GUIDE TO ST. MARY’S CHURCH, PIRTON
The Church was founded by Ralph de Limesie during the latter part of the 11th Century. The original plan was of the cruciform, with a tower being at the centre of the cross. The North and South transepts cannot be seen now, although much of the original wall of the nave and chancel remain. The south transept was in ruin when Pirton’s first resident vicar of modern times arrived in 1851.
You enter the Church by the large wooden door and come into a porch, both of which date from the 14th Century. Here you can see the old supports for a second floor, and a window high up on the wall. This room, known as a parvise (or Priest’s room) later to become the first school in Pirton. Steps lead up to this from just inside the church door. From the porch wooden steps used to lead up to a gallery placed at the rear of the church, sadly this has gone.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter this Church is the width of the nave, (without pillars) the large part of the building is 12th Century except for the tower, although the Norman tower arches on the east and west sides remain. In the past the Church as been divided into three sections, the nave, tower and chancel, by folding wooden doors. The nave was used for divine worship, the tower as a belfry and the chancel as a Sunday School, three times a year for the celebration of Holy Communion in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
The nave windows have been altered on several occasions and the traces of original glass can be seen in the North wall. The Norman windows (round topped can be seen in the North nave wall). The largest west window is 14th Century and is uniquely flamboyant in relation to the rest of the Church.
The layout of the Church changed in 1839, when the pulpit was taken from the south nave wall and put on the opposite side of the aisle from the present position. You can see the details of the changeover on a plan in the exhibition.
When the first resident vicar, Rev. Ralph Lindsay Loughborough arrived in 1851, there was no vicarage and the Church was dilapidated. A vicarage was soon built on land sold by Francis Delme Radcliffe for £5. The building cost £1342. £800 of which was personally borrowed by the vicar. It took him 30 years to repay the debt and the relief is shown in the Register of the time by the entry “Thanks be with God! I have today repaid the last instalment……..”.
The structure of the Church proved to be more unsafe than first thought. When work started in 1875 (estimated cost at £2000) to rebuild, the lower half of the tower collapsed, leaving the upper part balancing precariously on the nave and chancel roofs.
The local people being only agricultural workers could mostly only donate their labour, so Rev. Loughborough had to fund-raise outside of the village with letters, some of which are in the exhibition. Work commenced in 1876 and took only 6 months to complete. A celebration service and re-dedication took place on 13th June 1883, the Bishop of St Albans officiating. There is a bill listing the food consumed at the tea afterwards;
|25lbs of cake @ 5 per lb||10s 5d|
|2 ½ loaves||1s 1 3/4d|
|188 lbs of cake @ 5 per lb||£3 18s 4d|
|20 quartered bread cakes||9s 2d|
|4 bread cakes returned|
|£4 17s 3d|
When comparing this with modern day prices, this puts into perspective the total cost of re-building, excluding labour of £3119 13s 1d.
It is possible that under the whitewash are early wall painting decorations, as during part of the restoration work in the last Century, Mrs. Loughborough found a crude painting possibly depicting the risen Christ. This drawing faded very quickly when exposed to the daylight, but Mrs. Loughborough did manage to make a quick line drawing which is shown in the exhibition.
The Church still had no North or South Transepts and Rev. Loughborough died before this could be achieved. (Died aged 76 in 1895, vicar since age 32). The grateful parishioners resolved to build a vestry, it took 18 years entirely by their own efforts. It was built in his honour and opened in 1913. A commemoration plaque can be seen over the vestry door.
In common with many Chancels of early churches, up-keep of this part of the Church is the responsibility of the Lay Rectory. One of the old manors of Pirton was Rectory Manor and the Lay Rectorship is still part of the encumbrance of the freehold title to Rectory Farm. The Chancel is little altered, although the upper part of the 14th Century East window was altered to suit the new ceiling. A roof timber is dated 1697. Original 12th Century piscine remain to the south of the altar, the ornament carving backing of which was given in the memory of Alice Langmore, vicar’s wife 1905.
There are five bells in the belfry, which are regularly rung. They date from the 17th and 18th Centuries.
The Church is little decorated, but does contain commemorative plaques to Jane Docwra, wife of Thomas Docwra, Lord of the Manor, she died in 1645 aged 73, and the plaque contains a poem thought to be self penned.
Another plaque can be found by the choir stalls dedicated to the work and memory of Maria Pollard of High Down who carved the Lectern and stool, Fald stool, and with friends the Choir Stalls. She died in 1943.
All the nave pews were given in memory of Joseph Pollard. The aisle carpet protects two tomb stones for two James Hanscombes. One died in 1736 aged 66 and has a long inscription in black stone. The other is very indistinct and the inscription impossible to read.
The church clock for the tower was given by public subscription (dedicated 1902) for the restoration of peace in South Africa and the coronation of Edward VII. There are various other plaques in memory of past vicars of the parish.
Pirton has no old silver due to the combined effects of the dissolution, the Civil War and the rise of Puritanism. We were never a rich parish, but the Inventory of 1549 shows silver and gift plate, silk and satin vestments and carved figures, but by the 18th Century the possessions of the Church were very basic, pewter plate and no fine vestments. Our current silver is mostly modern comprising of Communion cups, several patens and two flagons. The brass candlesticks on the altar are in memory of the Loughborough children who died in childhood. Anne in 1859 aged 3, Claude in 1863 aged 1, Ralph in 1878 aged 18 years, an indication of the terrible infant mortality of those times.
The Church records remain from 1558 and contain a very full record of parish life for over four hundred years. As well as the records of Birth, Deaths and Marriages, the books include Church warden records, Church rate assessments at the time of the poor laws, poorhouse inventories and accounts, and much of the information in this booklet comes from this source. Many letters, bills and papers have also survived. There are examples of these on display.
The Church is surrounded by the large graveyard. It is thought that there were once steps up to the Church, but progressive layering of the soil to cover old graves has brought the level to the top step. The Rev. Loughborough’s grave is close to the vestry door on the South side of the Church. Most of the older graves are grouped in families, names of which can still be found in the village today. The Pollard family graves are on the North side of the Church.
In the North-East corner of the churchyard is the village war memorial erected in 1920 to commemorate the dead of the Great War.
The repairs currently being undertaken are to avoid the fate which befell the village in 1875 when the tower collapsed. The local clunch stone used is fairly soft and after 100 years is starting to crumble in places, particularly badly affected are the quoins (corner stones) and the string course which projects just below the battlements. A certain amount of re-pointing and making good of both stone and mortar is also taking place. We are also re-leading the roof and replacing some roof timbers which are decaying or diseased.
Total cost of the repairs will be approximately £14,000 which is, as in the last Century, beyond the Parish’s means, but in view of the buildings age 50% is to be funded by the Department of the Environment. For the remainder the P.C.C. together with the Friends of Pirton Church are holding various fund-raising events and have launched a Tower Appeal. All donations will be very welcome and can be made to the Vicar, the Friends or at any of the fund raising events
David and Teresa Jamieson 1975