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The Life and Times of the Twelve Benefactors Who Paid for the Refurbishment

 

Philip Watts, Thomas Cox, Thomas White, John White, John Looker. Samuel Oatley, William Young, John Wentworth, William Halcolm, Joseph Hutchins, Henry Woodman, Edward Vaisey

‘This church deeply in decay has been all but rebuilded, generously and piously, at their own expense, 1816’

The works were funded in part by these gentlemen whose names are recorded on the six gold and black shields that hang either side of the tower arch beneath the organ gallery in our church.

Now it is time to examine the part played by the ‘twelve good men and true’ whose signatures endorse this petition. As members of Vestry – the Parochial Church Council of the day – they were leading figures in the village community many of whom combined their work for the Church with a vital secular role as ‘Overseers of the Poor’ with responsibility for a varied range of practical and social activities within the village. The two most senior members of Vestry were the two Churchwardens, Edward Vaisey of Grove Farm, and Henry Woodman of Stitchcombe.

The phrase ‘deeply in decay’ is a striking example of alliteration, bringing to our minds the bare skeletons that survived the dissolution the monasteries and abbeys in Tudor times. There is no evidence that Minal church was ever in this state during the centuries following its foundation in Saxon times.

Looking at the contemporary evidence available to us there are four records in the period from 1800-1815 that question whether Minal church was ever ‘deeply in decay’ in the sense that we understand those words today.

In 1801 three bells that had hung in the tower since 1596 were converted into a ring of five by James Wells of Aldbourne. The second of these five bells bore the inscription ‘The Rev. Car: Francis, Rector gave £10 towards these bells. Wells Aldbourne fecit 1801’. The replacement of three bells with five in a tower is a major task, requiring the design of a completely new oak framework to carry the weight of the bells, and to take the mechanical stresses created by heavy swinging bells. This would only have been done if the Tower itself was structurally sound.

Secondly, in 1800 Sir Richard Colt Hoare, of Stourhead, commissioned John Buckler to make drawings of churches and other buildings of interest in Wiltshire that ultimately ran to ten volumes and established the artist’s reputation as an architectural historian. He painted three watercolours of Minal Church in 1806, an external view from the south-east, an internal view of the ‘springing arches’ in the south aisle, and a third plate comparing the fonts of eight local churches, including Minal. While the external view makes a pretty composition that would please his patron, the arches and the font are drawn in documentary mode, giving no reason to doubt that he painted accurately what was in front of him. Sir Richard was himself an experienced archaeologist who would expect from those to whom he gave commissions the same attention to detail as he gave to the examination of ancient sites.

Four years later Sir Richard visited Minal while staying with his cousin Lord Charles Bruce at Savernake Lodge, a handsome house recently converted for his use by his father Thomas, 7th Earl of Ailesbury. His diary of that visit records that ‘The Parish Church has round arches springing from Saxon Capitals, but nothing either monumental or architectural worthy of note’. Neither Buckler nor Sir Richard found the condition of the church exceptional.

The year after Colt Hoare’s visit the Rev. Charles Francis was appointed to the recently revived post of Rural Dean. In a small vellum-bound book, entitled “Memoranda of the Injunctions respecting Repairs & Improvements of Churches, and Parsonage Houses within the Rural Deanries of Marlborough and Cricklade, left by the Rural Dean C.F. in his first visitation, A.D. 1812” he records what he found after his first visitation to the twenty five parishes in the Deanery.

Charles Francis was living at the time in the Rectory that then stood within the walls of what is now Rectory Garden House, opposite the church.

We know that it was to Edward Vaisey of Grove Farm and Henry Woodman of Stitchcombe Farm that the newly appointed Rural Dean, the Rev. Charles Francis sent notice on February 29th 1812 of an ‘intended visitation on Tuesday the 3rd of March next’. The minute of this meeting was quoted in the first article of this series, it starts:-

‘March 3rd Visited the Church & Rectory House at Mildenhall, Edward Vaisey and Henry Woodman attending: when the following Orders were given - viz. The walls and buttresses on the North Side etc.’

After detailing the repairs to be done in a manner reminiscent of a modern quinquennial architect’s report he adds notes relevant to the theme of this article:-

‘N.B. The Rector lives in the Rectory House, which [sic] is a large Old One, in good repair: there is an uncommon Quantity of Barns & Buildings belonging to this Rectory, which are at present in good Repair.

There is no Parochial Endowment or Charitable Donation whatever.

Divine Service twice & a Sermon, & Catechising Poor Children once, on Sundays. Prayers on the Festivals. Communion Four times a Year. Number of Communicants from 60 to 70. Population in all, was 365.

No Sectarian Meeting House, & no Methodists of the Parish in the Parish.

Divine Service twice, & a Sermon, & catechising Poor children once, on Sundays. Prayers on the Festivals. Communion four times a year. Number of Communicants 60 to 70. Population in all was 365.

No Sectarian Meeting House, & no Methodists of the Parish in the Parish.’

It is unlikely that the Rector would keep the Rectory & its Barns in ‘good Repair’ but not the Parish church opposite his house.

This cumulative evidence suggests that it was the internal wooden furnishings of the church nave and aisles that needed replacing in 1814. While doing so, the opportunity was taken to design afresh the internal layout of the pews, pulpit and font to conform to changing Anglican tradition. At the same time a new gallery with seating for an extra fifty people was added to ensure that henceforward there would be comfortable room for all those attending Divine Service. ‘All but rebuilded’ means exactly what it says, the building was sound, but its internal furnishings were no longer fit for purpose.

This view is supported by the experience of a more recent, and just as urgent, restoration in 1980 when damp was found once again to have extensively damaged the foundation woodwork of panels and pews in the nave. The quality of the repairs done then is of such quality that it is difficult to distinguish the old from the new.

The four articles in this series and the bicentenary exhibition in the church that accompanies them demonstrate a remarkably complete record of the process that led up to the Restoration we are celebrating. Sadly we have found no such detailed record of the cost of the exercise, nor of any bills of account that would reveal how the exercise was administered and to whom, we owe the quality of woodwork we now enjoy. Nor are there audited accounts recording the names of the donors who contributed to its cost.

A concise summary of what took place is recorded in an extract from the Rural Dean’s book, quoted in an article in the ‘Wiltshire Magazine’ 1920 as follows ;-

Mildenhall 1816. “in the course of the last two years…….. the inside of the Church has been entirely renewed. A new black and white stone pavement has been laid down, the walls scraped and plaistered with Roman cement. New massive doors of oak put up. Entire new pews of the finest oak with some carving throughout the Church erected, carved pulpit and reading desk, perfectly alike, of oak placed at the entrance into the chancel, a handsome gallery of oak added to the west end of the nave, a new and elegant font and lid given by John Long, Esq. A superb set of books richly bound in red morocco, and a very costly sett of hangings and cushions of Genoa purple velvet and gold embroidery fringe and tassels for the Communion table, pulpit and reading desk, the gift of Daniel Jones Long, Esq., the whole expense very little short of £2000”

The woodwork in the chancel was not mentioned in the faculty granted by Salisbury Diocese in 1814. The furnishing and maintenance of this part of the building was at that time the responsibility of the Patron. The Patron Rectors were the Pocockfamily from 1692 to 1788 and the more ornate style, reminiscent of 'Strawberry Hill Gothic' may date to the incumbency of the Rev. Richard Pocock (1763-1788) whose family had been dons in the Oxford University Hebrew faculty, hence the inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek on the reredos.

Daniel Jones Long was an executor of Charles Francis will, and a trustee of the £4000 fund he left to build Minal Protestant School after his death. Three small heraldic shields bearing Long family arms hang high in the nave of the Minal Church indicating a link between this prominent Wiltshire family and the parish.

There is no other record of specific donors, other than the reference in Charles Francis will that he had expended between £1000 and £2000 in ‘beautifying’ Minal Church in his lifetime.

There is no surviving evidence that the Ailesbury family, either Thomas, the Earl of Ailesbury who died in 1814, or his son Charles who succeeded him, contributed towards the cost of the restoration.

In the absence of records to the contrary there is no reason to doubt that the greater part of the overall cost of £2000 was funded by ‘the twelve good men and true’.

The 1814 petition was signed by eleven of the twelve ‘good men and true’ the twelfth, John Wentworth of Mere Farm was an absentee, ‘who, poor Man, is at present dangerously ill; or he would have joined us heartily’. He died very soon afterwards.

Of the remaining nine members of Vestry, seven were farmers holding leasehold land on the Savernake estate, and two. John Looker at Werg and Philip Watts of Durnsford combined a milling business with farming activities. We know the rental value of their farming activities from the 1823 Poor Law Return and the 1820 Church Rate return, but not the acreages of their farms.

There is a detailed account of the agricultural industry at the time prepared county by county in response to a questionnaire circulated by the Board of Agriculture. In 1794 Thomas Davis, Steward at Longleat, filed the Wiltshire return, which was updated by his son in 1814. They wrote from the standpoint of the larger farms in the south-east of the County of which Minal was not typical. Rather it is probable that the shape of the farms in Minal was determined by successive Enclosure Acts that brought into private ownership common land within the Savernake Estate. There is a Minal Enclosure Act Deed 1815 in the parish records confirming that this process of consolidating land occupation into viable economic units was still continuing at the time of the Church Restoration.

Among the twelve Vestry members who would have been elected at the Annual Parochial Church Meeting, there were some if not all, took their turn to be ‘Overseers of the Poor’, nominated and appointed for one year by two local magistrates from those who were ‘substantial Householders of and within the Parish of Mildenhall’. They were the parish councillors of the day.

Their deed of appointment stipulates that –

‘You are forthwith to take upon you the execution of the said office; and for that purpose you, together with the churchwardens of your said parish ….. under the penalty of forfeiting 20s. each, are to meet at least once every month in your parish church, upon a Sunday afternoon, to confer together, consider of, and take order for…..’ the various responsibilities entrusted to them. In those thrifty times there was no village hall, the church provided facilities for both secular and religious activities.

Their duties included the administration of current Poor Law legislation, the collection of the Church Rate, the collection and payment of the County Rate, the maintenance of Highways within the Parish, the administration of the Bounty system whereby Militia were recruited locally, and the payment of the local medical practice for services provided for the poor in the Parish, together with other prescribed functions with reference to over twenty statutes dating back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, ‘ Stat. ELIZ.cap.2 and13.’

For all these duties accurate financial records had to be kept for presentation to the local justices at the end of the year.

By the six shields under the Gallery in St. John the Baptist we remember the names of the twelve parishioners who, in their day, who gave unanimous support to their Rector in restoring the church to the form in which we find it today.

In the words of a recent visitor to the Church:-

‘We walked here from Marlborough on a beautiful, bright, cold morning, not expecting to find the church open – but it was! And what a delight! In a dark world the love which generations of parishioners have shown (and still do) in maintaining this House of worship is an inspiration. Thank you.’

 

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