History of St Helen's Church, Berrick Salome

Researched, photographed and written by local historian Liam Tiller (a fuller account published in Liam Tiller, 'The Restoration of Berrick Salome Church', Oxoniensia, 76, (2011), pp.81-94 is available to download by clicking here.

Please click on the links to view the documents and photographs referred to in the text, using your browser's 'back' button to return to the text.


Berrick became a separate manor when it was split off from the the large royal estate of Bensington (Benson). This happened in the Anglo-Saxon period, but it is not known exactly when. The manor consisted of scattered strips of land in the open fields which had been established before the manor was formed. The tithe payments from these strips of land were then given for the support of Berrick Church. The result was that the parish of Berrick was intermixed with Bensington and also with the part of Ewelme which had been split off from the Anglo-Saxon royal estate at Bensington in the same way.

This arrangement of intermixed parishes lasted right up to enclosure of the open fields in 1863 and resulted in: "an extraordinary district made up of detached portions of Benson, Berrick Salome and Ewelme mingled in such a way that it would be hard or perhaps impossible to parallel in the rest of the map of England" (Grundy, 1933) - click here for a diagram of the parishes ca 1800.

In 1788 Richard Davis of Lewknor was commissioned by Christ Church, Oxford, to prepare a survey and plan of the intermixed areas of Bensington, Berrick Salome and Ewelme to show the strips of land and to which of the three parishes their tithes were due. The College's interest was that it was entitled to receive the tithe payments from Bensington parish.

After enclosure of the open fields, Berrick parish still had a large number of detached portions. The number of these was reduced by an Act in 1882, but there were still some detatched portions shown on the first Ordnance Survey Map in 1887.


The Domesday survey of 1086 records the manor of Berewiche but does not say whether there was a church. The simple south doorway of the church appears to date from the 11th century. The decoration on the font is likewise Romanesque, but there is no other surviving architectural evidence of exactly when the church was built. The dedication of the church to St. Helen, a saint reputedly admired by King Offa of Mercia (757-796), had led some to speculate that there may have been an earlier church at Berrick. If there was such a church, it would probably have been built of wood.

The carved decoration of the font is typical Romaneque work of either the 11th or 12th century. Beaded circles are found in both Anglo-Saxon and Norman decoration. Similar decoration can be seen on the fonts in St. Martin's Church, Canterbury, and at St. Margaret's Church in Lewknor, Oxfordshire. It is surprising that such a high quality font should be found in such a small rural chapel. Perhaps it was moved here from elsewhere (Chalgrove?) when replaced by a later medieval design.

Early in the thirteenth century, some time between 1210 and 1220, a conveyance of land in Chalgrove was witnessed amongst others by Ralph, chaplain of Berewick. This is the first traced documentary reference to Berrick Church. In 1258 another deed records the transfer of land, part of which lay above the chapel of Berewick extending towards Holendene (Hollandtide Bottom). This is the first reference so far found to the actual chapel.

The register of Bishop John Dalderby of Lincoln, in whose diocese Oxfordshire then lay, records in 1319 the arrangements that Thame Abbey, who had been given Chalgrove Church and the attached chapel at Berrick, were required to make for a vicar to serve the parish of Chalgrove. The vicar of Chalgrove was required to find (i.e. pay for) a chaplain at Berrick.


In the 17th century a wave of prosperity led the the building or extension of several farmhouses in the parish including Lower Farm, Grace's Farmhouse and Roke Farmhouse. This period of building activity has been dubbed "The Great Rebuilding". The same period also saw several major changes made to the church.

Five of the six bells in the tower date from the 17th century, including two from 1621 and three from 1692. The bell tower is unusual in being supported by a massive timber frame and in having no direct access from the church. The weatherboarding which covered the tower up to 1890 was replaced by the tiles and shingles seen today. A 19th century account of the church says the tower is reputed to date from the 14th century; however, given that there were only two bells in 1553, this seems doubtful. A more likely date for the tower is the 16th or early 17th century, perhaps replacing an earlier structure. [note added May 2022: since this history was written more work has been done to date the oak frame of the tower confirming that the timbers were felled in 1428-1429 - see here]

The nave roof dates from 1615, as is recorded by a carved and painted plaque on the chancel beam. John Hambelden and Henry Wisse were churchwardens at the time. The Hambelden and Wisse families occur in many local historical sources. A study of Lower Farm by the Oxfordshire Building Record suggests that the Hambeldens, a family of wealthy yeomen, lived there in the 17th century. They probably helped pay for the new church roof.

A photograph taken in 1889 just before the restoration of the church shows that a coved ceiling had been installed, probably in the 18th century. It was removed in 1890, and the fine original roof was repaired.

The gallery at the west end of the nave was erected in 1676. An inscription records the names of John Barrett and William Moare as churchwardens. The Barrett family were related to the Hambelden family by marriage. The circular stairway to the gallery at the west end of the central aisle appears to have blocked the doorway to the tower, which could then only be accessed from the outside.

Dormer windows were inserted into the roof to light the gallery. Dormer windows were built at Warborough Church for the same reason. The Compton census of 1676 records 80 conformists in the parish, so it is doubtful if more seats were needed in the church. The motive may have been to provide accommodation for the church choir and band.

In the restoration of 1890 the front of the gallery was moved westwards and the main beam of the gallery supported on two new corbels carved with the words 'Born of water and of the spirit' from St. John's Gospel.

Three brick windows date from this period, or possibly from slightly earlier. There is a two- light window at the southwest end and a three-light window on the north side of the nave. The three-light window in the south transept includes medieval stone mullions.


In 1889, the Rector, the Revd. George Blamire Brown, engaged Oxford architect Alfred Mardon Mowbray to prepare a restoration scheme for St. Helen's Church. John Buckler's view of 1822 shows a building in good condition.

However, a photograph from the 1860s shows the church's declining state of repair, which by the 1880s led some people to think that it ought to be rebuilt entirely. Instead, the Rector decided on a 'restoration....in a thorough conservative spirit consistent with modern requirements and as economically as possible'.

Inside, in 1889, before restoration, a photograph shows box pews, a coved ceiling, heating stove and a brick floor.

The architect's plan shows the proposals to re-clad the tower and porch and add barge boards to the gables. The chancel walls, which were cracked and leaning outwards, were underpinned and rebuilt. The roof was retiled and a vestry built on the north side.

A new floor was laid, the box pews were adapted to a Victorian style, the ceiling over the nave removed to reveal the fine 17th century roof, and the Norman font moved to the centre of the nave opposite the south door.

Work started in the early summer of 1890 and was complete in time for a reopening service on 15th December 1890. The total cost of the restoration was £699, but only 3.3% of this was raised from parishioners, as most inhabitants worked in farming and were poor. Donations of £497, Church Building Society grants and loans, including a mortgage taken out by the Rector to cover his personal liability for the chancel, made up the total needed.

Apart from the refurbishment of the vestry, and on-going repairs and maintenance, very few major changes have been made the St. Helen's Church, Berrick Salome since 1890.

St_Helens_from_the_South, JPG