Wolford Churchyard History

Just One of God's Acres
Why is it that local historians write obligatorily about the Church, seldom about the Churchyard? Comments that do appear are almost always confined to particular headstones. Is it that the history of the Churchyard is less well documented than that of the Church building and its story, therefore, more difficulty to establish? Is it, perhaps too morbid, its considered function being to receive the bodies of the dead? Is it that the Churchyard has less visible material evidence of past activities than the Church? Or is it perhaps that what evidence there is does not reflect completely upon the past activities of the economically and socially successful predecessors? Whatever the reason, these notes are an attempt to recount what there is of the Churchyard history.

In Domesday, a priest resides in the Wolfords. Whilst this is not confirmation of the presence of a church building, it is nevertheless likely. Equally likely, therefore, is that burials have taken place in the present churchyard since 1086. It is impossible to estimate the total number of burials there. The first and only indicator of numbers is, of course, the Parish Registers. Unfortunately those for Wolford Church only survive sporadically from 1622 and continuously from 1654. Between 1654 and 1700, 397 burials are recorded; in the 18th and 19th centuries, 716 and 900 respectively. Thus at least two thousand burials had taken place before 1900! The W.I. Survey of the gravestones in the 1980s had 264 entries but only counted about 200 gravestones and of these 60 were subsequent to 1914. Even allowing for the disappearance and destruction of gravestones, the numbers commemorated could only have been a very small proportion of those buried. More eloquently, the poet Gray wrote: "Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise".

Only fragments of churchyard history are documented. At the turn of the 14th century, there was a dispute between the parishioners of Ditchford Friary and the Warden and Scholars of Merton College, Oxford regarding the right of sepulchre, amongst other things. Thus, in 1410, "the Warden and Scholars, considering the grievances of the said parishioners in that the bodies of deceased parishioners cannot be canonically carried from Ditchfriari to the said parish church of Wolford on account of the dangers of the roads and waters ..... Hereby grant for the honour of God and for the souls of the Founders of the College and all the faithful dead, that the said parishioners shall have the right of sepulchre in the chapel and cemetery of Ditchfriari". Appeals to the Pope and excommunications were part of this story.

In 1435 a Robert Rolypawat stole sheep, robbed a woman at dagger point in Wolford Wood and took away burial stones and trees growing in the Churchyard! The Wolfords' most notorious villain?

Wills and inventories are another available source of churchyard history. In the early 16th century testators frequently gave instructions about their burial, and social differences emerge. Ann Gardner, in 1537, willed "my body to be buryed in the church yarde of Mychell Wollford" whereas Agnes Ingram, in 1543, decreed "my body to be buryed by my husband yn ye chancell of my p'yshe churche". The latter was the Lady of Little Wolford Manor! Such formal instructions continue throughout the 17th century and demonstrate the post-reformation function of the Churchyard as a site for internment. That an element of social preferment existed is confirmed as, according to tradition Hastings Ingram, who died in 1747, actually 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 survives today.

A Terrier dated 1616 notes "the herbage of the Churchyard belonged to the vicarage" and I would assume this meant the right to graze, so perhaps it was not exclusively a cemetery? Churchwarden's Presentments throughout the 17th Century claim the churchyard mounds to be in good repair" and in 1696 "our Churchyard mounds are well fenced and decently kept from all annoyance and encroachments".

The costs of a gravestone in the late 17th century are noted by Hastings Ingram in his accounts for 1689 as follows:
  "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 severall persons who helped in with ye said stone"                 £0/1s/6d"

In the same accounts a villager was paid 3 shillings for a week's threshing. So seventeenth century gravestone installation cost the equivalent of about seventeen weeks labour! Dr Thomas, in the 1730 edition of Dugdale's "History of Warwickshire", records this stone as being mounted in the north wall of the chancel. Today it rests unnoticed in the floor of the North aisle of the present church, a very simple, naïve artifact.

The same Dr Thomas also records the following gravestone inscription in the churchyard:
       "Here old John Randall lies,
       Who counting from his tale,
       Lived three score years and ten,
       Such vertue was in ale.
       Ale was his meat, Ale was his drink,
       Ale did his heart revive,
       And if he could have drunk his ale,
       He still had been alive".

He died January 5th 1699 and was licensed as a seller of ale! This stone no longer survives.

The Churchwardens' Accounts from 1749 to 1845 are not informative. A new churchyard gate costing £1/1s/0d was provided in 1792. Thomas Dyer repaired mounds in 1800. Church wall repairs cost 2s/6d in 1822. James Davis was paid 5s/4d for four days work draining the churchyard in 1838. Finally, in 1841, Henry Hyatt was paid 3s/6d for 3œ days work in the churchyard. I suspect that payments to some named individuals, especially the sexton, covered churchyard work, especially grave digging. The Faculty covering the 1835 modifications, with reference to the addition of the heating chamber in the north east corner, says "if it shall be found necessary ..... to interfere with any graves or vaults, the coffins or remains therein deposited shall be carefully and decently removed and forthwith re-interred without being more exposed than is absolutely necessary".

Since 1900 there have been two extensions of the churchyard. The first, in 1911, was at the south side of the church and the invoices reveal the cost at:
   "To taking down boundary wall and re-building            £10/15s/0d
   To journey to Rollright to order and inspect stones        £0/2s/6d
   To haul 38 yards of stone to Wolford Church                £7/2s/6d
   To purchase 38 yards of walling stone                         £2/10s/8d"

The total cost was over £20 and the work was done by Reuben Turner, a builder and contractor of Adlestrop. The land was donated by Lord Redesdale and the costs met by him together with the Weston Estate and Merton College.

On the second churchyard extension, discussion took place as early as 1942, when the Chairman of the Parochial Church Council stated that "before long we would be faced with the need for more ground to enlarge the Churchyard". In 1948 it was said "we cannot say yet how much this (i.e. a Diocesan appeal for the building of Coventry Cathedral) will effect our appeal for money to enlarge the churchyard". The extension at the east end was finally undertaken in 1956: land was given by Mr Hawes and the various other costs amounted to £313.

The extant gravestones are not particularly interesting. There are several to the children of an Admiral Bateman, the Rev. Wheeler's father-in-law. There are others to past vicars. Perhaps the oldest is the most tragic and reads:
     "Here lyeth the Body
      Of Mary Rose who was
      The Wife of William Rose
      She departed this life March the 15
      Anno Domini 1665".

The Parish Records show that Mary's children, Christopher and Mary, possibly twins, were baptised on the 14th, Mary died on the 15th and daughter Mary on the 16th! Christopher only survived until 1669. By coincidence, the rose at the centre of the Memorial Garden at the east end of the churchyard is a "Mary Rose"!

daffodilsThe churchyard has several notable topographical features. The bank between the old churchyard and the 1956 extension has a magnificent display of daffodils in the spring. The Parish Magazine explained that "The Vicar asked how to make the new portion free from nettles and thistles ..... a joy to behold?". The bank and the steps to the extension were in place by December 1956, and Mr Hawes is "thanked for a bushel of daffodil bulbs" in March 1957.

tree avenueThe avenue of lime trees at the entrance to the church has 11 trees rather than the usual 12: they are a most beautiful feature. No documentary evidence dates either the planting or the number. A site investigation reveals a depression where the twelfth tree was, but when and why it was removed will remain forever unknown. The thick carpet of snowdrops, beloved by all in The Wolfords, remains a mystery and they could be centuries old.


The workers in churchyards are forgotten, unlike the church builders. A few thoughts about some Wolford workers can redress the balance. Simon Payne was recorded as the Sexton in the Censuses from 1841 to 1891. He died in 1895, aged 86. He laboured in the Churchyard for 50 years, dug many graves and helped shape the Churchyard. In 1948 Caleb Webb retired as Sexton and the Parish Magazine says: "he has kept the churchyard in very good condition". Neither Simon nor Caleb has a gravestone!

Certainly from 1942 the churchyard was much discussed at PCC Meetings. In April, George Hiatt "renewed a promise to keep one sixth of the churchyard in order". In February 1951 preparations were made for the Festival of Britain. The Vicar said "I would like to get a rota of men who would be responsible for sweeping the main pathways from the gate to the West Door. Each man (or woman) would be responsible for one Sunday. Then I am sure you would like to see the churchyard looking cleaner and tidier. Perhaps different portions could be allotted to various volunteers. In this way I believe we could avoid the scene of tall nettles and forests of twigs growing up in the most undesirable of places". Things don't change. George Hiatt later appears as a tireless worker for the Church. He repaired the roofs and the clock in the 1940s. In 1955 he told the PCC "that his work in the Churchyard will cease entirely and finally if ingratitude and laziness persist (talking of behaviour in the churchyard)". This appeared an empty threat and in 1957 he collected "for a special type of mowing machine", the grass having formerly been cut with scythes. No doubt he planted Mr Hawes bulbs! In 1956 George kept his 67th anniversary as a member of the Wolford Church choir. He was also a leading bell-ringer! It is appropriate that looking from the east end of the churchyard, up the steps to the Church, Mr Hawes is commemorated to the right and George Hiatt to the left. Both were instrumental in their own ways in shaping the Wolford churchyard.

Certificates in the Church reveal that in 1970 the Churchyard gained a Certificate of Merit in the Warwickshire Best Kept Churchyard Competition; in 1993 it was the winner of the Conservation Award in the Warwickshire Best Kept Village Competition; and, finally, in 1994 it was the Best Kept Churchyard in the Shipston area. A Memorial Garden was also established. 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 was thus rated as "good". Fifty-five varieties of lichen were also noted. Butterflies were observed for several years and a soil survey was undertaken. Even a survey of spiders was started but, unfortunately, never completed.

The Churchyard is beautifully located, having magnificent views to the East and South East, has a long history and, over the years, has been cared for by a devoted but forgotten few. Currently interest is minimal.

The Churchyard is a community asset. How can community interest be revived? Would it be feasible to view it as a village recreational space, and institute a "Friends of the Churchyard" to look after it?

At the moment there is little interest in the maintenance of the churchyard, nearly all being done by paid contractors!

Lawrie Thompson