is that one of his crafts men remarked that they “We’re all as poor as church mice” Whereupon Robert carved a mouse on the church screen he was working on. That particular mouse hase never been found but it has continued as a trademark of quality and dedication to craftsman ever since.
This piece by Neville Reid appeared in the Centenary edition of the St Andrew’s Church Magazine:
“Many of the younger members of the congregation may have wondered about the mice in the church. There are seven of them but they are not the sort one can catch in a trap. They are carved in English oak and are the trademark of a firm called Robert Thompsons Ltd., of Kilburn in Yorkshire. Kilburn is a small village which is mentioned in Domesday Book but it was nearly 900 years later that Robert Thompson put it on the map. Born in 1876 he was the son of the village carpenter. To use his own words “I was carving a beam on a church roof when another carpenter murmured something about us being as poor as church mice‘ and on the spur of the moment I carved one.”
No one, however, really knows exactly where or when the first mouse was carved but one of Thompson’s craftsmen once stated that he had carved some 9000 of them. Up to about the year 1930 the mouse usually had front legs but from then onwards this was discontinued as they were apt to break too easily.
The mice are found in hundreds of churches, schools and private houses all over Britain. The year 1928 brought the first order from America in the shape of a dining room table and four chairs sent to a family living on the banks of the Hudson River. This was the pre-runner of the mouse‘s many journeys to almost all quarters of the globe.’ The Bishop of Natal has four of them to adorn his South African home. A New Zealand lady took her stuffed owl to Kilburn and asked if she could have a model made of it to send to her son in New Zealand. She wanted the mouse in its natural position in the owl’s claws and this lovely piece of work about twenty inches high is now proudly installed on its perch on the other side of the world. The mouse became so well known in Australia that an envelope posted out there bearing the drawing of a mouse and the words “Wood Carver, Yorkshire”, reached its rightful destination without delay.
Not all worshippers, however, appreciated the mouse. There was one on the altar rail in St. Mary’s Church, Burley-in-wharfedale. A lady member of the congregation complained. Apparently the sight of a mouse whilst kneeling to partake of Holy Communion either upset her devotions or scared her in the way that the sight of a mouse seems curiously to affect the fair sex. The vicar, although “the lady doth protest too much, me thinks,” had it removed.
In the Sound of Harris there is the uninhabited island of Ensay – unpopulated, that is, except for one house inhabited for only a few weeks every year. There is, however, a private episcopal chapel and the oak door sports the mouse – one of the last examples of Robert Thompson’s personal work. He died in 1955 and the firm with its tradition is now carried on by his grandsons.”