The History of Wolford Parish Church
The Ecclesiastical Parish of Wolford encompasses the separate civil parishes of Great and Little Wolford; the Parish Church of St Michael & All Angels is situated in Great Wolford.
The Church was rebuilt in 1835 and, in consequence, does not reflect the activities of our more remote predecessors or exhibit earlier architecture. Very little of the earlier church remains. However, in compensation, the Church does reflect the characteristic development of the Victorian church: this is not superimposed upon earlier features and is thus more evident than it might otherwise be. The Church is, therefore, of particular interest to students of the Victorian period.
Doubtless the site on which the present church stands is an ancient one. In the Domesday Book of 1086 a priest is recorded in Wolford. This does not necessarily imply a church building but it is, perhaps, not too fanciful to suppose that a building, probably wooden, existed.
Three drawings of the pre-1835 church are extant. This drawing from the Aylesford Collection, probably from the 1830's suggests the building dated from the later thirteenth century with a clerestory to the Nave and perpendicular side windows to the chancel, with an East Window bearing intersecting tracery of circa 1300, a plain aisle-less Nave, with parapet and single-storied South porch, a West Tower massively buttressed to its full height North and South, surmounted by a graceful spire. In 1831 the Church was said to be "a very pretty one". In a letter to the Bishop of Worcester, dated June 1832, the then Vicar, the Reverend Edmund Bucknall Estcourt, related that the Church "was in a dangerous state and that last Sunday afternoon during divine service a rafter about four foot long fell down from the roof and has since been found to be completely decayed at each end. Providentially no lives were lost". Earlier in 1832, "three builders of character and reputation pronounced ..... (the building) ..... to be in a dangerous state". Others confirmed the building as being "dilapidated". However, there seems to be no evidence of its being destroyed by fire as suggested by a twentieth century note which accompanied the now stolen Commemorative medals which were mounted on the South wall of the Nave in the 1950s.
The motives for a building a new Church are not necessarily as obvious as it would seem. The Church could, after all, have been restored rather than rebuilt. The most likely explanation is that the new Church was built to accommodate an expanding population. Certainly the population of the Wolfords was growing rapidly, being recorded as 465 in the 1811 Census rising to a peak of 585 in 1841, but thereafter declining. The application to Her Majesty's Commissioner for Building Churches indicated an intention to increase the capacity by 177 places from 283 to 460. The rebuilt Church, by design, more adequately accommodated the form of worship advocated by Estcourt. Whatever the reason , the dilapidated church could only have been the result of previous neglect and the rebuilding was a sign of the renaissance of the church in the villages.
Discussion regarding the rebuilding had been taking place as early as April 1832, before the rafters collapsed, when an application for a grant was submitted to Merton College, Oxford, the holders of the advowson. Although the re-consecration took place on 21st July, 1835, the completion of the building did not occur until February 1837 when the final accounts were settled. The cost was £1,350. In his application to the Church Commissioners for funds in May 1833, Estcourt, in answer to the question "What exertions have already been made to raise the necessary funds?" replied "by raising a Subscription amongst the proprietors of land in the Parish" which had raised £700 including Merton College (£350) and Sir George Phillips (£75). Estcourt's subscripton was unspecified but probably substantial. Lord Redesdale had agreed to pay the balance over £900 so the £200 deficit was sought from the Commissioners with Redesdale subsequently contributing £450. It is interesting to note that the two freehold farmers "have given no money. One is a widow whose property is mortgaged for its full value. The other is a farmer occupying his own land upon which there is a heavy mortgage, and he is very poor". The tenant farmers "hhad undertaken to perform the land carriage of the materials". During the re-building, the services were held "at the school room at Great Wolford and in a barn belonging to Mrs Ingram at Little Wolford now in the occupation of Mr William Shirley" The Wolford Parish Registers record that from June 1832 to August 1835 "In consequence of the Church being pulled down for the purpose of erecting a new one the marriage of couples belonging to the parish were celebrated during the last three years at Todenham Church", James Trubshaw (1777-1853), a famous civil engineer and builder who built the then new Weston House, long since pulled down, was the architect/builder of the new Church. Among his other achievements was the building of the Grosvenor Bridge over the River Dee at Chester which was the longest single span stone bridge in the world when built in 1832. Strangely, and probably uniquely, he also restored to perpendicular the leaning tower of St Chad's Church, Wynbury, near Nantwich in 1832. Having, no doubt, impressed the loical gentry with his work at Weston and having achieved fame through these other projects, who else to rebuild St Michael's?"
The new Church retained very little of the old building or the contents thereof. Bells, church plate, memorial tablets, some stone and what is probably the original medieval stone stair to the tower survived. It seems also likely that the present spire was, in fact, the medieval one that was carefully taken down in pieces and resurrected on top of the new tower. It was distinctly evangelical or "low church" in plan, as was favoured by most of the country gentry of the period. Trubshaw provided a broad aisleless nave , well lit and with accoustics worthy of a cathedral. The Chancel, which has a graceful moulded arch, is shallow with an East window of four lights (as opposed to the three demanded by later High Church ecclesiologists). The Church is envisaged in the spirit of the eighteenth century, primarily as an oratory or preaching hall and the clarity with which a softly spoken preacher can be easily heard in all parts of the Nave is frequently remarked on. Trubshaw had a reputation for providing buildings excellently adapted for their purpose.
Modifications were subsequently carried out in 1876 and 1885 by the Reverend George Domville Wheeler. They conformed to "High Church" principles and surviving faculties describe these modifications in detail. The 1876 Faculty noted "that the present organ, which is in the Gallery of the Parish Church, being worn out, sufficient funds have been collected to build and erect a larger and superior instrument which is intended to be placed in the South-East angle of the Nave - that to enable this to be done it will be necessary to remove the Pulpit and a few pews and to rearrange others in order to provide seats for the Choir and School Children - that the present Reading Desk is nearly as high as the Pulpit and shuts out from the Congregation the view of the Chancel and that it is therefore proposed to remove the desk, make it the Pulpit and add a Reading Pew or Desk instead of the Clerk's Desk which has been disused and for that purpose to rearrange two adjoining Pews in the Gallery instead of the present seats now occupied by the Choir and School Children, in lieu of those removed in the Nave and to place the two new Pews in gangways that will no longer be required in the Nave".
Future intentions were also noted. Thus "it is proposed in the event of sufficient funds being obtained for the purpose to take down and remove the present Gallery and in that case to make the front row of free seats into pews and to cover this space now occupied by the Gallery stairs with free seats - and to remove the Font from its present position to the West end of the Church".
There seemed to be no explicit mention of raising the Chancel which undoubtedly occurred. It was perhaps implicit in the statement "alterations should be carried out as shown on the plans prepared for the purpose copies of which accompany the said petition".
The later Faculty said "that the proposed alterations are to build a Heating Chamber on the North side of the Chancel - to take down the Gallery and to block up the two windows at the Western end - to remove the present seats and Pews and reseat and refloor the whole church - to erect a a low screen to the Chancel - to make an entrance into the Vestry through the East wall of the Nave - to provide a new Holy Table, Sedilia Seat, Credence and Lectern for the Chancel - take down the Reading Desk and Pulpit and erect a new Pulpit on the South side of the Nave - to remove the organ to the North side - and reglaze the Windows and distemper and decorate the walls and the ceiling".
The original Trubshaw drawings, showing the layout of the Church when built survive and the annotated copy indicates the location of the major structural changes. The photograph, now on the West wall of the Church, illustrates the internal appearance between 1876 and 1885 prior to the later restoration. The Church had the misfortune of being struck by lightning circa 1910.
Today's internal layout is substantially that of the 1885 restoration except that many pews have been removed, the present church accommodating only about a quarter of the original intention. Otherwise no substantial modification to the building have taken place since 1885.
The Parish Magazines from the 1930's record some of the past glories of the Wolford team. They regularly won first place at the meetings of the Four Shires Guild of Bell-ringers. Alas, at some point interest declined and the bells were not rung for some time prior to 1985 when the 150th anniversary of the re-consecration of the Church was celebrated. It was then that their appalling condition was revealed. This stimulated a Bell Restoration Fund which masterminded the raising of funds to enable restoration, which was eventually undertaken at a cost of £23,600 in 1992. The photograph was taken during restoration. Today, the village has its own team and the bells are frequently rung by visitors.
The details of the Wolford Bells are:
Founded by Richard Keene of Woodstock. Diameter 29", D sharp, weight 3Ÿ cwt.
Inscribed: "MAIOR THOMAS KYTE CAST MEE LEADER IF THIS RING TO BE 1690 ".
Founded by Richard Keene of Woodstock. Diameter 31", C sharp, weight 5 cwt.
Inscribed: "CAPTAIN THOMAS KEYTE CAST MEE 1689".
Founded by John Rudhall of Gloucester. Diameter 34", B, weight 6 cwt.
Inscribed: "W. FLETCHER & T. FOX WARDENS 1792 I RUDHALL FEC".
Founded by Richard Keene of Woodstock. Diameter 36", A sharp, weight 7œ cwt.
Inscribed: "MAIGOR KEYTE CAST THIS RING 1690".
Founded by Matthew Bagley II of Chacombe. Diameter 39", G sharp, weight 9 cwt.
Inscribed: "THO : SHEPHARD : WM : HALL : C : W : M : B : MADE : ME : 1752".
Founded by George Mears & Co. Diameter 41", F sharp, weight 9Ÿ cwt. Inscriptions on waist:
(a) "RECAST BY G. MEARS, & CO., 1864. A. WHITE & SONS, BELL HANGERS".
(b) "G. D. WHEELER VICAR. JOHN RAINBOW & JOHN FLETCHER CHURCHWARDENS, 1864".
"I SWEETLY TOLL WHEN MEN DO CALL, TO TASTE ON FOOD THAT FEEDS THE SOLE"
The Moreton Free Press published on 20th March 1886 announced: "GREAT WOLFORD - DEDICATION OF A WINDOW AT THE PARISH CHURCH. Special services were held in the Wolford Church on Monday morning and evening in last week, on the occasion of the dedication of an East Window, the expence of which was borne by the vicar (the Rev. Canon Wheeler)"
The East Window is both stained and painted. It was made by P.G. Heinersdorf & Co. of Berlin and, according to Pesvener, is technically badly done. Why German? This remains a mystery, but it is likely that this was the influence of Lord Redesdale, who was known to have German diplomatic connections.
It depicts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, four lights having being installed in 1835. Wheeler would doubtless have preferred three! In the 1885 restoration, the chancel was raised and the window shortened and it is not now as elegant as when it was originally built.
The window is rare, being, as far as is known, the only surviving Heinersdorf window in the country. It's current condition is not too good and it is now in need of restoration. The possible cost when last investigated was £30,000!
Contained in the Church are six Wall Memorials and eight Floor Slabs. All, except the memorial to the Revd D G Wheeler, the vicar responsible for the late nineteenth century changes in the Church, predate the new Church. They essentially commemorate two families only: the Ingrams were the resident Lords of Little Wolford Manor and the Oakleys, the late rectors of the Church.
One floor slab is of particular interest. It commemorates Frances, Edward and Katherine Ingram, all children of Hastings and Ann Ingram. Edward had died in 1664, aged 2, and his brother and sister on consecutive days in 1686, aged 28 and 27 respectively. Dr Thomas records that this stone was originally mounted on the North aisle of the old Church. Its particular interest, however, is that the 1689 account for the stone survives and reads:
"Pd. Ye 4th (July) to Thomas Squier for a Gravestone to lay over my three deceased children
which I fetched from Cleeve Prior £2/0s/0d
Pd. likewise to Thomas Squier for cutting 12 dozen of letters upon ye said Gravestone £0/9s/0d
Pd. likewise in Ale spent upon several persons who helped in with ye said stone" £0/1s/0d"
In the same accounts a villager was paid three shillings for a week's threshing. 17th century gravestone installation apparently cost the equivalent of 17 weeks labour! Explanation, perhaps, for the profusion of uncommemorated interments in the churchyard?
At the Consecration of the newly built Church in July 1835, it was noted that "A collection will be made after both Services for the purpose of defraying the expenses of purchasing an organ". This instrument was positioned in the Gallery and was "in action" for about 40 years. It is said that it remained in the Village until the 1950s, when it was given to an Evesham builder.
The present organ dates from 1886. The Moreton Free Press reported on 12th August 1876 that "last Friday witnessed the successful completion of the undertaking. On that day, the new Organ - a beautiful instrument built by Martin of Oxford at a cost of £200 - was opened with two full choral services ..... The full power and sweet tones of the new Instrument were displayed ..... the choral parts of the services were efficiently rendered by the village choir".
Charles Martin was recognized as a first rate provincial organ builder and his obituary in the Oxford Journal places him "among those who have worthily sustained the tradition of individuality and craftsmanship which distinguishes the best organ making".
This Organ was originally positioned in the South East corner of the Nave but was repositioned as part of the 1885 changes. Major restoration was undertaken in 1995 at a cost of £7,500.
There are two Elizabethan pieces, a chalice and a paten; another silver gilt chalice made in Nuremberg in 1620, which was given in 1704 by Aston Ingram and his wife, Barbara; a silver chalice and paten dated 1677; and, finally, a silver paten from 1685. The latter four pieces are all inscribed with the maker's marks.
Little is known of the circumstances in which these items were acquired by Wolford Church, although the Parish Registers reveal that "On Oct 3 1704 Mr Ingram and his lady gave a silver cup well gilt & embossed for ye use of ye Church of Wolford at ye Sacramts with a desire that the silver cup we now have might be converted into a tankard or Flagon for ye same use reserving it in their hands till the foot should be mended", followed by "The Gilt Cup above mentioned being mended was returned to the use of the Church by Mrs Ingram at Easter 1735 with a desire that it might not be entrusted to ye hands of Ch wardens but kept at Mr Ingrams except at the time of celebrating the sacrament".
Today celebration is with a late Victorian silver chalice and paten, both inscribed "St Michael's, Wolford. The Gift of M.F. and H.B. 1898". These were the Misses Bull.
Since 1900 there have been two extensions to the Churchyard, to the south in 1911 and to the east in 1956. It has several notable features. The bank between the old Churchyard and the latest extension has a magnificent display of daffodils in the spring. The avenue of lime trees at the entrance to the Church has eleven trees rather than the usual twelve. The age of the thick carpet of snowdrops besides these trees remains a mystery and they could be centuries old.
The Churchyard is beautifully located having magnificent views to the East and South East. In the early 1990s, there were several surveys of the Churchyard. Eighty-five wild plants were observed, scoring 228 on the Warwickshire Museum's "Guide to Wildlife Richness Index" and the Churchyard is thus rated as "good". Fifty-five varieties of lichen were also observed. Butterflies were observed for several years and a soil survey was undertaken. Even a survey of spiders was started but, unfortunately, never completed.
The most interesting tomb is that of Hastings Ingram who died in 1747. According to local tradition he directed that he should not be buried with his ancestors in the Church but in the "Beggar Boy's" grave in the Churchyard. His tomb lies behind the Church at the East end. His will was remarkably generous to his tenants.
Several yards to the south west of the Ingram tomb is the only listed gravestone. It reads "HERE LYETH THE BODY OF DAVID, THE SON OF THOMAS AND ELIZABETH MALINS, WHO WAS BURIED MARCH YE 10TH 1698".
The oldest gravestone in the Churchyard, situated under the West Wall, commemorates Mary Rose, wife of William, who died in March 1665. The Parish Registers show that Mary's children, Christopher and Mary, possibly twins, were baptized on the 14th , Mary died on the 15th and daughter Mary on the 16th. Christopher survived only until 1669. By coincidence, the rose at the centre of the Memorial Garden at the East end of the Churchyard is a "Mary Rose"!