The History of Cleeton St Mary

St Mary’s Church – A Brief History

This brief history of St Mary’s Church was written by Mr Peter Hewitt and is taken from a booklet titled: 'St Mary’s Church and Parish – Cleeton St Mary'

Eric Mercer has described the church in these terms. ‘It is, perhaps, ironic that Pevsner who appreciated Victorian architecture, dismissed St Mary’s as ‘of now architectural interest’, while Dean Cranage, who was critical of so many 19th century churches, was much impressed by it. Externally, indeed, the building is not outstanding although it is of considerable social and historical interest as part of the most complete complex in Shropshire of church, vicarage, school and almshouses built over a short period by a wealthy incumbent. Internally it is a highly original design, for its West end, wholly enclosing a West tower, is something like a narthex in a Gothic style, with two-centred arches pierced through the East, North and South ends of the West wall of the nave proper. Even the most hardened visitor of parish churches, entering from the South doorway, is quite astonished at wht he sees; and one is tempted to wonder if Pevsner ever went inside. The architect, T. Nicholson of Hereford, is undistinguished, but here, if originality and surprise are elements in architectural and aesthetic merit, he brought off something of a coup.’ The church is furnished with pews, screen, lectern and altar rail supported upon wrought iron, all of a high standard of craftsmanship. Over the altar there is a triple lance window depicting the Crucifixion, above which in a roundel is an angel holding the Shroud of Turin. In the Chancel there are niches for Communion vessels and a Piscina, and a window on the South of the Chancel shows the young Christ as a Carpenter prophetically making a cross. The glass, though not signed, is in the style of the William Morris school. These features again reflect George Pardoe’s High Church philosophy.

The first three years of the life of the Church saw the services being taken by clergy from Bitterley, but from 1881 onwards priests were appointed to the newly formed parish of Cleeton. The first may well have been George Pardoe’s curate, but thereafter the clergy would have been holding the living in their own right. The list of incumbents is given below:

1881 – 1886 Revd Alfred Burd

1886 – 1888 Revd DJ Mackay

1888 – 1899 Revd E Gedge

1899 – 1904 Revd RH Craft

1904 – 1912 Revd F Drake-Backhouse

1912 – 1918 Revd HB Talbot

1918 – 1936 Revd LO Griffiths

1936 – 1946 Revd AG Wiseman

1946 – 1952 Revd EW Sargeantson

1952 – 1964 Revd GS Hewins

1964 – 1976 Revd CWH Storey PhD, CF

1976 – 1982 Revd R Heywood-Waddington

1982 – 1989 Revd J Preece

1989 – 2007 Revd WJ Bromley

2008 – 2010 Revd CG Williams

2010 – 2014 Revd CE Resch

2015-present Revd MH Daborn

The Parish of Cleeton

Before 1876 Cleeton had been part of the parish of Bitterley and had no church of its own. The village of Cleeton is not recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, although its name suggests that there was a Saxon village in existence before the Norman Conquest. There is strong evidence that it was part of the manor of Sherrif’s Ledwyche which was in the parish of Bitterley. The famous Shropshire historian Eyton suggests that Cleeton was a small settlement on the edge of the manor and as far as the Domesday Survey was concerned too small to be assessed separately but included in the parish of Bitterley as a whole.

By the 13th century the parish of Bitterley had within its boundary three manors, Bitterley, Henley, and Sherrif’s Ledwyche (of which only Upper Ledwyche Farm now remains). Ledwyche was recorded in 1216 as being held by John de Ledwyche and in 1526 a new manor of Cleeton was recorded as being held by his son John who had taken the title John de Cleeton. For some years the two manors were assessed together and had to provide ‘one knight’s service for forty days’. Providing a knight’s service was a condition of land tenure imposed by the Norman Kings, and is the basis of the feudal system. It was an onerous service because in addition to providing a trained knight, the manor had also to provide his arms and armour, horses, a troop of foot soldiers and a baggage train.

So long as the only place of worship was the church at Bitterley the people of the manor of Cleeton would have had to go to Bitterley for all important festivals, baptism, marriage and burial. There is on the other hand some evidence that worship of some kind had taken place in the village before the Norman Conquest. Wills and other legal documents of the late 17th century have references to a field called in one case ‘Shrineley’ and in the second ‘Shriveley’: either would suggest that in the Saxon period a field had been used for holding services, the saying of Mass (Holy Communion) and possibly the hearing of confessions by an itinerant priest. This was a common practice where a settlement was at some distance from its parish church. Over the years field names have not remained constant so it is not possible to identify this field. Were it possible, field walking might locate the remnants of a shrine, possibly associated with a well. Another 17th century deed mentions a field ‘a parcel of land St Margaret’s Chapel’. This poses interesting problems as the mother church at Bitterley is dedicated to St Mary so if a chapel had been set up it ought to have had the same dedication. It is known that in the late 14th century the Abbot of Wigmore had acquired the manor of Cleeton in dubious circumstances, and in 1392 he was dispossessed by the King, but it is possible that a chapel was built at this period. It is possible to identify the location but unfortunately it lies behind Cleeton Court where in the 19th century a large pond was built, so any evidence has long since disappeared.

Feudal Times

The early manor and village of Cleeton consisted of a manor house on a moated platform inside a larger enclosure which can still be seen above the ruins of the 14th century manor house. Close by there are the remains of a cluster of house platforms which, according to Trevor Rowley who wrote The Shropshire Landscape and visited the site, is a very fine example of a deserted medieval village. The Lord of the manor would have lived in a house on the moated platform and the villagers in the houses nearby. As was the norm in feudal England the villagers would have farmed strips in the various fields in return for work done for the lord of the manor. They would also have had turn-out (grazing rights) on the common and the right to run their pigs in the woodland. The strip fields can still be seen when light snow lies on them. The woodland, of which there was more than today, was managed and harvested on a rotational basis by the process known as ‘coppicing’ in which trees were cut to encourage the growth of long straight stems which could be used for making hurdles, fencing, baskets and for use in building. After cutting each tree was left for three years and another part of the wood cut; so in this way regular crops of useful wood were produced without cutting down trees. It can be said that our medieval ancestors were more prudent with their management of woodland than we are today. Evidence of this use of the woodland persists in the common name for woodland in the area, namely ‘coppy’.

In 1340 when the rest of England was suffering the ravages of the Plague, the Midlands, including Shropshire was also suffering a severe change of climate and this was accompanied by outbreaks of ‘murrain’, a disease which decimated the cattle. As a result a number of settlements above 600 feet and facing north suffered badly and collapsed, including Abdon, Cold Weston, and Cleeton. The villagers migrated and the lord of the manor was forced to divide the manor into a series of farms, the Manor Farm, the Court Farm, the Goldthorn Farm and the Callow Farm, which pattern has remained as the basis of the village to the present time. It is possible that about this time that the lord of the manor moved his dwelling down to the site of the ruined manor house, while Cleeton Court served as the dower house and the meeting place of the court leet. Cleeton Court was recently surveyed by a building historian, Mrs Madge Moran, who found that it was a ‘medieval timber framed house encapsulated within a stone shell’. The roof structure suggests that the original house was a ‘two bay open hall of unusually fine workmanship’.

Farming and Mining

The soil and climate, which can be very harsh in winter, make the village suitable mainly for marginal farming of a pastoral nature, and to a large extent dependent upon turn-out on the common in winter. Even so, many of the farmers have traditionally needed to follow a second occupation to augment that which they could get from the land. In many cases the second occupation was mining and later quarrying. This pattern of dual occupation has much in common with South Wales in the early days of its mining history. Coal had been mined in short shaft Bell pits, the remains of which can be seen all around. The earliest record of coal mining dates from 1215 when the Abbess of Wigmore was receiving rent for ‘mines on the Clee’, but as the records of the time are not precise one cannot say where the mines were sited since it could be anywhere from Brown Clee to the Magpie. By the 18th century coal and iron were extensively mined on a commercial basis by the Knight family of Downton, around the Cornbrook area. Local men worked in these small mines on a subcontract basis known as the Charter System.. The iron was worked at the furnaces and forges of Bringewood, Charlecotte, Willey and Tilsop. By the end of the 18th century the iron ore was worked out and it was then that the coal mines became more important. Mines were worked up to 1927 when Barn Pit, the last working mine, closed as the result of the collapse of the shaft; fortunately there was no loss of life. In the mid 19th century when coal mining was beginning to decline the quarrying of basalt began as an important industrial activity, and in the heyday of sett making in 1904 over two thousand men and boys were involved.

Church and Chapel

Another similarity with South Wales was the strength of Methodism in the area. In 1823 Methodist missionaries from Darlaston came into South Shropshire and established the Hopton Bank Circuit, from which grew the network of small but active Methodist Chapels, may of which were dependent for their growth on the support of the miners and their families. The 1851 Religious Census showed that they were well attended and providing the spiritual support which the established Church failed to do in areas of industrial growth until later in the 19th century. While there was no Methodist Chapel in Cleeton the villagers had strong connections with Melville Chapel and Hopton Bank Chapel. It is interesting that the Church of England still maintained its social cachet and as men became wealthier, or their status changed, they tended to renew their connection with the established church. This renewed allegiance was not necessarily exclusive and often they would attend both places of worship.

The Pardoe Family

By Peter Hewitt, amended by David Evans

In 1484 the Treasurer at Powis Castle was Thomas ap Adam, a minor Welsh princeling who owed Richard III three knights’ service. However, when Henry Tudor invaded Wales, Thomas decided to throw his lot in with Henry and after the Battle of Bosworth was rewarded with a number of manors in the Welsh Marches including Bitterley and Cleeton bringing with him his priest George Pardoe. In 1542 the will of Thomas Adams was witnessed by George Pardoe and the fact that he was a witness and able to write a legible hand shows that he was a man of position in the Adams house, possibly a bailiff as well as priest.

By the late 17th century the Pardoe family were substantial landowners in their own right; holding the manors of Cleeton and Faintree besides other property at Criddon and, later, at Nash, Ludlow, Stanton Lacy, Purslow and Clunbury. In 1791 Thomas Pardoe of Faintree was High Sheriff of Shropshire and the Pardoes had forged links by marriage with other important county families. They had also started to send their sons to Oxford and Cambridge for university education. Several, including 3 generations of George Pardoes, were ordained and served as rectors or incumbents at Hopton Castle, Stanton Lacy, Hyssington & Sneade as well as parishes much further afield. Others were gentlemen farmers as well as JP’s (magistrates) with at least two Georges appointed Deputy Lieutenants of Shropshire.

In the 1840’s the Reverend George Dansey Pardoe and his wife acquired land surrounding the site of the present church of Cleeton St Mary, reputedly being parts of Callow Gate and Cleeton Gate farms purchased from the coal and iron magnate Beriah Botfield MP of Hopton Court. At this time the mining and quarrying activity on Clee Hill and Catherton Common was at its peak, the local population having rapidly expanded; first from an influx of miners, quarrymen and other workers and then from their growing families. Queen Victoria was by then on the throne and this was a period when some of the landed gentry initiated good works of social improvement for the benefit of their local communities.

George Pardoe of Nash Court, gentleman, BA JP DL and eldest son of Dansey, funded major rebuilding work at Nash chapel near Burford in 1865 in memory of his recently deceased mother-in-law. He then turned his attention to the settlement of Cleeton where he built a school that opened in 1872. He next employed the Hereford architect Thomas Nicholson to design a new church and oversee its construction, with James Page senior and James Page junior (Page and Son) to do the building work. The new church and vicarage opened in 1878, initially as a chapel of ease within Bitterley parish, with a vicar appointed and George as benefactor and patron. According to a tablet below the west window of the church his motivation for these good works lay in his gratitude for recovery from a dangerous illness. In May 1879 royal assent was given for a new Consolidated Chapelry of St Mary’s Cleeton to be established within the parishes of Bitterley, Doddington and Farlow. George went on to build four almshouses opposite the church that were completed in 1883 and endowed by his wife Elizabeth Mary Pardoe.

George and Elizabeth had no children and after George died in 1884, patronage of the church seems to have passed with the Pardoe inheritance: to his widow Elizabeth until 1903, his nephew Reverend George Owen Pardoe until 1911 and then his great nephew Reverend George Southey Pardoe. The monument recording the names of the fallen of World War I above the font in the church is headed by ‘George Southey Pardoe TCF’. He was a Temporary Chaplain to the Forces serving with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine and died in October 1918 at Jerusalem with a grave in the British War Cemetery there. His widow Gertrude, then living in Hertfordshire, was patron until 1920 when she handed over to the Bishop of Hereford. This ended the family’s direct link to the church. Southey’s younger brother Francis was the last of the Pardoe male line. He survived the war as an officer in the Royal Irish Rifles and lived to age 79, but had moved to South Africa.