Local History Society

 Notes on Old Church, by Peter Ditchfield

Arborfield Tithe Apportionment Map 1839

"Byways in Berkshire and the Cotswolds", by Peter Ditchfield, 1920


In Reading Local Studies Library there is an old note-book from the Rev. Peter Ditchfield, Rector of Barkham for over 40 years, and also a well-known local historian, who died in 1930.

The notes seem to have been used for a Berkshire Archaeological Society field-trip, at a date unknown, but probably several years before 1922, since it seems that Beatrice Simonds had access to them for her History written on behalf of the Women's Institute in that year. The note-book also contains information about Wokingham's history, including extensive quotations in Latin.

Here is the main text from the notes on Arborfield. He begins by quoting from a poem by Charles Dickens.

If you wish to read the notes in Peter's own hand, follow this link: Facsimile of Note-Book.


I have put together a few notes which I have collected from various sources upon the history of this old village Church of Arborfield. A little explanation is certainly necessary to enable us to build again in imagination the edifice which once stood here.

The destructive hand of Time has been laid heavily on the old Church of Arborfield, and however much the artistic eye may be gratified by the sight of

“the Ivy green,
That creepeth o’er ruins old”,

the Archaeologist can but lament over the destruction of many interesting features, which used to mark this ancient building. As far as I can gather, very little has been written about its history; Mrs. Simonds, the daughter of the late Rector of Arborfield, Sir John Hayes, and Sir John Conroy, have very kindly furnished me with some information with regard to its recent history, and I have been able hurriedly to gather a few other details which may be interesting to our Society.

I have never heard a satisfying derivation of the name ‘Arborfield’, and venture to suggest the following. The name appears in ancient manuscripts in the form ‘Eberfield’. The meaning of the termination ‘field’ or ‘feld’ is easy enough; it signifies a clearing where trees were felled, and the ground prepared for agriculture. The Great Forest of Windsor extended all over this country, and these villages of Shinfield, Arborfield & Swallowfield which we are visiting today mark the spots where the early Saxon settlers made their clearings. The first part of the word is more difficult, but I take it to mean “boar” (Saxon ‘afer’, which we find also in ‘Eversley’) so that the name means ‘the clearing where the wild boars abounded’, and no doubt caused much trouble to our Saxon forefathers when they were planting their corn by the banks of the Loddon long before William and his hungry followers came to eat up their inheritance. Arborfield is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey, although Barkham, Swallowfield & Hurst all appear in that famous chronicle.

The old Church, the ruins of which you have come to visit, was built in the year 1256 in the reign of Henry III, about the same year as the Church of Swallowfield, and was attached to the ancient and far-reaching parish of Sonning. It was dedicated to St. Bartholomew. It was a chalk and flint structure, the tower at the West end being carried on 4 wooden posts, and containing 5 bells which have been removed to the new Church. The Chancel was 9 ft. x 21, the nave 58 ft. long by 28 ft. Two windows on the South side with a door in the centre of the wall.

The porch (which looks so venerable) is a modern structure, and was erected together with a part of West End Wall in 1863, when the New Church was consecrated & the old one demolished. Part was built by Sir Edward Conroy, the father of Sir John Conroy. There are two aisles, one containing tablets to the memory of some members of the Conroy family, and the other is in possession of the Hargreaves family, containing the Standen tombs, of which we shall speak again. The two chapels were divided by a wall in 1863.

Evidently some addition was made to the Church in 1631 (possibly the Standen Chapel built), as a beam with that date recorded on it was found and placed over the entrance to the Conroy Chapel in 1863. The door also is very old with its heavy iron-winged hinges extending the entire width of the door.

If we could cut away some of this ivy we should find, near where the old pulpit stood, a piscine made of sandstone, unornamented ?Stoop (wrong place – a hole in bottom). A credence table was fixed to the wall on the south of the Chancel, &* the remains of 3 stone seats, or ‘sedilia’, have been discovered. Sir John Conroy found some encaustic tiles of red colour with pattern of circles & a flower shaped ornament in the centre. The old font was of wood & is preserved at the Hall by Mrs. Hargreaves together with a curious old leaden Chalice & Paten, and old Bible.

There is (among the ivy) a square recess below the window in the South, which is probably an ‘ammbly’ [?] to contain the sacred vessels used in the Eucharistic service. The roof of the old Church was considered unsafe in 1863, so it was pulled down, and the church became the ruin which you now behold.

But the most interesting feature of the old church was the Mural Paintings. The walls were covered with plaster and whitewash, and their existence was only discovered when the roof was taken off. I am indebted to Sir John Conroy for all information concerning them, as all traces of colour have almost entirely disappeared. He states that with the exception of the West wall, which had been the wall of the tower, all the masonry bore traces of having been painted in fresco.

On the East wall there were 3 painted figures (3 ½ ft. high). Each figure under a painted canopy. The one nearest the window represented an ecclesiastic, & was much injured by being exposed to the weather. A mitre was distinguishable of a low triangular shape, and yellowish stripes representing a pall were discernable. Under the middle canopy there were 2 figures, a woman and a child about 14 years old dressed in brown draping. The 3rd figure was an ecclesiastic. Above the figures the wall had been painted with reddish brown paint to represent stones, with a little ornament in the centre of each stone. There were similar paintings on the North side of the window.

On the North & South walls there were remains of painted drapery of the same colour, 2 ft. wide, commencing about 2 ½ ft. from the ground (not like modern dado) & above this strip of colour some geometrical pattern was painted. All the woodwork of the roof was also painted. It is a sad pity that all this beautiful work should have perished absolutely.

Some brass tablets remain, but rain and frost will soon render them indecipherable:

1.                    “O blessed are the dead which dye in the Lord. Here lyeth the body of Thomas Haward, Gent, with Anne his wife, and Frances there onely child who was married to William Thorold, Esq., & had issue by him 7 sones & 7 daughters. This Thomas Haward dipted ye 24th of November A.D. 1643.”

2.                    “The Revd. Henry Hodgkinson M.A. 12 years Rector of this Parish. Died 20 August 1839 aged 86 years. His ways were ways of pleasantness, & all his paths were peace. Prov. 3rd Chapt. 17 v.”

3.                    To wife of the former Rector: “It is most earnestly requested that no one will ever remove the ashes deposited in this grave of the wife of Revd. H. Hodgkinson M.A. Rector of this Parish, only daughter of George & Anne Courtup, of Reading, who departed this life with her infant son Feb. 18, 1804 in the 29th year of her age, & 2nd of her marriage”. 

“A high tho absent claim, he died a tear
Forgive the wish that would have kept you here”.

In the Churchyard there is the tomb of Richard Hayes, 42 years Rector of the Parish, who died March 17th 1797 aged 76 years. He was no relation to the Revd. Sir John Hayes, Bart., who was so long the respected Rector of this Parish & who died a few years ago, the father of the late Mrs. John Simonds of Newlands, in his 91st year. There are monuments of the Toogood family. You will notice on the North side an immense yew tree which is probably 500 years old, & is a commemorative tree planted when this old church was consecrated. Some tombs of the ancestors of the Simonds family lie beneath its shade.

In the Hargreaves Chapel there is a fine tomb of William Standen, Lord of the Manor of Arborfield, who died in 1639. He married Maria the daughter of Samuel Backhouse of Swallowfield, & their child is also buried in this vault. [Cue to point to the wall tablet? – both tomb and tablet are now in the new Church] This tablet is to the memory of Edward Standen, the last heir of the Standen family who died a Bachelor in the year 1730. He was hero the poet Gay’s facetious poem “Molly Mogg”, the daughter of the landlord of the Rose Inn in Wokingham, which Pope & Arbuthnot Gay used to frequent. The Manor then passed into the hands of the heir Richard Aldworth, the father of the earl of Braybrooke, and then to the Reeves family, and Pelsant Reeve, who married Jane Mason, died in 1761 (monument moved to new Church). Their son John Reeves died in 1814, and the estate passed into the hand of a Mr. Dawson who married the heiress Elmira Reeves, & died in 1832. Mr. Dawson pulled down the old Arborfield House, so often mentioned by Miss Mitford in her book, & partly built the present Arborfield Hall. He made extensive Paper Mills, which were burnt down, but the powerful water wheels are still in working order. Sir George Russell is the present Lord of the Manor, and the estate was purchased by Mr. Hargreaves who enlarged the Hall.

I may mention that before the Standens, the Bulloke or Bullock family held the Manor; there is an interesting deed of bequest to Parish of Barkham, contained in an old Register Book, 1594, from Thomas Bullock of Arborfield. Several Bullocks held the office of Sheriff of the County in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries. One of them is called in the pedigree the celebrated “Hugh with the Brazen Hand” who appears to have lived here in early times, though what he was famous for, or why he earned such a strange epithet, I have not been able to discover.

The monuments of the Conroy family are all modern (Irish family). Sir Edward Conroy was the Keeper of the Privy Purse for the Duchess of Kent, the mother of our late Queen. In the Grange there was the earliest portrait of Queen Victoria ever painted, taken when she was 5 or 6 years old, a valuable and interesting portrait. The old Register books of the Parish were destroyed by fire.

I hope I have not detained you too long among these ancient ruins, but time so spent is not mis-spent. 

“We never tread upon them, but we set
our foot upon some rev’rend history,
and questionless, here in this open court,
which now lies naked to the injuries
of stormy weather, some lie interr’d.
Loved the Church so well, and gave so largely to ‘t.
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till doomsday; but all things have an end,
Churches & cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have”.

[This is more or less a straight quotation from John Webster (1580?–1634) “The Duchess of Malfi”]

[end of Notes]

Facsimile of Note-Book - including additional notes that are difficult to decipher.

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