THERE are reasons for having a small font, the most obvious being that it is movable — in contrast to the full-sized main font, which necessarily remains in a fixed position within the church because of its size and weight. The term “fontlet” is a catch-all for any miniature font.
There is evidence that portable fonts were in use at least as early as the 16th century, when there were conflicting ecclesiastical directives. In 1549 and 1552, the Book of Common Prayer continued the tradition of ceremonial immersion at baptism, while providing for affusion (pouring) instead if the child was weak. But, by 1558, the Calvinists were encouraging baptism by aspersion (sprinkling) or affusion, using a basin placed within the main font.
Queen Elizabeth I subsequently became alarmed at the banishing or destruction of ancient fonts as a result of the Reformation. In 1561, she decreed that fonts were to remain in churches; and, later, in 1564, that basins were not to be used at all, thereby leading to further confusion. She reinforced this in 1571, insisting that every church should have a font, not a basin (“sacer fons, non pelvis”).
The Puritans, however, were inclined to ignore her dictums, and continued to promote small metal basins (a comparatively large number of 16th-century pewter vessels, for example, survive in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire).
In 1645, Parliament passed an ordinance requiring the use of the Westminster Assembly’s Directory of Public Worship. In effect, this ordered the abolition of all fonts (resulting in the destruction of many more beautiful medieval fonts), basins to be used instead. With these basins, baptism by aspersion or affusion was to be conducted. At this time, while Calvinist doctrine favoured the basin, the Book of Common Prayer continued to enjoin ceremonial immersion (or affusion). With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the main font once more regained its primacy in the service of baptism.
IT WAS in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, that baptism was elevated to a higher social status, with the ordering of private baptisms by those of position and rank. Private baptismal ceremonies reflecting social status might be viewed with suspicion, however, for they could be said to flout the 1551 Act of Uniformity enacted by Parliament during the reign of Edward VI (subsequently repealed by Queen Mary, but reinstated by Queen Elizabeth I).
The Act states that the curates of every parish shall warn the people “that without like great cause and necessity they procure not their children to be baptised at home in their houses”, before going on to set out the specific conditions under which such a baptism could take place (Book of Common Prayer, “Ministration of Private Baptism of Children in Houses”).
From the beginning of the 18th century, it appears that the aristocracy were wont to bend the rules. These portable fonts, made for private baptism in the hall or private chapel of a great house, were often one-off commissions, and would remain in the house awaiting the arrival of subsequent siblings.
This new market for portable fonts for use in private baptism seems at least partly to account for the spate of miniature fonts produced in the 19th century by the great Staffordshire pottery factories: in particular, Wedgwood, Minton, Spode, Copeland, and Worcester.
Portable fonts were also used in churches, enabling the priest to involve the whole congregation more fully rather than just the chosen few standing around the main font, usually situated at the west end of the nave.
ANOTHER important factor in the production of miniature fonts was a demand for small portable or travelling fonts that could be used at the bedside of an infant succumbing to illness. Before the advent of antibiotics, epidemics of influenza, cholera, typhoid, and typhus in the first half of the 19th century, for instance, claimed the lives of many children; so a miniature font that could be slipped into a pocket or bag became a necessary part of the priest’s armamentarium.
It was for just such a scenario that the Royal Worcester porcelain company produced its travelling fonts in response to outbreaks of contagious disease in the 1830s and ’40s. Minton likewise produced pocket-sized travelling fonts in the 1850s. Sometimes, owing to their diminutive scale, these are referred to (including by manufacturers) as “pocket fonts”. Travelling or pocket fonts generally came with their own leather case or box.
A further catalyst for the making of miniature fonts seems to have been a demand for reproduction models for display or even study within the home. These were generally not intended for baptism — although evidently a number were subsequently appropriated for this use. In the 19th century, a number of replica or model fonts were produced, essentially to satisfy scholarly admirers of Gothic art.
The hugely influential Cambridge Camden Society (later the Ecclesiological Society), for example, not only offered such replicas to its members, but actively commissioned their production. In 1840, the price to members of the replica of the Winchester Cathedral font was one guinea. This roughly equates to £100 in today’s money, making such an object the preserve of the wealthy. Other replicas, particularly those of the 20th century, were designed and sold essentially as souvenirs, often models of famous fonts.
POTTERY was not the only material used in the production of miniature fonts: stone (including marble and alabaster), various metals, and even wood can also be found. In terms of metal, pewter, for example, seems to have been favoured in the East Midlands for use in parish churches. In Cumbria, in 1838, a vicar even had his name inscribed on the pewter basin. The engraving adds, tellingly, that it is to be used “beyond the altar rails”.
Gold and silver miniature fonts, however, are rare, being generally reserved for the higher echelons of society. Indeed, a gold font was commissioned by the Duke of Portland in 1797 for the baptism of his first grandson (this “Portland font” was acquired in 1986 by the British Museum, where it still resides). The “Lily font”, made of silver gilt, came to general attention in 2013, and again in 2015, when used for the baptisms of Prince George and Princess Charlotte.
Miniature fonts made of wood are also scarce. One of the few remaining medieval wooden fonts is in St Andrew’s, Marks Tey, in Essex.
IT IS frustrating that so few records appear to survive for the many miniature fonts that were produced; nor is it clear in how many churches they are still used. The question how many have survived can never be answered with certainty.
In recent years, miniature fonts have been made to commemorate a loved one who has died in Iraq or other wars. These dedication fontlets are commonly of stone or marble, and are usually accompanied by an inscription that details the unhappy circumstances of their commission. Other 20th-century miniature fonts, sometimes of wood, may be found in hospitals.
The vast majority of fontlets still remaining in our parish churches belong to a golden period of miniature-font production in the first half of the 19th century, most of them emanating from one of the great Staffordshire firms.
Today, it is not uncommon to find a small vessel or basin nestling within the font, hidden below the font cover. This may be a simple bowl from any hardware store or car-boot sale, merely there as a convenience to avoid the need to fill the whole of the font with water at the celebration of baptism. With luck, however, a specifically designed miniature font or baptismal basin may be concealed, awaiting discovery by the inquisitive visitor to the church.
This is an edited extract from Miniature Baptismal Fonts, by Julian Wheeler, published by Fircone Books at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).