site unseen : Netteswell House, Bishop's Stortford

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The Independent Online
In the past, muscular Christianity required clergymen to be of a suitably imposing stature so that their physique, if not their oratory, could win converts. Even today, size alone can often guarantee a hearing (Dr Paisley, for instance).

But what if the vicar was a little short? Visit medieval St Michael's, which towers over the town of Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, and you will find out. Inside the original pulpit of 1658, made locally for pounds 5, is a fold-down board which discreetly gave vertically-challenged ecclesiastics a few extra inches.

One Victorian occupant of this pulpit was a Reverend Francis Rhodes whose sermons were famed for lasting just 10 minutes - not a minute more nor a minute less. He had 11 children and a plaque on the nearby wall commemorates his most famous son who often came here to watch his father at work and went on to give his name to a large chunk of the Empire: Cecil Rhodes.

Historical reputations change as fast as fashions. Sixty years ago Cecil Rhodes was revered as a demigod. The subsequent revulsion against colonialism then caused his stock to plummet. Today, however, a more measured view of the imperial adventure is emerging and recent talk has been of establishing a new museum devoted solely to this topic.

There is no need to wait. The attractive early 19th-century house in which Rhodes was born in 1853 is now, together with the adjacent building, a 15-room museum. His father wanted him to go into the church but his talents lay elsewhere and it was from Netteswell House, Bishop's Stortford that the 17-year-old boy set out in 1870 to voyage to South Africa and join an older brother growing cotton in Natal.

Cecil was soon drawn to the "diamond rush" in Kimberley and his driving energy swiftly brought prosperity, power and fame. As prime minister of the Cape, Rhodes was the virtual dictator of South Afri- ca. Not content with this, he helped set up the British South Africa Company in 1889 which subjugated the native Matabele tribesmen and carved out a huge territory that was inevitably known as "Rhodesia".

A weak heart led to Rhodes's early death in 1902, at the age of 49, but his legacy, dedicated to the supremacy of white British interests, lived on. In many ways it has only been obliterated by the elections of Presidents Mugabe and Mandela under a system of "one person, one vote".

Perhaps it would have been better if Rhodes had become a clergyman as his father wanted. One thing is for sure: as a sturdy six-footer, Rhodes would not have needed any artificial assistance from the pulpit at St Michael's, Bishop's Stortford.

The Rhodes Memorial Museum is in Netteswell House, South Road, Bishop's Stortford. Open Tue-Sat, 10am to 4pm