A Tale Of Two Churches – Compton Abbas Celebrates 150 Years Of St Mary’s

Compton Abbas residents have been celebrating a special anniversary. St Mary’s Church is 150 years old. But, as ThisIsAlfred discovered, villagers have many historic events, customs and characters to talk about.

Compton was first settled during Saxon times. “Compton means the village in the valley, or the combe, and it belonged to Shaftesbury Abbey. That’s why it is Abbas,” explained resident, Gillian Cross.

St Mary’s Church in Compton Abbas

Fast forward almost 700 years and Compton’s next historic milestone happened. In May 1645, 3,000 countrymen gathered to protest against plundering by both sides in the English Civil War – Royalists and Cromwell’s Parliamentarians.

“This was the ‘Uprising of the Clubmen’. People here just got really sick of all the armies marching over their land. They joined together as the ‘Clubmen’, because they didn’t have guns. They opposed all of the armies,” explained Gillian. “One of the leaders was the rector of Compton Abbas, and a nearby down is called Clubmen’s Down. It’s high up above the village. They came to a sad end when Cromwell’s army turned out against them. They fought on Hambledon Hill, I think.”

Gillian Cross

Gillian met me at St Mary’s Church, where she is a churchwarden. This handsome, spire-topped building is at the centre of local celebrations. The Bishop of Salisbury attended the special service in September to mark its 150th birthday. But I was surprised that such an old village has a relatively new place of worship. The reason is the church was moved closer to its parishioners during Victorian times.

“The village is very long and narrow so the east end of the village is quite a long way from the west end. This church is now in the middle. I live in Twyford, which is in the west. I can walk to this church, and I sometimes do. It is about a mile. I don’t think I would have walked to the old church although I would have had to before the 19th century,” said Gillian.

The ruined medieval church can still be found around a mile away. “The vicar said that it was in the wrong place. It needed to be by the main road, which is now the A350. It was quite a new road then but houses were beginning to cluster there. They closed the old church in 1857,” said Gillian. You can still easily recognise the former, 14th century church. “The tower is the only thing remaining. It is not possible to go inside. It’s locked and maintained by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.”

The old church

Some elements of the medieval church have been recycled in the newer building. “They used quite a lot of the stone to build this new church, which opened in 1868. The font comes from there. It was re-cut, so it looks newer.” One of the five church bells was also rescued from the old church. They put up a wooden bell tower during the construction of the new church, so villagers would not be without the bells, Gillian told me

In the back of the new church, you can try your hand at bell ringing with a scale model of the bell tower, crafted by resident Peter Butler. After a quick campanology session, Gillian offered to give me the guided tour of St Mary’s and it soon became clear how this church provides a unique record of life in Compton through the decades.

“I think that’s often a characteristic about churches. They are places where people put things that remind them of the past. That window in the side chapel has the old church chapel in the stained glass. Can you see it?” asked Gillian. “Behind the old church, up on top of the tower, there is the pear tree, which grew there for many years. It had to be taken out in the end.”

Gillian continued to point toward an image of a hillside in the stained glass. “Can you see there is a side of a down? There are pale streaks on the hillside. Before people used oasis foam for flower arranging they would use moss. Villagers used to roll the moss down the hill, leaving the tracks like that. They would send it up to Covent Garden.” So the village would almost have been scarred, I asked? “Maybe not. It may not have looked as dramatic as it does in the window,” said Gillian. “But the window commemorates that”

I was surprised to learn that even the kneeling cushions, or hassocks, capture aspects of Compton’s heritage. “The old hassocks in the side chapel have the original field names on them and they are embroidered with the flowers that grow in those fields. In the main body of the church, the hassocks are newer and were embroidered by 24 men and women from the village, masterminded by Mary Buchanan. She is now dead but she is remembered with great affection within this church,” said Gillian.

Along one side of the building are discrete wooden panels. They blend into the shadows and you hardly notice them until you turn on the light above. The life stories and interest of much- missed worshippers have been captured for all time with simple symbols and icons carved into the wood.

“This is my favourite,” smiled Gillian. “It commemorates somebody called Muriel Gripper. She was known as Birdie, so you can see there is a bird carved on the panel. I think it’s really nice.” Douglas Ford’s memorial features woodworking tools. “The family suggested to the church council that they would like to commemorate him like this. We had to apply to the diocese because you can’t just go around making changes to the insides of churches. They had to approve the design, too.”

There appeared to be just one empty space along the wall – room for one last wall panel? “I have a view of who it should be but he would be much too modest,” said Gillian. And of course, he will still be alive, so we ended this conversation before it became awkward.

I wouldn’t have learned so much if Gillian had not been there to point out items of interest, but I think that most people who are curious about North Dorset history will find the temporary exhibitions at the back of the church fascinating. To mark the 150th birthday, volunteers have filled boards with old newspaper cuttings, photos and paperwork documenting village and church life. The beautiful handwriting in the church ledger book was so neat and precise it resembled a computer font.

It also revealed that the new church building project went way over budget. “It was supposed to cost £2,600 but it actually costs £4,800 and the landowner, Richard Glyn, donated the land and £1,200,” said Gillian.

We continued reading the articles pinned up around the walls. They gave a snapshot of Victorian Compton and how much North Dorset life has changed. A parish magazine excerpt from September 1898 offered a precise account of a temperance meeting. “I think there must have been a big temperance movement locally because there are details of the Temperance Fete,” Gillian said. “There was also a temperance hotel, which was a hotel that did not serve alcohol. I’d be interested to know more about the local temperance movement. It might be completely unconnected but there was quite a strong Methodist presence in the villages.”

Another article, from September 1896, stated that landowner Sir Richard Glyn had arranged a party for his tenants to celebrate his son’s 21st birthday. The highlight was an American high wire performer. “A trapeze artist!” exclaimed Gillian. Glyn, who had bankrolled the church building, was clearly monied. “The Glyn family owned a lot of the farms and the houses including the home in which my husband and I live. In 1919 there was a big sale and a lot of the property was sold off. The council bought many of the farms, which are council farms today.”

I continued reading the attention-grabbing headlines from a century ago. One article reviewed a fete during which ‘General Pitt-River’s band played a selection of music in their quaint uniforms.’ “Don’t you just long to know what they were wearing?” asked Gillian.

There were more recent photos too, capturing significant events enjoyed by villagers. “When it was the centenary in 1968, they had a whole year of celebrations and raised a lot of money. They had a Victorian tea party.” Gillian took me to a photograph of much-loved Reverend Chaffey Moore, alongside a group of women dressed up as Victorian maids.

1968 centenary celebrations

“Here’s an open-air service to celebrate the Queen’s coronation,” Gillian continued. “In the car park outside the church there is an obelisk. If you look casually you’d think it was a war memorial but it’s not. It was put up in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In 2012 the village added another inscription for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.”

As I finished my tour, Gillian explained why locals have felt it so important to mark 150 years of this church building. “I think it’s drawn people together,” she said. And as we walked out, through the churchyard, Gillian shared her view that a church is not just about a building. “When I was first married, as a young mother, I didn’t live near any of my relations and the community I lived in was hugely important and supportive of me. I think it’s important that communities should do that in a small place like Compton. A sense of belonging to the village is important.”