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08/07/2015 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, genealogy and family history, households and the domestic environment, Italian Peninsula, landscapes and pilgrimage, Mediterranean, Other, Parish Research Today, Parish sources, preservation and memory, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories, towns and urban environment

When I visit the numerous churches and chapels in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland located south of the Alps, I am always struck by their extraordinary artistic and historical richness. One explanation is the flourishing of devotions and religious art which characterised most Catholic countries after the Council of Trent. This is certainly true especially in the Italian area, to whose cultural sphere the Ticino belonged (even though it fell under Swiss political control in the sixteenth century), but there are other reasons. In fact, a crucial further factor needs to be considered: migration. On the one hand, over the centuries, thousands of people associated with the building trades left their homes in the Lake Lugano region to practice their skills as architects, masons, master builders, stucco workers, stonecutters, sculptors and painters abroad. This phenomenon was generally seasonal and whilst staying in their villages, the artisans helped to build or embellish churches and chapels. On the other hand, many migrants associated with other professions donated substantial parts of their earnings to devotional and charitable purposes.

The migrants’ faith and generosity are still visible in many churches and chapels of these territories, particularly in the Pedemonte region, the Centovalli and in the villages surrounding the town of Locarno. Inhabitants of these places had migrated to different Italian cities – especially Livorno, Florence and Rome – for centuries. Exclusively men, they worked as porters (facchini), coachmen (vetturini), chimney sweeps and food-sellers (rosticcieri), to mention just a few professions. In Livorno and Florence they were even able to obtain the monopoly of the porterage trade.

The following pictures shall help to illustrate the impact of migration as it is still tangible today. (Click the thumbnails to enlarge the images.)

§ Figures 1, 2 and 3 – Chapel of S. Rocco (St Roch, 17th century) in the parish church of S. Maria Assunta (Assumption) in Tegna (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno)

On the balustrade of many chapels, and in one case even on a confessional box, we can often find the inscription “B.D.L”, an acronym which means “Benefattori di Livorno” (“Benefactors of Livorno”). The migrants active in Livorno gathered in groups and used to collect money for their parishes and brotherhoods.

§ Figures 4, 5, 6 and 7 – Chapel in Verscio (1740) (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno); and Our Lady of Montenero in Livorno (14th century)

References to migration and urban experiences also appear in specific devotions. In many churches of this region, even in small chapels deep in the forests, dozen of paintings depicting the Virgin of Montenero can still be found. Here we can see the original painting at Livorno and a very ‘rustic” copy in Verscio. The shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Montenero is located on a hill overlooking Livorno. The Madonna di Montenero, nowadays patron saint of Tuscany, was already widely venerated in seventeenth and eighteen-century century Livorno. In the chapel in Verscio, under the picture of the Virgin Mary and two further saints, we can see details of the port of Livorno (lighthouse and ships).

§ Figures 8, 9 and 10 – Parish church of S. Michele (St Michael) in Palagnedra (bailiwick and pieve of Locarno), Virgin of the Annunciation in Palagnedra (Lorenzo Cresci, altar piece, 1602) and Virgin of the Annunciation in Florence (fresco, 14th century)

A similarly imported devotion concerns the Virgin of the Annunciation of Florence. A copy of the famous and miraculous painting kept in the basilica of the Annunciation in Florence (fig. 8) can still been admired in the parish church of Palagnedra (fig. 9 and 10), a village in the Centovalli, also in the bailiwick of Locarno. This work of art was commissioned by migrants resident in Florence, as recorded in the inscription under the painting.

These are two very good examples of religious and devotional transfers. Further evidence can be found in rural brotherhoods, where migrants followed customs and devotions they had come across in major cities.


Adamoli Davide, Fratelli per l’eternità. Storia delle confraternite nei baliaggi sudalpini in epoca moderna, PhD presented at the Université de Fribourg and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano, April 2014 (forthcoming).

Beard Geoffrey, Stucco and Decorative Plasterwork in Europe, London, Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Damiani Cabrini Laura, Seicento ritrovato: presenze pittoriche “italiane” nella Lombardia svizzera fra Cinquecento e Seicento, Milano, Skira, 1996.

Gambi Lucio (ed.), “Col bastone e la bisaccia per le strade d’Europa: migrazioni stagionali di mestiere nell’arco alpino nei secoli XVI-XVIII: atti di un seminario di studi tenutosi a Bellinzona l’8 e il 9 settembre 1988”, in Bollettino storico della Svizzera italiana, vol. 103, fasc. I-IV, gennaio-dicembre 1991.

Muchembled Robert (ed.), Cultural exchange in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006-2007.

Orelli Chiara, “Migrazione e mestiere: alcuni percorsi di integrazione nelle città lombarde e toscane di “migranti” dalla Svizzera italiana (secoli XVI-XVIII)”, in Meriggi Marco, Pastore Alessandro (ed.), Le regole dei mestieri e delle professioni, secoli XV-XIX, Milano, Franco Angeli, 2001.

Rüsch Elfi, I monumenti d’arte e di storia del Canton Ticino IV, Distretto di Locarno IV (La Verzasca, il Pedemonte, le Centovalli e l’Onsernone, Berna, Società di storia dell’arte in Svizzera SSAS, 2013.

Beyond the Archives

10/20/2014 in British Isles, Parish Research Today, preservation and memory

Wymondham Abbey

I’ve taken a break from the archives: initially to finish writing my thesis and currently to intern at Norwich Cathedral as a parish heritage adviser, a strange feeling after spending the better part of three years traveling to England to spend as much time in archives as I possibly could. Bound by the limitations of studying medieval parish life while based in an American university, I never took for granted my visits to the record offices of England that held the records necessary to write my thesis. When I finally received the funding I needed to remain in England for several months to conduct full-time research, I prioritized the archives, dividing my time between the Norfolk Record Office, TNA, British Library, as well as record offices in Essex, Dorset and Wiltshire—perhaps not the most glamorous type of research according to some but for me an adventure. And yet, I admit that I also longed for human contact—a longing to talk to people about grassroots parish life, to see what I could learn from them that I couldn’t learn from archives. I wanted to spend time not just examining their churches and their documents but also experiencing community life that purported to carry on the same traditions as their medieval predecessors. So, once a week, I arranged to meet with parishioners who were active in the churches I was researching for my thesis on medieval monastic-parochial conflicts. And from there, I ventured into the world of ethnography, seeking to understand how parishioners understood and imagined their medieval past and how their perceptions have influenced how medieval parish history has been passed down to us.

Medieval history and ethnography seem an unlikely combination, yet a combination that can bring new voices into the academic conversation about parish life, past and present. Endeavoring to understand how parishioners understand themselves and their communities’ histories—including the antiquarians and local historians who have written those histories—sheds light on the history that has shaped public and academic perceptions of the English parish church and community. What does the medieval past mean to parishioners today who actively care for and worship in these medieval churches, and how do they identify with that past? I first came to these questions in the second year of my PhD studies as I sought to narrow down my thesis topic, faced with the challenge of deciding how best to approach grassroots medieval religious practice when churchwarden accounts for Norfolk were few and far between. Frustrated with the paucity of documents available in the States to get me started on a topic that would eventually require on-the-ground research, my supervisor suggested a rather unorthodox method of finding my topic: sifting through boxes of his collection of English parish church guidebooks. I spent an entire day sat on the floor of my study, surrounded by these guidebooks, my excitement growing from my realization that these taken-for-granted books provided precisely the human element I was looking for in the English parish church—the belief that these parish communities’ identities had roots in the past, roots in the fabric of their medieval churches, and these present identities were relevant to my historical research of the medieval past. The topic that emerged from this day of guidebook research was the function of conflict in creating parish community identity and collective memory. Beginning with medieval monastic-parochial conflicts and the churches that emerged from parishioners’ success in their riots against monks, I continued with an exploration of antiquarian and current parish histories that point to these conflicts as defining moments for their current building and community. Most rewarding about this research is how it resonates with people today, whether or not they have any knowledge of medieval monastic-parochial life. When I explain my thesis to churchgoers of various denominations in England and the United States, they almost always have a story about conflict over church space and embellishment—whether over the color of the carpet, the type of wood used to build the new altar, or pew cushions. And such conflicts did not entail mere quibbling amongst the decorating committee, but often resulted entire factions leaving the church. Indeed, the relationship between the church building and its community is not only potent but also enduring in grassroots religious life, a relationship that is quite evident in the pamphlets and booklets available in parish churches throughout the UK.

Returning to the ethnographic work I conducted when I was researching my thesis, I have begun to reflect upon what role I might have in shaping parishioners’ corporate conventions when I interview them about the relationship between their medieval and modern past, and am even more curious about this role as I currently assist parishioners in writing historical texts for their guides, not to mention when I choose which information from probate records to transcribe or the details from medieval documents I choose to present in public lectures about local history. Indeed, exploring the different ways parish churches’ medieval pasts are conveyed to the public also brings to the fore the academic’s role in complicating these histories and processes. Exploring a church’s history amongst those who are highly invested in it has allowed me to observe today’s parish communities—their practices as well as their relationships to the space of the church and its history—from the vantage point of the documents that record their medieval past. Whether or not medievalists are aware of this role, when we enter a church for the purposes of observing its medieval space, we cannot help but encounter a living, breathing, active parish church and community, whose everyday practices and experiences influence how we understand and encounter its medieval past. Apropos is Professor Robert Orsi’s study Between Heaven and Earth, in which he explains that scholars of religion explore “a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures together.” In the process, we become entangled in the networks of past and present through regular interactions with parishioners and their church’s history, and we inhabit this religious environment in palpable ways. During my visits to Wymondham’s parish church, I have researched to the sound of children singing during their weekly Noc Noc Club meeting as well as to the sound of the organ playing for an afternoon funeral. I have spent two hours wandering the aisles of the church with the chief steward as he narrated its history in great detail, and once managed to convince the Master Ringer to take me on a tour of the fifteenth-century west bell tower. And on one occasion, after I had explained my project to a churchwarden, he then asked the archivist to distribute details of the medieval conflict to the stewards so that they could explain it in detail during their tours. To be sure, by blending archival research with ethnography and even heritage consultancy, I am not just studying a church’s history and the shaping of that history, but I am, quite unintentionally, becoming a part of that shaping process. Even more, as historians of the parish, our very presence in these places of worship and heritage, and the work that we produce and disseminate, is likewise part of the shaping process of local perceptions of the past.

Kristi Woodward Bain, PhD (Religious Studies/Medieval History, Northwestern University)
Parish Heritage Adviser, Norwich Cathedral

Patterns, Monsters & Mysteries

08/05/2014 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, British Isles, Events, preservation and memory

This new exhibition of contemporary art takes its inspiration from the decorative art of medieval churches in Wales, presenting these patterns and images as digital prints, installation and stained glass.

The sources for these images are patterns and images on ceramic tiles at the former Cistercian abbey church at Strata Florida, patterns on the coving panels of the wooden rood screen at the church at Llananno, and stone grotesques from the exterior of the Church of All Saints, Gresford, one of the finest medieval parish churches in Wales.

An additional exhibition at the same venue is a display of photographs of stained glass form churches in Wales.

Patterns, Monsters & Mysteries:
Images from the edges of medieval art in Wales

Oriel Q
Queen’s Hall Gallery, Narberth
2 August – 6 September 2014
Wednesday – Saturday 10–5

A limited edition booklet with images of the grotesques at Gresford is also available.

Image from the exhibition Patterns, Monsters and Mysteries

Martin Crampin, Llananno Screen I

Image from the exhibition Patterns, Monsters and Mysteries

Martin Crampin, Gresford Grotesque


Avon Dassett Local History Group Launch New WWI Project

07/24/2014 in British Isles, genealogy and family history, households and the domestic environment, preservation and memory

Summer 1914.

Life goes on as normal in the small rural Warwickshire village of Avon Dassett. But the life of the community is about to change for ever.

On August 4 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. But how did the experience of war affect the lives of ordinary citizens across the country?

This Heritage Lottery Funded Project seeks to follow the lives of the residents of Avon Dassett during the first year of the war. It charts the rhythm of daily life – births, marriages, deaths, school, work and leisure – and the extraordinary experiences of a community living through global conflict. We follow the fortunes of some of the Avon Dassett lads who enlisted early in the war.

Subscribe to the blog. Comment on stories that interest you. Add your own photos or stories of your family’s experience of World War I.

William Winthrope Watts, father of Avon Dassett Local History Group Member, Reg Watts enlisted in January 1915. Follow his story on the blog!

William Winthrope Watts, father of Avon Dassett Local History Group Member, Reg Watts enlisted in January 1915. Follow his story on the blog!

Some early modern Gloucestershire bells

05/09/2014 in art and imagery, British Isles, music and drama, Parish Research Today, preservation and memory

In anticipation of our  symposium on ‘Parish Soundscapes’, and having been treated to a preview of the Berkswell Bellringers’ stall, I have been looking into some of the bells of parish churches of my own research area of Gloucestershire. Digging primarily into my favourite local sources, the parish registers, I came across a number of references to bells and the casting of bells.

Bells were, and still are, items of great importance, and symbols of pride and prestige for parish communities. The parishes of Almondsbury, Arlingham, Great Rissington, Lechlade, Quenington, St John the Baptist Gloucester, Standish, and Tytherington all record the casting and repair of their bells in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We might expect to find these events recorded in churchwarden’s accounts, yet they are here too, amongst baptisms, marriages and burials, written, almost as community members, into the histories of these parishes. The type of bell, how much it cost and who cast it are often recorded. At times this serves as a memorial of the great expense parishes were able to meet: in Great Rissington the 1601 treble bell was commissioned from John Charter, a founder in Reading, and paid for by subscription. The names of each of the 112 subscribers are listed, in a kind of who’s who of the parish pious.

Bells’ roles as monuments to the piety, charity, good neighbourliness and good credit of parishioners are also identifiable in the Gloucestershire registers. Arlingham, a parish in the ‘loop’ of the river Severn, had a near full set of bells cast in 1717. These bells were dedicated to the parish, its ideals, its chief inhabitants, God, and the bells’ founder. The pre-1717 bell bore the inscription ‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood.’ The five new bells cast in 1717 bore the following: 2) ‘Abra. Rudhall bell founder. 1717.’, 3) ‘Prosperity to this Parish. A R. 1717.’ 4) ‘Peace & Good Neighbourhood. A.R.1717.’ 5) John Carter & Richard Fryer, churchwardens. 1717.’ 6) ‘Come when I call/ To serve God all. A. R. 1717.’ The bells then symbolised the ideals of devotion, peace, prosperity and good neighbourhood, and served to venerate the memory of their founders and the men who were likely their procurers. As some of the largest and most expensive movable goods parishes might buy, bells were important items of material culture, and as the loudest, most recognisable noises regularly made in the parish, were highly aurally significant. To have one’s name or motto inscribed upon one was then a great source of pride, renewed and repeated with each practice and peal.

Procuring bells was not always as smooth as at Arlingham however. At Almondsbury in 1573 the tenor bell was broken by some over-enthusiastic ringing, and the ensuing three-decade quest for a replacement was written up in the parish register by incumbent vicar John Paul. One William Bewall, of repute ‘the best rynger in the paresh’ gave the offending pull breaking the bell, and bell caster ‘Old Jeffreys’ of Bristol was recruited to produce a new one. His first attempt ‘faylyng in sound’, Jeffreys senior enlisted Jeffreys junior, and together they cast a further bell in 1575, which ‘with hewyng contynued in some good sort unto the yeere 1603 and then with chymyng dyd rend’. Our talented, boisterous ringer William Bewall caused the ‘myshap’ once again. Having been twice disappointed by the Jeffreys’ bells, the parish sent for John Long of Cirencester, on the recommendation of local man, Mr Chester. Cirencester is 35 miles from Almondsbury, no doubt seeming much longer when laden with the largest and heaviest bell in Almondsbury’s peal. Unfortunately John Long was not able to produce a working bell, casting it twice in 1604, ‘both tymes badd to the domage of the paresh’, before Almondsbury gave up on him too. The register notes that Purdy of Bristol, ‘who shold by bargeyn fyrst have cast the tenor… cast the same as he now ys, but nothyng so sweet in sound as he was 40 yeeres before.’ Here we get a sense of the problems of parochial procurement, and the ‘consumer power’ exerted by communities when purchasing large and important items. Finally having found a bell that fitted and worked, albeit not a patch on the old bell, vicar Paul also happily anthropomorphised it into another member of his flock.

Whilst William Bewall may seem to have been particularly unlucky in managing to break two tenor bells in his distinguished bellringing career, in comparison to John Hale of Hartpury, he was remarkably lucky. Practicing ringing one day in 1692 with his group of fellow ringers, John was pulling the 3 bell. Either through a loose component in the headstock, or a particularly mighty tug on his behalf, the bell came loose and was sent crashing down into the ringing chamber, landing on him and killing him. Bewall died amongst his ringing group, perhaps not the worst way to go. Ringing groups were important centres of sociability, particularly among young, boisterous men. In Cirencester in 1794 a ‘Freindly [sic] Society or Ringing Clubb Held at the Black Horse Cirencester’ was set up, in a rather polite formulation, with its own constitution (yet still meeting in a pub 500 yards from the church…). Edward Sherring of Forthampton also died under a bell, but not in the highly sociable act of ringing. In 1788 he was “killed by the falling of a Bell one of which he went up to turn”.

Such campanological misfortune could come from on high as well as the chamber floor. In 1605 the parish of Olveston was beset by a great storm of thunder and lightning. John Paul, the vicar of Almondsbury, recorded in his register that on 28 November 1605 there was

a great thunder clap and fearfull lyghtnyng with a storme of hayle, in which the towre of Olveston church was rent, the steeple covered with lead was sett on fyre under the bowle of the wethercocke, and the steeple consumed, the lead and fyve sweet belles molt, the chauncell burnt, and the body of the church hardly saved.

Whilst John Paul’s narrative is dramatic and engaging, it tells the story of the destruction of the bells with no real gloss or interpretive flourish. Such flourish was provided by ‘P.S.’, a schoolmaster in Olveston, and the acronymical author of Feareful newes of thunder and lightning with the terrible effects thereof, which Almighty God sent on a place called Olvestone, in the county of Glocester the 28. of November last. This 30-page pamphlet contains just three short pages on the lightening, fire and the damage in the parish. The remaining 27 pages are taken up by lengthy providential proselytizing, with the author at pains to unpick the soteriological implications of the storm and damage, and to link it to the recently-foiled Gunpowder Plot. The destruction of the bells is particularly significant. The parishioners were said to love ‘their sweet ring’, of what the author judged ‘very tunenable but often abused bells’. It was this ‘abuse’ that rankled most for P.S. For him the lightning was a clear sign from God. It supposedly destroyed the strongest parts of the church, yet left the weakest standing, showing ‘that strength to him is weakenesse, and weakenesse to him is strength.’ The thunder was too much for the parishioners, as it ‘ cast one hither, another thither, and some downe’, as people scrambled around attempting to save their possessions from a blaze that was now raging on the church roof, dangerously close to neighbouring houses. The bells were melted and destroyed, as the

wrath of God, would no longer suffer to jangle [them] then or ther for their ignorance of God, and his goodnes, or their unthankfulnes, or for any other sin, which was doth the cause of this, and is the cause of all other his judgements.

It was to the great shame of this parish that after this almighty storm and fire, in which luckily nobody was killed, ‘divers lament the death (as it were) of their Belles, but no one there so much as mention, the guilt or punishment of sinne.’ Bells, as important community symbols were here lamented too much. It should have been to their own sins that the parishioners of Olveston turned, in the mind of P.S. Rather than a source of piety and spiritual instruction, as at Arlingham, these bells, for P.S., symbolised ungodliness and spiritual corruption, perhaps hinting at the culture of those enthusiastic young men who met for practices at places like the Black Horse in Cirencester.

Having given a precis of some of the lives of the early modern bells of Gloucestershire, I would be very interested to hear of comparable examples in other counties, particularly given the social and symbolic significance of the bells collated here.


D18/597, Notes relating to manor and parish of Arlingham

P86/1 SP 1/1, Cirencester Ringing Club general register

P120 IN 1/1, Driffield Parish Register

P146 IN 1/3, Forthampton Parish Register

P154/9 IN 1/1, St. John the Baptist, Gloucester, Parish Register

P165 IN 1/1, Hartpury Parish Register

P197 IN 1/2, Lechlade Parish Register

P261 IN 1/2, Quenington Parish Register

P268 IN 1/1, Great Rissington Parish Register

P305 IN 1/3, Standish Parish Register

P344 IN 1/4, Tytherington Parish Register

P.S., Feareful neuues of thunder and lightning with the terrible effects thereof, which Almighty God sent on a place called Oluestone, in the county of Glocester the 28. of Nouember last : hauing prefixt before it, a short discourse, concerning two other admirable accidents that soone after ensued / truely related by P.S. ; and dedicated vnto the Kings Most Excellent Maiestie. (London, 1606)

Green, A., ‘An Almondsbury Parish Register‘, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 78 (1959), pp. 175-179.

Upcoming talk: Kineton Warwickshire churchyard survey

04/18/2014 in archeology and architecture, British Isles, Events, preservation and memory

In a late change to the advertised speaker, David Freke will give an illustrated talk on the results of the Kineton churchyard surveys undertaken by the Kineton and District Local History Group in 2010-12.   Entitled “Kineton Churchyard survey results” , it will be at Kineton Village Hall on Friday 25th April at 7.30, visitors are welcome (£2 at the door, includes refreshments).  The talk will cover methodology, dating masons’ styles, changing fashions in dedications, links with the Parish Burial Register, the uses of data, and “memorialising” in the wider context.

The memorials and burial register data can be found on the Kineton Group’s website

We hope interested members of the My-Parish community may be able to attend.



History and Heritage in a Norfolk Market Town

07/29/2013 in British Isles, Parish sources, preservation and memory, towns and urban environment

(c) Glen Denny @

Wymondham Parish Church of St Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury, commonly known as Wymondham Abbey, from the south (c) Glen Denny @

Wymondham (pronounced Wind-um), a market town and parish 15 kilometres south west of Norwich, has a rich and important history. Home to the Parish Church of St. Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury, commonly known as Wymondham Abbey, as well as the leaders of the 1549 Norfolk Rising, Robert and William Kett, the scene of a devastating fire in 1615, and the site of ‘one of the vilest prisons in England’ which spawned early comprehensive prison reform in the 1780s, Wymondham has a lot of history to preserve and to remember. Just how it does this is remarkable in itself.

Muniment Room poster

Wymondham Parish Records 23/51, ‘Poster advertising the opening of the muniment room, ?1913 (c) Wymondham Abbey, used with kind permission

Whereas most parishes deposited their records with diocesan and subsequently county archives in the mid-twentieth century, Wymondham retained most of its records at the Abbey . A strong archival culture had existed since the early twentieth century, with the opening of the muniment room in 1913. The archive remains today, and many important documents relating to the history of the parish are still held in the picturesque setting of the muniment room. Housed above the north porch of the Abbey and accessed via a spiral staircase, the muniment room contains documents relating to the religious life of the town and parish, as well as much of its civic life in its early modern records. Alongside files, displays and archive boxes is an original parish chest, still used to house parish documents, and replete with its three locks, originally intended for the two churchwardens and vicar.

The Abbey has recently been awarded Heritage Lottery Funding to develop the ‘Abbey Experience’. This project is aimed at strengthening the Abbey’s relationship with the town, and includes funds to create a new reading space for the archives.

23/36 Poster advertising Old English Sports kept as a record of the celebrations in Wymondham for the  Coronation of George V and Queen Mary, 22 June 1911.

WPR 23/36 Poster advertising celebrations in Wymondham for the
Coronation of George V and Queen Mary, 22 June 1911. (c) Wymondham Abbey, used with kind permission.

In addition to its parochial archive in the muniment room, Wymondham retains an independent town archive, housed in the council offices. This archive was established after historically minded residents noticed a local solicitor dumping volumes of old, superfluous documents in a skip. Having been rescued from disposal, these mainly nineteenth century documents were preserved and now form part of the core collection of the town archive.

Much of Wymondham’s material heritage is housed in the Heritage Museum. The building the museum occupies is an old bridewell. The first bridewell, which the current building replaced, was described in 1779 by prison reformer John Howard as the ‘one of the vilest prisons in England’. The bridewell was subsequently rebuilt following Howard’s plans for a ‘new model prison’. The Heritage Museum documents much of Wymondham’s past, including its industrial heritage as once a capital of brushmaking.

Details of the archives and museum can be found at: – Wymondham Abbey Muniments – Wymondham Town Archive – Wymondham Heritage Museum

Meriden Centre of England

06/24/2013 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, British Isles, genealogy and family history, landscapes and pilgrimage, Parish sources, preservation and memory, Region, Uncategorized

Every decade or so Meriden’s traditional claim to be the ‘Centre of England’ is challenged, sometimes by another place like Minworth or Lillington but since 1941 by the Ordnance Survey.  Despite this alternative version being more than 70 years old, a  statement was put out by the OS on 14 June as if a newly discovered fact . An identical claim was also made in 2002 but may be the difference this time is that on the edge of a field near Fenny Drayton,. Leics a 6′ post made from a railway sleeper bears a plaque with the information. Meriden’s claim is  a traditional one based not on exact sciene because in previous centuries exact science was not significant. No one knows when or why precisely this attractive folklore  became accepted but in 1829 a  Warwickshire Gazeteer informed its readers oft Meriden’s status indicating it was of long standing.

For many years I have collected newspaper cuttings from 1905 to 1972 on the theme but the advent of readily accessible newspaper archives on the internet has made my task easier. To date I have about 24 additional statements from 1870s to the present day the majority of which support Meriden’s claims, often dogmatically. Many articles  link the ancient sandstone market Cross on the Green with the precise centre and a letter to the Birmingham Post in the summer of 1898 related how the villagers believed the Cross had been moved to the Green to ensure precision.. We knew the Cross had been moved  from oral testimony by a lady born in the village in 1900 with a long standing family background there. In addition the famous Coventry local historian W.G. Fretton who grew up in Meriden recorded it had been moved in living memory  in a book he published in 1879. The 1829 gazeteer  says it was on the Green by then but I must point out not in its current position. The then main A45 had encroached on the Green bit by bit leaving the Cross very near its edge and in danger of being hit by lorries. It was moved in to its present position in June 1953 just in time for the Coronation celebrations.

Doreen Agutter – Meriden Historian

‘Admirable memoranda’ and ‘memorable Recordes’ in parish registers

01/07/2013 in British Isles, genealogy and family history, officeholding and local government, Parish sources, preservation and memory

Parish registers are some of the most familiar sources for parish historians. Introduced in the 1530s by Thomas Cromwell, they contain records of the baptisms, burials and marriages of parishioners and thus serve as useful genealogical and demographic tools. From information contained with these records, historians have been able to estimate population sizes, fertility rates and mortality rates, and genealogists have been able to trace their ancestry back into the sixteenth century.

But these records are not always just lists of names and dates. Authors of these registers took it upon themselves to record memorable local events alongside the sacraments. In Rowde, Wiltshire the first parish register opens with the a note that therein is contained all the ‘memorable accidents which have or shall happen within the parish’. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, Dr White Kennet, the Bishop of Peterborough, urged local clergy ‘to enter down any notable incident of times and seasons, especially relating to your own parish, and the neighbourhood of it’ when making his visitations. These local chronicles were seen as potentially instructive guides to future generations. William Auerell, clerk of Saint Peter’s, Cornhill, included a sixty line poem on the instructional value of the parish register:

Thus every age and calling,

May heare beehold theyr faces:

Theyr rising and theyr falling,

Theyr endes and wretched cases:

Which glasse weare it well used,

Life should not bee abused.

However, until relatively recently, and perhaps because of the registers’ value as demographic and genealogical sources, these local chronicles have been neglected. The Harleian Society published its early registers ‘to obtain as large a mass of genealogical information as possible in the shortest possible time’, thus leaving out ‘lengthened Annotations’ and other marginalia deemed ‘useless and uninteresting matter’.

There are some wonderfully evocative vignettes included in registers. My own interest is in flooding and other so-called ‘natural disasters’ in early modern Britain. Parish registers (the name for both the book and the person that wrote in the book) were particularly keen on noting down freak meteorological events. Henry Childe, vicar of Arlingham, a parish in a loop of the River Severn in southwestern Gloucestershire recorded the dramatic events of January 20th 1607, the Bristol Channel ‘tsunami’:

manye, about the number of 20, had lost their lives, or, at the least, binne greatly endangered to be pined or starv’d to death. Mr Thomas Yate and his eldest son, Mr Richard Yate, were then hemm’d in upon the Glass Cliffe with the water. I say it is an admirable memorandum, because it exceeded the fludd that was about 46 years before, a foot and a half at the least higher than it was then.

In Welford, an Avonside parish in Warwickshire, the end paper of the earliest surviving register records a flood on July 8th 1588. We read of a flood that was so sudden that ‘John Rennies wife then millward was soe amazed that shee sate still till she was almost drowned’, and was ‘much besides her selfe and so farr amist that shee did not know her owne child when yt was brought unto her’. In Pilton, Somerset, the register tells us of a snow so deep in February 1577 ‘that no man coulde travell wthout daunger of Drowninge therin’. These notes were obviously referred to by future generations, much as William Auerell had hoped: in Long Newnton, Gloucestershire, the Great Storm of 1703 is referred to as the ‘most generall calamitie that ever this nation felt. Neither can we find any paralell of it in our Chronicles’.

Despite the glum tone of this last memorandum, the Long Newnton chronicler was not down for long. In 1704 we hear of ‘this happie yeare [when] This nation had many remarkable occurences of Gods good Providence; in giving good successe and victory to our Armies & Fleetes’. The personal whims of authors could come through in accounts of more local events too. Henry Childe included a verse on his experiences of Arlingham’s seventeenth-century floods:

Thrice have I seen a fearful inundation

Within the space of two and twentie years,

As few of my coate have in al their station;

Which when it comes (as’t will) unto men’s eares

What hart so hard that can abstain from teares?

But woe is mee that I am first to dwell

Where seas, enradge with windes, so proudlie swelle!

God knows who shall survive to see the next,

To be, as I have binne, with feare perplext.

These ‘admirable memoranda’ and ‘memorable Recordes’ give us an interesting, very local perspective on important events in parish life. I would be very interested to hear of any memoranda in the registers of fellow My-Parishioners!


Further reading:

Will Coster, ‘Popular religion and the parish register 1538-1603’, in Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs, and Beat A. Kümin (eds), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester: MUP, 1997), pp. 94-111., pp. 94-111.

Steven Hobbs, ‘‘The abstracts and brief chronicles of the time’: memoranda and annotations in parish registers 1538-1812’, The Local Historian, 38, 2 (May, 2008), pp. 95-110.

Steven Hobbs (ed.), Gleanings from Wiltshire Parish Registers (Chippenham: Wiltshire Record Society, 2010)

W.E. Tate, The Parish Chest; A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England (3rd edn., Chichester: Phillimore, 1983)

Invisible Saints: The British Medieval Wood Sculpture Research Project

12/10/2012 in art and imagery, British Isles, preservation and memory, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change

Invisible Saints

The British Medieval Wood Sculpture Research Project is pleased to announce the launch of Invisible Saints, a web-based project to identify the lost medieval devotional wood sculpture of the British Isles, hosted exclusively at:

The aim of Invisible Saints is to locate, digitally record and document the wooden sculptures that, for over 400 years, were the most familiar and accessible form of devotional imagery and the immediate material interface between laymen and -women of the British Isles and their faith. Rather than suffering near total annihilation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many more of these works than are acknowledged to exist today slipped quietly into other contexts. They survive, largely unrecognised, in institutional and private collections and circulating within the works of art market. This mobility, which defines the post-medieval lifecycles of British devotional wood sculptures and links directly to the experiences of local religion in Britain (especially in parish contexts), is the central focus of the Invisible Saints project.

Site features will include:

  • continuously expanding, searchable database of British devotional wood sculptures, many of them never-before-published, with extensive images/references and full catalogue entries
  • repository of transcribed primary documents pertaining to medieval devotional wood sculpture in the British Isles
  • index of institutions and other sites at which known works are on view to the public
  • showcase for scholarly articles

Patronal image of St Peter in papal regalia, oak, early 15th century, from the collegiate church of St Peter, Wolverhampton.