The Restoration of Austerfield's St Helena Church.
In October 2014, in Great Britain as a whole approximately 980,000 people took part in a Church of England service each week. In total there are 16,000 Anglican Church buildings to upkeep with around 24 closures per year. Most of our rural English country churches are centuries old and very few have congregations large enough to finance the repair of their own buildings. Some parish churches may have as few as a couple of dozen regular attendees and as the size of congregations continues to decline, many churches fall into various states of disrepair each year.
Churches falling into disrepair or disuse are not a new phenomenon. During Medieval times, plague epidemics frequently ravished England and in some cases almost entire villages died out and were subsequently abandoned. The skeletal remains of many churches can be still be found today long after the wood-framed buildings of their lost congregations have rotted back into the earth. Also due to depopulation over the centuries other villages, like Babworth, have shrunk into virtual non-existence with little more than their place-name surviving.
During the 17th century, the church at Scrooby, then dedicated to St James, suffered a rapid decline in the run up to the English Civil Wars. It was a decline which was to last until towards the end of the century.
This prolonged period of disrepair no doubt accounts for the loss of the original parish registers dating to before 1695. It was around that time that St James’s appears to have been rededicated to St Wilfid. The name change perhaps reflects the fact that Catholic King James II had only recently been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and that the angst he had caused the Anglican Church was just too raw to for the name James, no matter how saintly, to be re-endowed upon the newly restored church?
At nearby Austerfield, St Helena’s Church also suffered periods of near dilapidation. The worse of these culminated towards the end of the Victorian era. It seems incredible to imagine that when baby William Bradford was baptized in the church in the spring of 1590, St Helena’s was already over five hundred years old.
Three-hundred-years on from Bradford’s time, apart from being in dire need of major repairs, the little church of St Helena was no longer large enough to accommodate its population which had grown.
St Helena’s Church drawn in 1890.
The general increase in population during the Victorian era was probably due to medical advances coupled with increased accessibility to a much greater range of food. With the coming of the railways food was able to be transported quickly and cheaply between the countryside and the cities. For farmers a much larger market opened up for their own produce while other goods from elsewhere became accessible to them. Therefore the coming of the railway to nearby Bawtry in 1849 helped lead to generally better standards of health for the rural population than perhaps in previous centuries
The renovations to St Helena‘s Church were outlined in some detail in the local newspapers of the time. It was decided to enlarge the tiny church with the addition of an aisle on the north side of the building, a project almost entirely financed by way of a donation of £300 by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in America.
Left - The once hidden archway. Right- The Font. Photographs by Dr Jeremy Bangs.
However, on making progress to take down the exceptionally thickly plastered north wall, to make way for the extension, workmen were surprised to discover that it was hollow and contained some substantial pillars supporting arches. Experts at the time agreed that originally there must have once been a
north aisle to the church and that having fallen in sometime during the 14th Century it was removed and the reclaimed materials reused to make good the’ new‘ north side wall.
Other alterations included a new floor, the removal of the old box pews (dating from 1835) and the removal of the shattered roof with a replacement one in red tile. Various new windows were installed and other necessary repairs carried out that in all cost £2000. At the same time a small parcel of land was purchased as an addition to the crowded burial ground.
It was about this time that the old font top and its lead liner, in which William Bradford had once been baptized, were reunited and set upon a new base. The liner was rescued from being used to water animals nearby,
After being closed for more than a year, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph of Thursday, May 19th, 1898 reported the reopening of St Helena’s with a rousing church service after which the clergy and invited dignitaries, in true English style, joined with the congregation to take tea.
Just recently St Helena’s suffered a leak to its roof near to the alter which needed urgent repair to stop the water ingress from causing lasting damage to wood in the roof and the ancient stone and plaster wall. I am happy to report that three kind Bradford descendants stepped in to donate money towards the repairs, as well as the Pilgrim Fathers UK Origins Association, so that hopefully the church may be enjoyed for many more years to come
Austerfield, St Helena Church today
Newspaper article from 1890's here.