St Mary's Church dates from the 13th century. It is built of sandstone ashlar with Welsh slate roofs with stone coped gables. It comprises a west tower and spire, aisled nave with south porch and chancel. It was restored between 1927 and 1929 under the supervision of Derby architect Percy Heylin Curry. The church contains the oldest bell in Derbyshire, which was cast in 1366 by John of Stafford. The pipe organ dates from the late 17th century and was originally in Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, and later in Sudbury parish church. A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register.
The village of Marston-on-Dove had sprung up along the banks of the Old River Dove and the site of a road built during the Roman occupation of Britain which linked the established settlements of Tutbury and Swarkestone. Survey maps of Marston in the 18th and early 19th centuries show a much larger village than can be seen today, with many houses close to the banks of the river and even an ale-house within handy reach of the new (now old) Vicarage and the four main farmhouses. The 1851 census disclosed a population of 77, more than double that of today. In the 1850’s the course of the river was altered to run further south to enable the construction of a new railway line, leaving the village of Marston situated further away from the banks of the River Dove than it had previously been.
Hilton was originally a much smaller village than Marston, which explains why the parish church is situated within Marston rather than in Hilton which, nowadays, is much bigger with a population of not far off 10,000 people.
St Mary’s also has an excellently preserved set of churchwardens’ records ranging from 1602 onwards which reveal an intriguing insight into church and community life through the years, however for safekeeping and preservation reasons, the original records are now stored at the County Archive.
The church building
When the Doomsday surveyors came to Marston in 1086, they found a new church and a priest. The church was probably a simple rectangular building in stone with a thatched roof and was built by the priors of Tutbury who held the Manor of Marston under Henry de Ferrers. The only visible remains of this church are the font, which is now situated in the Bell Tower, and the top of a window, used in the building of the North Aisle.
The present Church dates from 1200 when the present chancel was built, with three lancet windows to the north and three lancet windows and a priest's door to the south. This would seem to be an addition to the Saxon Church, which would have been rebuilt at the same time to incorporate a North aisle. Opinions vary as to the date of the arches that separate the north and south aisles from the nave. Dr Charles Cox "Churches of Derbyshire" published in 1877 claims that they were contemporaneous with the chancel. However, it would seem more likely that the twin arch separating the nave and the north aisle is 13th century, but the arches separating the nave from the south aisle were added later.
In 1350 the Church was enlarged with the addition (or possible rebuilding) of a south aisle, the tower and spire, reminiscent of the Early English style, relieved by contemporary windows in the Decorated style. In the 15th century, windows in the Perpendicular style were added to the north aisle. In 1523 a Chantry Chapel was established in the south aisle and around that time a fine stone porch was added.
And so the Church remained, apart from some desecration during the Commonwealth, until 1816. The Chancel, which was described in the "Mediaeval Ecclesiological Antiquities of Derbyshire" as one of the three finest in the county, was considerable taller than average with a three-light east window matching in style the lancet windows.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a presentment was made to the Bishop to modernise what would have seemed to be an old-fashioned building not representing the wealth of the parish and its inhabitants, many of whom had benefited from large farming profits over many years. And with the growth in the population of Hilton, more seats were required.
By 1816 the works were complete and, as Dr Cox said, "Much havoc was made with this once-fine Church." The chancel arch was pulled down, a flat plaster ceiling given to the nave and chancel and the church re-pewed throughout, a "three-decker” pulpit provided for minister and clerk, a heavy western gallery erected and a debased east window inserted. The alterations also included the removal of the stone porch and the erection of one of brick. In 1830 a north gallery to provide 96 raised seats was erected with two windows inserted to provide light, and a porch added to the west of the north aisle to provide a staircase to give access to it.
Fashions change, and between 1927-29 the church was sympathetically restored to better reflect its medieval origins. The flat plaster ceilings were removed, the walls of both the chancel and the aisles were raised, the galleries were demolished and the plaster removed from the walls. In the course of restoration, three aumbrys and a piscina were revealed and restored. A stone altar table was provided and a vestry made at the east of the chancel with the erection of a reredos screen. The east window was removed and replaced by a new taller one. Later, the church was again re-pewed and a new pulpit and lectern were provided. A new stone porch to the south was built as much in the style of the original one as possible.
For a church as old as St Mary's it is perhaps unusual that there are no monuments and few memorials. One would expect at least some monuments or memorials to Lords of the Manor and perhaps Patrons, but most of the time these persons were absentees. Henry de Ferrers and his descendants held the Manor until 1266 when the Ferrers Estates were confiscated and held by the Crown. The land remained crown property until 1558 when Queen Elizabeth I granted Marston and Doveridge (and other lands) to Sir William Cavendish, whose descendants the Earls and Dukes of Devonshire held until 1919 when the manor passed to the Spurrier family who had been living in the parish since the latter part of the 16th century. There are memorials to members of the Woolley family who held land at Hatton and were a cadet branch of the Woolleys of Riber Hall. Other than these there is nothing of significance.
The most notable decoration is the large painting above the chancel arch which is attributed to Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) and is described in Dr. Waagen's" Treasures of Great Britain" (1857) when it was owned by Earl Cowper. There is an identical painting on public view in Venice. Our painting may be a contemporary studio copy, or it may be an 18th century copy, contemporaneous with its fine frame. The painting on the wall of the south aisle is of an unknown subject by an unknown artist.
More recent gifts are the wrought-iron and glass screen between the nave and the bell tower, the fine wooden cross and candlesticks on the side chapel altar and tapestry kneelers in the sanctuary.
Until 1827 there was no organ. A small orchestra of brass, woodwind and string instruments provided music. The present organ was bought from Lord Vernon of Sudbury. It is an early 17th century instrument and is almost certainly the choir organ of a much larger instrument. Only the top of the case and the pipes are original; the remainder of the case is made from 17th century domestic furniture. There is only one 4 octave manual, with pedals tied to the manual, and six stops. Despite its simplicity it is of excellent tonal quality and it is believed that it was used by George Handel to teach the Vernon children to play, when he was staying at Sudbury.
Although there are only four bells, with room for two more, the bells are of some antiquity. The Treble is not dated but is attributed to John de Stafford since it is very similar to his 1366 tenor bell at All Saint's Leicester. The other bells are: 1621 by Henry Oldfield, 1654 by George Oldfield and 1756, the date when it was re-cast, by Thomas Hedderley. This particular bell was re-cast again in 1896.
In the 17th century the parish paid 4 shillings a year to have the bells rung. A hundred years later this had increased to the same sum for one days ringing for special occasions, such as the anniversary of the King's coronation. In 1774 the ringers demanded their fee in ale, which cost 8 shillings.
The bells were re-hung in 1896 on metal beams by Taylor of Loughborough following enthusiastic fund-raising at the very first "Marston Fete".
In order to meet the needs of a growing parish, the schoolroom to the rear of the church, which was built in 1780 and enlarged in 1880, underwent a further renovation in 1997. New electrics, new windows and all new internal plasterwork were added to make the Schoolroom suitable for modern usage. A second stage of the project, completed in 1998, saw the kitchen installed and the toilet block added.
The Schoolroom has hosted a variety of concerts, festivals, exhibitions and meetings. It is also used by school groups visiting the church. The 'Good News Crew' (our Sunday School club for young people) meet regularly on the premises. The landscaping of an area behind the Schoolroom has also added an outdoor space for activities and relaxation.