A short account of ACTON CHURCH and neighbourhood
This is based on a history written by Canon Herbert Moore M.A. who was vicar of Acton from 1899 to 1936. Canon Moore made some corrective notes after the original issue in 1930, some of which are given at the end.
In writing these note. I have simply put on paper some of things which I find chiefly interest visitors. I have not used any technical terms (which the learned can supply for themselves) and have sometime stated as facts things about which there can be no certainty without giving reasons or suggesting difficulties. H.M.
The visitor to Acton is almost sure to come by a Roman road. At Crewe, seven lines of railway join; at Condate, near Middlewich, seven Roman roads joined for the lines taken by transport routes depend on the contour of the land, neither roads nor railways would be taken over the Pennine Hills. Uriconium, on the Severn, 51/2 miles south of Shrewsbury, was an important Roman City; in the year 584 the West Saxons came up the Severn Valley, and sacked it. Then they made for Chester, and the road they traversed ran over a hill three miles south of Nantwich, on which stands a farm called “Coronerage”; this is often taken to have some connection with the Coroner who holds inquests, but this is not so. “Corona” is Latin for the crown of a hill, as well as for the crown of a king. A little further north, there is a Roman road turning north-west-wards, through Edleston; the Saxons probably passed along this, for we next hear of them at Faddiley, in Acton parish, then called Fethan-lea. The Saxon Chronicle briefly tells us that “This year Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the Britons at the place called Fethan-lea, and there was Cutha slain; and Ceawlin took many towns, and spoils innumerable; and wrathful he thence returned to his own.” The British leader was Brocmael, prince of Powis.
This battle took place either on the flat ground by Woodhey Hall, of which we shall hear again, or lower down the hill by the “Tollemache Arms.” where the defending force would have the advantage of broken ground protecting its flanks. The result of the battle was that Roman civilization was saved for the time from being blotted out in Cheshire.
So much for the road from the south west. The road from the south east now crosses the Weaver by the bridge at Nantwich, beside which is the Roman salt well, 216 feet deep, a marvellous piece of engineering for those early days. It is not known when the first bridge was built; the shallow stretch above the bridge approached from Castle Street would always serve as a ford. But there is a “Street Field” in Reaseheath, which may have got its name from the Roman “strata” or “street” which went that way, not across the river here. Colonel Powell finds that a straight line drawn from the Tumulus at Tilstone Fearnall (commonly called “Robin Hood”), along the “Armitage” (the straight piece of road in Wardle) passes Street Field to the Moat at Wybunbury. Passing up Welsh Row, the road now bears to the right to pass through Acton, until it reaches Wardle, three miles further on, where the straight line which is the sign of a Roman road begins again. At Hurleston, between Nantwich and Wardle, there is a reservoir for the canal (which was finished in 1771); a very old man once told me that his grandfather had been employed upon making it, and had told him of finding the cobble stones which the Romans used for road making. We can see why the divergence took place. Half a mile from Nantwich, by the side of a pool, stands Dorfold Hall. Roads and fences may be shifted, but not streams and lakes; a good piece of water always made a desirable site for a residence, if only because of the fish. The pool was there before the Conquest, and Edwin Prince of Mercia, brother-in-law of King Harold, resided beside it, and it was natural that there should be a good road to the house of the great lord. So we come up the hill past Dorfold gates, and at “The Grove” bend round again, past the “Star” Inn and Acton Church, to rejoin the Roman road at Barbridge. It is said that the sill of the door of Acton Church is exactly on the level of the top of Nantwich Church tower, 101 ft. high.
ACTON AND BANGOR.
At Acton Church, another road turns westwards, to the left, the Church standing at the angle; a very natural site to choose. This road leads to Wrexham, and to a place once much more important than Wrexham, Bangor Iscoed or Bangor on Dee, in Flintshire. There is now only a farm and a few houses, to mark where the famous Monastery stood; the better known Bangor in Carnarvon, founded as a daughter house, still bears the mother’s name. The Monastery of Bangor Iscoed had 4000 residents; it would be a mistake to call them all monks, since young men went there to be educated, as they do now to the University, without intending to “renounce the world.” This Monastery was destroyed in 607, by Ethelfrith, king of Northumbria, and its people put to the sword.
A few years prior to this time, Augustine, the head of the mission sent from Rome by Gregory, had proposed a conference with British bishops and learned men, to discuss, as they supposed, or to have settled for them, as he intended, certain points on which the custom of the British Church differed from the Roman, such as the right date of Easter, etc. Seven British Bishops attended, and a number of monks from Bangor Iscoed; these British monks had determined that if this Italian ecclesiastic was really a man of God, he would receive them courteously, but when they arrived, they found him seated, under an oak. He did not even rise to salute them, so the conference started badly; the British refusing to change their customs, and also declined to join in evangelizing their enemies the English. Augustine was very angry, and said that if they would not forward the way to peace, they should be destroyed by their enemies. When Ethelfrith invaded Chester and killed twelve hundred of these monks before the fight began (close to Chester), because “though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers.” people said Augustine’s words had come true.
In recent years the existence of a Roman “Street” has been proved by excavation running from a river crossing at Worleston through Reaseheath and Bluestone to Swanley in the general direction of Bangor on Dee
This view of the church taken in the nineteenth century shows the old vestry behind the “sun dial” the old porch since removed and an absence of trees.
What has all this to do with Acton? “Acton” means “Oak Town,” and there are at least 13 Actons in England. Where was this meeting held, at which Augustine sat under an “ac” or oak? They show a tree called ” Augustine’s Oak” at Aust, a tiny place on the estuary of the Severn; but why should they go there? It is a distant out of-the-way place even now, and why or how, in those days when roads were bad, and travelling dangerous, a party should travel from Kent, and more difficult still, another from Bangor, to the coast of Gloucestershire, it is hard to see. But our Acton, on the great North West road, at a spot which the branch road to Bangor made it easy for the learned men to reach, seems a more likely place, convenient and safe for all. Half a mile along the Chester road a coppice reminds us that Delamere Forest once reached this spot, and there are plenty of oaks round about.
Another place suggested by learned men is Cricklade. One of these scholars is amazed that Augustine should have travelled so far through the hostile territory of “The ceaseless fighter,” Coinwalch. On the other hand, as Mercia at that time was not united under a king, the party could travel our way without danger of attack. So it is not over-bold to claim this incident for Cheshire.
HOW THE CHURCH WAS FOUNDED.
Probably there was no Church at Acton when Penda, king of Mercia (central England) who hated Christianity, was living, the terror of all within reach of his commandoes; before he died, his son Peada married the daughter of Oswy, Christian king of Northumbria. The young couple brought with them to the south four priests, one of whom was Cedd or Chad, afterwards bishop of Lichfield; that is probably why the Churches at Over and Wybunbury are called St. Chad’s. The wonderful old crosses eleven miles away at Sandbach probably date from this period; from about 660 A.D. Mercia became Christian.
We do not know, but we may well suppose that some good missionary, seeing the junction of roads at Acton, thought it a place where travellers would like to halt, a day’s march from Chester, to seek refreshment for man and beast. He built a hut, which would serve for his Christian service of Holy Communion as well as for his bed, and stuck into the ground his tall pilgrims’s staff, with its cross-piece handle, to mark a Christian habitation; the pool at Dorfold would serve for the baptising of converts. In time, a wooden and then a stone cross took the place of the staff; this latter was destroyed in Puritan times, and turned into a sun-dial, now standing in the Churchyard by the Chester road. It is mentioned as a sun-dial in a will of 1705, and bears the inscription,*
|Tempus fugit||Time is flying,|
|Mors venit||Death is coming,|
|Ut hora||Life, like the day|
|Sic vita||Must pass away.|
*Note.-Mr. James Hall says that the Cross stood in the “Cross Field” on the south side of the church, but I can find no mention of this field in the tithe map.
In the same way, a stone Church was in time built instead of the hut; and now comes in legend. “Bluestone” is the name of the hamlet half a mile down the Chester road; so called from a piece of basaltic rock lying in the field. Geologists say that this, with a great many other boulder stones which are to be found in Acton, was brought from the Cumberland hills on the ice, which once covered the country. Another explanation is, that the devil, seeing Acton Church rising, took a shot at it with this rock from Peckforton Hills; his aim was fair, but not quite good enough, and there the stone lies to prove it,
The first Church no doubt was quite small, like the Saxon Chapel in Ripon Cathedral, but had some rough carving; people who cannot read can learn from pictures. In the south aisle of the Church, behind the Wilbraham Monument, you may see some of these carvings, which escaped destruction through being let into the stone seat which runs round the Church. There is a figure in a cave, which gave an idea of the Resurrection; one stone with apostles, and one which perhaps tells of the Holy Trinity. Another shows a bishop, without a mitre; as the mitre became a part of a Bishop’s costume at the end of the eleventh century, the carving must be earlier than that. Probably the Church was several times rebuilt. Five hundred years is a long time for a building to stand, even without Welsh raiders to destroy it, or devout men who wished to improve upon it. Some of the other carvings in sandstone, behind the Monument, come from these erections; there is the base and the capital of a pillar, an eagle, and three heads. These were found in 1897 imbedded in the wall of the clere-story.
The Old Carved Stones
THE COMING OF THE MONKS.
The Church at Acton is mentioned in Domesday Book (about 1087); if all the earlier buildings had been destroyed, Earl Edwin probably saw to his people having a Church in which to worship, with two priests in charge. There was no parish of Nantwich then; only Acton, Wybunbury (which is the mother parish of Crewe), and Barthomley. But in those troublous times it must have been very difficult to find clergy. William Malbanc succeeded to the possessions of Earl Edwin, who had resisted the Norman invasion, and his son Hugh found that as in the prophet’s time, God’s people perished for lack of knowledge. So about the year 1150, he invited the Cistercians to build an abbey at Combermere, and gave the monks a charter, conveying certain property and privileges to them, including the Church at Acton, to which were added later the dependent chapelries of Wrenbury, Wych Malbanc, (that is, Nantwich), and Minshull. This meant that the tithes due to Acton Church went to the monastery, and the monastery was responsible for the services, both at the mother and at the daughter Churches. Sometimes a member of the brotherhood stayed at Acton; some think that this is why there is an opening from the belfry into the Church, above the great western arch, A good many old English Churches have such a lodging room in the belfry, Sometimes he would ride over, and as he naturally needed refreshment before returning, he would find it at the Village Inn, now a black and white timbered building called “The Star,” This stands for the old name of “Stirrup,” since the last drink which a man had before riding on his way was called “Stirrup Cup.” The “Grove” just by, and some of the land adjoining, belong; properly to the township of Dodcott, not of Acton, because they were the property of the Abbey, and the road along the south side of the Church is called “Monks’ Lane,” though further on it receives its proper name of “Wrexham Road,”
About a hundred years later, the Bishop of Lichfield (Cheshire was then in the diocese of Lichfield) found that this method of carrying on the services of the Church was not satisfactory, and ordered the Combermere community to appoint one of their number to reside permanently in the parish; he was to act for, or instead of, the whole body, and as the Latin for “instead of” is “vice,” he was called “vicarius,” and was to receive the “lesser tithes” He in his turn had to appoint priests to do his work at the daughter Churches of Nantwich and Wrenbury. These were properly called “perpetual curates,” as they could not be removed by the Vicar. It will be convenient to say here, that at the dissolution of the Monastic Houses, about 1546, King Henry VIII sold the “Great Tithes” to Sir Richard Wilbraham for £250; that is why occupiers of land in the old parish of Acton are perplexed at receiving a demand every year, not only for a small sum due to the Vicar of Acton, but also a much larger one (the “Great Tithe”), due to the Peckforton Estate. The Vicar of Acton still pays the Vicar of Wrenbury £10 a year, according to the deed of the year 1285, but the Vicars of Wrenbury do not still “swear upon the Holy Gospels” that they will hand over all fees to the Vicar of Acton. The Incumbents of Nantwich and Baddiley still receive some “Great Tithe,” and therefore are “Rectors,” not “Vicars,” though they do not receive so much as the Incumbent of Acton.
It took the monks some time to build their abbey of Combermere, and about 1180 they turned their attention to their Church at Acton. Forty years before, there had been a great Welsh raid, and very likely this had laid the old building in ruins.
HOW THEY BUILT CHURCHES SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS AGO.
Our Lord said that if the disciples could understand one parable, they would know all parables. In the same way, it is worth while to study one ancient Church, because it gives you the key to understand many others. For different “styles” of building came in and passed away, just as do different fashions in dress or house furnishing, and if you can recognize the style of a Church, or part of a Church, you can tell when it was built. Acton is a good one to study, because it has three styles; it was begun, as we saw, about 1180; just at the end of the “Norman” period.
Churches were usually built at that time without aisles; a nave, and a small chancel, both quite low, with the tower separate, or in the middle, where the chancel joins the nave, as at Nantwich, or at the west end, as at Acton and Bunbury. The door was on the south side of the nave, especially if there was a road there, for convenience at funerals; and one door was enough, as Churches were used in those days for purposes of which we might not approve; when the Welsh raiders came to ravage the countryside, the people would take shelter in the Church. The only entrance even to the tower was from within the building.
The Church was used also for meetings of the guilds; a guild was something between a trades’ union and a benefit club. The builders, the blacksmiths, and others had their guilds, separate in a town, united in a village, which met in the Church, It sounds irreverent, but the guilds were always on a religious basis. So the next step was to throw out a chapel on the north side, by the chancel wall, called by the name of the Saint specially held in honour by the guild members, and there they held their services, and their meetings.
As the population of the place increased, an aisle was added on the south side, handy to the door, and as the services were made more stately, the chancel was lengthened, to give more space. When an aisle was built, the wall was generally propped while the pillars and arches were put in; sometimes the whole nave was pulled down and rebuilt.
Next, if only the south aisle had been added, the guild chapel on the north side was lengthened, so that the wall ran down to meet the west wall, and a chamber opening out of the sanctuary was added on the north side, for the vestments and books. A porch might also be put up, and an extra door inserted. The clere-story (the row of windows over the arches, beneath the roof) usually came late in the history of the Church.
When arches and windows are round, the style is called “Norman”; when they begin to be pointed, it is called “transition” or “change,” to “Early English,” which has pointed or “lancet” windows. Another “transition,” about the year 1270, takes us to “decorated,” in which the windows have many curves and bends, and small lights; another, about 1370, to “Perpendicular,” in which the shafts dividing the windows run straight up and down. At Acton we have the first “transition,” some “decorated,” and some “perpendicular.”
This view from the last century shows the older clere-storey windows, the Grammar School buildings in the church yard and the old tythe barn on the right.
THE BUILDING OF ACTON CHURCH.
Thus we can tell that the tower of Acton was built a bout 1180, because the big arch, and the windows, are slightly pointed. It is about 26 feet wide inside, and not quite square; the walls are six feet thick, as you may see at the west door, which was evidently put in long after the tower was built. It is now 84 feet high, and there is a chamber between the belfry and the bell-chamber, which contains the clock, moved by a weight at the end of a rope running round an axle, put in by “Peter Clare, Manchester, 1788,” and still keeping good time. The tower, like that at Bunbury, rests upon three arches and the western wall. Such towers are called “engaged” towers.
After what we have said, you will not be surprised at the statement that except for the tower, and the great eastern arch, there is little left of the monk’s work. If you stand in the middle of the nave, and look at the west wall over the great tower arch, you see a line of projecting stones sloping down on each side, which you at once will say shows the pitch of a roof which has been removed. Over the eastern arch, though not so clearly, you can trace the same line in the arrangement of the stones; and there are two stones, of a different colour to the rest, corresponding to one another, evidently put into the holes where the roof-beams once rested. Next, by the main south door, over the oaken screen at the entrance to the Dorfold Chantry, there is an arch with only one side; it looks like a lean-to, added after the tower was built. Then go under the tower, and look at the arches which support it. Those on the sides are much lower than the great one by which you pass into the nave, and the line of ornamental carving does not go all round on the same level for there is eighteen inches difference between the lines on the east and south sides. If they had all been built at the same time, the line would have been straight all the way round, as at Bunbury. Then if you go into the vestry, you find that the bottom of the inside wall supporting the tower slopes outwards, as if to let the rain run off; this slope shows that it was at first an outside wall. Now Mr. James Hall, the historian of Nantwich, says that “Acton Tower rests upon three arches, and, therefore, always had side aisles.”
Why, then, this out-sloping support? Indeed Mr. Hall’s “therefore” does not follow. There are other churches in which “the aisles were extended at a later date than the tower, forming mere lean-to additions against the tower walls, which are pierced by low arches. In some cases, the space gained was enclosed by screens and formed chapels.”
This is precisely what we find at Acton; the walls were pierced, and the “Dorfold Chantry” put on one side, the screened off vestry (as it is now) on the other. The stone used in the lower arches is not the same as that of the higher one; and if you go outside, and look at the west wall, where the tower wall joins the aisle wall, you will see that the two are not part of the same job. Where, again, the far west wall of the north aisle joins the tower, all the stones are of the same width, in stead of being longs and shorts, because they have all been cut down from something that was there before. I am sure, myself, that this was a buttress, not an aisle; I should be sure even if it were not too lofty to be an aisle, at that early date.
THE MAINWARING MONUMENT
Whether there were aisles or not in the Monks’ Church, there were not the present aisles. We can tell pretty well when these were built. In the year 1394, William de , Lord of Baddiley and Peover, went to France on the King’s business, and left instructions in his will, that if he died, he should be buried in Acton Church, and prayers be offered for him in St. Mary’s Chapel. The Vicar of Acton, Roger de Salghall, was a friend of his, so he knew the place well. Unfortunately he did die abroad; his tomb can be seen at the east end of the north (left hand) aisle with his family crest, an ass’s head coupe, over it. For an ancester of the family, having his horse killed under him, insisted on carrying out the family motto, “Forward, if I can,” and mounted a donkey, as the next best thing. His scutcheon, with the motto, is in Baddiley Church; his effigy, in armour and with the collar marked “S.S.” (for “Sanctus Spiritus,” the Holy Spirit) , only worn by persons of high degree, lies at Acton under a canopy, the colours of which, now sadly faded, must once have been magnificent.
Now look at the bottom of the wall at the top of the aisle, under the window from which the glass has been taken out, to allow the sound of the organ to be heard. It is built upon a foundation much older than the wall above it; follow the foundation wall round the angle of the north wall, and you come to a flat tombstone let into the wall, with a cross upon it (like the one in the Dorfold Chantry), to the right of the Mainwaring monument. This belonged to some Abbott or other great person (perhaps Sir John Bromley, a friend of Sir William) who was buried there. Then comes the big tomb, and after that there is no old foundation wall.
Those old walls belonged to the “St. Mary’s Chapel” mentioned in the will; a small projecting building, with narrow windows and a door, built as we explained, for the guild. As there was not room for Sir William’s tomb, they took down the walls, and threw the framework of the door and window on one side; then they built the new wall, and carried it right down to the west end, cut away the buttress, and joined it up. When the wall was taken down in 1898, they found the window and the door buried deep under ground, and put them at the entrance to the heating chamber, where you will see them if you look over the railings. They are in “early English” style. You will notice that the inside wall of the Church is divided up by arches called “arcades,” on the face of the stones, in the middle of which the windows are set; these run all round the Church. The first of them is nine feet across, the second nine, and the third fourteen; because room had to be found in the third for the tomb in the north aisle, and the south aisle was made to match it. The window by the tomb has two lights, the others three, and there are no signs of alteration; so we know that the aisle was built at the same time as the tomb.
ACTON CHURCH AND BUNBURY CHURCH.
You can tell a man by his friends, and very often a Church by its neighbours. Acton Church and Bunbury Church are wonderfully alike. In both, the tower rests upon three arches; the buttresses are deep and steep; and all round both runs a convex course of stone, shaped, that is, like the outside, not the inside, of a drain-pipe. Both have a chapel, in the north aisle, and both, a vestry opening out of the sanctuary. But the tower at Bunbury was evidently originally built as it is now; there are none of the signs of alteration that are clear at Acton, if you compare the two.
Now Bunbury Church was built, or rebuilt, in 1384, by Sir Hugh de Calveley, who came back to his native place after a long period of very rough “knocking about in the world.” If the Squire of Bunbury was doing something big, the neighbouring Squires would be sure to know; and when the work at Bunbury was done, the architect and builders would be available for another job.
What then could be more likely, than that when Sir William Mainwaring died, these workmen should be asked to take Acton Church in hand? It is possible of course that the south aisle and the clerestory had been already built (which is not very likely); it seems to me more probable, considering what a very big piece of work it would be to pierce the walls, prop the roof, and put in the six pillars and arches, that the whole thing was done at the same time, and that the time was this time, about 1399; they pulled down the old nave and Chapel, leaving the pitch of the roof shown on the two great arches, and the chancel. They then built them up again in the style which looked so well at Bunbury, with clerestory; a style which the same architect and builders would naturally adopt. At the same time, they altered the lower part of the tower, so as to be as like Bunbury as possible; but they could not make the side arches of the same height as the main one.
The arcading work is just what we should expect at this date, and the stone seating which runs all round the nave is like that of Malpas, which was also built about this time. On the tomb, the shield of the Mainwarings, with two cross-bars, occurs twenty-one times; it is also over the north door, and over the west door, showing that the aisle was built, and the west door pierced, at the same time, under the same directions.
It does not seem an impossible conjecture, that the men engaged at Bunbury went on first to do the similar work at Malpas; since the Baron of Malpas was also the Baron of Bunbury.
Standing beneath the tower, you are a step below the nave; the nave is a step below the chancel, the chancel a step below the sanctuary. This meant, that a person not baptized is in a state of nature, without the divine Grace of Christ; he goes up one step to baptism, another, when he is confirmed, to full communicant membership in the Kingdom, and a third, when he leaves this earthly life for that which by Grace awaits him within the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem. On the right is the raised floor of the Dorfold Chantry, beneath which (now sealed up) lie the remains of twenty-eight members of the Wilbraham family. The large grave-stone now placed there was inside the Church; the red sandstone one, broken, was found in the “new” churchyard, while a grave was being dug.
The font, of black basalt, is Norman, i.e., of the age of the tower; the carvings on it show an apostle, who represents the Church of which the baptized person becomes a member, and the devil, whom he renounces. It stands just inside the main door, because Baptism is the entrance into the Church. Our fathers did not appreciate the massive dignity of this font, and exchanged it for an ugly modem one of stucco. This ancient Norman font was found in use as a pig-trough in a farm yard. It was removed to the terrace at Dorfold Hall, until in 1897 Mr. H. J. Tollemache replaced it in the Church.
THE WORK OF THE WILBRAHAM FAMILY.
The people of Acton, or at least one man of good will among them, was not yet content with the Church. About the year 1620, the frame of the main south door was taken out, and a new one put in, with a fine flourish of carving at the top; at the same time the balustrade along the top of the Chancel wall, like fret-work in stone, was erected. There is the same thing at Chester Catherdral, but it is rarely found.
We know who this restorer was; he has placed his coat of arms over the east window, outside. It is the coat of Sir Richard Wilbraham, son of Sir Thomas and Grace (nee Cholmondeley) Wilbraham of Woodhey Hall. He died in 1645, and the recumbent monument in the south aisle is his memorial. This monument was moved about 1850, into the chancel, for the curious object of providing more seats near the pulpit, as the Vicar was a “popular preacher.” But presently the people who had pressed for the erection of the new pew ceased to attend, it was therefore called the “hypocrites’ pew,” and the monument was moved back. The piscina (place for washing the vessels after Holy Communion) in the wall to the right shows that there once was an altar here, belonging to the Woodhey Chapel, as it was called.
The Wilbraham Monument
It seems that the work of beautifying the Church went on for some time. On the gate of the chancel rails is carved “I.H. I.P. W.W. 1685.” “W.W.” stands for “Wardens”; who they were we do not know, but evidently the Wilbraham family had to do with this also, as the tall nine-pin decoration of the oak is found also in Dorfold Hall, which was built by Ralph Wilbraham in 1616. It was Sir Richard who conveyed to the Church the “Church Farm” at Faddiley, to make perpetual provision for the repair of the Church. It brings in now £60 a year, so that the burden of “Church Expenses” is greatly reduced. An ancient Church, as the people of Nantwich know is a very expensive blessing.
The puzzle is that between 1620 and 1685 there occurred the struggle of the civil war, which must have stopped all operations upon the Church. Possibly Messrs. I.H. and I.P. were responsible only for some such work as the placing of the rails in some new position; or it may have been in their time that the beautiful Jacobean oak was put into the chancel.
THE CIVIL WAR.
The Church had been finished for the purpose of worship for centuries to come; but in the changes and chances of this mortal life its history could not be free from disturbance. There were still Welsh raids and English reprisals, but these were small matters in comparison with the stormy times of the 17th century, when the question of the power of the King and the rights of the people as represented by Parliament led to the great Civil War.
Nantwich took the side of Parliament, and Acton was one of the headquarters of the Royalist troops attacking it. The Church changed hands several times; ” Acton Church is no more a prison, but now free for honest men to do their devotion therein,” the “Captain of firelocks” on the King’s side wrote on January 15, 1643. It is not true that “Cromwell stabled his horses in Acton Church,” since he took no part in these operations; but it is true, that on St. Paul’s Day, 1644-5, the officers who were taken prisoners by the Parliamentarians were lodged there for the night. The relieving force had come from Ireland, and before the King’s troops were aware of their approach, they had reached Barbridge, where they soon drove in the small detachment placed there, and advanced towards the Church. Word was sent to the forces attacking from the Barony side, who set out at once; but the deep snow, which often covers the district towards the end of January, had melted, and Beam Bridge, “being a fayre Stonne Bridge,” had been carried away. While they were marching round by Brayne’s Bridge at Worleston, the defenders came out from the town, so that the attackers were caught between two fires; the battle was joined in Acton and Ravensmoor, and all was over as evening fell. The prisoners numbered 1,800, including 120 women, “armed with long knives.” The death roll was only 54; these were buried in the “Dead Man’s Field,” on the right as you go down Monks’ Lane, beyond the Moat Field. Cannon balls were found there in quite recent times. The Vicar at this time was Edward Burghall, a Puritan (i.e., one who objected to the use of the Prayer-book, to ordination by Bishops, and other Church usages); who has left us a diary of these events. At the Restoration under Charles II he was ejected, and the Church’s services were resumed.
It is remarkable, that no records seem to remain of the upheaval of the Reformation. In a quiet village like this, it is hard for people to recognise that they are playing their part, from time to time, in a movement of importance to the whole world and for ages to come. Probably orders came from the Bishop, and as in other places the Priest obeyed, or went elsewhere if he could not conscientiously do so. Burghall did not leave the parish when the order to use the new prayer-book came into force. On May 26, 1662, “Divers of the inhabitants of the parish contributed to the honour of God and the advancement of religious education and learning” by founding a Free Grammar School, with thirteen Trustees, who were to “hyre a Schoole Maister, being a University man, of godly life and conversation. to have twenty pounds sallayre, with yearly mayntaynance from forrayners” (i.e. other than Acton pupils), but “not exceede the number of fower score Scollers by his entertainment of Strangers” -if he does, he must take an Usher. These eighty children in one class were to learn, among other things, “Latyne and Greke”; the rules of the School would be regarded in these days as exceedingly severe. The old vicar Burghall was made the first Master. It was a black and white timbered building, approached from the road through the avenue of trees between the vicarage and the Churchyard, and stood till 1885, when it was demolished and incorporated into the Nantwich and Acton Grammar School, the splendid buildings of which stand just below the aqueduct. The old site was cleared, and consecrated as an extension of the Churchyard.
We have now reached the eighteenth century in our sketch of the history of Acton Church; a continual record of improvement. Now we have to tell of a set-back, caused not by the hand of man, but by the violence of tempest. If you examine the tower, you will see a line below the large window which allows the sound of the bells to come forth, above which the stone is of a different texture and colour. The ornament (called ogee) over the windows, and the pinnacles and balls at the top, are quite different in style to anything else in the Church. These things commemorate a great disaster. The register of Baptisms tells how “On Tuesday, March 15,1757, abt noon, the Upper Part of the Steeple was, by the excessive violence of the Wind or Tempest, suddenly blown down, and falling upon the Roof of the Church broke it entirely, and destroyed most of the Pews and a Gallery erected therein at the West End.” Where this “Gallery” was placed, we do not know now. The tower had been 100 feet high; 34 feet of it had fallen, and the ruin must have been enough to dismay the boldest Churchwarden. But the walls were not injured; the registers show that baptisms and marriages continued to be solemnized. The entry continues: “The Estimate of Damage given in to obtain a brief was £ 1,180 and upwards, but this was exceeded by £600 at least.” It was indeed a low estimate! A “Brier’ is what we should now call an “appeal,” which was sent out to all parishes under the King’s authority, after misfortunes of this kind. The “Brief Book” of Acton parish shows that in 1807, for instance, five briefs were sent round England, asking for a total of £8,033. Towards this sum Acton sent 15/-. There seems to be no record of the amount sent to Acton in this emergency, but local contributions were raised, and various small parish charities compounded for £ 100, on which £5 a year interest was paid from the Church collections until recently, when £100 worth of stock was bought for the charities; so the building was re-erected for service. But not as it had been; the windows of the clere-story were actually ugly, the roof was barrel-shaped, and the whole Church plastered and whitewashed, the floor-space covered with high box pews. No doubt all was done for the best with the means available, but the fair beauty of the Church was gone. Moreover, so many people had been buried within the walls of the Church, that it was actually unhealthy to be in it for long together.
THE LAST RESTORATION.
For the next 150 years nothing of importance happened to Acton Church, except that in 1893, the bells were restored. At first there were five bells, dating from 1604 to 1633 (at the time when the restoration by the Wilbraham family took place); about 1720 rhese were made into six, which were re-tuned and hung in 1893. Immediately after this, the Vicar set his hand to get the Church restored. An old Acton man, Mr. T. Surton Timmis, of Allerton, whom God had prospered in his worldly affairs, undertook the restoration of the nave, in memory of his mother, only stipulating that the best architects and the best materials should be employed; the Patron, Lord Tollemache did that of the Chancel; Mr. Henry Tollemache, the building of the organ chamber; and in 1898 the restored Church was re-opened for service. It was found that the wall of the north aisle was 14 inches out of plumb; this was taken do\\.n, each stone numbered, and replaced exactly into its original position. The clere-story was re-built, the beautiful roof erected, and the floor concreted, while the pews were replaced by the present oak benches. The heating chamber was placed on the south west side, and as the foundations of the tower were found to be slightly sinking (Norman builders always were rather careless about foundations), these were strengthened with tons of concrete.
A tithe barn used to stand in what is now the Smithy garden, facing the south wall of the Church; and there was a porch to the main south door. These were taken down during the last century. The red-brick building against the fence to the right is the “Hearse House,” in which the parish hearse was kept. At a meeting held to consider the best memorial of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, it was proposed to get a new parish hearse; but the proposal fell to the ground when a respected resident stated that he had “known many people who had ridden in that hearse, but he had never heard any complaints yet.” It last appeared after the relief of Mafeking, when its framework and wheels made a very good carriage for a drain pipe covered with brown paper, which did duty for a “Long Tom.”
On the west side of the Church is the Vicarage; the parish register tells us that “J. Harwar Vicar of Acton built ye Vicaridge house, garden walls, barn, etc” at his own cost and charge in the year 1723.” Parts of it may be alder than this; in various places doors and windows have been altered. The Rev. Thomas Brereton was vicar from 1744 to 1787; the present vicar comes next with 30 years of service, and the Rev. R. S. Redfern with 25. The three fields beyond the vicarage are the glebe. The third contains the moat, probably of the same age as the tower, and made as a protection against the Welsh; the cattle were driven on to the enclosure and men set to protect the entrance, the women and children placed in the tower, and the bells rung to sound the alarm. In recent times there was probably a house within the moat; pieces of coal are found beneath the turf.
The registers go back to 1653. The earlier ones may have been destroyed in the Civil war; if not, an entry in the register may account for the loss. It tells how a meeting of the parishioners was held, at which the vicar was asked to give up the keys of the vestry (the small chamber which used to stand on the north side of the sanctuary) ; as he declined to do so, the meeting decided that the door should be forced, and the books and papers removed. What all the bother was about, we cannot tell; but it is sad to think of the loss to history brought about by that foolish assembly.
One silver chalice, “The gift of Alice Wilbraham, of Dorfold,” is dated 1633; another, and also a very heavy silver flagon, was “The gift of the Honble. Lady Wilbraham of Weston in Staffordshire to the Church of Acton in Cheshire.” This lady Elizabeth, daughter of the famous Jack Mitton, married Sir Richard Wilbraham of Woodhey, and in 1700 built, or re-built, the Chapel or Oratory (called “an old domestick chappell” in Leycester’s History, 1673) still standing in front of the farm house, for the benefit of the household and retainers of Woodhey Hall. The panelling of the walls, and the seats, arranged length-wise to the building, are of oak; a gallery at the end contains some heavy settles, on which “the people of the Hall” evidently sat, and some curious cupboards with latticed panels, apparently for the serving girls, who thus could attend the service in their over-alls. This chapel is the private property of Lord Tollemache, who appoints a “discreet and learned minister for the services”; it is not under the Bishop’s jurisdiction. The pillared porch of the door into the gallery, approached by way of what seems to be an ancient defensive rampart, is the only part of Woodhey Hall which escaped being pulled down in 1750. The ancient barns still stand, and the brick wall of what said to have been the exercising ground for the men-at-arms of the Hall. There arc some underground passages, which tradition regards as stretching to Beeston or to Chester according to the imaginative powers of the narrator; and the remains of a stone cross mark the entrance to the precincts of the Hall.
The last restoration
An old windmill, adapted as a pump for the supply of water to the neighbouring houses, before the Liverpool water was supplied about 1891, stands in Ravensmoor about half a mile from the Church. Ravensmoor was a piece of common land of 414 acres, which in 1838 was enclosed under Act of Parliament, and apportioned to the lords of the manor. At Swanley Hall, two yew trees are reported to have been planted at the head and foot of the grave of an officer killed in the civil war. Yew trees are rather common in the neighbourhood; the farm adjoining the Churchyard, and one in Stoke, are each called “Yew Tree Farm.” Stoke Manor is said, but not truly, to have been the residence of Mary, wife of the poet John Milton, and to have had some connection with Sir John Wolfe, the hero of Quebec.
Behind it is a piece of land, not to be distinguished from any ordinary croft, which was once a Quaker burying place. A little lower down the road is a farm called Verona, with a wonderful spring in its garden; and further in the fields, Clatterdish Farm. No one knows the origin of these names. As the latter is in an exposed place, éclair de soleil is a possible derivation.
And so one might go on; as in any parish with a Church 750 years old.
Correction notes by Canon H Moore, M.A c 1933
“An account of Dorfold by Mr. Johnson of Nantwich mentions an ancient plan showing how the approach to the house joined the road near the aquaduct, the space in front (of the house) being largely occupied by water”.
“At the same time he (Penda) said on one occasion that he had no objection to Christianity as such, but to persons who called themselves Christians but lived as heathens. He need not have allowed his son to marry a Christian wife. His son Wulfhere, who succeeded him as King of Mercia, was a Christian; his daughter was Werbergha”
“At the Dissolution Combermere Abbey was granted to Sir Geo. Cotton”.
“The eastern arch is a 15th century arch”.
“The holes were for the fixing of the ‘doom’ picture covering the wall above. Over the lectern, the door can be traced by which the rood screen was entered; the steps descended into the north aisle”.
“The most likely date seems to be 1408 (not 1399). What is said about the arch as part of the original Church will be erroneous, the whole of the nave must have been rebuilt”
“One of the Saxon stones, believed to be of the same date as the font, shows a bishop without the mitre, i.e. before the end of 11th century when the mitre became part of the bishops dress In 1236 Archbishop Edmund ordered font covers; the marks of the hinge can be seen.
“The base (of the font) was designed by Mr. Lyman, architect (in 1897)”.
“Sir Richard Wilbraham was the father of Sir Thomas Wilbraham of Woodhey Hall”.
The ‘popular preacher’ was Rev. Francis Storr, M.A
“The volume of minutes etc. (of Acton Grammar School) is now deposited at Nantwich & Acton Grammar School”.
“Woodhey Hall was pulled down in 1730”
“The tablet on the wall of the chapel (Woodhey) gives its date as 1700; what was its original form is not easy to decide, the cavity on the left side of the ‘gallery’ door suggesting that the door occupies the place of the altar”
Other notes by Canon Moore and others are published from time to time at the Church.