The Church of St Mary Magdalene - Withiel Florey
Sunday 17 March at 3.00 pm
Chapel Wardens for Withiel Florey are
Mr. Edward and Mrs Sylvia Luxton
Tel 01398 323289
They are members of the Parochial Church Council for Brompton Regis and Withiel Florey
The Church Building
Although its outline would be familiar to the parishioners of the 15th century, the church has undergone at least three major restorations within the last 130 years.
The original Saxon church was probably of wood and thatch, and may well have started with a simple cross erected in the centre of a British pagan site. The church as it exists now was begun in the 12th century, of which the main evidence is the very plain and perhaps re-worked Norman font. This first stone building was even smaller; the nave was extended when the tower was added in the 15th century (though Pevsner believes the tower to be partly 13th century). The arch of the south door could possibly have been reused from the earliest building; the crude numbers scratched on the stones to the left of the door show that it has been rebuilt at least once. The present porch was built or reconstructed in 1695, according to the stone in the gable; the initials around the date - WW and JD – are probably Wood and Davy church wardens of the time. The tower has no stair turret; a ladder reaches the bell loft. However the remains of stairs to a rood loft can be seen behind the pulpit.
The stone is lias (a local limestone) with some red sandstone dressings and a slate roof. The rendering of the outside walls is characteristic of various Exmoor churches built with lower grade stone. It adds to the problems of maintenance; in1734 the churchwardens paid £2 for roughcasting the tower, the equivalent of about £1600 today. Their accounts show an unending need for repairs, especially to the roof and windows, which constantly required glazing. In the 18th century a gallery was added; it seems likely that this was at the same time as the building of the big house, since its family, servants and visitors would have added up to a sudden surge in this small congregation. Edmund Rack in his travels in the 1780s saw this singers’ gallery “neatly fronted with blue wainscot, the panels white.” From the 1830s and up to 1865 the churchwardens paid frequently for reeds for the clarinet and strings for the bass viol, for a typical church band, sadly made redundant by the arrival of an organ.
The water colour of 1849 by WW Wheatley shows the church as it was before the first major restoration, with its medieval windows, only one in the south wall and a simple east window apparently the only light for the chancel. The solid buttress to the east of the south window is still there, and is probably medieval. The painting shows an unusual rectangular turret of two stories apparently attached to the west of the porch, and crenellated to match the tower. The listing officer describes this as a two-storey vestry, with access to the pulpit. This is impossible to understand in relation to any normal position for the pulpit; there may have been a problem with his handwriting, since as drawn it would seem to have had access to the gallery when that existed, and may even have been built to house a gallery staircase. If the drawing is inaccurate (and indeed the relationship between the little turret, the nave roof and the tower does not seem to make much sense), it seems just possible that it was much older and was originally a stair turret reaching the bell loft. A similar structure can be seen at Trull, a church just outside Taunton which also once belonged to the Priory.
There is no record of when this turret was demolished, but a photograph in an appeal for funds in 1933 shows it had gone by then ( which is strange in view of its listing in the 1950s). It seems likely that it vanished in the major restoration of the late 19th century, when all the windows were replaced and new ones added. This probably also included the demolition of the gallery, a window being inserted where the entrance to it had stood. The end of the chancel was rebuilt to include a larger east window and a new small window on the south side. These have stained glass by AD Moore & Co in memory of Mary Ann Insole, wife of the 1875 purchaser of the Luxborough estate - a woman“full of good works.” She died in 1882, which suggests a date for this restoration, evidently largely financed by Mr Insole.
It was probably at the same time that the pointed chancel arch was installed and the present shallow wagon roof replaced a previously “much ornamented” one. The existing vestry was possibly also then rebuilt (though the listing puts this at 1848). The restorers added the pretty wrought iron altar rail and the iron and brass lamp holders, still in use as the church has no electricity. It would be interesting to know whether the iron came locally, from Gupworthy. The altar is an unusual solid block of slate, with columns at each corner, perhaps from the earlier chancel.
There was a further restoration, by WD Caroe, in 1935, which consisted essentially of replacing all the rendering, unfortunately with a modern cement mix which much increased the damp. This was to lead to far greater problems in the 1950s.
The Church Bells
The church has three bells, of which the second is the oldest, cast by Roger Semson of Ash Priors (another Taunton Priory holding) in about 1550. The tenor was cast in 1671 by Thomas Bickham and has the names of the churchwardens and overseer of the time inscribed on it – William Wood, Thomas Cornish and Richard Elworthy, all local farming families. The treble was recast by William Pannell in Cullompton in 1826.
The oldest monuments are to be seen in the churchyard, where there are two early 17th century chest tombs, rare enough to be listed. The tomb to the east of the chancel is described by the listing officer as a Solomon family monument and the name can indeed be read on it. However a “Davis” family tomb was noted in the 1780s by Edmund Rack and the south panel actually reads “Here lieth ye body of Jane Davie widow”; the others probably carry texts including a reference to Solomon of the song of songs. The other chest tomb to the south of the porch is to John, Joan and Elizabeth Wood and has one date of 1621 and some illegible verse. Headstones to the Cornish and Hancock families, still standing, were also seen by Mr Rack. A later headstone to note is that of David Richard, a manager for the Brendon Hills Iron Ore Co, who died overcome by carbon dioxide when exploring an old level in the Raleighs Cross mine in 1848, an example of the safety standards of the time. His coffin was accompanied by 100 miners.
Inside the church Mr Rack admired the “neat” marble monument on the north wall to James Bryant gent who died in 1733 and his wife Jane. After his time the names of the next two generations of Bryants were added; James who died in 1780 and his wife Sarah who died in 1787, followed a few days later (according to the registers) by her daughter Amelia Stawell. A more recent and cheerful memorial is the brass plaque put up in memory of George Lyddon Cornish, 1856-1913 “A good friend, farmer and sportsman” by his friends in the West Somerset Foxhounds. On the opposite wall is a very unusual inscription to Winifred Wescott who died in 1998. With her brother Richard Vellacott and two other parishioners, she argued in the consistory court in 1959 for the survival of St Mary Magdalene, the diocese having decided to demolish it. The photograph of the church in that year shows it closed and stripped of its rendering. An estimate of £2850 for repairs seemed impossibly daunting; the vicar and the diocese supported the options of pulling down both tower and chancel and leaving only the nave, or demolishing the whole and putting up a new small building for £600. This group of parishioners thought otherwise, which explains why the church is here today.
No incumbents were appointed in the days of ownership by the Priory. On the dissolution of the monasteries any tithes owned by them passed to the lay “impropriator” who bought the manor from the Crown. The residents of parishes like this were left dependent for church services on such financial arrangements as he, or eventually the Bishop, might manage to make. There is a long gap in Withiel’s church history at this point, but as it is only a few miles from Morebath where the vicar, Sir Christopher Trickey, documented all the effects of the reformation on a small rural parish, it is easy to imagine the problems the churchwardens had in taking down their statues of saints, dismantling their screen, replacing their prayerbook and altar, putting some of it back again in the reign of Mary and finally settling down under Elizabeth to a familiar routine. In the absence of a resident clergyman their difficulties would have been great.
We have the name of one Elizabethan parson, and another early name for 1642 when the curate George Westlake supervised the signing of the Protestation Oath. Withiel Florey was from at least then served by a curate, known as a “perpetual curate” in that his appointment was permanent and he was the clergyman in charge. The curate was normally nominated by the owner of the manor, licenced by the bishop, and paid by the diocese. His income in the 18th and most of the 19th century was £59, mostly made up out of Queen Anne’s Bounty. Although this was more than twice an agricultural labourer’s wage it would have been difficult, especially if without a house, to sustain a respectable appearance let alone a family, and it is not surprising to see that the curates either combined Withiel Florey with some other appointment (like the Rev Andrew Cox, rector of Winsford, curate 1728-1738, or Samuel Knight, vicar of Old Cleeve, curate 1772-1801) or were young men who only stayed a very short time.
Despite living elsewhere the curates seem to have served the parish reasonably well. The registers show that a few baptisms were diverted to Treborough or Brompton Regis, but there are none of the multiple christenings one might expect. There were often four communion services a year in the 18th century, which was quite as much as the average for the time. In the 1870s the Rev Samuel Medlicott was a frequent visitor to the school, giving monthly prizes in all subjects. A regular weekly service seems unlikely, especially when the curate was travelling from Winsford or Taunton, and the pattern of provision was often probably rather similar to that of today. From 1884 the appointment was always paired with Treborough, and in 1958 the benefice was merged with Brompton Regis.
Out thanks to Sarah Child of West Backstone Rackenford EX16 8EF who researched and documented the above church history using the following sources.
The History and Antiquities of Somerset, Rev John Collinson, Bath 1791.
Edmund Rack’s Survey of Somerset, ed M McDermott and S Berry, Somerset
Archaelogical and Natural History Society.
Victoria County History; History of Somerset Vol 2, 1911 and 7, 1999.
An 18th Century House and Park at Withiel Florey, Robert Wilson-North, National Monuments Record Centre, 1998.
Other NMR Monument Reports for Withiel Florey.
List Entry Description, English Heritage, April 1959.
Withiel Florey church registers, churchwardens’ accounts, tithe and other parish records at the Somerset Heritage Centre.
The Church Bells of Somerset, GW Massey, ed D Bromwich, SANHS.
The Brendon Hills Iron Mines and the West Somerset Mineral Railway, MH Jones, Lightmoor Press, 2011.
A Quantock Family, GD Stawell, 1910
Church Rededication in 1961
It was history in the making for Withiel Florey's St Mary Magdalene Church when it was rededicated by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Bishop Henderson on November 17th 1961. The church was closed by the previous Bishop, initially during the winter of 1957, re-opened in the summer of 1958 and then closed again on September 1st 1958. The Church of England wanted to demolish the tower, chancel and vestry and have only a chapel of rest. However, the parishioners objected to the closure and together hired a solicitor, Mr Hancock of Wiveliscombe, to fight their case.
Through the Friends of Friendless Churches charity, they found Mr Ivor Bulmer-Thomas in London and Barrister Perks from Bristol to represent them. After a great deal of preparatory work, their case was heard at a Consistory Court in a full-day’s hearing at the Shire Hall in Taunton. There were four witnesses from Withiel Florey; Mrs Ada Bale of Burrow Farm, Miss Inez Hayes of Withiel Farm, Richard Hooper Vellacott of Ford Farm and my mother Mrs Winifred Mary Wescott of Higher Foxhanger Farm, Brompton Regis. All legal costs were paid by the parishioners who also put money into a future trust. The parishioners won the day which was a great success, a decision that was covered by national newspapers.
The church was repaired by Mr Fry, a builder from Martock, and re-opened by Bishop E Henderson on 17th November 1961. The vicar at the time was Rev Speakman. The church was packed full and a tea was held afterwards in the barn at Castle Hill farm. The re-opening was covered by Tom Salmon for BBC Television and by the national newspapers. My great grandfather Richard Hooper Vellacott and my grandfather Ernest Vellacott were churchwardens at the church. At one time, the church was united with Luxborough but in 1958 was united with Brompton Regis. The tower used to be covered with ivy and my mother told me that my grandfather used to clip it every year.
The church owes its success to the parishioners of Withiel Florey past and present and many family and friends. A few years ago, our family erected a plaque in the church recording the names of the witnesses at the Consistory Court hearing; a piece of history for future generations. Recently, the church has been painted inside and out and is in good condition.
The parish celebrated the 50th anniversary of the rededication with a dinner in Brompton Regis Hall on Sunday November 13th, 2011 followed by a service at Withiel Florey Church at 3pm taken by the Archdeacon. Miss Inez Hayes was the only surviving witness.
Mary Stacey (nee Wescott)