St. Mary's Church

by Paul Cattermole

Chapter 2 : History of the church fabric

The earliest surviving fabric at Tharston church is the chancel, c.1300, which was apparently built at the expense of the Prior of Pentney. The remaining windows at Tharston, which are very similar in detail to those in surviving buildings at Pentney, suggest that the masons who worked on the great gatehouse were also employed on the Tharston chancel. Not much major work has been done to the chancel since; largely because there would have been little incentive for a non-resident Rector to replace the small chancel with a more sumptuous building which would be a greater expense in repairs; and it can be seen that the original height of the chancel has been decreased, two of its windows have been filled with rubble and others shortened. This was probably done in 1723 when the churchwardens were sufficiently dissatisfied by the lack of interest shown by the lay Rector to repair it themselves. Stannards water-colour of the church in 1836 shows the chancel walls tied with iron cramps, and a humble brick east gable topped by a coping with three stone balls on pedestals, trying hard to look Classical. Even General Harvey, as the Bishop's lessee of the Rectory in the 19th century was content to leave the chancel alone, and a plan in his Estate Book shows that it contained only the altar and a large box-pew, doubtless reserved for the family, against the north pier of the chancel arch.

The nave and tower of the church, which were the responsibility of the parishioners, were rebuilt later than the chancel. The style of the nave windows is similar to those in the chance! of Newton Flotman church (completed in about 1445) and in the nave at Tasburgh (probably under construction at about the same time): and it is suggested that the Tharston nave was rebuilt during the first half of the 15th century. The tower was under construction in 1492 when the Lady of the Manor, Elisabeth de Clere, left 20 shillings to its repair; and was probably completed by 1505 when sums of money were left towards a new tenor bell. The latest addition to the fabric was the north porch, which is clearly newer than the nave (having a straight joint with one of the nave buttresses) and whose window traceries are very similar to those in early 16th century work at Bedingham church.

There were many ways in which funds were raised for church-building before the Reformation. Almost all wills before 1550 contained bequests similar to those of Roger Telyng of Tharston in 1417 who left two shillings to the high altar (for tithe money) and three shillings and fourpence to the fabric fund. Gifts in money, such as these, must have been more welcome to the churchwardens than other bequests which occur; when it was quite common for a testator to leave to the churchwardens such debts as were owed to him at the time of his death, the sums recovered to be used for building work at the church. Much was accomplished by the direct giving of more substantial inhabitants, whose names were often entered on a "Bede Roll" which lay on the altar during the time of Mass, and for whose good estate the parish priest was bound to pray regularly. Parish rates were levied, and there were collections for the building funds at Sunday services; and in some manors a tax levied on property transfers was paid to the church. The instructions given in a Bressingham will of 1530 show another method of fund-raising which would certainly have had a parallel in Tharston: 'I bequeath to the churche of Brissingham v combe of Whete and nyne combe of malt being paied by myn executors after this forme folowynge. That is to saye at Wyssondaye next folowynge after my buryall a combe of whete and seven bushelles of malte for to make a churche ale and the moneye that comethe thereof to go to the profighte of the churche to be at the Disposition of the towneshippe whereto it thynke most necessarye and so forthe every Wissondaie next folowinge after a combe of whete and seven busshells of malte till the five combe whete and the nyne combe malte be paied'. It is almost as difficult for us to imagine the church-ales and ox-roasts organised for church fabric funds, and probably taking place in the church and churchyard, in the 15th and 16th centuries as it would be for a Tudor churchwarden to forsee the flower festivals, sponsored cycle rides and coffee mornings of the late 20th century.

The social and religious needs of the parishioners, were also looked after by the parish gilds, to which men and women alike belonged, and whose chief objects were mutual assistance in times of trouble and illness, and the regular offering of prayers for the souls of the departed. We know from the wills of 15th century parishioners that the Gild of Our Lady of Therston was actively supported. Richard Cullyng for example left 'unto the gylde of our lady in Thyrston a hekforth (heifer) at the choyse of Cecily my wiff to be lettyn by the Aldermen by the assente of the brethern and systern of the seyd gild, and the Stoke ther of comyng to be reservyd with owten ende to the moste profyte of the seide gild". This cow, chosen from among the testator's cattle, was intended to be leased out by the Aldermen of the Gild for a fixed sum of money to those who would have the milk; while any calves would remain the property of the Gild. Sadly the arrangement has not continued "with owten ende" as intended; and the progeny of Richard's heifer no longer graze the Tharston pastures.

At the turn of the 16th century, the interior of Tharston church would have been very much more colourful than it is today. Cecily Barnard in 1502 left 6 s. 8 d. towards painting the crucifix: which suggests that a carved and painted rood-screen was then nearing completion, above which the great crucifix would look down on the nave, framed by the chancel arch. She also left 20 d. to the upkeep of the "light of Our Lady" which burned before the Gild altar, probably in the nave, where the parish chaplain said his masses. The church windows would have been glazed with coloured glass, similar to the surviving mediaeval glass in Shelton church; and there were probably wall-paintings of the same type as those still to be seen in Fritton church.

During the Civil War, from 1643 onwards, the Earl of Manchester's forces controlled most of East Anglia: this part of Norfolk was strongly anti-Royalist, and even more strongly anti- Catholic (with the notable exception of the squire of Ashwellthorpe, who backed the wrong side and finished up in prison at Cambridge). There are recorded visits of officers appointed by the Parliament to smash stained glass windows, take down crosses and other "superstitious" relics and obliterate wall-paintings showing scriptural figures. Although a few clergy and churchwardens were bold enough to prevent them from destroying familiar things which had a firm place in the affections of many of their parishioners, we can be sure that no such laxity was allowed to prevent Tharston church from being purged of any traces of Popery. In the Tharston register for 1642 we read that "Miles Willan was ousted by T. Trunch who held the Vicarage 'till the Restoration in 1661", and we can be sure that Mr. Trunch, with his Puritan sympathies, was responsible for the loss of much of the beauty and colour which would have remained from the days of the pre-Reformation church. His zeal extended even to the church tower, where two "superstitious" inscriptions on the pre-Reformation church bells were obliterated with a cold chisel. Another casualty of church reform was the mediaeval stone altar slab; and it is likely that the large uninscribed slab just inside the south door is the original "mensa", turned over and desecrated.

The churchwardens' accounts show that the church was kept in reasonable repair during the latter years of the 17th century; and Ladbroke's lithograph c.1825 shows the churchwardens' alterations to the porch in 1675, when they raised the pitch of the gable and constructed a new pantiled roof in place of the old lead-covered roof. Considerable repairs were undertaken in the early years of the 18th century when the churchwardens paid a painter £7-5-0 for "the Queen's Arms and wnghting the Commandments, Creed and Lord's Prayer and other works". A new font cover cost £4-5-0 in 1713 and, following repairs to the tower in 1716, a new church door (made from five boards) was bought in 1717. We can get a good impression of how the church looked after these repairs by visiting an unrestored church such as East Walton or Wilby where old furnishings and arrangements still survive.

By the middle of the 19th century, the church was showing signs of dilapidation; and the chancel was restored after a report to the Ecclesiastical Commission in 1863. The building work was undertaken by a local builder, Mr. Botwright, under instructions from the London Architect, Mr Ewan Christian. The Architect's drawings of the surviving chancel interior show the altar enclosed on three sides by the Communion rails, as instructed by Archbishop Laud's injunction of 1634, and with the Arms of Queen Anne on a painted board above. Although we may regret the loss of the ancient chancel furnishings at Tharston - which were probably in very poor condition - we can feel pleased with the very attractive restoration carried out by an architect who has sufferred at the hands of his critics in other places. Basil. F. L. Clarke for example writes that "A large number of dull churches were built by Ewan Christian", and Professor Pevsner describes the Bishop's Palace at Norwich as "a distressing building", perpetrated by him.

The driving force behind the work on the nave at Tharston was an energetic vicar, the Reverend Samuel Cutler Hooley, who inaugurated the restoration at a Parish Meeting in 1876. Building work began on June 28, 1879 and was complete in time for a service of dedication on December 15, 1880. The chosen architect was Richard Makilwaine Phipson, a keen archaeologist whose work at other local churches shows his predilection for green- tinted "Cathedral" glass, glazed "Minton" tiles and pitch-pine, as well as his obsession with architectural correctness and symmetry in design. Phipson's most notable building was St. Mary-le-Tower at Ipswich, and his work at Fundenhall shows a rather more of Phipson's own ideas that does the relatively conservative restoration at Tharston. The restoration of the tower and porch were completed in 1886 under the direction of Edmund Preston Willins of Norwich, who took over after Phipson's death.

The impression of calm and stability presented by the later Victorian and Edwardian parish records perhaps conceals something of the harshness of life in an agricultural village, where most families were dependent on hard physical work for their livelihood. There were bright spots, however; and the church took a lead in organising celebrations for the Queen's Jubilee in 1887. "The day was ushered in by a merry peal of bells, and at one o'clock the Parishioners assembled in Church for a special Service of Thanksgiving according to the Form prepared by the Archbisop of Canterbury - by Order of the Privy Council". After church a procession, preceded by a band and carrying banners bearing loyal mottoes, made its way past the Vicarage and the Hall to the meadow where a large booth had been set up. There was an "excellent Dinner of Roast and boiled beef - and plum pudding - together with salad - and for drink some good sound ale", and the day finished with a celebration bonfire. The success of such occasions is usually measured by the abundance of food; and it is recorded that it required a second assault on the provisions the following evening to finish up the remainder. The two cedars of Lebanon which were planted by Parson Hooley to commemorate the occasion still shade the east end of the churchyard. The Reverend William Garrould, who succeeded Mr. Hooley in 1902, was active in promoting recreations such as cricket and bell-ringing for the young men of the parish; and there were regular ploughing matches, sales of work and flower shows to raise funds. Church music was encouraged by forming a choir; and the new pipe organ replaced the harmonium in 1915 was largely paid for by the Vicar. The conservative attitude of the PCC is clearly shown in the resolution passed in 1925, which "proposed that a letter of protest against the introduction of an Alternative Prayer Book be sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury; but there was no dissent when it was proposed to place a cross on the Holy Table, and embellish the choir stalls with poppy-heads. In more recent years Tharston church has experienced the problems felt in small communities throughout the country; with the resources of the clergy stretched beyond reasonable limits, and a consequent thinning of the regular Sunday congregations.

In a county which is famous for the outstanding architectural quality of its many churches, even the most loyal local historian has to admit that Tharston church does not rate very highly in such splendid company. It is not a Salle, or a Shelton; but few would deny that it has a vitally important place in the local landscape, and a number of features to attract the interest of an observant visitor. The church still stands prominently in the centre of the village, as a witness to the faith which caused it to be founded, and as a memorial to the tenacity of sometimes very small numbers of dedicated folk who have struggled to keep it alive in their succeeding generations.

(c) Barbara Cattermole and family, first published in 1992 by Paul Cattermole. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior consent of the author's family.