A Short Guide to the Church of St Mary the Virgin
by Gordon Watkinson 1884
To the passing motorist it might appear strange for a church to be in such an isolated place. It would be natural to wonder where the people would come from to necessitate the presence here of a church. Present appearances belie the importance of what was in the past a thriving community. If one looks at the fields in the vicinity of the church it will soon be appreciated from the remaining earthworks that, at one time, there were very many more houses in the area to provide a congregation. Moreover, the church supplied the spiritual needs of a far wider area than is immediately apparent, including those of the village of Huntington some 2miles distant. The antiquity of the area can be judged by the extensive remains of the moated site opposite the church. The moat probably surrounded a cattle stockade and gave a measure of protection to an early medieval house.
There has been a church on this site for nearly 1,000 years, and the name of the township which adjoins the church to the south is derived from the church and its surroundings. The present name of this township is Churton Heath, which is a corruption of the English translation of the lower Latin “Capella Super Bruerum” which means Churton on Heath. An intermediate name appears in 17th and 18th century documents, i.e Chirchenheath. Thus it will be noted that there is no connection between this township and the village of Churton some 2miles to the south.
Although the present building is essentially Norman, there is evidence that some original Saxon stonework was used in the Norman rebuilding of the 12th century. It was quite normal for existing Saxon churches to be modified in this way to Norman tastes. The earliest mention of the church in surviving records dates from the mid 1100s. The Chartulary of St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester records that William de Monalt “held the church under the monks” while Ralph was Abbot of the Abbey.
It would appear that Bruera parish was originally self-governing, but that sometime in the 12th century the Bishop of Coventry gave the living of the parish to the vicar of St Oswald’s in Chester to increase his support. He also gave the vicar 40 shillings per annum, an ox-gang in the township of Bruera together with a large garden, a house in Parsons Lane in Chester and an annual supply of clerical gowns. In return for these concessions the vicar was expected to supply a chaplain for Bruera Chapel, who was also to minister three days a week at Boughton Chapel. Although the parishioners achieved independence from St Oswald’s by a “Chapter Act” in 1672, which was later upheld by an ecclesiastical trial at York, they continued in effect to be annexed to St Oswald’s. Despite their continual protests the parishioners were tended by a series of frequently absent and often changing curates. Full independence was achieved in 1869 and the parish appointed its first vicar. The living was in part derived from 18 acres of glebe-land around the church, together with the rents from property belonging to the parish. The residence of the vicar lay in the near-by village of Saighton, a house which had been used for some years by one of the longest-serving curates, the Rev. John Webster.
The church is quite small when one considers the size of the parish. The nave is just 40 feet long and the chancel less than 20 feet. The walls are four feet thick and well out of plumb; consequently they have been supported by huge buttresses. It has, however, been suggested that the misalignment of the walls was intentional, and followed the traditional nave shape of an upturned boat.
Construction followed the plain building typical of the Norman period with the exception of the chancel arch which is of rather fine work. Whereas most of the work is of plain unornamented Norman pillars and arches, the chancel arch is decorated with good examples of later Norman style.
Since the original building was placed on the site, it has suffered from alternating periods of decay and reconstruction. When the time came for major repair or reconstruction, such works were usually carried out in the building fashion of the day, so that it is possible by this means to date many of the alterations which were made to the original structure.
The first of these alterations occurred during the 12th century when the Normans rebuilt the Saxon building using many of the original stones in the process. By the 14th century there was, again, a need for major rebuilding. The work carried out at this time resulted in nearly all the windows being remodelled and the rounded south doorway being rebuilt in the current pointed Gothic style, but using 12th century chevron marked stones. In the 15th century the south chapel was added to the main building. The actual joining of he chapel to the nave was accomplished by using an obtuse pointed arch on octagonal ornamental piers. The chapel contains the Cunliffe family sealed vault. Soon after this addition it became necessary to support the west wall of the nave with huge buttresses, and the wooden bell cot was added about the same time. The present bell was given by the Calverley family in 1563, and is still used to call parishioners to worship.
There followed a couple of centuries of decay interspersed with remedial work in an effort to keep the church in usable condition. However it proved to be a losing battle which continually drained the parish finances, partly because the parish also had to contribute to the up-keep of St Oswald’s church. Indeed, so bad had the condition of the church become by the late 19th century that plans were laid to build a new church in Saighton village which, with the reduction of housing stock in Bruera, had become the main centre of population.
Eventually, through the generosity of the first Duke of Westminster, it was decided to carry out a complete restoration of St Mary’s church. The work started in July 1895 and was completed by July 1896. The scheme, which was eventually to cost £5,500, was designed and supervised by Walter Boden, the Diocesan Surveyor and also a parishioner. The work necessarily resulted in the loss of many of the ancient features of the building. One major change came about with the removal of the gallery which had been erected in1789. This addition had originally been made to accommodate a greatly increased congregation which had flocked to the church in response to the preaching of Rev. Philip Oliver. In all it provided 30 extra seats, some of which were “free from charge” for the poor of the parish. At the same time the ancient box pews were removed, the bell cot raised in height and most of the windows remodelled yet again, resulting in the present lack of ancient stained glass. The south doorway was protected by the erection of a porch.
Since the massive reconstruction of 1895 there have been many additional alterations to meet the needs of succeeding generations of parishioners. The most obvious additions are the Lych Gate which was erected in 1929 in memory of Sibell Mary, Countess of Grosvenor, and the vestry which dates from 1968, having been erected in memory of Gerald, Fourth Duke of Westminster. The vestry was the final answer the problem of lack of space which had caused inconvenience to successive curates and vicars. When the vestry was added it was decided to move the organ, which dates from 1899, from its position in the side chapel to occupy part of the new extension. A new keyboard console was installed at the same time.
The Church Interior
When you enter the church by the south door you are immediately impressed by the simple beauty and peace which exists within these walls. It is easy to imagine the vast numbers of people who have been here before you during the last thousand years.
On the south wall hangs a large painted oak panel bearing the arms of Charles II;; to the right of this is mounted a memorial to Peter Clubbe who was a very powerful personality during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Proceeding towards the altar you come next to the South Chapel which contains the sealed vault of the Cunliffe family. This family owned most of the land in Saighton township from the mid 18th to mid 19th century. The estate, amounting to over 1100 acres, was acquired over a period of 50years, initially by Sir Ellis Cunliffe, MP for Liverpool, and later by other members of the family. Sir Ellis is reputed to have lived at Saighton Hall but eventually moved his seat to Acton Park in Wrexham. The Grosvenor family bought the estate in 1849. The memorials in this chapel were sculpted by Joseph Nollekens RA, 1737-1823.
The large iron-bound chest was the ancient home of parish records and registers, though these are now to be found in the County Records Office. The font is situated in the corner of the chapel; it was moved here from the west wall of the nave, and was described by the then Rural Dean in 1934 as “peculiar”, a description he also used about the lectern. The stone topped altar table, which has been transferred from the chancel, is flanked by two Jacobean chairs. Note the obtuse pointed arch which links the chapel to the nave.
To the right of the chapel is the lectern which dates from 1887, while on the left is the pulpit placed here in 1947 in memory of a former vicar, the Rev. Hugh Doig.
The arch was renovated in 1896, but the south side still retains the fine, original Norman carvings. The three semi-circular columns which support the arch are decorated with typical Norman ornamentation consisting of grotesque heads at the top (which one noted antiquarian claimed represented the Norse gods Woden, Thor and Freya) and eagles beaks at intervals down their lengths.
The north side of the arch was extensively destroyed during a fitting of a pulpit in 1887 and therefore does not have the same degree of ornamentation. There are also signs of fixing points for a previous chancel screen, which was fitted over the black Irish marble step.
On the east wall of the chancel at either side of the altar are two stone brackets with well carved heads. The altar was given in 1968 by Major and Mrs Davies-Colley in memory of his parents, Ralph and Gertrude Davies-Colley. The south wall of the chancel contains a simple cupboard in which the communion vessels were kept. Note also the memorial windows in the chancel.
The north and west walls of the nave contain various memorials in stone and glass to the war dead of the parish, members of the Colley and Denton families, and faithful servants of the church. The large square window was erected in the late 19th century to the memory of Dr Denton of Newbold Lodge who was renowned through-out the area for giving free medical treatment on Sundays to anyone who came to his home. In fact people came from as far away as Liverpool and Manchester. Note also, the memorial to James Dutton, grandfather of the present churchwarden, Patrick Dutton, who was himself churchwarden from 1899-1945. The two small windows at the west end of the north wall date from 1887, and indicate the position of a small vestry which was created by enclosing the small area beneath the gallery steps. The painted board on the west wall gives information about the two charitable endowments which existed in the parish.