By Haydn Brown.
In one sense, this is a sequel to the previous article: “Fishley: A Story of an Estate.” , which clearly outlined where Fishley, and its church, are in Norfolk. Suffice to say here that the church of St Mary’s is comfotably settled near the Estate’s heart, in an elevated position among open fields and just off the South Walsham Road, near Acle. A ‘just about’ driveable track leads the visitor from this road to the church before becoming a private link with the farm and Hall beyond.
St Mary’s is an old stone and isolated church and is one of around 124 existing round-tower churches in Norfolk and which, in 2009 was recorded by English Heritage as a significant survivor of the early 12th century. The mound on which it rides is tree-covered and lies about half a mile across the fields from the village of Upton with its own church of St Margaret’s. Upton-with-Fishley was once a Saxon hamlet and its Churches’ synonymous with each other; however, the whole place is often referred to as just Fishley:
“It is one of those places where, apart from its history, you will find peace, tranquillity, romance and curiosity, curiosity into wonder”.
So wrote Churchwardens, Ivan Barnard and Chloe Ecclestone, on the ‘British Listed Buildings’ website, some ten years ago. Nothing, it seems, has changed.
St Mary’s is enthusiastically stewarded, which should make any parishioner proud and an attraction to any visitor who has mustered sufficient interest to go there. Inside, they would find no medieval feel about the place, but they could easily imagine what it must have been like to attend services in this church in the 19th century when much was renovated.
In these days when often it feels fashionable to neglect, there are those places which are maintained to a high order – St Mary’s is one. Even some of its 19th Century headstones in the churchyard have, in recent years, been cleaned and relettered. For those who may prefer a more haunting and neglected setting for old churches, may I suggest that they simply view this particular church from a distance – in poor, damp and cold visibility, sufficient to lend the place a seemingly brooding appearance among its trees – else give credit to the volunteers who put their care into practice!
We are told, by those who know, that St Mary’s tower is probably Norman, with the rest of the building being essentially a late 13th century rebuild; thanks, it seems, to Sir John de Veile who appears to have been the most generous of benefactors to the Fishley Parish prior to Miss Edwards’ (of Hardingham Hall) intervention from 1860.
According to Francis Blomefield in his ‘An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, vol.11, 1810, pp.100-104’:
“the Manor of Fishley came into the ownership of the de Veile family sometime in the late 12th century. King John, in his 2nd year (of 1201) had grant and charter of confirmation of this manor, and those of Laringset, Witton, &c. as his ancestors held by the service of being the King’s ostringer (or falconer) dated at Dorchester, April 19, under the hand of Thomas, Archdeacon of Wells, witness, William Earl of Salisbury, and in the 13th [year]of the said King (1212), held it by the fourth part of a fee, and Thomas de Veile by the same tenure.
Sir John de Veile, and Leola his wife, was living in 1277 and gave lands in Fishley and Witton to the Priory of Bromholm; in 1300; John, son of Sir John de Veile, dying without issue, Reginald de Dunham, son of his sister Beatrix (b.1274), was his heir and inherited the Manor. By 1316 the manorial rights were in the possession of Peter Buckskyn who conveyed it in 1335 to Roger Hardegrey, a citizen of Norwich. In 1365 license was granted to John Berney and John Plumstede to give the Manor of Fishley to Joan, widow of Roger Hardegrey for life.”
Over the years, ever since the 13th century rebuild in fact, very little was done to St Mary’s as far as maintenance of the fabric was concerned. Certainly, by 1836, Fishley was considered to be a ‘decayed parish’ and nine years later, it had reached the point of being referred to as ‘dishevelled’. The situation seems not to have been redressed when Revd. Edward Marsham’s took over the Estate, and the only aspects of his occupancy which are noted is that, at some point, he replaced a William Henry Grimmer as occupier of Fishley Hall then, took advantage of his position of being a “squarson” – (a member of the clergy who was also the main local landowner) and installed himself as the incumbent of St Mary’s – replacing the Revd. Robert Cooper.
The position of the Estate’s owner, Revd. Edward Marsham (1787 -1859), meant that he was able to wield some clout, if he so desired. He was a son of Robert Marsham Esq (1749-1824), of Stratton Strawless, and Sophia, second daughter of Edward Hase Esq. of Salle. He was also the grandson of the famous phenologist, Robert Marsham (1708-1797), also of Stratton Strawless – the one who planted all those trees!
The young Edward Marsham was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge from 1803, and from where he became a B.A. scholar in 1805, and in 1808 – 10th Wrangler no less. He also became a Fellow of Emmanuel College on 28 May 1810, and was ordained Deacon at Norwich 8 July 1810. He also held the posts of Rector of Wramplingham in Norfolk, between 1811 and 1849, with that of Brampton between 1826 and 1828; also at Sculthorpe 1811-1859; and of Stratton Strawless 1828-1859. Included in his later years, up to his death in 1859, was Fishley.
It is yet to be discovered when the Fishley Estate came into his hands. However, when he died in 1859, the Estate was bequeathed to his niece, Miss Sophia Catherine Edwards of Hardingham Hall, near Wymondham. Kelly’s Directory for Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1883, pp.316-317, confirmed that Miss Edwards was the landowner and patron of the living, with the Revd. David Thomas Barry as Rector.
Miss Sophia Edwards proved to be a generous benefactress at Fishley, completing much there which had been left undone by her predecessors. The parish of the mid-19th century was fortunate to have had her, despite Sophia living in an age where women were barred from voting, attending universities, or even opening their own bank accounts or holding a mortgage. Sophia was certainly unique and probably something of an anomaly for that time; she remained unmarried but, importantly for Fishley, she was an independent owner of an estate and had the means to make her mark on that part of Norfolk, despite the fact that she was to follow every previous owner of the Fishley Estate by never actually living there.
Her benevolence to the parish included the extensive restoration and repairs to St Mary’s church in 1861, followed in 1875 with her financing the building of a new Rectory for its incumbent, Reverend David Thomas Barry; the Rectory was built on the outskirts of Acle, alongside the road leading to South Walsham. Sophia also funded the building of Upton School.
The Revd. David Thomas Barry’s CV ran somewhat along the following lines:
“Reverend David Thomas Barry was born in 1822 in Ireland, the son of David Barry and Mary Peacock Cooke-Collis; he married Ann E. McKee, daughter of Alexander McKee and Ann Miller. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin University, Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland in 1844 with a Bachelor of Arts, followed with a Master of Arts (M.A.). He was a Curate between 1847 and 1848 at Parr in Lancashire, England, followed by a curacy at St. Paul, Toxteth Park, Liverpool between 1848 and 1853, then as Curate at St. Barnabas, Liverpool between 1853 and 1857. Finally, he became Rector at Fishley, Norfolk.”
So, this particular rector was to officiate at St Mary’s from the early days of Miss Edwards patronage, through to after her death in 1892. It was clear by then just how much he loved Fishley for not only did he dedicate the church lectern to Miss Edward’s memory but also, after his wife died and was buried elsewhere, he had her exhumed and reburied at Fishley. Reverend David Thomas Barry remained at Fishley until his own death in 1904.
Miss Sophia Edward’s 1861 restoration and repair of St Mary’s church was largely carried out to the designs of her cousin, the amateur architect Revd. John Barham Johnson, Rector of Welbourne, Norfolk. He, by the way, was also responsible for restoring the church at Mattishall, Norfolk in the mid-19th century and for designing the chancel and nave windows at Welbourne in 1874-76. Included in Revd Johnson’s plans was for a spectacular stained-glass window to be installed at St Mary’s, in commemoration of the former owner of Fishley and rector of the church, the Reverend Edward Marsham.
The work on St Mary’s brought it back from near total dereliction by first replacing the roof. Also, a large section of the south nave wall was rebuilt, as was the east gable; the chancel arch was demolished. The scissor-braced roof, which exists today, was designed with a very steep pitch, to cover both the nave and chancel in one sweep. The north side of the roof had previously rested on two beams which spanned the length of the nave and supported the rafters over the north extension. To counter this structural weakness, a cast iron column was installed to give extra support.
With the exception of a heavily-restored piscina in the chancel south wall and a ledgestone in the middle of the nave, marking the grave of Bridget Johnson (d.1747 – Revd, Johnson’s sister), all of the internal fixtures and fittings were removed. Precisely what was removed was never recorded, but one would assume that it included the box-pews, communion table, altar-rails, pulpit and font for there would be nothing left which pre-dates the 1861 work. The wooden lectern and the wooden reredos, both having been executed under the supervision of Barham Johnson were gifts of the Rev’d David Barry.
Amongst the items that were removed from the church in 1861 were two 13th century lidded stone coffins and the fragment of a third coffin-lid. The coffins were reverently placed in the churchyard to the south of the nave, and they were not rediscovered until 2010 when one was examined by Dr Julian Litten FSA in 2011. According to him:
“Whether or not the two stone coffins contained skeletons was not recorded at the time. Furthermore, no record was made of the……. positions, occupied by the coffins when they were in the church, and neither is it known if the items were visible in the building or were discovered below floor-level when preparations were made for laying the new tiled floor. The fragmentary coffin-lid, of Purbeck marble and with double-chamfer mouldings, was returned to the church in 2010 and now stands within a niche in the south wall of the chancel”.
Perhaps, of all the fixtures housed in St Mary’s today two stand out. One is the church’s 18th century organ which is hand blown and ideally suited to the church which remains unconnected to mains electricity. A plate affixed to the organ informs that it was made by Edward & John Pistor of Leadenhall Street, London in 1781. This organ is a chamber organ, the type of which was normally intended to be played in large houses. It was originally, and unsurprisingly perhaps, in Fishley Hall and was moved into the church in 1883 as a gift from Miss Edwards.
The second notable feature of St Mary’s is that it is the custodian of a unique map of the Norfolk and Suffolk inland waterways area, which includes the sites of some 75 churches (including Fishley) that surround former large ‘Great Estuary of Gariensisostium’; these churches are listed and displayed alongside the map for those who wish to explore further.
Stephen Heywood, in his ‘Conservation Based Analysis’ Report to the Norfolk County Council in October 2009, stated:
“This very attractive church, in its isolated setting and accentuated by the pine trees in the churchyard, retains a lot of its original fabric despite the wholesale restoration of 1861. Of very special interest is the virtually untouched tower which, through good fortune and good mortar, has not been repointed and keeps its valuable patina so easily spoiled.”
It would seem that for the present-day appearance of St Mary’s, credit should go to those who have applied a considerable amount of ‘elbow grease’, money and time with on-going maintenance, clearly backed by a considerable amount of love for such duties. Such people, not forgetting past benefactors such as Miss Sophia Catherine Edwards, have safeguarded the church from the ravages of time. Collectively, they have secured its tower, re-established the churchyard, installed a watertight roof, built a new access, gates and pathways and restored stained glasses.
“There hasn’t been a village at Fishley since the Saxons left, but here it stands, this remote gem in open countryside, which is a tribute to everyone that has loved the church and is determined to keep it safe.” – So wrote churchwarden, Ivan Barnard.
Banner Heading Photo: Aerial View of St Mary’s. (c) John Fielding