Through to 20th Century

St Mary’s was described as “a rich living” in the middle ages.  In 1254, it was valued at 100 shillings and, given that the Rector did not have to put petrol in his car or pay electricity and gas bills, it was probably a reasonable income.  He was also able to grow a lot of his food.

By 1535, the priest’s income had risen to £10 with another pound from tithes (A levy every citizen paid to support the church and its clergy.).  In 1564 the glebe – or  land that goes with the living – consisted of 27 acres of pasture and wood worth £20.  By 1835, the gross income of the rectory had risen to £463.  (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol.  X, p35.)

And with the living went somewhere to live.  There is evidence that the Rectory originally stood beside the church where West Bergholt Hall now stands.  But for about 300 years, the priest lived in what is now the Old Rectory in Cooks Hall Lane.  It was described in 1848 as “a good residence commanding a fine view of the vale.  The core of the house is a 17th or 18th century timber framed building, but it has 19th and 20th century additions.  (ERO., D/P 59/1/5; White’s Dir.  Essex (1848).)  The Rectory is now in Church Close in the heart of the village.

The archives tell us little of what happened in the church in the 18th century.  If there were problems they did not warrant coverage in the local papers or find their way into the parish records.  We do know that there were two services each Sunday and that Holy Communion was celebrated four times a year.  Children were catechized every Friday and Sunday in summer and once a month in winter.  (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol.  X, p36.)

The most exciting event in the parish was the wedding in 1726 of local celebrities Charles Gray, five times MP for Colchester, to Sarah Creffield daughter of a very wealthy clothmaker.  (A History of the Parish of West Bergholt,by Peter R.  Wormell)  The bride’s mother gave Gray Colchester Castle as a wedding present.  He made good use of it, rescuing it from ruin and landscaping the grounds.  Why these prosperous Colchester people were married in St Mary’s is not recorded.

As Britain entered the 19th century, Roman Catholics were a minority among Christian worshippers.  The Anglican Church was established and prospered and in West Bergholt – as in most parts of the country – religious conflict was almost a thing of the past.  It was to flare up briefly over the building of a school.

Now social unrest took centre stage.  The problems in the village were poverty and ignorance  which resulted in violent protest.  The farm workers who bowed their heads each Sunday in St Mary’s and their families lived close to the poverty line and if there was no work, the poor relief they received was barely enough to keep them alive.  Their protests about their miserable pay and living conditions eventually erupted into violence and the weapon the farm hands used against unpopular employers was arson.  There was more fire raising  in West Bergholt than in any other village in Essex.

Not all the victims were unpopular.  The Rector, the Rev William Erratt Sims, who farmed 37 acres of glebe land around the Rectory, was well liked and respected.  But he became a target (probably because he was seen as a member of the establishment) and narrowly escaped losing his home.  Fortunately, one of his near neighbours spotted the flames and sent a messenger to warn him.  The fire in the thatch of the granary had made considerable progress, but with the help of neighbours and labourers, the thatch was stripped off and the fire prevented from spreading to neighbouring buildings.  The next day being Sunday, the Rector pinned a note to the church door thanking all who had helped him in his hour of need.  (The Most Unfortunate and Ignorant Parish, by Jon Lander, West Bergholt History Group, 2003, p21.)

The main target of the fire raisers’ anger was the Churchwarden and Overseer of the Poor, Robert Bradbrook.  His property was set on fire a number of times, according the the Essex Standard.   The reason for his unpopularity is probably his management of poor relief in the village.  The amount paid out in West Bergholt was always smaller than that received by the poor in neighbouring Fordham and Great Horkesley.  (The Most Unfortunate and Ignorant Parish, by Jon Lander, West Bergholt History Group, 2003, p83-85.)  The anger and the solidarity of the workers was so great that, although there were nineteen fires in the village, only one man was convicted – and that was because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  He was sentenced to transportation for life.

As the century wore one, the men’s anger was diverted into militant trade unionism, but the farm workers remained a prey to an economic situation in which their employers were often as hard pressed as they were.

Not all St Mary’s Rectors were as sympathetic to the needs of the working man as William Sims.  Preaching at the Lexden Harvest Home service in 1877, one of his successors, the Rev J Howell Blood, rebuked the labourers for “an increased longing for pleasure and excitement and in some quarters an indisposition to work for work’s own sake.” (Essex Standard, 21 Sept 1877)

The other big issue in the village was education.  In 1817,a year after he became Rector, William Sims started his campaign to educate the children of West Bergholt.  We know quite a lot about |Mr Sims.  He took his degree at Pembroke College Cambridge, where he was decribed as one who lived “piously, soberly and honestly.”  His first job after he graduated was as curate at Langenhoe on a salary of £30 a year.  The Rector there described Sims in a letter to the Bishop as “the only son of opulent parents.”  (Ordination Papers, Guildhall Library, Ref 9535/3, Page 452.)

His commitment to educating the poor was considerable.  Twice a week more than seventy children crowded into two rooms in the Rectory in Cooks Hall Lane to be taught by his daughters, Jane, Mary and Elizabeth.  On Sunday mornings the children met in the church for Sunday school.

In 1829 he applied to the Church of England for permission to build a schoolroom at a cost of £100.  He said there was “an urgent need to provide education for poor people who were anxious for it.”  He asked his superiors for a grant.  He told them the running costs could be covered by an annual subscription of £13, a collection in the church once a year, the payment of a penny a week from each of the seventy children and the proceeds of the church needlework circle’s sale.

He received neither help nor encouragement from  his superiors and by 1833 he had only raised £55.  He again appealed for help but now he needed more money.  The village was growing – the population was now 852 – and there were more children to accommodate so the building would have to be bigger.  There would also have to be a cottage for a teacher.  The church was too cold and damp to be used as a school, he said.  Still there was no help from the Church.

In another appeal for help, he wrote: “As I have to find a Sunday School mistress, also books for the children, at my own expense, could I not be supplied with a grant of books from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge as I am a member of the Society?”

Another generation of West Bergholt children was to grow up before a school was built in the village and the Rev William Erratt Sims did not live to see it.

There is a sad postscript to the story of this well liked and well meaning Rector.  In 1841 Mr  Sims was declared bankrupt.  He had accumulated debts of £2,033 which (using the retail price index for comparison) would be worth £144,000 today.  (  There were 25 creditors, the largest of whom was the churchwarden, Robert Bradbrook, to whom he owed £515.  His creditors made him take out an insurance policy on his own life for £1,500.  the proceeds of which would go to them when he died.  The annual premium was £328 10s and if he was unable to pay it out of the proceeds of the Rectory and its tithes, the Bawtree Bank would pay it and get its money back from the proceeds of the policy when he died.  (ERO ref.D/Del F 12.)  They did not have long to wait.  Mr Sims died five years later.  It is difficult to understand how a man described as “pious, sober and honest” got into such a mess.

There now moved into the Rectory the Rev William’s son and successor, the Rev Frederick Sims.  And he was a very different man from his father.

While Williams’ efforts to  bring education to West Bergholt were remembered with affection, his son’s role was seen rather differently.  In 1857, a letter in the correspondence column of the Essex Standard by someone calling himself “a Native” praised the work of the late Rector and accused his successor of being less committed to the education of the poor.  The writer said that when an attempt had been made to establish a school in the village soon after the elder Sims had died in 1846, the project had been vetoed by the Rev Frederick.   And this is where that resurgence of religious conflict occurred.

At a meeting of the “principle inhabitants” of the village, sufficient money had been promised to build a school and a continuing commitment had been made to cover its running costs.   This was a major and open-ended act of generosity on the part of the village’s middle class.  But it came to nothing, according to the “Native,” because the Rector withdrew his support “alleging as his reason for doing so that he was not allowed to support any school that was not conducted entirely on the principles of the Established Church.”  His problem was that there were “several Dissenters in the Parish” who had promised to make contributions to the new school.

The “Native” – presumably a resident of West Bergholt – complained about the Rector’s ministry, saying that “sabbath after sabbath the church is deserted.” (Essex Standard, 20 May 1857.)

The poverty and unhappiness of the village were none of the Rev Fredericks’s doing, but it was during his time at the Rectory that the reputation of the parish sank to its lowest ebb.  A major blow to West Bergholt’s reputation was the claim by a Colchester magistrate in 1858 that it was “the most unfortunate and ignorant parish” in the Lexden and Winstree Division.  (Essex Standard, 1 January 1858.)  This provoked an inflammatory series of letters in the Essex Standard about the “deplorable ignorance that prevails among the lower orders” in the village.

The most savage attack came from one who signed himself “Catechist.”  He accused the Church of England of failing to provide a Sunday school and went on: “Out of 27 children between the ages of seven and thirteen years whom I recently catechised only two ever heard of the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments and even those two could not repeat them.”

Then, without naming him, the writer launched an astonishing attack on the Rector.  He accused him of neglecting his pastoral duties and called on him to “visit those hovels of ignorance and vice for the first time during the period of your ministry……  How is it, I would ask, that the great mass of the people of this unfortunate parish is found, in this enlightened age in the heart of this most Christian land, in a state of semi-barbarianism?” (Essex Standard, 20 May 1857.)  There was no response in print from Mr Sims.

More shame was heaped on the village by the Colchester coroner.  At an inquest into the death of an old lady who was said to have been “most grossly neglected,” the coroner said that the parish “had lately become notorious and he trusted recent public exposure of omissions on the part  of the parish at large would stimulate the wealthier classes to look a  little more after the poor.”  (Essex Standard, 12 March 1857.)

The evidence suggested a village sunk in the depths of depravity, ignorance and godlessness.  But, in fact, when a religious census was carried out in 1851, it was found that 79 people attended morning worship at St Mary the Virgin beside West Bergholt Hall and in the evening, the congregation numbered 113.  (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol.  X, p36.)  And this at a time when the population was 850.  It suggests the claim that the church was deserted “sabbath after sabbath” may have been an exaggeration.  Then again, we do not know who did the counting.

To be fair to the Rector there was a logistical problem that he could do nothing about.  The village was developing more than half a mile away – where the Methodists were now established – and the approach to cold and damp St Mary’s was across a field – a miserable trudge on a cold wet day.  Frederick Sims began campaigning for a new church in the 1860s, but it did not come to pass until long after he had gone.

The Methodists first came to West Bergholt at the end of the 18th century when services were held in private houses.  Later, meetings of as many as 40 worshippers took place outside James Seaborn’s blacksmith’s shop in what is now Chapel Road.  (Methodism in Colchester, by the Rev J A Asquith Baker.)  A chapel was built on the Colchester road in about 1822..

William Sims, who was then Rector, wrote to the Bishop of Chelmsford in July 1829 to say “there is only one place of worship not of the Church of England in this Parish.  It is fragmented by a sect which profess to be followers of John Wesley and call themselves Arminian Methodists.”  As to the number attending their services, he said “the person who officiates as clerk at the meetings states it to be one or two and twenty belonging to this parish.”  (Return of non-conformist meeting houses, ERO ref Q/CR 3/1/31.)

But their support was growing and in 1838, a group of Primitive Methodists bought a piece of land known as “meetings field” beside what is now known as Chapel Road and built another place of worship.  By 1851, congregations of 174 for morning service, 242 in the afternoon and 100 in the evening were being recorded at the new chapel.  This was the building that later became the British (Methodist) School and is now the Scissorhands hairdressing salon.  (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol.  X, p36.)

Apart from dealing with the challenge presented by the Methodists, Frederick Sims was under great pressure to provide the village with a Church of England sponsored day school.  There had, in fact, been schools in the village since 1810 – none of them for the children of the labouring class.  Indeed, in 1833, five schools existed, all of them small and three of them run by non-conformists.  But at the time Sims the younger took over the Rectory only one survived – a small boarding school for the offspring of the upwardly mobile run by Mr James W Harrington and his wife.  (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol.  X, p38.)  In 1851, it was very small indeed with only five pupils – all from outside the village.  (Two were farmers’ sons, two were brewers’ daughters and one was an innkeeper’s daughter.) (1851 census.)

The letter writing campaign – particularly the intemperate contribution from “Catechist” – had an electrifying affect on leading figures in the community including the Rector.  Two weeks after his letter was published in the Essex Standard, an advertisement appeared on the newspaper’s front page under the heading: “Proposed erection of school for the poor.”

It read; “The Parish of West Bergholt has long been under the serious disadvantage of possessing no school in connection with the Church of England for the children of the poor who are numerous and scattered over an unenclosed common.  The lamentable consequence of such a state of things is a large amount of crime among both its youthful and adult population.”

The Rector and churchwardens, it said, wanted to build a school “conducted on the principles of the established church” as soon as sufficient funds were available and they appealed for donations.

A subscription list followed, headed by the Rev Frederick Sims who gave a handsome £100 and Robert Bradbrook, the churchwarden, with another £100.   The Lord of the Manor of Bergholt Sackville, John Round, who lived in Brighton, promised £50 as well as the land on which to build the school.   Three of the biggest farmers – the Wards at The Hall, J T Argent at Newbridge Mill and Thomas Daniell at Armoury Farm – all pledged £10.  Altogether, a dozen of the village’s most prominent citizens appeared on the initial list.  (Essex Standard, 26 February 1858.)

Catechist’s first letter appeared in the paper in February, 1858.  By October the same year, the money had been raised and the school built and opened.   The school and the two cottages that were built with it cost £240.  One of the cottages was for the master and mistress, Mr George Sergeant and his wife.  The other was let at £4 4s a year, the proceeds going to school funds.  The appeal raised a total of £400, the balance after building costs being used for the running costs of the school.

The great event was celebrated on a fine Sunday afternoon with a service in the Parish Church attended, according to one observer, by “several hundred people.”   The body of the church, the Essex Standard reported, was filled with “cleanly, intelligent looking and well conducted agricultural labourers and their wives.  The chancel was occupied by the school children, the farmers and gentry of the parish and neighbourhood.  The children sang their hymns most sweetly and the congregation theirs most lustily and heartily, aided by the occupants of the orchestra.”

These were the days when editors were threatened with a horse whip by angry readers and there are indications in the Standard report that the Rector had made his feelings plain about the abuse he had suffered in the letter columns.  It was clear that the paper was attempting to smooth the Rector’s ruffled feathers as the report went on:  “Those of our readers who have been accustomed to read in our columns reflections from the magistrates’ bench as well as from our correspondents on the ‘ignorance and crime’ prevalent among the peasantry in the Parish of West Bergholt will be gratified to learn that through the persevering and self -denying efforts of the Rector, the Rev F Sims, a new school has been erected by subscription and is now about to be opened for the children of the poor.” (Essex Standard, 5 November 1858.)

The organisation responsible for the development of the school was the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church which is why it was known as the National school.  After St Mary’s school opened, the Methodists had another go at opening a school and this time they succeeded.  By 1874, their school  which was run under the auspices of the non-conformist British and Foreign School Society, was also well established in the village.  It survived until 1901 when it merged with the National school.

In its early days, the church school struggled with truancy, parental lack of interest and the ill-health of undernourished children.  It came with additional responsibility for the Rector who had a supervisory role in making sure that what was taught was in accordance with the Principles of the Established Church.  He also led prayers and provided religious instruction.  Today, the school is highly successful and plays a major role in the life of the village community.

Three of the most prominent memorials in the church are reminders of churchwardens who contributed generously towards the cost of the school and played an important role in the life of the church for many years.  These were the kind of  men who established what, today, we call “Victorian values.”  (It was to be 1943 before the parish had a woman churchwarden).

A Gothic tablet on the south wall of the chancel commemorates Robert Bradbrook, who was churchwarden and overseer of the poor for 46 years.  He was a prosperous farmer and a devoted churchman who left money in his will for the enlargement of the church.    A row of cottages in the village is named after him.

Three generations of Argents, all called John Thompson and all millers and farmers, were important figures in 19th century West Bergholt.  Two of them have memorial plaques on the walls of the church.  They were churchwardens and covered the period from 1829 to 1893 between them.  The John Thompson who is commemorated by a brass cross was a Conservative town councillor for 15 years and helped to run the Association for the Protection of Property and the Prosecution of Thieves.  It was his funeral in January 1894 that provided the village with a spectacle that was long remembered.   The Essex Standard  devoted a large number of column inches to it.   The old man had left instructions that his body should be taken to the church in one of the mill wagons drawn by a pair of his own horses.  The mourners followed in another three carriages.  The bearers were all men who had worked for him for more than 20 years.  All the children from the church school were in the congregation that filled the little church to capacity.  At the Conservative Club the Union Jack flew at half mast.   A road in the village is named after the Argent family.

Another family which had a huge impact on the village were the Daniels who founded a brewery in the village in 1820 and rescued it from agricultural poverty.  They created much needed jobs and their generosity provided the village with such things as the village hall and a playing field.  It was a very large family and several members of it are buried in the churchyard in graves surrounded by wrought iron railings.

The most prominent memorial inside the church is the stained glass east window installed in 1928 in memory of Thomas Brett Daniel.  The name of his sister, Sarah, who unveiled the window at its dedication, was added in 1932.  Within the sanctuary are more memorials to the Daniel family – one to Louis Wilberforce Daniel, who died in 1987 and his wife, Mavis Pendlebury (1968) and the other to John G Daniel (1954) and his wife Edith (1968).

Also within the sanctuary is a stone in memory of Thomas Scarlett, Gentleman (1705).  There is still a house in the parish that bears his name.  Beside Thomas Scarlett is a partly illegible inscription which is probably a memorial to his wife Sarah (1699).

The centuries and thousands of Christian feet have not dealt kindly with some of the memorial slabs in the floor of the church—to the extent that they are illegible.   One such is under the lectern and is too badly worn to identify.

Also within the chancel are memorials to Peter  Sadler (1670), his wife Rebecka (1676) and Mary Pollard (1676).  Almost completely hidden under the choir stalls is a memorial to the Rev Nathanial Seaman, Rector of the parish from 1658 until his death in 1679.  At the west end of the nave by the vestry curtains is a badly worn stone commemorating  the wife of a Mr Parker (1700) and under the pews beside it  one for Dorothy Fox who died in 1718 aged 70.  In the south aisle floor is a strange coffin-shaped stone dating from mediaeval times.  Nothing is known about it, but the two holes piercing it suggest that this may have been the base of a 13th or 14th century stone coffin.

During the last decades of the 19th century, Rectors struggled with the problems of providing for the spiritual welfare of the parish in a church that was too small, too uncomfortable and too far from the centre of habitation.  Frederick Sims had started a campaign as far back as 1846 for a new church to be built.  Then in 1865, he had the satisfaction of seeing a tentative step being made towards change when two acres of land in the centre of the village was set aside as the site of a new church.  But, like his father with the school, Frederick did not live to see it built.  The land was to lie untouched for 40 years before the first brick was laid.

No doubt the new Rector who arrived in 1891, the Rev Henry Clemence Corrance, maintained the pressure for action.  But Mr Corrance was struggling with a personal problem.  To the parishioners he must have seemed very “high church.”  There is nothing to tell us whether this resulted in arguments and unpleasantness, but there is no doubt that Mr Corrance himself was not a happy man in the role he was playing.

The evidence lies in an 1887 newspaper cutting – clearly from the Essex Standard – in the West Bergholt History Group archives.  Under the heading “Rev H C Corrance goes over to Rome” it stated:

The Rev H C Corrance, for six years Rector of West Bergholt, has seceded to the Church of Rome.   Mr Corrance resigned the living of West Bergholt last year, having previously, it is understood, disposed of it.  The reverend gentleman has issued a pamphlet “to the parishioners of West Bergholt” giving “some of the reasons” which have induced him “to return to the church of our fathers.”  Before resigning West Bergholt, he considered the Church of England was “a part” of the Catholic Church and therefore he was justified in teaching “Catholic truth” within her pale.

Meanwhile worship continued in the old mediaeval church.  A frequent entry in the Churchwardens’ account book reminds us of “Catechist’s” attack on the “barbarous” inhabitants of West Bergholt  and raises an interesting question about the behaviour of the congregation.  From 1837 and for at least the next forty years, the churchwardens employed a man to keep order in church.  John Scott makes his first appearance in the churchwardens’ accounts in that year when he was given a pair of new shoes for his services.  Every year after that he received either new shoes or 12 shillings “for keeping order in church.”  Whether he was employed as a “bouncer” or whether he was just there to keep the place tidy is not made clear.  (E.R.O., DP 59/5/1.)

In 1882-83 the bell-turret was repaired, the cracked mediaeval bell recast and a second bell, now in use at the new church, was added.  This was an improvement, but it did not solve the basic problems the Rector and his parishioners faced.  At a meeting of parishioners in 1886 it was decided that the church should be enlarged.  They agreed to apply for permission to build a north aisle and organ chamber and to carry out restoration work in the rest of the building if they could afford to.  The plans produced by the architect show a new bell-turret and north aisle, with a lower gable than that on the south aisle and a rood screen beneath the chancel arch.  But it never happened.

The parish’s prospects changed a year later when the long serving churchwarden Robert Bradbrook died and included the church in his will.  The sum he left them must have been substantial because the idea of enlarging the church was abandoned and plans were set in train to build a new and much larger one.  A two-acre site for the new church had been set aside at the inclosure of the heath in 1865, but the money was not raised to build one until after 1898.   It was to be many years before enough money had been assembled and plans agreed for a start to be made on the building.

Meanwhile, an urgent problem arose.  The churchyard at the old church was full by 1900 and there was nowhere to bury the dead.  Despite the objections of the parish council, the medical officer of the rural district council and many local residents, a site on the land ear-marked for the new church was consecrated for burials in 1902.

When the Rev Alban J Havard (sometimes known as Havard-Jones) became Rector in 1897 the project was no further forward, but he was determined that West Bergholt should have a new church – and soon.  From the little we know of him, it is clear that Mr Havard was an energetic and forceful character.  He had been the curate at St Mary’s at March in Cambridgeshire and West Bergholt was his first parish as priest in charge.  And he was not prepared to put up with the disadvantages of the old church.

However, the path leading to the new church proved to be a rocky one for the Rector.  The foundation stone was laid early in 1904, but problems still remained and some parishioners were not happy with the way the Rector was dealing with them.  An undated press cutting in a quaint form of journalese found in West Bergholt History Group’s archives contains a report of a very bad tempered vestry meeting in the months before the church was completed at which the Rector clashes with one of the churchwardens..

Under the heading “Vestry Atavism” it reads:

Of all the vestry meetings in Essex, the liveliest was furnished at West Bergholt.  There was a distinct whiff of “the good old times” about it.  The Rev A J Havard, rector, and certain of the  parishioners talked to each other in Saxon 15 that left nothing to be desired for plainness.  Three names were suggested for the office of parish churchwarden..  “If you elect anybody except Mr Green, “ said the rector, “I think you will be very foolish.”

Replied a parishioner: “Are we to be lectured by you as to whether we are foolish or not? You ought to be impartial.”  The end was the election of Mr Edwin Taylor.

Mr Argent wished to  know why the building of the new church was not being proceeded with.  The Rector declared that this was not the business of the vestry and refused to answer.

Mr Argent: That is just what I thought you would do.  You have no answer.  You have been badgering us for money and you can have it any time you like.  There has not been a single stroke done there since the foundation stone was laid.

The Rector: You must be an extremely foolish man.  That money has to go through the Court of Chancery.

Other matters, including the parish magazine, were sought to be brought into review, but the Rector beat his adversaries by ruling that they did not come within the four corners of the meeting.

In spite of this evidence that Mr Havard was at loggerheads with people in the parish, he  remained Rector for an astonishing 48 years.

Even a month before the new church was to be consecrated the finances were still in disarray.  According to a press report, on 7 July, 1904, parishioners were presented with “a satisfactory report” on progress by the building committee.  However, it went on: “In spite of some of the promised subscriptions being in arrears,it is hoped that the building will be free of debt before August 5, the date fixed for its consecration.” (Essex County Standard, 16 July 1906.)

At last the great day arrived for the consecration of West Bergholt’s new church by the Bishop of St Albans (West Bergholt was then in the diocese of St Albans.) – 4 August 1904.  The Bishop told a congregation of 200 that they would “part with the old church with regret but the change was necessary and wise.”  The Essex Standard reported that the new church “is so constructed as to easily admit of an extension at the East end” (Essex County Standard, 12 August 1904.) which sounds like a euphemism for not having enough money to complete it.  The extension was never built and the East wall is still covered with corrugated iron cladding.

For a few months after the consecration, the old church remained in service.  That was the time it took for the church in the village to become legally The Parish Church.  In the meantime, banns had to be read and marriages celebrated in old St Mary’s.

The parish tried to keep the old church open and in use but by 1946  it was used only for occasional marriages and for Sunday morning services during summer months.  In 1975 it was declared redundant and in 1976 it was vested in The Churches Conservation Trust, which used to be known as the Redundant Churches Fund.  The Trust’s primary aim is to ensure that the buildings in its care are weatherproof and to prevent any deterioration in their condition.  The majority of the Trust’s churches remain consecrated.

Now a group of villagers have formed an organisation called The Friends of St Mary’s Old Church with the aim of restoring the historic building to its old place at the heart of the community.  As well as encouraging people to use it for weddings and memorial services, they want to see it used as a venue for concerts, exhibitions and meetings of all kinds.  No longer redundant, but serving the village as it did in mediaeval times.  They also want to restore the bond between the village school (still C of E) and the church by making it available for school events.

There must be many parish churches with similar stories to tell of its priests and people.  We are fortunate that so much documentary evidence has survived to give us snapshots across twelve hundred years of the struggles, triumphs and tragedies of the people of old St Mary’s.  But they are only snapshots and usually of trouble and turmoil.  The good in the story of St Mary’s will almost certainly have outweighed the bad.  But we do get glimpses of some of the good works that were the norm and must be content with that.

Sitting in this simple, venerable building in its rural setting with birdsong coming through the open  door and light streaming through the east window casting coloured reflections on the stones, it is difficult to imagine the turmoil in the breasts of people and priests during the religious upheavals of the Tudor and Stuart years.  But the ghosts are all around us – the troubled priests coming to terms with new doctrines and the dissidents who risked and sometimes sacrificed their lives for their beliefs; the well meaning who tried to change people’s lives for the better and sometimes succeeded; and the quiet nameless ones who simply came here to worship.

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