A Short Guide to St. Laurence Church, Meriden.
The church has stood on a hill – Alspath – above the later village and its farms – Meriden – for nearly a thousand years. The building has always been an outward expression of the Christian faith and it has been a focus through long centuries of the worship of God – God who came to us in Christ.
The building has many features of historical and architectural interest. They are largely the expressions of earlier villagers’ reverence for God. They had a desire to live with trust and hope in the love of God. May you too experience in the church and its ground – sometimes called ‘God’s acre’ – that love and peace of God.
St. Laurence Church, Meriden, commands beautiful and extensive views across the countryside, especially to the west and north west. On a clear day you can see beyond Birmingham city centre to the Clent Hills, Rowley Regis spur and Barr Beacon. Such a vantage point must have been important when siting the original village called Alspath in Saxon times.
The name of the church when first given may have referred to the early Christian martyr St. Laurence in Rome 258 AD or to Lawrence, second Archbishop of Canterbury 604 AD. Legend favours the latter. In the fields south-west of the church is St. Laurence’s well where tradition says he baptised his converts. The well in later times was believed to have healing properties, especially for sore eyes and sore legs. The spelling was inconsistent in previous centuries ‘Laurence’ or ‘Lawrence’ and the saint’s day 10th August, referring to the early Christian martyr roasted on a gridiron, was celebrated from 1318 by a week long fair. Celebrations continued until recent times.
Evidence recently found in a document in Birmingham Reference library shows that the church’s original dedication was to the much loved Saxon saint Edmund martyred in Bury ( St Edmunds, Suffolk by the Vikings). This is the best evidence to date that there was an earlier church here in Saxon times.
Alspath is described in William the Conqueror’s tax survey of England, Domesday Book 1086 AD, but no church is mentioned despite the claim that Lady Godiva, wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia and owner of the village until 1066 AD, founded one here. (Perhaps only a missionary monk’s mud hut and the ancient preaching cross existed then whose base and stump we still have on the south side of the church.) In the middle of the twentieth century the building was surveyed to determine if any Saxon work was incorporated but no evidence was found. There are several distinctive Norman features in the chancel and west end of the nave but the first written reference to the ‘Chapel of Alspath’ is c1183 AD. This is the date when the Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield was re-founded. (?) The first recorded vicar is ‘Henry’ in 1297 AD, though other clerks who wrote and signed earlier documents in the village, may have been incumbents.
The original building had a chancel, the area of special holiness cared for by the priest, and the main body of the church, the nave, the responsibility of the parishioners. In succeeding centuries, aisles and a tower were added, the roof was raised and styles which became ‘old fashioned’ were replaced by newer ones, themselves now ancient.
Meanwhile the hub of the village declined as the ‘Kingshighway’, the main route from London to Chester encouraged the development of Meriden, the ‘pleasant valley’, at the foot of the hill.
Only incidental references to the church before the late 18th century are available. There were once other large monuments to village landowners in the chancel and Sir William Dugdale the local historian described stained-glass windows which no longer exist. Alice Baldwin of Meriden Hall ‘beautified the chancel spending £100’ in Queen Anne’s reign 1702-14 AD; a new clock was ordered by the churchwardens in 1763 AD and there was an organ in the original western gallery.
Only in the 19th century do we have full details. There were two periods of extensive alteration: 1825 to 1831 AD and 1879 to 1886 AD, the former largely responsible for the external appearance, the latter for much internal change. Considerable repairs and improvements were made in the twentieth century: the re-introduction of a west gallery, two meeting rooms, kitchen and lavatories, but sadly these were still unable to compensate for the loss of the vicarage and the church activities held there, such as Youth Club and Sunday School.
A Tour of the Building
The chancel: north wall
There are two windows in the north chancel wall. The first is an example of a small round-headed Norman design once filled with thin, translucent leather. The second is a tall, slender lancet glazed from the beginning because glass had made larger windows possible. They were both unblocked in renovations of 1924.
There is also a small recess. It may have been used as an aumbry, a cupboard in which the reserved sacrament was kept.
But the most interesting and unusual feature is a squint, an angled hole through the church wall – a hagioscope – to look at holy things. Was it for lepers, unable to come into church? Making it would have been a great act of compassion for the lepers, treating them as Jesus treated the unclean and outcast. Through the squint they could see the bread and wine on the altar, emblems of their crucified and risen Lord, their thrilling hope of salvation.
It may have been that after the aisles were built onto the original outside walls the squint appeared inside the church and may have then been used to help a priest in a newly created north aisle chapel ‘sacrifice the Mass’ in unison with another doing the same at the main altar. Extra altars are mentioned – one dedicated to St. Nicholas in 1291 AD and another to ‘St. Mary’ a hundred years later.
The pre-Reformation faith paid for ‘Masses’ to be said. A chantry house stood next to the tithe barn at Eaves Green, the last recorded chantry priest being Thomas Massey in 1553, perhaps a relative of Ralph Massey, vicar of Hampton-in-Arden a generation earlier.
Outside a re-used early Norman window-head can be seen incorporated in the stonework.
The Chancel: east wall
The chancel was extended in the 13th century and its 15th century east window renovated to accommodate the memorial window to Rev. Anthony Bliss, vicar for fifty five years (1759-1815) and his nieces Ann and Mary Marshall, to whom this bachelor acted as guardian. The window was donated by the Kittermaster family as James Kittermaster had also been ‘adopted’ by the Rev. Bliss and inherited some of this property.
The altar and rails date from 1925 and were given in memory of Mr. E. L. Melley of Highbury Bank House. See the father and son memorials on the north aisle wall. Lieut. R.E. Melley, the son, was killed in 1916 in the Great War.
The Chancel: south wall
There is considerable evidence of building alterations; another blocked lancet window, part of a Norman window and a section of re-used Norman zig-zag patterned stone. There is also a piscine – a basin with drain, once used for rinsing the chalice after mass. A large section of wall was removed in 1895 to house the organ. (This organ has now gone to Althorpe for (Princes Diana’s brother’s) Earl Spencer’s chapel.) The doorway to the vestry is old, but the vestry is Victorian.
The chancel ceiling was covered in cement and painted to give the impression of stone. But when removed in 1924 a beautiful 15th century oak panelled roof of fine craftsmanship was discovered underneath. There were also traces of thatch, giving a clue to an earlier roofing material.
The Brass Memorial to Elizabeth Rotton, 1638 AD
The fine incised brass, protected by a carpet, is set into the chancel floor. Elizabeth was the grandchild of the vicar of Meriden, Thomas Rotton (c1597-1617 AD). Her parents owned the Talbot Inn, Waterfall Cottages and land in the village, part being the Tyburn (Tithe Barn) Close. Most of the inscription is in Latin. It says: “Beneath this marble stone, at peace, lies Elizabeth Rotton, a young women of exceptional character and appearance, daughter and heiress of Thomas Rotton, gentleman and his wife Margaret who, alas, died in the flower of her youth on 14th December 1638 in her 20th year.” The final words, “ I to a blest throne”, are an anagram of her name. Her own father who died in 1635 left a bequest to the poor, mentioned on the Charity Board in the West Gallery.
The Arch – Rood Loft
The original Norman arch has been replaced by a wider Gothic one. The division between the chancel and nave was full of symbolism and across the arch was a rood (Saxon word for a cross), draped on Good Friday and decorated at Christmas. A wealthy villager Thomas Wedgewood, dying in 1525, asked to be buried infront of the rood. Access to this was by a staircase. In 1886 a doorway was discovered in the thickness of the wall by the squint. A circular stairway led upwards and originally ended in a door above and to one side of the pulpit. The stonework here is patched.
The size of the present nave 49 feet long and 18 feet wide is identical with the Norman one. The arcades, the pillars and arches dividing it from the aisles rest on it foundations and there are signs of Norman windows at the western end. A few traces of medieval wall decoration survive on two pillars on the north arcade, and mason’s marks on the pillar nearest the pulpit.
In a later Victorian restoration which cost £2900 the 18th century box pews and a notable 3 decker pulpit of 8 foot high were demolished. Two memorials set in the floor of the central aisle mark the site of the pulpit.
A fine brass eagle lectern decorated with enamelled Christian symbols and semi-precious stones was bought in 1884 with a donation from the Kittermasters, but mainly from £150 representing 7 year’s salary (1878-1884) waived by the organist. It was manufactured within sight of the church at Skidmore’s Art Metal Works whose premises were at the Manor House, now the Manor Hotel.
The usual method of enlarging a church was by adding aisles or wings to the side of the nave. This provided space for altars, chantries and social functions. By the mid 1820s the church was dilapidated and too small for the village population of over 800 people. Rev. William Somerville, the curate, cousin of the Digbys of Meriden Hall and his parishioners, with some help from a charity, undertook a vast programme of renovation which involved the razing and almost complete re-building of both aisles in 1827 so that galleries could be built in them to provide 100 extra seats. The project also included a slate roof and reflooring. In the process a large fissure appeared near the tower and that part of the building almost collapsed. Despite economies such as using old tombstones in the north external wall belonging to the George family of Ivy House Farm, and a gift of stone from the Earl of Aylesford’s quarry at the entrance to the upper Church Lane, the cost was £1700.
The medieval monuments at the end of each aisle were previously in an east-west position at the end of both arcades.
The North Aisle
The red sandstone effigy of a knight wearing a ‘sallet’ helmet, a type of skull cap with a projection at the back, dates the monument to the mid 15th century. It is reputed to be a member of the Walsh family from Walsh Hall; perhaps Sir John who died in 1468. Here also is the Tudor doorway, entrance to the squint and rood. A drain for washing holy vessels was also found here strengthening the argument for an altar on the spot occupied by the tomb. An altar was originally endowed by ancestors of Sir Richard Walsh’s wife Ellen Waldieve. The 16th century doorway at the western end is now between the kitchen and toilets.
The South Aisle
This is the earlier aisle and the possible site for Sir John Wyard’s chantry. His effigy, a minor work of art made of Chellaston alabaster from Derbyshire and attributed to the London School of Carvers, portrays a knight in armour two generations earlier than the knight in the north aisle. It is on a sandstone box tomb, once brightly painted with heraldic badges. On either side of his head are kneeling angels, holding the ends of a scroll or ribbon on which is written, “Hic jacet Joh’es Wyard, Quondam Armiger Comitis de Warwick, Fundator istius Cantariae, cuius anime, Propiteitus Deus, Amen” – Here lies John Wyard once a knight of the Earl of Warwick, founder of this Chantry, on whose soul may God be graciously inclined. Amen.
Wyard rented an estate in Meriden from the Mowbrays from the 1370s to his death, and tradition says he lived at Giant’s Den, a moated site in the fields to the rear of Meriden Hall near the Berkswell boundary. He was part of the bodyguard of Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and came from Worcestershire.
The money to pay for the chantry and its priest came from a field he owned called ‘Godedithe Mede’, possibly the Poles Meadow, valued at £5 per annum in 1404. ‘Godedithe’ may be ‘Lady Godiva’.
Above the memorial is a window with a medieval coffin lid re-used as its lintel and there used to be two tiny glass panes in the lower window with the initials and dates of birth and death of two young cousins of the Digby family killed in the Great War. The panes are now picture-framed after the window was ruthlessly smashed in a robbery but the two panes survived!
The first window at the east end of the south aisle is the Resurrection window in memory of Charles Wriothesly Digby1859 -1908
The second window in the south wall, designed and made by the Camm family of Smethwick, is another Great War memorial – to Captain Edward Bankes of Meriden Hall who died at St. Julian in 1915.
Over the main door, as well as traces of lettering, is the beautifully restored Royal Coat of Arms of 1704, commemorating Queen Anne’s Bounty supporting the ministry of the Church of England.
By the staircase leading to the West Gallery is a 15th Century octagonal font on a newer base.
The window here of two beatitudes, two blessings Jesus taught, blessed are the merciful and pure; and two archangels, Michael crushing Satan and Gabriel announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary, is a memorial to Mrs. Digby of Meriden Hall.
High on the wall at the west end of the south aisle are old wooden painted boards, on which are inscribed the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. These had to be put up at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.
Close to the font is an old chest, covered with an even older lid bearing an inscription about giving alms to God and to the poor. It had three locks so that both church wardens and the minister had to be present to take anything from it. This is all that remains of an alms coffer, once a legal requirement and donated by the Henry West of Marlbrook Hall 1627. It was found being used as a door in a farm stable in 1895 and returned to its rightful place 1895.
A copy of Jewel’s Apology printed in 1609 and rebound in 1897 is kept in a glass topped case (presently at the east end of the north aisle). Bishop Jewel of Salisbury wrote in support of the newly reformed Church of England in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
Other relics of interest nearby are an old water stoop dug up near the porch (or was it a font if buried?) and now outside the south aisle wall; a small medieval coffin lid in the back room, a well preserve gravestone to Hannah Westcott, school dame of Meriden 1642-1703. She was the grand-daughter of Julius Winsper, vicar from 1617 to 1629.
In the 18th century the entrance to the tower, as to today, was though a gallery, then housing the organ and pews. One of the churchwardens sat there with a marvellous view of the congregation. The paupers from the workhouse were allotted space here – out of sight!
Building materials used in the tower suggest three different periods of construction. The lower sections are red sandstone. Above are about three metres of ashlar and in the top section, red sandstone re-appears. There are buttresses and angle gargoyles on the outside. The parapet is a low battlement and the roof an octagonal pyramid. An inside beam has the name ‘W. Thompson’, a local carpenter, and the date 1770. The stair to the roof and bell chamber is in the south west angle of the tower. When the tower was inspected in the 1930s by J.W. Bloe for the Victoria County History, he noted there were supports and three courses of masonry remaining from a stone spire; perhaps like those at Coleshill and Solihull. This spire is likely to have collapsed before the 1720s because Beighton’s Pictoral Map, 1725, shows Meriden tower as it looks now. It was repaired in 1827 when one wall started to collapse, after damage by lightning. Lightning struck again in 1894 and 1954. The weather vane is dated 1933. The original baptistery was in the tower.
The west window of Victorian glass, Jesus with the children, is a memorial to Mrs. Frances Darlington, died 1897, of Meriden Hall and there are 18 ceremonial staves formerly carried by the Old Meriden Friendly Society, founded in 1772, on their annual visit to the church on John the Baptist’s Day. The Friendly Society was amalgamated with the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows in 1894. The care of the odd sick farm worker by an early self-help organisation and the Darlington’s Sunday education work were both born of strong Christian conviction growing out of the gospel revivals of John Wesley and others. Both these social works were early foundations of Britain’s welfare and education systems.
The War Memorial on the north wall was dedicated by the Bishop of Coventry in December 1919.
There are five bells each with inscriptions. The same number are recorded in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign over 400 years ago.
The Tenor in B is undoubtedly the oldest and seems to be medieval. There are 16 coins – groats and half-groats dating from Richard II’s reign 1377-99 – and one French counter of the 14th century on its shoulders, waist and sound bow. It is inscribed with the Christian symbol I.H.S. (Jesus, Son, Saviour) and weighs 7cwt.
Two 25 ½”
Treble in F weighs 3cwt and 3qts. The Rev. Samuel Jones, Vicar 1740.
Second in E weighs 4cwt. William Brooke cast in 1740. ‘When my first and third began to ring, then I was broke before we all did sing.’
Third in D weighs 4cwt and 2qts. Humphrey Hawkesford and Edward Beck Churchwardens 1740 WB. They were farmers at Hollyberry End. In June 1897, these were re-hung with a new bell cast in Suffolk, costing £45.10.0d.
Fourth in C weighs 5cwt and 3qts. ‘I was cast in the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s reign and hung in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee.’ Albert Lewis Willett, Vicar. Charles Wriothesley Digby and George Frederick Burr, Churchwardens 1897.
A bellringers guild was founded the next year. A row of disused clappers hangs on the west wall of the tower. The five bells were re-roped in 1980.
This is in perfect working order and its mechanism was inspected in 1978 by Messrs. Nettell and Sparkes representing the Antiquarian Horological Society. Their findings established that it bears the name of William Leeson of Coleshill and the date 1856. It has an unusual two plane escapement of a type normally found only in watches and domestic time pieces. A similar clock by Leeson 1870 has been located at Temple Balsall. Leeson was paid to look after clock here from 1848 and £20 was mentioned in accounts in 1857. He undertook repairs and servicing until the turn of the century. A new clock face on the west side of the tower was put up in 1909.
The original burial ground surrounded the building but did not stretch far to the north. Henry Greswolde Lewis of Malvern Hall, Solihull and owner of property in the village donated part of the Hill Piece in 1827 for an extension and there were further additions in 1906 and 1970, consecrated 1972.
Near the porch is a sundial, 1749, protecting the stump of the ancient preaching cross. The cross was built before the church and commemorates the earliest preaching of the Gospel in the forest at this point. It must be very nearly a thousand years old.
Several churchyard memorials are interesting. General Whichcote, veteran of Waterloo, who lived at Meriden House from 1848 to 1891 is buried here, as is Christiana wife of the workhouse doctor, Edward Clarke and sister of George Eliot, the authoress. Another unusually records that Richard Taylor ‘died of smallpox’.
Outside the main churchyard entrance is a sandstone mounting block – for all those centuries when some people came and left the church by horse!
G. Austin, D.M.K. Agutter, T.B. Kendrick and perhaps more than one vicar have contributed to this account.
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