1950s Memories by Edward Reid-Smith

Wolfhampcote: some memories of rescuing St Peter’s Church in the 1950s, by Edward Reid-Smith

I have been asked to write my personal memories about the movement in the 1950s to save St Peter’s church from vandalism, and indeed from being completely dismantled.

About 1941, Herbert Wilson who was the caretaker at the Borough Library in Rugby, paid his first visit to see the church of St Peter’s in Wolfhampcote. Visiting old churches in Warwickshire (and those just across the border) was one of his hobbies. He had just completed the manuscript of an account of St Matthew’s church in Rugby, which he had attended since childhood and where he was a sidesman and member of the church council.

However, the book was not published at the time because of the austerities during Second World War – and he was not “called up” for armed service because he had a lame leg. This did not prevent him from visiting Wolfhampcote and other churches, though.

Herbert later wrote that on his first visit to St Peter’s c.1941 “not a single pane of glass [was] broken, and apart from a spring clean and dust the Church of Saint Peter would have looked equal to any other”.

In 1949 he asked me to revise his manuscript about St Matthew’s, and he also took me on my first visit to Wolfhampcote. He wasn’t interested in churches just for their age, but as buildings dedicated to worship.

We found that St Peter’s was dirty with rubbish scattered on the floor, some windows cracked or broken, and the bench seats moved out of position. There was a hymn book which once belonged to Lady Shuckburgh, and which I later deposited with Lambeth Palace Library for safe keeping.

Both Herbert and I were shocked at the condition of the church, but realised that if it remained like it was it would only encourage some visitors to continue vandalising it – so we determined to visit it regularly to keep it clean and tidy. I bought a visitors’ book so that people could realise that the church was not deserted, and could record their comments. Unfortunately it was later stolen!

I was impressed by the features of this church such as the low tower, the coat-of-arms of Queen Anne, the monuments on the wall, the old carved screen, the wooden benches, and the stone gargoyles. It spoke of hundreds of years of agricultural villagers and other inhabitants of the nearby hamlets. The gravestones of some of them survived in the surrounding churchyard, and these encouraged me to copy the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials.

Herbert and I gathered my parents and some of our friends and neighbours in Rugby to form an informal Friends of St Peter’s group there, with the aim of keeping the church clean; Herbert chaired the meetings and I was Secretary.

One of my tasks was to contact local people and national organisations to obtain assistance in preserving the church. My parents had given me a portable Imperial typewriter as a 21st birthday present, and I kept carbon copies of most of my correspondence.

Another job for Herbert and myself was to send letters for publication in local newspapers, mainly the “Coventry Evening Telegraph” and the “Rugby Advertiser” in the 1950s. These were mainly in answer to published letters from other people who had visited the church.

An early opportunity occurred when Mrs E.M. McIndoe arrived from Canada to meet her brother in Rugby for the first time in decades. (“Coventry Evening Telegraph”. 20 July 1951.) One of the many regional churches which she visited was Wolfhampcote’s, and she wrote a letter to the newspaper about her reactions.

Probably my first attempt at publicity was a two-page article entitled “Parish Church of St Peter, Wolfhampcote”, which was included in the August 1951 issue of the St Matthew’s church, Rugby, parish magazine. This was the church which Herbert still attended, and where I had previously been a choir boy.

There was further publicity on one occasion when Herbert and I went to clean the church, and found that the mausoleum had been broken into (we hadn’t entered it before). The skeleton and some almost completely decomposed body of a lady had been taken from its niche and were lying on the stone floor.

We contacted Mr Thompson who lived in the Old Vicarage nearby, and borrowed a bedsheet on which to gather the bones. Mrs Thompson also brought a bucket of water for us to wash the glutinous flesh from our hands, while Mr Thompson took two photographs of Herbert and myself at work — he gave me copies later. One leg of the skeleton still had the remains of a stocking on it.

We notified the ecclesiastical authorities, who arranged for a private recommital ceremony when the remains were re-sealed in the mausoleum.

I also contacted various national organisations to take the church under their wings, because the small group in Rugby could not do so itself; money and expertise were needed. Some church officials were in favour of complete or partial destruction of the building, whilst others eventually came to the rescue.

Another activity was to inform the younger generation to respect old buildings, although only one talk and visit to Wolfhampcote eventuated when I was able to arrange for a group of interested boys from Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby to be organised. (Later I cycled to visit the church with two other boys, who had been unable to join in the group visit.)

These tasks were interrupted when I was called up for deferred National Service 1950-1952, and I was posted to Egypt. When I completed my two years fulltime service I sailed back to England where I was discharged. However, the following year I decided to go to Cyprus, where I lived until the end of 1959.

My parents kept me informed about what was happening in Wolfhampcote, and I took the opportunity to publish the first part of the church registers and the glebe terriers which I had copied earlier from the originals in the Warwickshire County Records Office.

I had previously paid many visits to Warwick to examine and copy by hand some of their documents which related to Wolfhampcote, and when I settled in a village near Nicosia I typed my copies onto stencils which I posted to Over’s Bookshop in Rugby.

Over’s had already printed a book of the churchwardens of churches in Rugby for me, so I made arrangements with them to print the two sets of Wolfhampcote transcripts also. The first was the 55-page booklet entitled “Wolfhampcote glebe terriers” which I published in 1953. The following year I followed the same procedure for the 184-page book “The Wolfampcote parish registers, part 1: 1558-1768”.

My arrangement with Over’s was for them to roneo print a limited number of copies on their company’s Gestetner machine, and have them stapled and bound in card covers. The books were then delivered to my parents’ home to be sold. Free copies were first of all sent to the designated copyright libraries in the UK. Of course there was little publicity for them, but over time copies were purchased by some libraries and by individual people – and eventually all copies were either sold or donated.

About the same time the Deserted Mediaeval Village Research Group became interested in Wolfhampcote, and I wrote an article called “Wolfhampcote delvings: work by the Deserted Mediaeval Village Research Group” for the Rugby Advertiser which it published in its 19 August 1955 issue.

Later in the same year I wrote a report on what we had tried to do in the past five years, and the Rugby Advertiser of 30 December 1955 printed comments on this.

At that stage we were trying to gain the co-operation of the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the Central Council for the Care of Churches.

Maurice Beresford, who was then Warden of the Guildhouse in Rugby (next to the Public Library), also became interested in deserted mediaeval villages, and published his book on the subject (“The Lost Villages of England”, London: Lutterworth Press, 1954). Strangely, he included Cestersover in the book but not Wolfhampcote.

I had for some time been investigating the deserted site at Cestersover myself, and was also interested in the deserted village of Wolfhampcote. As an interim measure I self-published a 24-page pamphlet entitled “Historical Notes on Wolfhampcote Village and Church” in 1954 – again only a limited number of copies were printed mainly for local distribution to raise awareness. A parallel project had been my interest in disappeared and disused churches in Britain over the centuries, and I began to create a card index for the UK.

In 1959 I left Cyprus and returned to England, and in 1961 I used a photograph of St Peter’s church in Wolfhampcote to head an article about “The Hundred Lost Churches of Warwickshire”, to which the newspaper added the heading “Wolfhampcote – Depopulated, Desecrated, Now a Sheep Pasture”. This article appeared in the “Coventry Evening Telegraph”, 11 February 1961.

Apart from a spell in Coventry I lived in Lancashire in most of the 1960s, so I was unable to do much about St Peter’s. This continued until I was offered a post in Afghanistan with the United Nations Development Programme, which I accepted. My family and I (by then I was married with two small children) then spent over two years based in Kabul between 1969 and 1972. By then national bodies had become officially concerned with the preservation of St Peter’s, and local people were organising various functions.

My association with Wolfhampcote finally ceased in the early 1970s when we migrated to Australia, other than a few people who have contacted me over the years with genealogical questions about their ancestors. Since then my association with St Peter’s church and Wolfhampcote has been limited to occasional correspondence with a handful of people who have contacted me mainly about their family histories – although I do check the website occasionally to keep up with the news.

In 2014 I was sent details about the proposal for a service in St Peter’s. Here was my response:
“It is heartening nowadays to receive news of the occasional church services in Wolfhampcote (which I cannot attend because I’m thousands of miles away), and I have a great respect for those in the parish who are organising events to preserve this irreplaceable example of our English heritage. Thousands of people scattered throughout the world carry the genes of ancestors who lived, worked and died in this village and the other hamlets in the parish.” By Edward Reid-Smith (02/05/2014)”.

End Note.

Early in the 21st century I was sorting boxes of my own correspondence and other older collected items, for donation to three archives services in the English Midlands. One of these was the Warwickshire County Records Office with whom I was able to deposit my 1950s correspondence and other items relating to Wolfhampcote and Warwickshire.

The main Wolfhampcote file is CR4169 entitled “Letters and newspaper clippings concerning St. Peter’s church, Wolfhampcote 1950-1953”, and are now available to be seen by anyone interested.

January 2023

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