This article came from Chronicle published April 1980. Pages: 4-8



Author: Leslie Brooke


This year sees the 600th anniversary of the commencement of the building of the present church of St John the Baptist, Yeovil. Because of the urgent need for attention to the outside fabric, which in places is in a perilous state, an appeal is launched to raise money for restoration work which, it is estimated, will cost some £100,000. Our own society is contributing the proceeds of our next and third, publication – ‘Bygone Yeovil’ by L.C. Hayward and Leslie Brooke (details elsewhere in this issue) – to this cause, and it is hoped members will help by purchasing copies, not only for themselves, but for friends living away from the town.

The heritage of this, the most ancient building in Yeovil, which Professor Freeman praised so highly as a superb example of the early perpendicular style of architecture, is something which we all, whether resident in Yeovil or not, should seek to preserve for future generations. Much has been done in the past, to ensure the stability of its structure and the following notes are given as part of current research with a view of compiling a much more detailed and complete history of the church than exists to date.

Gifts towards its repair and upkeep appear from the commencement of building onwards; Robert de Sambourne, the rector who is credited with starting its construction, by his will of 1382 left the residue of his goods ‘to be expended by my executors on the work of the church of Jevele begun by me, until it be finished’, and in the following two centuries both records of local wills and the accounts kept by the churchwardens show bequests received towards its upkeep. The ‘ledds’ of the church received considerable attention, as did the bells during the 16th century, the windows, too, accounted for much expenditure particularly following the upheavals if the Reformation.

A large sum was spent in 1575, when not only a new ‘Withercock’ was erected, but over 5 ton of lead, and a large quantity of timber, was purchased for work ‘about the Tower’, while the rest of the church also received attention during the next two or three years.

But it was in the 18th and 19th centuries when the expansion of Yeovil was accelerating, that much alteration and restoration work was undertaken. Two galleries, erected in the church in 1705, were taken down in 1753 at a cost of over £21, and a ringing loft erected, for which £14 was set aside (at least the addition of two noughts to these figures should be made in order to estimate today’s equivalents). In 1784 £87 15s 2d was paid for ceiling the church, and an organ was installed in the same year.

There had been organs in St.John’s from early times and the earliest existing churchwardens’ accounts show various sums paid for mending the bellows, etc. There were at least two organs in the church at the same time in the 16th century – the ‘Great Organ’ stood upon the rood screen, and a ‘little’ organ was in the ‘Jhesus Ile’ in 1578. In 1573 the churchwardens recorded payment of £7 0s 1d to ‘Mr Shaffyngton for mendyng the Organs and for makynge the regalles and to his man’, which suggests that a third, portable, organ was supplied – that is, one which could be carried and played at the same time, and most useful for processions. These organs were banished during the Commonwealth, though there is record of their remains being in the vestry a long time afterwards.

The church was paved in 1787 at a cost of £8 3s 10d, and in 1819 galleries were again erected to accommodate the growing population, these then occupying the whole of the north and south aisles, the choir aisles, and the tower (where the organ was). Access to the chancel (choir) galleries were ‘by two flights of stone steps, outside the building’, these were later removed and ‘two hideous-looking corkscrew wooden staircases were erected inside the church’. The body of the church was also re-pewed in 1837-8.

In 1859, due in the main to the efforts of Churchwarden Thomas Lyon, a major restoration was commenced, and the first task of the Restoration Committee was to restore the chancel; their minutes record that this was done by taking down the two eastern galleries and replacing the existing, chancel pews and adjacent side aisles with new ones. At the same time the churchwardens sold the ‘handsome brass candelabrum of two branches, surmounted by a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak’. Suspended from the ceiling, it was inscribed ‘The Gift of Mr Edward Boucher, Tobacconist, 1724. Richard Rennells, fecit, Bristol.’ The proceeds from this sale were devoted towards providing gas fittings. A memorial to Boucher and his wife, ‘givers of the candlestick’ is on the west wall of the south transept

The walls and piers of the church, which had been covered with white and yellow ochre, were now scraped and cleaned to reveal the original stonework as we see them today. Memorials which had been affixed to the two centre pillars of the church, those to Burton and Seward, were removed to the west wall of the south transept where they are to be seen at the present time. The fine oak roof with its carved bosses which had been plastered and veiled over ‘to prevent draughts’, were once more revealed, the rest of the ‘rough-looking’ galleries were taken down and the stonework repaired, for, as a newspaper report states, ‘the beautiful Hamstone piers, in addition to being covered with white lime and yellow wash, had been cut away in all directions, in order that the carpenters who put up these galleries might prove to the parish how much better wood was than stone, and what better church architects their employers were that were our forefathers’. How well the repair work was carried out is indicated by the present appearance of the interior which shows none of the scars inflicted on those soaring columns in nave and chancel.

The minute book and newspaper reports reveal many other interesting details of what the church was like before the restoration took place. The pulpit, for instance, ‘strode right across the middle aisle, standing upon all fours completely shutting off the view of the church from west to east’, and the ground floor was occupied with box pews ‘lined with faded green baize’, the erection of which had caused the destruction of the moulded bases of the stone piers – these were restored to their original appearance only because ‘one single shaft in an obscure corner retained its mouldings’ and the architect, Mr Shout, was thus enabled to take this as his pattern for restitution.

The east window, as Freeman wrote in 1852, had been barbarously blocked by an incongruous reredos’, which Collinson in his History of Somerset (1791) had described as ‘very handsome’! It certainly did not fit happily into the architectural style of St John’s, though it may have had some affinity with the then existing galleries, pews, and pulpit. It formed, says Collinson, ‘a rich portico supported on each side by four handsome fluted pillars with Corinthian capitals, and a rich entablature. This portico is divided into square compartments with cherubs and roses gilt, and decorated with a transparent glory encircled with clouds’. This was removed and the present reredos installed allowing the full light of the east window to flood into the sanctuary. The cost of the new reredos was ‘not to exceed £70’. It has been intended to fill the panels with the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, with a scriptural sentence, underneath, ‘the letters to be painted on the stone according to a design to be furnished by the architect and the expense thereof not to exceed £15’, but this was never carried out. The niches on either side, too, remained empty until 1897 when statues of the four evangelists were presented by Mrs Elizabeth Harbin in memory of her late husband George Harbin of Newton Surmaville.

The windows of St John’s which hitherto had been filled with ‘dirty-looking and unsightly glass’, were now replaced some with patterns and others with ‘subject’ glass. At their meeting held on 16 December 1862 the restoration committee passed a resolution expressing to Messrs Hardman ‘their great admiration of the artistic skill, correct taste, and great judgement’ which that firm had displayed in the design of the six windows which was then being set up in the church, and it was due to the efforts of ‘the ladies of Yeovil’ that three of those in the Trinity Chapel had been paid for.

Owing to the organ having been placed on the ground floor of the tower, it became necessary to dig a trench around. the western end of the church to protect it from damp, though a short time afterwards the organ was entirely reconstructed and the chamber which houses the present instrument was built in order to accommodate it behind the choir. Below this chamber provision was made for the boiler house to heat the church.

It seems certain that when the church was built it had a north as well as a south porch – a north porch is mentioned in the churchwardens’ accounts for 1584 – this was taken down in 1861 and ‘the materials thereof employed in restoring two adjoining buttresses’, also at the same time a new oak door was provided for ‘the Northern entrance’. Yet another porch, removed the following year, stood over the priests’ door at the south-east of the church, but this could have been erected only a short, while before because it is not shown in a lithograph which appears to date from about 1830-1840.

Also removed was the old vestry which apparently stood on the site of the present one, and the ‘Materials thereof employed in restoring other parts of the Church’. The crypt which for some time had been used by the sexton for storing lumber ‘and its ancient encaustic tiles left to be damaged at will’, was then converted for use as ‘the Vicar’s Robing room and Parish Vestry room’. The floor being retiled, a few of the old tiles were taken up and examined by Mr.Shout, the architect, who described them as ‘the Catherine Wheel, the Royal arms previous to the time of Edward the Third, three lioncels, or lions, on a shield borne by Edward the First, and the arms of William Montague, Earl of Salisbury, being three fusils in fesse on a shield’. The Committee recorded in their minutes their ‘cordial thanks to Mr Thomas Lyon for his great liberality in presenting the stained glass for the crypt windows ‘(which before had been partially blocked up) and the Encaustic Tiles for its floor’.

Tiles, too, replaced the stone paving of the aisles of the church, these were all by Minton, those in the nave being ‘red and black laid diagonally’, the choir tiles ‘of richer colour and set in devices’, while the sanctuary was paved with ‘Minton’s best quality encaustic tiles to the architect’s design and bearing appropriate emblems and devices’. These being, in fact, the ones still in situ now.

New brass standards and ‘branches’ were added to the gas lighting fittings, and new pews provided throughout the church. In referring to the pews which had been in the galleries, the local newspaper commented that they were ‘more like pens for sheep, or stalls for horses than anything else.’

In 1862, also, the south porch was restored ‘according to a design furnished by the Committee’s Architect’, and reference to old prints show that the porch it replaced was rather more plain and, in fact, more in accord with the early Perpendicular style – for at present the ogee arch of the doorway with its crocketed capping, and the curve of the parapet as it joins the centre shaft are divergencies from the somewhat stark grandeur of the rest of the building – though taken on its own, it presents a most attractive appearance. Indeed we must be grateful that the restorers of this period in Yeovil were so careful to ‘restore’ in the true sense of the word, than to impose the neo-gothic style so prevalent in other places during Victoria’s reign. It might be noted here that the porch which was replaced, had a sundial at the apex of the central shaft, probably replacing a cross, either at the time of the Reformation, when in 1578 the churchwardens paid fourpence ‘for sawing doom the crosses that stood upon the battlements of the Church’, or during the Commonwealth under Puriton or Presbyterian influence.

In 1862 mention is made of the undesirability of leaving the churchyard unprotected, ‘but that if the high fence which now surrounds it were to be replaced by a dwarf stone wall, its general effect would be afforded against trespass and desecration’. Eventually, of course, iron railings
placed on the wall and these only disappeared with the request for iron during the 1914-18 war. It might be added that when Vickery`s Sketch of Yeovil was published in 1856, he noted the burial ground ‘is very much occupied with graves, particularly on the south and east sides, persons formerly objecting to be buried on the north side. About 25 years ago the churchyard was enlarged on the north side, at an expense of about £600. The ground is very dry, and on the north side is by no means crowded with graves’. The reference to persons objecting burial on the north side of the church is interesting, since there was a widespread belief that this side was associated with the devil! It used to be the custom at baptisms for the north door of the church to be left open in order that the evil spirit, departing from the infant, would leave the church by this exit – hence passing into the northern part of the churchyard.

The first part of the restoration mainly dealt with here, culminated in two re-opening services being he’d on 8th February 1860, both choral, The morning sermon was preached by the Bishop of the Diocese and that in the afternoon by the Rev.R.Talbot Greaves, Rector of Melcombe Regis. The completion of this part, was also celebrated by the committee giving a supper at the Pall Inn to the workmen employed on the task, the committee ‘expressing their entire approbation of the conduct of the artizans employed and the admirable manner in which they have performed the work assigned to them’. A reported deficiency of £111 10s 4d in the statement of accounts presented to committee, which showed that £2,033 4s had been spent on the work carried out to 20 August 1860, was made up by members of the committee and others.

The remainder of this restoration was completed in 1864 when the organ chamber had been finished and the rebuilt organ installed; meanwhile a memorial window to the Prince Consort had been subscribed for by parishioners and this, showing the main incidents of the life of the patron saint of the church, was placed in position in the west window, a metal scroll beneath bearing the arms of Prince Albert with the inscription: ‘To the Memory of Prince Consort Albert, this Window is set up by the Inhabitatts of Yeovil, 1862’.

Subsequent restoration work saw the installation of a new organ in 1894, presented by Mrs E.M.Mayo in memory of her parents and brother (the old organ was installed in Bradford Abbas church). This organ has since had improvements made in 1904, 1920, and the most recent in 1966.

In 1915 the present vestry was erected, choir screens were installed in 1924 as a memorial to F.Whitmash Mayo, and electric lighting provided in 1925, the gift of Mr J.B.Paynter, of Hendford Manor. When the President of Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society (Sir Mathew Nathan) addressed members on their visit to Yeovil in 1930, he congratulated the vicar and churchwardens on the successful restoration of the roof which, he said, had been carried out at the expense of several thousands of pounds during the last two or three years. About 1927, owing to decay in the beams, there had been a great risk of the roof falling on the congregation during service, but now it had been finished, no greater praise could be given than to say it was not possible to tell that anything had been done at all. Everything had been put back with no discordant features.

With regard to the bells, the church of 1400 seems to have had six which, as noted before, received considerable attention almost every year owing to the constant use to which they were put. Today there is a ring of ten with the addition of a sanctus bell. John Pennington of Exeter recast three of these early bells in 1626 (now numbers nine, eight and six), and Thomas Purdue of Closworth in 1662 the then number one (now the fifth).

It was this bell which caused a certain friction between the bellfounder and the vicar and churchwardens in 1640. In that year Richard Purdue was the plaintiff in a suit-brought against Samuel Seward, the vicar, and Christopher Allombridge and Gregory Reynolds, churchwardens, Purdue said that he had an agreement that the bell would be unhung, loaded upon such cart, plough, or other carriage as should be brought to the west doore of the said Tower’ and deliver 500 lbs of metal for recasting the bell. The following year another agreement was made between him and the succeeding churchwardens, Reynolds, and Thomas Marsh, concerning the carriage of this bell, which, he declared, after the recasting, had been ‘wilfully broken’ by the churchwardens in order to defraud the plaintiff of the money due to him, The story appears in Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries x 354, but unfortunately the outcome is not known.

Two further bells were added to the ring of six in 1768 as a result of a subscription raised by the townsfolk, and two more in 1891. Until 1760 the original six bells, owing to the method of hanging then employed, required any number of ringers from 22 to 25 to ring them. In this
year, however, the six were rehung according to modern usage and only seven ringers were then required to ring, a peal. When, in 1931, the ringing frame was reconstructed and strengthened the bells were rehung on ball bearings.

In concluding this brief survey of some of the previous restoration work to St John’s church acknowledgement is made to the following principal sources of information, in addition to those quoted in the text:

The Account rolls and transcripts of St John the Baptist Church, Yeovil, from 1457 – Originals in Somerset Record Office, Taunton, Transcripts by Andrew Everton and John Goodchild, and from British Museum,

The Minute Book of the Committee for the Management, of the fund raised for restoring St.John’s Church, Yeovil, 1859-1864 – through the courtesy of the Rector, the Rev.H.A.Andrewes Uthwatt.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1824 Pt-II, 17-19.
Daniel Vickery: A Sketch of the Town of Yeovil, 1856.
The Western Flying Post, 14 February 1860 et seq.

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