The Pews Survive
Once the decision was taken to refurbish the interior of the church decisions had to be taken with regards to the style and layout of the new pews.
Such a major change needed a driving force behind it. That was the rector in 1814, the Rev. Charles Francis. Rev. Francis was not alone, he was supported by the twelve worthies who lived in the village and helped raise the money to fund the refurbishment.
However, the woodwork in the pews could not last forever, and so by the 1980’s the state of the pews was once again requiring attention and repair. This was brought to light in the sermon delivered by Rev. Colin Fox. The sermon he gave is as follows.
“ I hope I can paint a picture of a very happy ten years of ministry here in this parish in 1980s.
For fear of talking with rose coloured glasses I hope I can give you a balanced talk; with both positives and negatives.
Edward Courtman’s regime of over 40 years had come to an end and some said ‘thank God’… he owned the living, retired at 91 and died aged 92. The Bishop of Salisbury, George Reindorp, held Mildenhall up to be a good reason to get shot of freehold. I was privy to read some of the letters that he had sent to parishioners, needed to be seen to be believed.
Alan Nash came for a short stay, living in the Vicarage before Mildenhall became part of the Marlborough Team. Joining the Team was not an easy process; very few objected but one, who is dead now, took it all the way to 11 Downing Street, to Lord Justice Wiggery, who listened for half an hour and said ‘good day Mr Lloyd’. And dismissed the case
This set a precedent that anyone wishing to object to an amalgamation had to live within the parish boundary.
You can imagine that there was a lot of resentment towards the church and much healing had to take place. It took many hours of visiting to re-assure some of the good folk of Mildenhall that the Marlborough Team were well worth joining. I was very fortunate to have Wilfred Down and Michael Cripps which made up a very happy group of three. Our wives made the comment, they weren’t sure that any work was being done because through the study doors came peals of laughter. It made for a very happy times. Pastorally, every Tuesday I would come out from Manton starting at the shop which was run by Wendy, and then to Lady Brook at the Glebe, and together with Lilly Head, I would have enough information to visit for the rest of the day. Slowly, slowly I got to know an awful lot of people thanks to the information I gleamed from the laity. I made a point of having a pint and a sandwich in the Horseshoes which fortified me for the afternoon. The pub was run by Bet Cook. Geoffrey Stanning and Di Smith organised PCC to coincide with a Tuesday.
About that time, young families arrived in the village. Stitchcomb, the Werg, Mildenhall Woodlands; and through the enthusiasm of those young families the spirit moved.
During the summer holidays Lady Brook’s garden was used for Mildenhall games; rounders/cricket. And when too many came we moved up to the playing field. Followed by swimming in Jack and Shelagh Ainslie’s pool and cake and drinks. I was blessed with a young family and an energetic wife, which meant for many happy days.
I used to put the reason for Harry’s premature birth down to the excruciating children’s pews, just over there… where Andrea had to sit on Easter Day. Harry was born on Easter Monday, 4 April 1984.
Family services with considerable lay help started to fill the church and I remember a real challenge to try and keep their attention as they would hide under the pews. They were wonderful hiding places. We introduced a modern liturgy which included the peace only be given a very sharp retort when I approached Pat Courtman, the vicar’s daughter. ‘I’m never Pat to you and I don’t give the peace!’ from then on I called her ‘M’am’ which is how I was told to address the Queen. My run-ins with Miss Courtman were legion. But God intervenes and as we knows moves in a mystery way. It was Christmas Eve and for some reason I was the last one to leave the Church and it was pouring with rain. My black cassock was soaked, we had a handful of people, in those early days, at the Crib Service. I drove home passing Glebe Cottage, where Miss Courtman lived; I must have passed her house about 50 to 100 yards when something very strong told me ‘Colin go back, knock at her door and wish her a Happy Christmas’. And I did and predictably ‘what do you want on a night like this?’.. I’ve come to wish you a Happy Christmas. After a short hesitation I was let in; the atmosphere cooled and we had a sherry. Come and join Andrea and I for lunch tomorrow with the children; and then there were tears, I can’t I’m visiting an ancient aunt in Ramsbury. Healing took place and I look back on that as a clear voice of the Holy Spirit. You may not know but her father treated her harshly, and for many years she looked after a Downs Syndrome brother until he died in the 70s. I’m sure he prevented her from getting married.
On a really positive note; Pat was a very good member and chairman of the parish and district council. I remember taking Pat some christening cake after his baptism on Pentecost Sunday. Pat lacked tremendous TLC and pushed any form of affection away. The village was so full of contrasts, Herbert Hill and Poulton House with considerable wealth and the travellers beyond Thickets Lane. The same question one day ‘tell us vicar about is it true Jesus rose from the dead as we drank from the same mug of tea’, I’m still here to tell the tale.
I visited Herbert Hill and he asked me ‘tell me what you understand of the resurrection of Jesus Christ’…
A huge amount needed to be done to the church and rot had set into the pews and everyone had to be removed. John Neale was Bishop of Ramsbury suggested to the PCC that the church should be closed for good, as it just couldn’t sustain itself. This was red rag to a bull; and Lady Brook, amongst others were furious. It had the desired effect. £60,000 was quickly raised, every peer in the House of Lords was pestered. And they are as you see them today. It was a clever ploy by the Bishop, he’d got us all going; it was a considerable achievement on behalf of the village and fundraising brought us together.
I hear you say that things are so different now; things have moved on, but I’ve always believed that at the heart of a parish must go pastoral visiting. It must be at the centre of the community, loiter with intent said our Archdeacon, John Smith, and you won’t forget those with the longest drives, they also have spiritual needs. So, just to sum up, I said daily prayers here in the early morning on a Tuesday; I held open air baptisms in a birthing pool; a number of weddings with good music. Travellers’ funerals were notorious. And I learn quickly not to have a grave next to a holly bush, they brought bad luck, it mystified me for the wreaths of Christmas were taken out of the churchyard. I couldn’t prove this but I was pretty sure that the holly was purloined. Oh Mildenhall. I give thanks to you for those happy years of ministry.
The efforts of Lady Brook had the desired effect and so St. John the Baptist continues in the same state the congregants would have experienced in 1816, although for a short while the church could not be used whilst the recent repairs to the pews (as seen below) took place.
From a historical point of view, we are fortunate that we can now take photographs to record events as they occur. Naturally, in 1814 to 1816 this capability was not even imagined, and although John Buckler painted some water colours of the church in 1806, he did not record the appearance of the pews. All we have are the layouts of the interior created in 1814 and 1816, a before and after effect. However, sometimes history stands still, and we can capture an image still in existence dating back to the eighteenth century. That image can be found in St. Mary’s Church in Old Dilton in Wiltshire some forty miles away from Minal. It retains its box pews from the mid-1700s because it was superseded by a new church at Dilton Marsh three miles away. A recent photograph gives an image of box pews in a Wiltshire church that could have been very similar to St. John the Baptist.
And so we have a possible before and after image. The article concludes with a commentary taken from ‘From Decay to Splendour – the Repair of Church Treasures’ written by Richard Haslam in 1985 for the Council for the Care of Churches.
“The work of Mr. Tuck the village carpenter unified – indeed still dominates – this small country church of many periods. About 1816 he made replacements for the Revd. Charles Francis. As Sir John Betjeman said, “You walk straight into a Jane Austen novel …”; and that world embraced a sort of wild confidence in matters of style and taste. The eclectic designs, while mostly Gothic, are not without bits of Greek; yet the whole effect is of considerable delicacy.
Altar, reredos with the Decalogue, chancel panelling, squire’s and rector’s family pews; benches for the children; twin pulpit and reading desks with soaring testers inscribed ‘Peace’ and ‘Grace’ respectively; 32 box pews in the nave, those at the west placed in a circle around the font and cover; the little exedra of the semi-circular gallery above, reached formerly by a pair of staircases: all are of a piece, not quite serious, certainly not academic. The names of the parishioners who originally subscribed were written on shields once fixed to the gallery.
The operation of piecing in new bits of oak where parts were missing or rotten was done under the supervision of the church’s architect (Margaret Maxwell) in 1982. New brass light fittings were copied from the one surviving candle branch.