Religious history

The Chapel of Our Lady, Chelmarsh Church

In the Middle Ages, it was common for many churches to have a chantry chapel. This was an altar, usually placed in a side-aisle, where a priest would regularly say mass and pray for the soul of the person who had established the altar. Sometimes the chapels were very large and ornate structures and occasionally they were larger than the chancel and the altar used by the normal congregation. At other times they were put into small alcoves in a part of the existing church. In addition to building the chapel, the founder would also need to leave an endowment that would pay for the priest who served the chapel. This was often done by arranging for the rent from a piece of land to be used to pay the stipend of the priest. A cheaper version of the procedure was to pay for candles that were to burn in front of an existing altar or religious image. As each candle was lit, the person who paid for it would be briefly remembered in prayer. Both procedures were rooted in the idea that after a person’s death, it was possible to pray for their soul so that they would receive more favourable treatment. This theology was an anathema to the Protestant reformers who swept away allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church in the reign of Henry VIII and chantry chapels and the lighting of candles were both suppressed. However, many people were comfortable with the old rites, which made a come-back in the reign of Henry’s daughter Mary. With the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the pendulum swung in favour of Protestantism with another round of suppression of “superstitious practices”.

In the Public Record Office in London, there is a record showing the “superstitious practices” were causing the authorities concern in Chelmarsh in 1577, in the 20th year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. A commission was appointed to enquire into whether land at Farnold’s Moor, on the boundaries of Chelmarsh and Glazeley, was used to pay for a candle to be set before an image in Chelmarsh Church and for a priest to serve in “Our Lady’s Chapel”, to say mass on St Valentine’s Day. The enquiry appeared to find only one person prepared to testify. This was Thomas Westwood of Eardington, gent. He knew nothing about the candle, but claimed that three priests, William Overton, Edward Collyns and Thomas Lowe, were employed to sing masses for all “dystressed” souls. The land had been given by Joyce Blount, who was now dead.

It is not obvious from Westwood’s evidence whether the Chantry was still in operation or whether it had ceased to operate some years ago. I suspect that the results of the enquiry were something of a disappointment to those who had been hoping to uncover a hot-bed of Roman Catholicism. Doubtless if the Chantry was still in operation it would have been quickly suppressed and the lands confiscated. Many enquiries of this nature were motivated by the desire of the Crown to acquire estates that should have passed to them 50 years before with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the break with Rome.

The case does raise some interesting questions. Who was Joyce Blount who allegedly gave the endowment? The Blount family were important gentry, with branches of the family based in Kinlet and near Cleobury Mortimer; they remained Roman Catholics after the reformation. It seems likely that Joyce was a member of this family. However, I have not yet identified her. It is interesting that the priests appear to have not restricted their supplications just to Joyce.  It may be possible to learn more about the priests named by Westwood. The location of the Lady Chapel is also a mystery. It was probably part of Chelmarsh church. This does have an aisle on its east side which may have accommodated the chapel; however there is now no obvious trace.

Past Vicars

A list of past incumbents is found at the back of the church. Whilst there are some obvious gaps (and probably a few errors) in the Middle Ages, from the 16th century the record is probably accurate. Many of these individuals are just names, but for some it is possible to see a little more of their character.

The sixteenth century was an “interesting” time to be in Holy Orders. The allegiances of the church swung from Roman Catholic to Protestant under Henry VIII and his son Edward, then back to Rome under Queen Mary, before finally swinging back to the Protestant cause under Queen Elizabeth. There is little sign that the priests in Highley were unduly troubled by these dramas. For much of the time Thomas Oseland was vicar. He was a local man, probably born in the village and his ancestors had lived here and in Kinlet for several generations. His very longevity as vicar marks him down as a survivor. However, he also seems to have been held in respect and affection by at least some of his parishioners. One of these refers to him in his will as “Sir Oseland, my ghostly [ie spiritual] father”. It is possible to envisage him as a man primarily concerned with the care of his own people, content to let the church hierarchy argue over doctrine whilst he occupied himself with the practicalities of Christian living. We have one tangible link with Oseland. As part of the reforms introduced in the Elizabethan Church it was ordered that a book setting out the doctrinal foundations of the Anglican Church and written by Bishop Jewell, should be placed in all churches. Highley still retains its copy of Jewell’s “Apologia”.

Oseland’s successor was obviously a more high-profile priest, for he became dean of Stottesdon, having responsibility over all the neighbouring parishes. In religious terms, the start of the 17th century was fairly peaceful but serious tensions were building. These erupted in the Civil War in the middle of the century, a conflict that was as much about religious beliefs as political ones.

The vicar of Highley at this time was Giles Rawlins. Like his predecessor Oseland, a century before, Rawlins survived great turmoils  but there the similarities end. Rawlins appears not to have been a man to adopt a low-profile. Following the triumph of the Parliamentarians, they set about replacing the Church of England with a Presbyterian system without bishops. Rawlins refused to accept the new ways and was thrown out of his living. We do not know where he went during this period, but with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 his fortunes changed for the better. The clergy who had been ejected during the previous regime were restored to their livings. Thus Giles returned. It is possible he met with a less than enthusiastic response from his parishioners.

For the next 10 or so years he was engaged in a running battle with most of them in the courts over payments of tithes. The details of these cases provide a fascinating insight into the village at the time; Rawlins does not emerge particularly well. During his absence, the pastor had been a Robert Durant. Durant was a popular man, probably because he lacked Rawlins’s apparent stubbornness. The tithe dispute finally petered out in the 1670’s. Rawlins himself may have mellowed; at any rate in his will in 1678 he left a legacy for the poor of the parish. At least in death he seemed finally to be reconciled with his flock.

James Stuart, the Old Pretender: the local connection

By 1700, England had passed the stage of revolutions and was beginning the slow transformation to parliamentary democracy. It was, however, far from a smooth process and there were to be times when the due processes of law and the constitution seemed to be about to break down. The country was divided on lines that were partly political and partly religious and which could be traced back to the time of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. On the one hand were the Tories. These typically represented the country gentry and landowners. These were “high” church; they placed great value on the sacraments such as Holy Communion, as well as on the role of priests. They strongly supported the structure of the Church of England with a role for bishops.

On the other hand were the “Whigs”, who usually represented non-landed interests. These were either “low” church or non-conformists; they placed particular emphasis on reading the Bible and preaching and they had little time for the distinction between priests and ordinary people. The non-conformists rejected a role for bishops. There was little love lost between either side; the Tories suspected the Whigs of trying to destroy the Church of England and replace it with non-conformity; the Whigs suspected the Tories of being closet Roman Catholics.

In 1688, King James II, a Roman Catholic, was driven from the throne, but there were those who preferred him and his heirs to what replaced him. These were the Jacobites and in the early 18th century they placed their hopes on James Stuart, known to history as the “Old Pretender”. Whilst Jacobites are often thought of as being Scottish, there were many south of the border who also sympathised with the cause.

Recently, I recorded the tradition that the Donkey Bridge, between Highley and Kinlet, was built in honour of a Dr Henry Sacheverell, who passed through Kinlet in 1710. Sacheverell was a Tory and probably sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. He had preached against non-conformists, particularly Presbyterians. It seems likely that many around Highley and Kinlet shared his views. In Cleobury, Sir Walter Blount of Mawley Hall was openly Roman Catholic. In Kinlet, William Lacon Childe was nominally Anglican; however his ancestors had also been openly Catholic and he was widely regarded as having Jacobite sympathies. It would have been no surprise when he entertained Sacheverell and built the Donkey Bridge. Richard Creswell, MP for Bridgnorth and a prominent landowner in Highley, also made no secret of his support for James Stuart.

Following Sacheverell’s procession through Kinlet, matters appeared to calm down for a few years. However, following the death of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, the throne passed to George I, a prince of Hanover in what is now Germany. This was not universally popular and the most extreme Jacobites began to plot to put James Stuart on the throne. As part of this, they seized on the support for Henry Sacheverell and in June and July 1715 encouraged the “Meeting House” riots. Throughout these months, mobs were inflamed by repeating Sacheverell’s claims against the Presbyterians and encouraged to attack their chapels. There were riots in both Cleobury Mortimer and Bridgnorth; reflecting the local esteem with which Sacheverell was held.

Almost as quickly as they started, the riots ceased, fuelling suspicion that they were being orchestrated by local squires. The idea was probably to distract the government; sure enough, later in the year James Edward arrived in Scotland and raised his standard. Unfortunately for Jacobites north and south of the border, it was a very brief unfurling; a single charge by government troops sent James fleeing back abroad and destroyed the rebellion. In England, most would-be Jacobites quickly changed allegiance.

Whilst there is some evidence that in Cleobury, 30 years later, a few privately hoped that James’s son, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, Charles Stuart, would prevail, most of the locality probably had no time for him. The Jacobite cause had been lost with his father.

The Methodist Chapel

(This corrugated iron structure was the first Primitive Methodist Chapel built in Highley. When a large brick chapel was built in 1913/14, it was moved behind it and served as a schoolroom.)

Sunday 27th February 2005 marked the final service in the Methodist Chapel in the village centre. It is perhaps a good time to review the history of the chapel.

The history of Methodism is confusing as, in the 19th century, it split into various factions; schisms that were not finally healed until well into the 20th century. The first Methodists in Highley were based in Fir Tree Cottages, originally built as a chapel in 1816. However, these were Wesleyan Methodists, a cause which was not to flourish in Highley. The first Primitive Methodist meetings were held in the 1850’s in one of the cottages at New England. The Primitives fared better than their Wesleyan counterparts, as many of the miners who arrived in Highley from the late 1870’s were sympathetic to the Primitive tradition and regular meetings were started in No 8, Silverdale Terrace. As the society grew, it was obvious a permanent home would be needed for it and land was purchased from the “Squire” of Highley, John Bradley Beddard, for £10. On this a corrugated iron chapel was built and opened on Sunday March 29th, 1893 by a J.S. Brinson of Reading. Corrugated iron mission rooms, churches and chapels were very much in vogue at the time, as cheap and quick ways of providing places of worship for all the main denominations.

As Highley grew, so did the aspirations of the Primitives. Under the circuit system, a full-time minister was not present in the village until 1913, when the Rev Albert Cole arrived. This provided the impetus for the construction of the present chapel. It was built on the same patch of land as the “tin chapel”; the latter was simply slid to the back of the site to make room for the new building. The first stone was laid on July 30th 1913 by Mrs Beddard; a bottle containing a programme of the proceedings was buried at the same time. The chapel was built by Sam Mason, a local builder who had just finished Clee View. Work was just about to start on Garden Village, designed by William Rees-Hughes of Cardiff, author of a book on chapel design. However, the Highley Methodists went elsewhere and commissioned their design from Henry Harper of Nottingham. The building was formally opened on 28th January 1914  by a Miss Gladys Gilley of Oldbrough. It seems that the ceremony was attended by visitors from a wide area of the West Midlands; proceedings were no doubt enlivened by the news that the bus transporting some of them got itself stuck on Borle Mill bank. The chapel cost around £1500; this was not fully paid off for many years.

In 1924 a roll of honour commemorating all those in the village who served in the Great War was unveiled in the porch. A new organ was added to the chapel in 1934 following efforts by the Rev Chapman. This cost £325 and was started by a donation of 100 guineas by the Highley Mining Company in 1931.

The chapel as built has seating for 260. Certainly between the wars, Methodism was a force to be reckoned with in Highley. After the War, the annual Miners’ Sunday services always brought packed congregations. However, I suspect that outside of special events, it must often have been difficult to fill the building. In recent times the upkeep of the chapel has been a cause for concern and it was perhaps inevitable that eventually the society would want to move into premises better suited to their needs. Services are now being held in the parish hall. The building itself will remain; current plans are to refurbish it and turn it into housing.

The Rev Shields

Highley has had a number of long-serving vicars, but in the 20th century the record is held by the Rev Shields, who served for over 30 years in the first part of the century. His incumbency covered a period of considerable change.

Albert Edward Almond Shields was born in South Wales in 1877. His father was a schoolmaster at Bedwellty in the South Wales Coalfield and Albert worked with him until he was in his late 20s. However, it appears he felt called in another direction; he went to Durham University and became ordained in 1908. He spent his first few years as a priest in the London area before moving to Leamington Spa in 1912. In that year he also married Agatha Grey. In 1913 he was appointed rector of Ironbridge. At this time the vicar of Highley was the Rev Bentley. He died in September 1915 and the living of Highley was accepted by the Rev Robert Gillenders, formerly of Jackfield but then an army chaplain in France. However, Gillenders must have had second thoughts because within a few weeks he had declined the position; possibly he felt his place was amongst the troops at the front. Consequently the living was offered to Shields and he was inducted in January 1916.

As a very public second choice for the job, Shields was not given the easiest introduction to the post. Nonetheless, he was a man of energy and ability who soon made his mark. Less than four months after his induction he was appointed chairman of the Parish Council and he also became a School Manager. Throughout his long spell at Highley he retained a special interest in the school. He also set about breathing new life into the church, in May restarting the Men’s Bible Class. In July he joined the Working Men’s Club and the village “squire”, Oakley Beddard, declared that he had “become the most popular man in Highley”.  At the church Sunday School annual treat, around 250 children were entertained. Whilst Shields may have inherited a flourishing Sunday School, events were to show that he was able to maintain its numbers. In September the First World War equivalent of the Home Guard was established; Shields joined this. He was quoted in a local newspaper, “I’ve often preached about the devil and people have asked me who he is. Well, we have one devil at least in the Kaiser”.

After the war, Shields remained active in public life, on the parish council and other village committees. His monthly column in the Bridgnorth Deanery Magazine gives an insight into how he managed the church. In the early 1920’s he spent a lot of effort on children’s work, not only with the Sunday School (which remained well attended) but also a Boys’ Club. The church supported a number of missionary or outreach societies: the Church Missionary Society, the Church Pastoral Aid Society and the Zenana Missionary Society. There were two regular services each Sunday, with special services at times such as Easter, Whit, Christmas and Harvest. The latter were marked by the choir singing one or more anthems. Shields had High Church leanings, although he was far from being an Anglo-Catholic. His magazine column regularly exhorted his parishioners to attend services regularly. There is less evidence for any outreach to the majority of the village who never went near the church. Nonetheless, Shields managed to build up adult church membership from under 150 in about 1920 to over 200 in 1923 and he maintained this throughout the inter war years. At least amongst his regular parishioners, he appears to have been approachable; one (non-church goer) recalled how he was the subject of good-natured banter when he was late for a Buff’s parade, “Come on Ted, get a move on”. His wife Agatha is also remembered with considerable affection.

By the end of the War, Shields was an old man. Agatha died suddenly during an evensong in 1949 and Shields retired to Cheltenham shortly after. He died in 1953 and was buried with Agatha at Highley. His successors were of a different churchmanship and had to contend with very different problems. Nonetheless, his efforts saw Highley church enter the second half of the 20th century in better shape than many.

Highley Church ceiling

(This carving is found on one of the joists that supports the ceiling of Highley church roof.)

It is surprising how few people look up when they go into a building. This is something of a shame, as the ceiling can be the most interesting part of a room. Highley Church has a particularly fine wooden ceiling in the nave (the main part of the church). Of course, many people’s eyes probably have wandered up there during the course of a service, perhaps when the preacher has been a little too assiduous in developing a point in the sermon. However, there is a problem, besides that of a reproachful glare from the occupant of the pulpit. The lighting in the church makes it very difficult to make out any detail on the ceiling; there clearly are carved panels, but it is hard to work out what they represent.

I did not realise just how interesting the ceiling was until the Rev Clive Williams showed me some photos he had taken of it a few years back (I believe he got bored during one of my sermons…). It was then that I discovered the bearded gentleman who had gazed down on congregations for around 500 years (see figure). In fact he is one of a pair; they are either side of a panel in the middle of the roof. His face appears to be surrounded by leaves and I think he may be a ‘Green Man’. The Green Man started life as a pagan symbol and then became adapted by the church as a symbol of new life and renewal. By the time he was carved for Highley Church, he may have been no more than a piece of decoration. The symbolism of some of the other carvings is easier to work out. Perched at the far end of the roof, appropriately now by the organ, is an angel, singing from a book. This is the only carving to be damaged; during the reformation somebody has cut away the face. The other carvings were too hard to reach. A very common design is that of a rose. This is probably a political statement; the roof was put up when the Tudors were on the throne and the rose was a royal symbol. Some of the other carvings are harder to interpret. There is a bird, apparently eating a fish. Another shows an heraldic lion; however, this is the lion rampant, the symbol of Scotland not England. Many of the carvings seem to have no symbolism at all, consisting of intertwined leaves and branches.

The carvings also give clues as to who built the roof. One pair of plaques have a set of initials; IH, IO on the one side, TL, WL, IP on the other. Almost the only person connected with Highley with the initials IO was John Oseland, who rented the manor house and farm in the time of Henry VIII. This allows us to identify the other individuals; his contemporaries included John Holloway, Thomas and William Lowe and John Pountney (or perhaps John Palmer). These were all alive around 1530. Another plaque is marked with initials that are harder to decipher. However, they may be TR JS. If this is the case, they help to date the rood still further. Thomas Rushbury became vicar of Highley in 1530; he was appointed by John Smart, abbot of Wigmore Abbey who was deposed in 1538. This suggests that the ceiling was built in the early 1530s.

The Rev Samuel Burrows (1)

One of the advantages of having a web site is that it is now possible to get messages from visitors across the globe. A message from New Zealandwas passed on to me from a person enquiring about one of her ancestors. This was Samuel Burrows, who was vicar of Highley in the first part of the nineteenth century. In turn this person was able to give me some interesting material on Samuel, so allowing me to write this article.

Samuel Burrows has been described as the first “modern” vicar of Highley. In early times the vicar was also a farmer who had land in the common fields alongside his parishioners. Later on Highley played host to a number of absentee vicars. These so-called pluralists held several parishes and entrusted most services and duties to a series of curates. Burrows was probably the first vicar to work full time as a minister whilst living in Highley, in the style of today’s priests. He is also probably the longest-serving priest to hold Highley, being resident for over 50 years

Samuel’s date of birth is recorded on a memorial plaque in church. He was born at Tettenhall on May 28th 1763, the son of Samuel and Mary Burrows. A family bible now in New Zealand adds the detail that his time of birth was 8.30pm and that his brother John was born on May 29th 1768. Samuel was obviously bright, for he was a pupil at Wolverhampton Grammar School before going to St. Catherine’s College Cambridge in 1782. We do not know what he studied, but he graduated in 1786. It is likely that ordination followed fairly soon afterwards because he was apparently at Highley by 1787, if his commemorative plaque is to be believed. At this date he may have been serving as an assistant curate, for the vicar was nominally one George Netchells. I suspect that in practice the young Samuel did most of the work and certainly by 1790 he was formally instituted as vicar.

Samuel no doubt made his mark in many ways. On of the most tangible is the way he organised the church finances. He was entitled to various tithe payments and also the “Easter Pennies”; a small sum from each parishioner, nominally to cover the cost communion wine. As far as I can tell, previous incumbents had largely neglected this, but Samuel systematically collected this from almost everyone in the village. He recorded the collection in a ledger which still survives at the Shropshire Record Office and it provides an annual listing of almost everyone in the village. The names are recorded in geographical order and it is possible to trace Samuel’s exact route around the village, going from house to house. I can only find one case where a parishioner refused to pay.

Samuel must have been an eligible bachelor when he arrived in Highley. He eventually married Elizabeth Short at Dowles Church in 1794. It seems likely that Elizabeth had a brother called Charles, for on New Year’s Day 1802 Samuel baptised Charles’s two children. Rather curiously these had both been born some years before; had Charles previously set his face against baptism only to be “converted” by Samuel? We will probably never know. Samuel was kept busy baptising his own children; he had eleven. One died aged 10 but the rest survived into adulthood. His eldest son, Samuel, entered the church and became vicar of Ellesmere. His second son, John, farmed at Hampton after his marriage but emigrated to New Zealand in 1851. Two other sons and a daughter, William, Decimus and Caroline stayed in Highley.

As far as I can tell, Samuel was respected by most people in the village. The very fact that he stayed all his life must say something and he was also asked to carry out such tasks as being as executor of various people’s wills. Towards the end of his life he must have found the job difficult, for by 1841 he was assisted by a young curate called Samuel Du Pre. Du Pre in fact took over from Samuel as vicar in 1843 and Samuel died in the February of the following year. William, Decimus and his widow Elizabeth moved to Rea Hall, which they farmed. Decimus lived until 1882, latterly at Springfield Cottage and appears to always have been ready to reminisce about his memories of Highley at the start of the Nineteenth Century, when there was a mine at Stanley and the Severn was full of boats.

The Rev Samuel Burrows (2)

Samuel Burrows was born at Tettenhall in May 1763. He went to Wolverhampton Grammar School and then, unlike his Oxford-educated predecessors, went to St Catherine’s, Cambridge in 1782. He got his BA in 1786 and MA in 1789.

His father seems to have died that year, and Samuel’s grandfather, Matthias, acquired the living of Highley in order to give his grandson a start in life. Samuel became vicar  in 1790. He was young and energetic, and set about ‘improving’ his vicarage and lands. At great expense, a fence was erected around the glebe lands, and soon the vicarage house itself was modernised. Impetus was given to this when in 1794 Samuel married Elizabeth Short of Minehead in Somerset, and settled down to married life. Some of the changes to the house were done at this time, and some apparently a bit later. We know that the Burrows had a coat of arms, and it may be theirs carved in the panelled dining room. Probably the modernising included covering the 17th century half-timbering with weatherboarding, and inserting ‘Gothic’ windows.

Samuel seems to have been much more conscientious than the absentee and somewhat dubious vicars of the eighteenth century: he lived in the parish; he kept careful records of his tithes; and he seems not to have fallen out with his parishioners. He was a little perplexed when he first arrived at the way locals called lands after the people who had owned or held them, perhaps decades before, and among the parish documents are bits of paper on which he had tried to work this out (‘Palmer’s now Lewis’s below the church’ etc), as well as listing all the produce which he was entitled to tithe – like walnuts, honey and so on. But he worked it all out peaceably.

Samuel and Elizabeth had eleven children. The eldest, another Samuel, followed his father into the Church. The second son, John, eventually emigrated to New Zealand. The tenth, a boy, was named Decimus – perhaps in case they lost count. Samuel rented out part of his glebe lands, and was less of a farmer than earlier vicars had been, at least at first. Later he does seem to have been more involved with his 89 acres of glebe, and even added to it by renting a bit of land owned by the Jordin family at the top of Vicarage Lane.

His younger sons took up farming too. William, Decimus and their sister Caroline did not marry, but later moved out of the vicarage when their father died, and farmed Rea Hall before later moving to Springfield House near the church. But that was long delayed, as Samuel lived a very long life. It was not without tragedy – his son Henry died in 1816 at the age of 11 in an accident with a threshing machine; daughter Harriet died at 24; and son Matthias also died before his parents.

Samuel’s parish grew in size during his time as vicar, with the opening (and then closing) of a coal mine at Stanley, so there was plenty to occupy a full-time vicar. There was also the first nonconformity, with a group of Methodists breaking away from his church. They alleged that he preached the same sermons year after year – although they did acknowledge that he had a good voice and sang the Te Deum well.

At last old age made it difficult for him to serve the parish as he would like. At the time of the 1841 census, Samuel was 78, still a clergyman and still living at the vicarage – but also present was Samuel du Pre, age 28, also a clergyman and presumably acting as curate. Soon, du Pre was to take over as vicar, for Rev Burrows died in 1844 aged 81. A large marble monument on the north wall of the nave of the church records his life and many years of loyal service to the parish.

Gwyneth Nair

Sir George Blount

Kinlet Church has a number of fine monuments; perhaps the best of these is the tomb of Sir George Blount who died in 1581. Blount was one of the more colourful local characters. The local tradition (which I first heard from my grandfather) relates how after his death, his ghost came to haunt Kinlet Hall, riding his horse through the hall and over the banqueting table. Eventually his predecessors tired of interruptions to their dinner parties and a priest shrank his spirit and trapped it in a bottle, which was laid to rest in Kinlet Church. As usual, the truth is somewhat more interesting.

George was born in around 1513. His father, John, was a soldier, MP and frequent visitor to the court of King Henry VIII. His aunt, Elizabeth, was a frequent visitor to the bedchamber of Henry and bore him a son, Henry, Duke of Richmond. Thus George moved in high circles from his earliest years. On the death of his father in 1531, he inherited estates in Staffordshire (from his mother) as well as Kinlet, Cleobury and Bewdley. George grew to maturity in interesting times. King Henry was beginning his quarrel with the Pope that would lead to the formation of the Church of England. Within a few years the country would be in a religious ferment, with alternatively Protestant and Roman Catholics imprisoned and killed depending on which faction held the upper hand. It was also a time of great opportunity for the politically astute, with much former church property being confiscated and then sold to speculators. Although direct evidence is lacking, George probably embraced the cause of the Protestant reformation. He had business contacts with one John Harford of Coventry, a zealous reformer, and this may have influenced him. Perhaps more importantly, he established himself in the service of John Dudley, a firm Protestant. The Dudley family, with their base at Dudley Castle, were the pre-eminent family in the West Midlands; John was an up and coming star at the Court. He was also a gifted soldier, effectively establishing the foundations of the Royal Navy. Blount, from the most landlocked county in the country, became a ship’s captain in Dudley’s force and was knighted for his services at Leith in Scotland in 1544, following a successful invasion of Scotland. Dudley was equally effective on land and Blount also fought with distinction alongside him, whether on the continent against the French or at home, suppressing rebellions. He also first entered parliament during these years, as MP for Shropshire and also served as a justice of the peace. After the death of Henry VIII, Dudley’s influence reached its height. He was effectively chief minister for the young king Edward VI and, after Edward’s premature death, he engineered a coup that made his daughter-in-law, Jane Grey, Queen. However, Dudley fatally over-stretched himself and Edward’s sister, Mary, seized the throne back within a few days. Dudley was executed.

The politically astute George avoided any comeback from the downfall of his one-time patron. He was at this time sheriff of Staffordshire and was probably sufficiently remote from the event to be able to play for time and back the winner. His reward was to become the MP for Bridgnorth, whilst he continued as a JP. He also successfully negotiated the dramatically changed religious climate as Mary sought to reintroduce Roman Catholicism. In 1558 the country underwent another abrupt turn as Mary died and Queen Elizabeth reintroduced the Protestant reformation, albeit in a less doctrinaire form than in the reign of Edward VI. Ever adaptable, George continued to serve as an MP and as a JP in Shropshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. It is tempting to dismiss George as an opportunist, willing to nail his colours to whatever flag was being flown at court. This was not a dishonourable position. Many in the 16th century took the view that their first duty was to support their monarch in his or her religious views. It may however, also be simply wrong. George lived a long life; as a young man he may have held radical religious views. He would not be the first to become more conservative as he aged. In 1577 he was considered to be a Roman Catholic sympathiser, although his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth was not doubted.

So what of the legend of the turbulent ghost? I suspect this may reflect a genuine memory of a man who, whilst loyal to whoever was his sovereign, had a short fuse. He was involved in a number of law suits, getting into trouble with the townsfolk of Bewdley for the way he excluded them from the Wyre Forest and from a William Else, a Kinlet man who claimed that Blount did not pay his wages whilst on campaign in France. His private life was probably considered a scandal; he threw his wife out in the 1570s and disinherited his daughter. His Kinlet estates went to his nephew, Roland Lacon, again a man of distinctly Roman Catholic views. Old age did not appear to mellow George.

The bottle with the alleged spirit of George remained in Kinlet church until around 1900. One intrepid antiquarian eventually opened it; it turned out to contain photographic developer. I feel Sir George would have enjoyed the joke.

Turbulent Times

As it was once memorably put, life in past times was potentially nasty, short and brutal. Of course, it did not necessarily follow that everyone born in, say, the middle ages, would meet an unpleasant end, but there is little doubt that most past societies were considerably more violent than our own. It is often difficult to discover details about the less savoury side of life in previous centuries, but sometimes sources exist that do allow us an insight.

As part of our LHI-funded project the Four Parishes Heritage Group have recently transcribed a series of documents called the Patent Rolls from the 14th century. These were essentially letters from the King (or, more accurately, one of his servants) with instructions to his officials on matters of policy. Many were to do with matters of law and order, responses to individuals who believed that they had been wronged. In the first half of the century, there are 15 letters concerning various crimes in Highley, Stottesdon, Kinlet and the surrounding area.

The most common complaint was poaching in the various parks that were found throughout the area. A park was, first and foremost, a deer farm, where the animals were bred to provide both sport when they were hunted and meat when they were eventually caught. Parks also provided a very useful supply of timber and firewood for their owners. The deer and the trees were jealously guarded, although doubtless many locals did help themselves from time to time.

However, it is not the misdemeanours of one or two individuals that required action from the king. Rather the patent rolls deal with the equivalent of organised crime: mass raids requiring considerable organisation. Typically around 20 or so individuals would appear to be involved, usually led by a prominent landowner from a nearby parish. In many cases it is clear that the raids were really quarrels about land ownership and hunting rights that probably had not been settled properly by actions in local courts.

Those involved in the raids seem to have included a good spectrum of local society; some appear to have been obscure peasants but others seem to have been of some wealth or status. Their numbers frequently involved clergymen. Nicholas, parson of Glaseley and Ralph de Glaseley, parson of Sidbury, were involved in more than one raid on the parks that surrounded the Wyre Forest. We do not know whether these clergy were simply individuals on the make or whether they saw themselves as striking blows against oppressors of the poor.

Just occasionally the landowners can be seen to have struck back. In 1364 the Rev. Richard Nowell, the park keeper at Earnwood in Kinlet, was in trouble for assaulting Robert of Cleeton and carrying away a sword, shield, a bow and arrow, a girdle and 5/-. The removal of the bow and arrow may suggest that Nowell felt that Robert had been using his Earnwood deer for target practice. Nowell himself was dismissed as park keeper some years later over allegations that he had helped himself to the deer he was meant to be protecting.

Not all the cases were about poaching. One of the most interesting happened in Chorley in 1317. Most of Stottesdon at that date belonged to Nicholas de Seagrove, an important baron with estates throughout the east midlands. However, Harcourt in Stottesdon belonged to the Fitzaer family. In autumn of that year around 20 of Seagrove’s men from his estates in the midlands descended on the house of Aline Fitzaer in Chorley, seized her goods, took her away and imprisoned her at one of Seagrove’s castles at Couldon, on the outskirts of Coventry.

Aline was eventually released and, not unsurprisingly, complained to the king about the events. Warrants were duly issued for the arrests of those involved. Seagrove himself was not directly implicated but it seems inconceivable that Aline could have been imprisoned in his castle without his approval. Quite what he had against Aline is not clear; it may simply have been a quarrel about land taken to extremes.

However, the country was on the verge of civil war and there are grounds for thinking that Seagrove and the Fitzaer family were on opposite sides. Whatever the cause of the quarrel, it is doubtful whether Aline got much justice as most of her attackers were pardoned shortly afterwards, as part of a deal to try and stop a national conflict. She at least retained her lands; the Fitzaers remained lords of Harcourt for many years after this incident.

Giles Rawlins 1601-1678

Giles Rawlins was vicar of Highley for a large part of the seventeenth century, though he seems never to have been very popular.

He was born in Herefordshire about 1601, and went to Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1621. He got his BA a year later (those were the days) in 1622, and his MA in 1625. He had already decided to enter the Church, and been appointed rector of Ganarew, in west Herefordshire, in 1624. However, in 1625, as soon as he got his MA, he moved to Wolferlow, in the north of the county.

Rawlins remained vicar of Wolferlow even after he was appointed to Highley in 1635. The oldest surviving tithe book at Highley begins with several pages that are actually records of Wolferlow in the 1650s. It was not uncommon for a vicar to have more than one parish – but these were of course very troubled times, with the Civil War affecting the local area from 1642, and Rawlins’ career was far from straightforward.

In 1646 the vicar of Goodrich in Herefordshire was dismissed for being a Royalist, and the living was given to Giles Rawlins until 1654. This suggests at least that Rawlins was a less enthusiastic Royalist. Yet it was in this same year that Rawlins was ‘outed’ from Highley vicarage, supposedly for his loyalty to the Crown.

Whatever the truth, it is certain that another vicar, Robert Durant, came to replace Rawlins, with his consent. The parishioners later said that Durant was ‘of good reputation and behaviour’, a ‘godly and honest’ man. Rawlins, on the other hand, was described as ‘troublesome’ and ‘contentious’. In 1662, after the restoration of Charles II, Rawlins came back, and swiftly got into dispute with the parish. The trouble centred on tithes, the dues that local farmers owed to the church and which were collected by the vicar. Rawlins had always collected this in cash, but now he decided to collect in kind, demanding loads of hay and so on. This may be because he was farming his glebe lands himself, with the help of a bailiff. A list of his farming tools survives among the parish papers: oxen were used for ploughing, there were sheep shears, carts, saddles, and ‘a dunge hooke to plucke mucke out of the waine.’

The various court cases that followed went right on up to the Exchequer Court in London.  Rawlins sued various farmers; they counter-sued, and witnesses reported arguments with him. He told Ann Legas that he wanted payment in kind and ‘would take a speedy course to get it.’ He ‘threatened he would make trouble’ for her and her husband and sue them. The cases rumbled on for ten years, and were still ongoing when Rawlins died.

Giles seems to have married for a second time late in life, and he and his wife Margaret baptised children at Highley from 1667. When he made his will in 1677, he mentioned his ‘child yet unborn’: this was Katherine, baptised in 1678 after her father had died. Rawlins’ will also left money to the poor of the parish (so he was somewhat reconciled with his flock at the end) and to his ‘servant’ Edward Hardman. Widow Rawlins stayed in the village, with Hardman ‘her manservant’ still working for her.

However, in November 1682, Edward Hardman and Margaret Rawlins married at Ribbesford: they came back to Highley for a few years, and had three children there. But by that time there was a new vicar, appointed in 1678, living in the Vicarage, where he was to remain for the next 42 years. Giles Rawlins lived through turbulent times – but he was also described as a turbulent man, and clearly often a difficult one.

Gwyneth Nair

John Burton – a family man

John Burton came to Highley early in 1678 on the death of Giles Rawlins. He was born in Gedney, Lincs, in 1648; but the family seems to have moved south, for when John went to Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1665, age 17, his father was ‘of Kidderminster’.

In 1671, while still quite a young man, he married Mary Grove, the daughter of Humfrey of Hall Close in Alveley. Humfrey became patron of the living of Highley, and appointed his son-in-law as vicar there. The couple arrived with two young children who had been born in Alveley (two others had died) and settled in to the vicarage.

Unlike his predecessor, Burton seems to have got on with his parishioners, and gone quietly about his duties. He collected his tithes peaceably, and kept a detailed record. He lived in the parish, and seems to have had no other living, though he was made Rural Dean of Stottesdon in 1689. Like his predecessors, he farmed his glebe lands – if not in person, then with the help of a bailiff. They grew corn, barley, peas, vetches and pulses. Stock included pigs, sheep, bullocks, milch cows, and a couple of horses. It wasn’t a very big farm, but it was clearly a mixed one.

The growing family lived in a large and pleasant home. Downstairs, the vicarage had a porch, a parlour, a hall, a kitchen and a study, the latter with the books, desk and table that the Rev Burton needed to write his sermons and do his accounts. There were bedrooms over each of these rooms, and garrets over each bedroom, probably where the servants slept. In addition, there were a lot of service rooms – pantry, cellar, coalhouse, wash house, dairy, brewhouse and buttery. This reminds us how self-sufficient the larger house had to be, making its own beer, cheese, butter, bread and so on.

The children were growing up: Edward became a vicar too, in Somerset. Elizabeth married John Woodyatt at Highley in 1703. But the family was not untouched by tragedy: John left money in the first draft of his will in 1711 to his grandson John, who had followed him to Pembroke College. But this John died while a student there.

There was one other venture – apart from farming – that Burton seems to have undertaken to augment his stipend. The glebe lands stretched along the River towards the Chelmarsh boundary, and included good stone that could be quarried. We know that later vicars did this, and it seems that Burton did too, for his possessions at the time of his death included ‘two furnace hearths’. Highley stone was particularly suitable for the hearths in the developing industrial area around Coalbrookdale.

The list of possessions was drawn up after Burton died in May 1720, at the age of 72, having been vicar for 42 years. Burke’s Landed Gentry tells us that he was buried in the chancel of the parish church. Mary moved to Worcester, but her body was brought back to be buried with her husband when she died in 1728 at the age of 84. In his will, Burton called her his ‘dear wife’ and left everything to her for her life, and only afterwards to their son John.

One curiosity remains, however. Unlike all other local wills of the period, John Burton’s begins with the briefest of religious preambles – he says only ‘In the name of God, amen’, and says nothing about his soul or his redeemer, as was usual. Did he feel that his long years of ministry said all that needed to be said? Or had he, somewhere along the way, lost his faith?

Gwyneth Nair

John and Richard Higgs – absentee vicars

John Higgs was inducted to the living of Highley immediately on the death of John Burton in May 1720. He read the 39 Articles—showing that he subscribed to the tenets of the Church of England—in the presence of leading members of the congregation, and of his son, Richard. John was already middle aged, being 45, and had been married to Elizabeth (née Croft) since 1696. He was a local man, and apparently came originally from Quatt. He had held land in Highley from at least 1714.

John seems to have begun as Curate at Chelmarsh straight after his marriage in 1697. He and Elizabeth baptised numerous children there in the next 17 years. The whole tribe did not move into Highley vicarage at once—maybe they never did. In October 1720 he rented out to John Ellis of Stottesdon ‘all the Vicarage House of Higgley’ except the Hall, the parlour, and the study adjoining it. So Higgs kept only rooms for working and, perhaps, entertaining—but no bedrooms. Then between 1729 and 1737 the vicarage (or at least part of it) was rented out to John Bitterley. So Higgs was Highley’s first real absentee vicar, who came for services but did not bring his family to live in the village.

Rev Higgs certainly was closely and extensively involved in quarrying on his glebe lands. In 1722, 4 hearths and 51 tons of smaller stone at least was got, which mostly went to Leighton and Coalbrookdale. Local farmers were paid for conveying the stone to the Severn, from where it would have been transported by barge. By 1728 Higgs called it ‘Higley Quarry’ and paid local wheelwright John James 4s 6d for ‘making a new carr and mending another to draw stone’ and also for ‘two rolls’—probably the large stones were moved from the quarry ‘at Severnside’ the short distance to the river on rollers.

In 1738, John Higgs resigned in favour of his son Richard, who was born in 1709, and went to Wadham College, Oxford, early in 1730. He may not have lived permanently in Highley either, although as he and his wife Mary had no children, it is hard to tell. He left a diary, written almost illegibly and in Latin, which still survives. He records preaching at Highley, and baptising and burying parishioners. But it seems he had other concerns too—he mentions going to the races at Tettenhall and …..

Then in 1748 there was real trouble. He was brought before the church court at Hereford charged with ‘a common fame of adultery’, accused of fathering the child of Elizabeth Pountney, widow. Furthermore, he had neglected to administer Holy Communion on Palm Sunday or Easter Day. In fact, his parishioners alleged, he ‘commonly neglected to perform divine service in the afternoon’. He didn’t like them much, either – he had ‘gone down on his knees in his own house on the Sabbath day calling upon God that a curse should fall on some of his neighbours, and afterwards praying that a curse might fall upon the whole parish in general.’

Richard made his will in 1750, although he did not die until 1756. At this time, his father John was still alive, and Richard left him ‘all my black gowns’. So John must still have been a clergyman, although a very old man, and able to make use of them. Richard felt obliged to remember the poor of his parish, despite their antipathy, and ‘ordered’ his wife Mary to pay them £10. He left her the rest of his goods, with a notable exception: a cottage he had recently bought was left to his servant Elizabeth Whetnall. Generous indeed.

When Richard Higgs died in 1756, he was the first vicar to die in office and not be buried in the parish.

Gwyneth Nair

Dr John Fleming – victim or con man?

John Fleming was born in 1719, the son of Richard Fleming of Clun. He went to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1738, and graduated in 1741 – although he got his higher degree much later, in 1764.

He came to Highley in 1756, having been Rector at Acton Scott since 1745. Almost immediately, in 1757, Fleming set about ‘improving’ the church. The pulpit was moved from the north side to the south, the font moved to ‘the bottom of the middle aisle’ and – disastrously – ‘an old wooden screen which divides the chancel from the body of the church’ was taken down in order to make the church lighter. This was presumably the ancient rood screen.

Fleming and his wife, Mary, baptised their daughter, Mary, at Highley in 1758, and continued to see Highley as their main residence, although Fleming was still rector of Acton Scott, and retained the use of the vicarage parlour there for when he visited. He leased out the rest of the vicarage house and lands, which caused him trouble later when, he alleged, the tenant owed him money.

In 1761 there was a different kind of trouble, when Elizabeth Coomby, widow, of Highley, accused Rev Fleming of indecent assault. But the court at Shrewsbury threw out the case, finding that Fleming ‘did not make any such assault’ and that Coomby had invented it and also attempted to blackmail the vicar.

By the 1770s, Fleming was in financial difficulties. He blamed his wife’s extravagance, and it does seem that she had borrowed money, for Samuel Wilcox, barge owner, who lived at the Ship, wrote to the vicar in 1779 asking for ‘immediate payment of the sum of fifty four Pounds sixteen shillings your wife borrowed of me together with the Interest.’ That same year, Fleming wrote describing his creditors as the ‘many Dogs who bark at me thro Mrs. Fleming giving her Notes of Hand or Promises for Money borrow'd & large Debts contracted wch she can’t discharge.’ The last money he had received from his tenant had mostly gone as ‘Mrs. Fleming had [it] at different Times for her Use & Family.’ The Flemings may well have been living apart, for some of Mrs Fleming’s debts were to tradesmen in Oxford. Dr Fleming was also scathing about his ‘thoughtless son’, who was in Oxford too.

His daughter, Mary, though, was his ‘good daughter’, his ‘dear girl’, and he was concerned for her financial welfare. Letters survive from Fleming to his good friend and benefactor Mr Duppa of Ludlow, thanking him for his gifts or loans of money. But despite this, things got so bad that Fleming spent some time in Shrewsbury gaol for debt, which he called ‘a truly horrible place.’

A new vicar had been appointed at Highley in 1777, so Fleming had either stood down or been relieved of his post. But, as the letter from Wilcox shows, he still  lived in Highley, and many of his letters to Duppa were posted from there. He also alleged that he had served at Highley without pay for a year from 1778. By the summer of 1779, Fleming declared himself to be ‘in hiding’ from his creditors; and by early November he had taken the drastic step of running away to sea, at the age of 60, as chaplain on the Ajax, a 74-gun man o’ war. He had, he said, had to take with him £10 of the Poors Money of Acton Scott. The Ajax was bound for Gibraltar and then the Leeward Islands – the hot climate of which Fleming felt would, at his age, be the death of him.

Maybe it was, for a new vicar was appointed at Acton Scott early in 1781 on account of the death of the previous incumbent. Fleming’s feckless son seems still to have been living in Highley, for a ‘Richard Fleming, clerk, late of Higley’, was in Shrewsbury gaol later that year – imprisoned for debt. Like father, like son?

Gwyneth Nair


Today, wills are very formal documents, almost exclusively concerned with bequests of sums of money or property. Drawn up by lawyers, they make for dry reading and are often difficult to understand for someone with no legal training. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, they were very different. They were either drawn up by the person themselves or dictated to the local priest. They are often very personal documents, giving an insight into the character of the individual who was making the bequests. In addition, they are often less concerned with money and instead describe how an individual’s belongings should be distributed. I have recently been looking at wills made by people from Billingsley and they make fascinating reading.

The wills usually start with a brief statement, commending the person’s soul to God. However, immediately this gives some insights into their beliefs. The earliest will from Billingsley is that of Margaret Ree dated 1540, only a few years after the split from Rome and the formation of the Church of England. Margaret uses the traditional Roman Catholic formula, commending her soul to “Our Lady Saint Mary” and she also leaves money for the vicar of Stottesdon to arrange for a priest to say prayers for her soul. Over the next 20 years, nationally there were extreme fluctuations between Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrines. The priests at Billingsley for this period, John Wall and Humphrey White, seemed to have kept their heads down, using the bare minimum of words as a commendation in the wills which they wrote for their parishioners. It was only after 1560, when the Church of England became secure with the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne, that Humphrey started to use openly Protestant statements of belief. By contrast, in the 1640s, in the period of the Civil war, some wills show clear Puritan sympathies.

The most common beneficiaries were partners (usually wives) and children. Daughters usually got household items and sums of money; the eldest son got the farming implements; typically a plough, a harrow, harnesses and occasionally a cart. In some cases it is clear that the husband did not trust the family to look after his wife, as bequests are made conditional on the children looking after her for her life. Equally, fathers were sometimes suspicious of their sons-in-law; monetary bequests to daughters are often carefully made to ensure that their husbands could not use these for their own purposes. A few men acknowledge illegitimate sons.

The household goods give a clear indication of the fixtures and fittings of a 16th or early 17th century house. They appear to have been sparsely fitted. Typically there would be a bed, with flax or hemp sheets, a table, a few benches or chairs, a chest and/or a coffer, perhaps a cupboard and some boards for shelves. Pots and pans were invariably made of brass; iron pots did not become common until the 18th century when the Darby furnace at Coalbrookdale perfected a technique to cast them. Plates and dishes were of pewter. Occasionally wooden table ware (treen ware) is mentioned; pottery was never considered worth leaving. Clothes were sometimes also left. The livestock on the farm (cattle and sheep) as well as hay and corn might be divided amongst the family.

One of the most interesting wills is that of the priest, John Wall, who died in 1550. He was a local man; he left bequests to his brothers Thomas and Richard and his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Elizabeth Ree of Southall Bank. His parents were presumably dead as they are not mentioned. He was both priest and farmer, with a cow in Billingsley Wood. However, his passion seems to have been bee-keeping, as he lists 10 legacies of either stalls or swarms of bees. He also seems to have been much respected; he mentions 5 godsons and gives bequests to many other people in Billingsley. Although long dead, through his will this Godly priest still speaks.

Middleton Scriven church

Middleton Scriven church is a small, stone building in the middle of the village. It has two parts; the chancel at the east end (the part of the building with the altar and communion table) and the nave at the west end (where the congregation sits). At the west end there is a small turret in which hangs a pair of bells. The reference books state that it was rebuilt over 1843-8 and so it is essentially an early Victorian structure. In fact, its history appears to be more complicated.

There is no doubt that the church was extensively rebuilt in 1843-8 by the rector, the Rev Dr Thomas Rowley, also the headmaster of Bridgnorth Grammar School. He provided an account of his work in the parish registers, beginning with the rebuilding of the chancel in 1843, followed by reroofing in 1844 and the lengthening of the nave by 8’ in 1845 for the new bell turret. The  west window was added in 1846, in 1847 the inside of the church was clad in new stone, and in 1848 the porch was rebuilt. Whilst this was going on, new fittings were added to the inside of the church; the replica Norman font was donated in 1845. Virtually the only possible surviving feature from the previous church could have been portions of the outside walls of the naves.

The mysteries arise from two paintings of the church, held by Shropshire archives and accessible on the internet at The first of these is not dated but is known to be from the middle of the 19th century. It seems to show the church before Dr Rowley’s restoration and probably dates from about 1840. There is no porch, but above the door is a pointed arch that served as a window; the blocked remains of this can still be seen behind the current porch today. There are numerous differences between this and the current church. The second painting carries a date: 1791, and was the work of a well-known church historian, the Rev Williams. The building is different from the one in the 1840 painting. It has a timber porch. The end of the chancel appears to be timber-framed and the windows are very different from those shown in 1840. The south-west corner of the nave is supported by a brick buttress. Overall, the building looks very dilapidated. It looks as though it was extensively restored before Dr Rowley’s rebuild of 1843-8. Indeed, a report of 1840 on the church states that it was in good repair. This of course raises the question as to why Dr Rowley decided to reconstruct what was probably a sound, modern building; it may simply be that he did not like it.

he 1791 painting also raises questions about the earlier history of the church. It shows a building that had been much repaired. My guess is that at some point, the end of the chancel had reached such a state that it was demolished and replaced by a cheaper (and presumably more sound) timber-framed wall. Partial demolition was a not uncommon option; the entire chancel of Deuxhill church was pulled down long before the rest of the building was abandoned in the 19th century. We know that in 1601 the church courts were concerned about the poor state of a number of local churches, including Middleton Scriven. Even earlier, in 1318, the Bishop of Worcester allowed an appeal for funds for repairs to the “chapels and bell towers” of Deuxhill and Middleton Scriven; in spite of popular wisdom, medieval masons did not always build to last.

On the opposite side of the road from the present church are two very ancient yews. There is a tradition that the first church at Middleton Scriven was built here and then moved to its present site. The building Dr Rowley restored was on the site of the present church, as was most probably the 1791 one. However, churches can move about a village. The church at Middleton Scriven is first mentioned in 1291; the 1791 painting shows a window in the nave that is in the style I would expect from about that time or perhaps a little earlier. My guess is that the building in the picture was built around the 13th century, although old features could be re-used or copied in later rebuilds. Only archaeology is likely to tell us what, if anything, stood by the yews and the age of the site of the current church. Whatever the answer to this might be, it is clear that reference books do not always tell the full story about the history of even the simplest of churches.

“The door hasped upon them…”

Every society needs laws and ways to enforce those laws. Particularly in Tudor and Stuart times, one of the ways of keeping people in line was through the courts organised by the church. The church courts were mainly concerned with matters of morality and religious observance. This was a period of great religious tensions as the struggle developed between the Roman Catholic Church and various forms of Protestantism. To be the wrong type of Christian was not a matter of private conviction; it could label a person as an enemy of the state. So in Highley in 1595 George Pearson fell under suspicion for not taking Holy Communion for a lengthy period. This seems to have had more to do with a quarrel with the vicar than any great matter of principle. In 1600, Agnes, the wife of Thomas Charnock, was reported to the court for not attending church. This may have been to do with religious conviction, as in 1604 another member of the Charnock family, Richard, was named as a “recusant”; a Roman Catholic. At this time, whilst Roman Catholicism was discouraged, practitioners no longer went in fear of their lives. Instead they were effectively taxed with regular financial penalties. Richard was a tailor and there would have been little point in imposing any exorbitant fine on him as he would have lacked the ability to pay. Nonetheless, either because of the constant irritant of appearing before the church court or perhaps because of a genuine change of heart, in 1606 it was reported that he had resumed regular church attendance.

A major concern of the church courts was sexual behaviour. Again, there were sound reasons for this being considered to be more than a matter of individual morality. There was no effective form of contraception; sooner or later it was inevitable that the woman concerned would become pregnant and the community could not afford to provide for a large number of children of unknown fathers. Thus it was important to ensure that only stable, married couples could produce children. John Potter, summonsed in 1595 for sleeping with his wife before they were married could probably have considered himself unlucky; such behaviour amongst betrothed couples was the norm and usually ignored. The courts were more interested in husbands whose interests strayed to their young female servants. In 1566-7 Thomas Low was convicted of adultery with Matilda Harryes, his servant, and Oliver Harris of Haslewells was convicted of the same with his servant Anne Lewys.

It was often difficult for the courts to be certain that adultery had been committed. However, it was much easier to prove a charge of “intimacy”; a word with a whole range of meanings and which allowed a conviction for a man and woman simply being in each other’s company in what might be regarded as suspicious circumstances. Sometimes a third party might be convicted of allowing immoral behaviour in their houses. In 1564 Thomas Harris was accused of “allowing licentiousness” in his house between Oliver Harris and Elizabeth Rea.

Mostly the entries in the cases are very short and give few details. One exception is from a case of adultery in Chelmarsh in 1621, which can be left to speak for itself.

“Suspicion of adultery was famed between Nicholas Spencer and Catherine Smith upon the reported and furious behaviour of Richard Smith, husband of Catherine, who, coming home to his own house, found (as he said), the same Nicholas Spencer with the said Catherine Smith in one chamber with the door hasped upon them”.

The wording of the case leaves open the possibility that the courts may have thought that there was more to the complaint of Richard Smith than he was admitting; unfortunately I have not been able to find its verdict!

Highley Church in 1950

The vicar of Highley throughout the 1950s was the Rev Robert Miles. He replaced the Rev Shields who had occupied the post for almost 35 years. His period of office brought many changes. He was a much younger man than the Rev Shields and so inevitably brought a new energy to the church. His churchmanship was also very different. The “living”, that is, the power to appoint a new vicar, had passed to the Martyrs Memorial Trust during the term of the Rev Shields’s service.

Previously the vicars of Highley had been high church; the Martyrs Memorial Trust came from the evangelical, Low Church wing of the Church of England and so their nominations, of whom the Rev Miles was the first, were men of this persuasion. Finally, the Rev Miles came from London and he remained in tune with initiatives taking place in the diocese of London; he was not afraid to try new ideas in Highley.

Very recently, a number of newsletters produced by the Rev Miles have come to light; I have in front of me No 9, from October 1950. As far as I know, these were themselves an innovation introduced by the Rev Miles; whilst the Rev Shields had contributed a monthly page to the Bridgnorth Deanery parish magazine, nothing like this six page newsletter had previously been produced. It was the direct ancestor of the Highley Forum! The front page listed the church officers; the churchwardens John Derricutt and Harry Deakin, the organist Les Derricutt, the son of John, the 12 sidesmen (and they were all men) and the verger and clerk, Percy Reynolds.

On Sunday, in addition to the services (I assume Morning and Evening Prayer although this is not specified) at 3.00 there were separate Sunday Schools for the over 11’s, juniors and infants. On Monday there was the Mothers’ Union at 6.30 in the vicarage. On Tuesday young wives’ club was from 3.00-5.00 followed by Prayer Fellowship for the sick at 6.30 (the healing ministry is not new). At 7.00 there was a junior club. On Wednesday there was a more general prayer fellowship from 6.00-9.00. On Thursday St Mary’s Guild met from 7-9.30 and on Fridays there was the senior club at 7.00. Saturday seemed to be a day off.

Elsewhere in the newsletter, the Rev Miles gives more details about some of these meetings. St Mary’s Guild had recently been formed and was open to all women. As the Rev Miles somewhat cryptically wrote in the newsletter:

“There were those who wanted a working party they could attend in the evening, when the men were at home, to give the ladies a break.”

The guild elected their own committee with Mrs Miles in the chair. The first meeting involved some work on various projects followed by a social hour, a song and a dance and an “epilogue”. The Rev Miles commented that everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Events proved that his upbeat assess-ment was correct; some 60 years later, St Mary’s Fellowship is the direct descendant of the Guild.

There was news of planning permission being granted for some Nissen huts. One of these was put up at the vicarage (i.e. the old vicarage down Vicarage Lane) where it served as a youth club, run by the Rev Miles. It is interesting that these were conceived as a temporary measure, until a hall could be built on the church’s land at Garden Village. This land at Garden Village seems to have been in every vicar’s in-tray for 90 years!

Finally the newsletter gives some insights into the convictions of the Rev Miles himself. His pastoral newsletter shows his evangelical outlook. What is also obvious is his strong commitment to prayer. Many readers of this magazine will have known the Rev Miles much better than myself; I was baptised by him just before he left the village in 1961 (there is no connection between the events…). However, I do recall his occasional return visits to Highley as a guest preacher, when his sermons would invariably be on the importance of prayer. The newsletter shows how central this was to his early ministry in Highley.


The Rev. Miles’s newsletters

In the previous article, I reported that a number of newsletters produced in 1950 by the then vicar of Highley, the Rev Robert Miles, had recently come to light. I based my article on the one I had then seen, No 9 from October. I have now had chance to look through the others, which stretch from April-December of that year. As the Rev Miles was inducted in December 1949, these cover most of his first year in Highley. The newsletters themselves must have started in February 1950.

The April newsletter details the arrangements for Easter. There was some kind of event every evening during Holy Week, including a concert by the choir on the Tuesday. On Good Friday there was a service in the church at 11.00 am but the main event was a united service at the Methodist chapel lead by their minister, the Rev Sangster. This was obviously something of an experiment, for in the next magazine the Rev Miles thanked those who attended, adding; “Some had doubts about going, but out of loyalty to me they came… If such loyalty were manifest throughout the church, church reunion would soon be accomplished.”

The three communion services on Easter Day were attended by 244 communicants, which was thought to be a record. The collection of almost £18 was also a record; I imagine that this was given to the Rev Miles as it was the normal tradition for the vicar to be allowed to keep that particular offering. He would have earned it; he also fitted in a children’s service and house communions for those unable to get to church. The Lenten self-denial boxes were sadly not so successful. These were due to be returned at a special service after Easter, which also doubled up as a hymn practice for the congregation; in fact only £30 was raised on the night, although, perhaps in more hope than expectation, the Rev Miles noted a number of boxes were still due and appealed for their prompt return.

Youth work was a priority for the Rev Miles. In April he introduced the new youth worker, Mr Brown. (“a good mixer”). In May he congratulated Harold Palmer and the Youth Club football team. They had just completed their third successive unbeaten season in the league and also thrashed St Leonard’s 9-0 at Bridgnorth to claim the cup. Not entirely convincingly, he reported that the score did not reflect the performance of St Leonard’s. One of our congregation was a member of the mighty youth club team from those years.

Mr Miles took a general interest in the sporting and social life of the village. He congratulated the cricket team for winning two of the local knock-out competitions. He attended the final of the darts knockout championship, in which the Castle beat the Ship; the competition was run to raise funds for the children’s and old folk’s parties run by the Buffs.

He also congratulated the colliery rescue team lead by Ben Crowther for firstly winning the area rescue competition and then finishing as runners-up in the Divisional championship. However, he also expressed disapproval at a proposal to play cricket games on a Sunday; “The Fathers of this village have held to the sacredness of this day down the ages. An heritage greatly valued by many people. And one that they are not prepared to surrender without a fight.”

There were a number of excursions during the year. The Mother’s Union had a trip to Gloucester, which went well. The choir went to Cheddar in June, but the Rev Miles was unconvinced that the caves were value for money, “I thought the 2/- quite enough to charge for the little there was to see, and the short time you were seeing it.”

Finally in July, there was the Sunday School trip to Stourport, which culminated in an unfortunate incident on the slides; “Denis Turner managed to come down the chute nine or ten times alright, but the last time he caught his leg on the bottom and ripped it open, which had to be stitched up at Kidderminster Hospital. It was a pretty bad wound; probably it looked worse than it was owing to the fact that Denis has more than a generous supply of flesh.”

Denis’s comments on his supply of flesh are sadly not recorded.

The garden fête

To complete this series based on the newsletters of the Rev Miles, the following account of the Summer Fête is taken verbatim from that for August 1950.

The above was treated like a Military Exercise. We thought we had made provision for everything - except the weather. Following Trevor Bytheway and Kath Wiggan’s wedding, Mrs. Sherwood and myself were back in good time. While we had been away, His Worship the Mayor of Bridgnorth had kindly come along to support us. So, with Mr. Deakin in the Chair, we lost no time in getting along. After Prayer by the Vicar, Mr. Deakin told us something about the Fund. Mrs. Sherwood then opened the Fete for us, and Diane Jones presented a bouquet of flowers to Mrs. Sherwood. His Worship the Mayor said how pleased he was to be present to support us. (I should like to say that I feel it was a very gracious act on his part to come along. He was only invited the previous day, at the Grammar School Sports. Also he has promised to come along and open our Christmas Sale on December 9th. Thank you very much, Mr. Mayor).

Then the rain – OH! What Rain! There was water everywhere. The men very gallantly carried the stalls in, and everyone who could get into the Vicarage came in. If you can imagine about 250 people crammed into the Club-room, the Dining-room, the Table-Tennis-room—even the children’s Bed-room was utilized—the Dart-room was crowded—others were sitting on the stairs. To add to all this, Irene was in bed ill. I am very glad my mother and sister were with us, and could give their undivided attention to the wee mite. So much for the difficulties.

At the same time the Sale was going on. Teas were being served. Out of this huge crush, we had to extract the Fancy Dress Competitors. Mrs. Miles, Cyril Green and myself, managed to get enough room for them to form up. Three little ones, Eliz­abeth Wilkins (Mary, Mary, How does your garden grow), Diane Jones and Hilary Jones, were all given first prizes. The 8-11 class was won by Rosemary Smith, 2nd Sheila Jones, 3rd Marlene Hart; and a con­solation prize was given to Dick Whitting­ton and his cat; who they were, I have not yet found out. But all the competitors, thirteen of them, had 2/6d. for trying. Our many thanks to Mrs. Miles and Mrs. Bache, who judged the little ones for me. (Mrs. Miles acted as Judge in this class because Elizabeth Wilkins was one of them). And to Mrs. Bache and Mrs. Wilkins, who acted as judges for others. They then paraded all over the house, so that everyone could see them, including Irene. Next year, children (DV), we will have a great show.

The cake-making competition was won by Mrs Taylor—a fruit cake and Mrs Pottinger—a sponge. I am glad that the MU and the young wives were so well represented. Very many thanks to Mr Lawley for acting as judge.

The highest break from the spot at Billiards was won by Gerald Hitchens.

At this stage we had a hurried meeting, and decided (with the very kind help of the Miners’ Welfare Committee), to move into the Welfare Hall, where we intended to carry on until 11pm. Everything that was not sold was taken there. Once again I have to thank Cyril Green, who took charge of the affair in my absence, while trying to clear the people out of the vicarage. When I did arrive, about 20 minutes late, the hall was packed. We immediately got going. Colin Jones played for us - Leslie Derricutt gave us one of those rare occasions when we hear his fine tenor voice. Mrs Davies of Woodend Farm, that very talented lady, produced her kitchen band; it was jolly good and the sketch was equally good. The singing of the children was also good. In between all this was games and dancing.

Then I put the things that were not sold for auction. Some of the things brought fabulous prices. The evening added about £25; everything was sold. We closed the day in the same way as we began it; with prayer and thanks to God for his blessing on us.

Before I give thanks to the workers, the ankle competition for the ladies was won by Mrs Painter. The ankles and calves for gentlemen caused a sensation. The crowd that gathered round the judges greatly embarrassed the men (I wonder) - the uncomplementary remarks!—it was shameful (it was great fun). Then it was decided that the vicar had the most shapely calves and ankles in Highley. Then some person (unknown), suggested that the vicar, in shorts, and Mrs Painter, should walk through Highley showing their prize ankles. It should be known that these competent judges made the decisions; for the ladies, Mr Hayes senior and Cyril Green. For the gentlemen, Mrs Honeybourne, Mrs Curley and Mrs Olive Taylor (Vicarage Lane). Mrs Painter had a pair of nylons and the vicar a pair of socks.

Mrs Mason won the Treasure Hunt, a pair of nylons.

We met again on Wednesday July 26th, to play off the competitions. Mr Harry Page won the chicken and Mary had a biro pen. They both managed to knock down 7 skittles. At the time of going to press we have raised £83, but the expenses have to come off this. Thank you very much indeed. Very many thanks—to Mr Howe, who spent hours working at the vicarage, clearing the grass, cutting the hedge (this took a week of his spare time)—and clearing the path—Mr Page, Mr J. Harris, J. Walford, Mr Robinson, Mr A. James, P. Taylor, T. Lloyd, T. Broome, Cyril Green, Mrs Painter and her band of workers, Mrs James and Taylor, Mrs Deakin Brewer, Mr Powell—Mrs Owen and Jones and Heath, and all the young wives. The guides for selling the programmes. A special word for Cliff Howe and Lawson Shaw, who were such a great help at the piano and drums. And last, but not least, MRS MILES, who had to turn her house inside out to accommodate the Fete. And a very big thank you to the loyal band who appeared on Monday morning with pails and cleaned up the mess. To all who contributed both things and money for prizes. Some have said they do not wish their names to be mentioned. I have noted them, and if by chance I have missed anybody, please forgive me—I am only human.

On behalf of the Churchwardens and myself, thank you very much for this combined operation.

Highley Parish Newsletter, August 1950, No 7, Robert G. Miles.

More on the Rev. Miles

The recent series of articles based on the parish newsletters of the Rev Miles have sparked a lot of interest, with a number of people sharing their memories of him with me. Of particular interest was a letter that I have received from Mary Monk, his daughter. Mary has kindly allowed me to use parts of this for the current article, which I have supplemented with other peoples anecdotes.

Mary wrote “I remember the church wardens, Mr Derricutt and Mr Deakin (and Les Derricutt, who taught me the organ). They were both very loyal supporters of my father. A strange thing I remember about Mr Deakin was watching the cup final on his television as we did not have our own TV.”

Mary was able to shed some more light on the founding of St Mary’s Guild.

“At that time (when the Revd. Miles arrived), the Mother’s Union was only open to married women with children and, unbelievably, its national rules stated that divorced women should be refused communion (it is very different today!). Hence the guild was formed.”

“I remember the Nissen huts being built. Although my father had some help, he did the majority of the work himself. It was there that I learnt to mix and lay concrete, Dad developed an allergy to the cement that caused his hands to swell, which was very painful; it troubled him for the rest of his life. But the upside of the huts was a very lively youth club where I learned to play snooker.”

The youth club is remembered by many. It was certainly lively; on some occasions Mr Miles had to intervene to stop fights between some of the lads and when he was out of sight, apparently his motor scooter, which he kept nearby, would sometimes be started and taken for short spins around the hut! Mr Miles was also responsible for other innovations. At one point he organised a May Day celebration for the local children, with dancing around a May Pole in the vicarage garden. The old vicarage was a large building with extensive grounds, but it was difficult to maintain such an old house and it was with some relief that Mr Miles was eventually able to move into a new vicarage opposite to the Rec. Of course, this has now in turn been replaced by the current rectory, next to the church

Mary also was able to comment on the proposed hall in Garden Village, noting how this was a real dream of her father’s. Others have told me they remember the regular collections that were organised in the 1950s to raise funds for this; some pledged to give a regular donation of 2/- a week. Sadly, not enough was raised to allow construction to take place and I believe the funds were eventually used to help furnish the present parish hall when the church took over the old school.

“I went to Sunday School in the old function room at the Castle in Garden Village; this is now part of the restaurant. This was another of the Revd. Miles’s innovations and part of his commitment to Garden Village. He was assisted in this by his lay-reader, Lawrence Rudd, who ran it when I was a pupil in the 1960s. Mary Miles taught here; she considers that this helped her to realise that she wanted to become a teacher.”

The Revd. Miles was always ready to try new ideas at Highley, to build and sustain his congregations. He organised “Happy Marriage” services: annual thanksgiving services for all the couples he had married. Through this, many retained a connection with the church that might otherwise have lapsed.

The last word should be with Mary on the spirituality of her father.

“There is no doubt that prayer mattered more to my father than anything else, although he was a practical man of action.”

Glazeley Church

In November 2012, Harry Davenhill gave a very interesting account of Glazeley Church, based on his memories going back to the Second World War. In this article, I want to add to this, with a few notes on the earlier history of the church. The current building was constructed in 1875, but there have been churches on this spot for much longer.

Domesday Book records a priest at Glazeley. We do not know his name, but in 1115, the church was held by Ingelbert. He claimed that his parish should cover not only Glazeley but also the neighbouring parish of Deuxhill. Behind this lies a story. Deuxhill belonged to Wenlock Abbey and it is likely that the monks had just built their own chapel in Deuxhill. Perhaps Ingelbert had been able to claim revenue from Deuxhill, money that he would now lose. Ingelbert lost his case, although Deuxhill and Glazeley were eventually united in Tudor times.

Outside the current church is a stone Norman font, perhaps dating from the time of Ingelbert. Another echo of this time is a stone coffin, also outside the church, that was probably the resting place of either one of the priests or an owner of the manor. In the middle ages, the lords of Glazeley were men of substance who could afford a decent burial for themselves. We do not know the identity of the occupier of the stone coffin, but he was a tall man, probably at least 6'. There is also a stone coffin lid, with a cross marked on the front, from a smaller coffin. Just outside the porch there is a mutilated slab that may be another coffin lid.

Thus we have a number of physical links with the medieval church of Glazeley. However, it is not clear if this was the building that was knocked down in the early 1870s to make way for the current church. The illustrations of this church suggest it dated from nearer 1600 than 1100. My guess is that the medieval church was rebuilt a little before 1600. The oldest memorial that was in this second church was a pair of memorial brasses to Thomas Wylde and his wife from 1599; they were saved by the Victorian builders and put in the 1875 church, along with a memorial to Edmund Wylde from 1695. The font from this church is probably also outside the porch of the current church.

It is likely that by Victorian times, the second church was showing its age. A drawing of around 1850 shows that much of the plaster rendering had fallen off the walls. Its sister church at Deuxhill was in an equally poor state of repair. In 1871 it was decided to abandon both buildings in favour of a single new church at Glazeley. This was designed by a well-known architect, A.W. Blomfield, and was consecrated on St Bartholomew’s Day, 1875. Unfortunately, it seems that within a generation or so, there were problems with this structure. A photo taken around 1900 shows the church with its east end missing and covered in scaffolding; today it is possible to see where this has been underpinned with concrete. Fortunately the fine stained glass in this window was saved and carefully replaced.

In the 20th century, a parish room was built in the grounds and the war memorial was erected. In 1925 a second stained glass window was installed in memory of Lt Crooks, killed in the Great War. My grandfather, Sid Mullard, was verger of the church from 1925-33; as Harry records, the church was a key part of the community at this time.

The current building is about to enter a new phase of life, but the site on which it stands has a history of worship stretching back over 1000 years.  

Underneath the carpet

Billingsley church was virtually rebuilt in 1875. In the last month or so a new programme of renovation has started. The church has been researching its history; I am part of a small group who are helping with this. I know the church fairly well, so I was not expecting any surprises when I called by a couple of weeks ago. In the corner by the font is a wooden cross that I think was once the grave-marker for Lt Harold Gibbs, who was killed in the Great War. As I was looking at it, I noticed that it was standing on a stone slab with writing on; something I had never seen before. A little further investigation revealed this was the top of a finely carved gravestone; most of it was beneath a carpet. The fortunate arrival of a churchwarden at that point gave me the excuse to peel the carpet back. This revealed three gravestones set in over forty medieval floor tiles. The existence of this collection is doubtless well-known to the older inhabitants of Billingsley, but I was not aware of it and I suspect this was the first time in a generation that it has seen the light of day.

I think the stones are older than any now standing in the churchyard. The oldest is indeed very old for a gravestone, for it marks the resting place of Jane Bradley, daughter of William Bradley, citizen of “Wo”, buried 4th May 1637. “Wo” is surely an abbreviation for Worcester and indeed in 1623 we can find the baptism of Jane, daughter of William Bradley, in the registers of St Swithin’s church. Quite what brought a 14 year old from Worcester to die in Billingsley is a mystery; she was probably staying with close friends or relatives. It is possible that her parents were worried about her health and had sent her away to the country to try and recover.

The second stone is also from the 17th century and marks the resting place of John Smeethes, father of Robert, who died in August 1655. John fared rather better than Jane; he was 82 when he died. The Smeethes were a leading family in Billingsley; John served as churchwarden as did Robert and his grandson, another John. Either John or perhaps more likely Robert wanted to show that they were men of learning, for the last line of the inscription is in Latin; “statutum est, omnibus mori”. This is from Hebrews 9 v27; “it is the law, all shall die”. The use of Latin is interesting as in 1655 England was ruled by Cromwell and the Church of England had been suppressed in favour of a national Presbyterian church. The use of Latin is unlikely to have been encouraged in churches at this time and it is possible that inscription is also a dig at the authorities.

The final stone is the one that I first saw and it is a monument to Edward Broadfield of the Bind, who died in July 1770 aged 42. A month earlier, his son William had been born to Edward’s second wife, Elizabeth; in 1777 the young William was laid to rest with his father and his name added to the memorial. Edward was born in Bridgnorth and came to Billingsley around 1750; he was wealthy and was frequently churchwarden. The face of this stone has been stained black and the letters picked out in white; almost certainly it originally stood on the wall of the church.

The stones provide a very personal insight into the lives and deaths of a few of the former inhabitants of Billingsley. Below are photos of the Jane Bradley and Edward Broadfield’s stones, taken by Rebecca Hadley.

 More on Billingsley Church

In the previous article, I wrote of some recent discoveries made at Billingsley Church, when a carpet was peeled back to reveal the original floor. The church is currently undergoing repairs to the roof and the bells are being rehung. This month I want to talk more about what has recently come to light about the church and its medieval benefactors.

Billingsley church was in existence by around 1140, at about the same time as we have our first record of Highley Church. The probability is that at this period both churches looked rather similar. They would have had two parts; the nave to the east with the altar and a rather larger part to the west, the chancel, for the congregation. Of course, this is basically the same arrangement as today. Both churches subsequently expanded over the years. A tower was added to Highley but at Billingsley the alterations were less dramatic.

Based on their style, some new windows were added around 1300. Perhaps 20 or so years later, inside the church an “Easter Sepulchre” was built in the north wall of the nave; this was a large recess built like a tomb but instead of holding a body, it held the communion bread and wine over Easter, to symbolise the risen Christ and the empty tomb. The oldest surviving bell is probably from around 1320- 1380. The medieval floor tiles that came to light last month also look to be of a similar period and it is possible that the wooden porch may be as early as 1350. At one point, the walls were painted; when the church was rebuilt in 1875 it was noted that the main painting was of St Agnes. This was not dated but it may well have been from the 14th century, the same as all the other features noted above. Clearly in the period roughly from 1300-1400 a lot of money was spent on the church.

During this period, Billingsley was in the hands of the de Beysin family. They were important, with estates elsewhere in Shropshire and also in Staffordshire. Around 1300, the head of the family was Walter de Beysin; he was an MP for Shrewsbury and was very active in local government. Walter could have lived anywhere on his various estates, but in at least some sources he is noted as being from Billingsley. With this connection, it is possible that he was responsible for the new windows. Walter died in 1310, leaving his widow Alice. As was normal practice, Alice was granted income from a number of the Beysin estates, including Billingsley. However, the Billingsley connection went much deeper, for a tax assessment that survives from 1332 clearly shows that she was actually living in the village. She is an excellent candidate for the builder of the Easter Sepulchre.

Following Alice’s death, Billingsley would have reverted to the male members of the Beysin family, until 1360 when John, her grandson, died. Thereafter, due to lack of male heirs, the succession passed through females. First Billingsley was held by Elizabeth, John’s daughter. When she died around 1376 it passed back to her aunt, Agnes, who lived beyond 1402. On Agnes’s death it went to her daughter Juliana. Juliana married twice, both to Warwickshire knights; first John de Clopton and then Thomas de Crewe. Juliana died in 1411 and is buried with Thomas in Wixford Church near Alcester; a fine memorial brass commemorates them both.

Thus in the late 14th century, Billingsley was largely owned by women, particularly the long-lived Agnes. It is particularly intriguing that the wall painting discovered in 1875 was of Saint Agnes. This may simply be a coincidence, but there is no known connection between the church and this saint and it would be quite plausible for a medieval gentlewoman to form an attraction to a saint that bore her name. Agnes may well have been a benefactor of the church, perhaps providing the bells and commissioning the wall painting. This is speculation but we can be certain that there was a connection between the church and her daughter Juliana.

In the 18th century, Thomas Mytton, an antiquarian, sketched a stained glass shield that was in a window in the north wall of the church. This glass has long gone but Mytton’s sketch survives. The shield is identical to the one on the tomb of Juliana; it shows the arms of the Beysin family with those of Thomas, her second husband. She completes the triplet of women who we can now suggest oversaw the enhancement of Billingsley Church in the 14th century; the stained glass may have been put up by Thomas to commemorate her.


The Billingsley tiles

I have recently written about Billingsley church, which has just undergone a renovation. During the course of this, the carpet, laid around 30 years, was rolled back to reveal three 17th and 19th century grave slabs and a collection of medieval decorated tiles. Previously I described the grave slabs. Following advice from English Heritage, it has now been possible to clean the tiles and so for the first time it is possible to learn something about their history.

There are 58 complete tiles, plus fragments from at least three others. They currently occupy the southwest corner of the nave and are set around the three old gravestones. A number have been cut to fit around either the grave stones or the edges of the walls. As found, many of the stones were covered with lime plaster. All but seven of the tiles carry decorations. Each is roughly 4 ½" square.

Now that the tiles have been cleaned, it is possible to identify the patterns that they carry. The patterns are picked out in white clay whilst the tiles themselves are normally red. The tiles had been coated with a clear glaze so that the patterns appear yellow on a brown background; on most tiles this glaze has almost totally worn away and in some cases most of the pattern is also missing. The tiles themselves seem normally to have been laid in squares made of 16. Within this there would typically be a circular pattern on the outer 12 tiles, with another, smaller circular pattern in the middle 4 tiles. The patterns vary. Many are mixtures of flowers, branches and leaves. Some include animals. One set has birds, possible eagles, set in the corner. On another, four lions chase each other round a circle. There are also inscriptions; a group has the words Deo Gracia (the grace of God) picked out in letters on each quadrant. In total, it is possible to identify eight distinct 16-tile designs. There are three designs which were executed on squares made of just 4 tiles. One was a circle with an abbreviated version of Ave Maria (Hail Mary, full of grace) around the outside. The other two had designs incorporating either the Fleur-de-Lys (the symbol of France) or the arms of the Earls of Worcester.

The tiles can be dated quite closely. They all seem to have been made at a set of kilns that operated in the Great Malvern area, from roughly 1480-1520. The products of these kilns are found throughout Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire as well as mid and south Wales. The designs at Billingsley are common products of the kilns.

So what are the tiles doing at Billingsley? It seems unlikely that they are in their original position; almost certainly they were moved to this place during the Victorian rebuilding. It is possible that they were originally set in the chancel of the church, perhaps by the altar or the Easter sepulchre. Currently the tiles are set at random and form no pattern, nor or there enough tiles to form a complete example of any of the designs that are represented. Perhaps the tiles suffered considerable damage in the centuries after they were put in and the Victorians found only a fraction of the original pavement. It is possible that some were removed to accommodate burials inside the church, such as that of Jane Bradley, whose memorial stone they now surround. It is also possible that they were never set in a pattern. Sometimes merchants were happy to sell cheaply sets of tiles left over from big orders; the designs on these would be random, but they would serve for someone who simply wanted tiles for a colourful paved area.

We do not know why the tiles were originally laid. My only guess is that the roof of the church looks as though it may have been renewed in the early 16th century. Possibly the tiles were put down as part of a larger renovation at that time.

As requested by the Billingsley churchwardens, George Poyner has made some wooden railings (three posts and some chain, to be accurate) to go round the medieval tiles and old gravestones at Billingsley church so they can be displayed. The proud craftsman is pictured admiring his handiwork…  

#RelgHist Landscape history Transport