St Mary’s stalwart reaches 25th anniversary

St mary's Churchwarden John Hemson with his special cake
St mary's Churchwarden John Hemson with his special cake

TWENTY-FIVE years ago John Hemson was asked if he would help out at St Mary’s Church ... at 83-years-old he is still the churchwarden and has no plans of giving up just yet.

At the weekend he had a party with friends, family and members of the church to celebrate a quarter of a century overseeing the running of the church.

John Hemson and wife Sheila at St Mary's''w124313

John Hemson and wife Sheila at St Mary's''w124313

The role has undoubtedly been a varied one with responsibilities ranging from re-carpeting the stairs, handling a national media storm when photography of gravestones in the churchyard was banned and taking care of the accounts.

The former head-master at East Whitby school said: “There are so many things that have gone on that have been interesting. I don’t think I could pick one highlight, but I have enjoyed it.”

In 1987, he and wife Sheila moved to Whitehall after selling their farm in Robin Hood’s Bay and were looking for something to fill their time when John was approached by the then Rector of Whitby, Rev Ben Hopkinson.

He said: “He asked if I would be a church warden at St Mary’s, I had been going on and off since 1959 when we came to Whitby. I said I would be very honoured and have been there ever since.”

One of the first things John did was get rid of the old wooden gates as they were full of grass and could hardly be opened.

They were replaced with metal ones and soon after the chancel was carpeted, the seats in the church re-padded and the tapestries restored.

The upper staircase was deemed dangerous and was re-carpeted as was the ringing room and some years after that there was the small matter of repairing the 199 Steps.

With costs for the work reaching almost £200,000 the Whitby Gazette launched a campaign back in 2005 asking for local businesses to pledge £1,000 to sponsor a step. Within weeks the campaign to save the steps had raised more than the amount needed so there was enough left over to install lighting in the church yard.

However, it has not been totally plain-sailing and two years ago St Mary’s found itself in the midst of a backlash after he had to take the decision to ban photography in the grounds, prompting a row between photographers, the organisers and visitors to Whitby Goth Weekend.

He said: “The only thing that annoyed me was how some of the goths desecrated the churchyard by sitting or laying on the tombs. But we haven’t had any trouble this year and the woman who runs it has always been on our side.”

John admits he couldn’t have got through the past 25 years without the help of his wife Sheila who started off the Christmas tree exhibition which has now become an annual tradition. She also runs the wedding dresses exhibition and provides the tea, coffee and biscuits after services.

He added: “I have had a wonderful time but couldn’t have done it without Sheila helping me along the way and the church maids and members of their families.

“The church is absolutely spick and span and I am very proud and honoured to still be here.”