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 Churches - Old Church References

Arborfield Tithe Apportionment Map 1839

Photos of the old church building, just before it became disused

Notes by Peter Ditchfield for a Berks Archaeological Society field-trip, 1922

Article in Berks Archaeological Journal, 1934

Article on the old church just before removal of Conroy Chapel roof, 1939




References by Historian Leslie North

Leslie North published a History column in the Reading Chronicle over the years. Here are extracts from some articles:

I have received a letter from a correspondent at Shinfield from which I quote: “I understand that the Parochial Church Council propose to level the graves in the churchyard of Arborfield Old Church, and ultimately to pull down the chapel to window level on the grounds that it is a dangerous structure. This is a picturesque relic and deserves a better fate than demolition. Can you not bring your influence to bear to arrest this, so that the chapel (the Standen and Conroy mortuary chapel) can be partly restored and the graveyard maintained?”

Rumours Reach Sarum

Arborfield, like Hatford in western Berkshire, has two churches - one old and one new, and in both the ruined ones, history is faintly sown. Before the flint and stone building of St. Bartholomew, at Arborfield, was erected - probably in the 13th century - there was a wooden chapel here which had itself become ruinous soon after 1200. In 1222 rumours reached the Dean of Sarum that things were far from satisfactory in that part of his diocese over which the vicar of Sonning had a certain ecclesiastical suzerainty. So the prelate journeyed on a visitation to learn on the spot whether the rumours were founded on fact. They were. He discovered that at Arborfield an old priest from Reading in the house of the manor lord, Richard Bullock, who was serving the chapel, was found not to know a complete word either of the Gospel or the Canon of the Mass. The Bullocks ruled in this corner of the great forest for centuries. One
was known as “Hugh of the Brazen Hand.”

Arborfield Old Church

Adverting to my note of last week, the rector of Arborfield has been good enough to supply me with additional information about what is locally proposed for dealing with the churchyard and the Conroy chapel. The worst vandalism since the last war has been the opening of the vaults in the chapel. These have recently been filled in and permanently sealed. The Parish Council will clear the churchyard and the Parochial Church Council have submitted a revised scheme to the diocesan authorities which will not involve demolition of the chapel, except of such parts of the structure
as are considered dangerous. The modified scheme is estimated to cost between £129 to £150, to which subscriptions are invited.

Reading Mercury 27.8.60.

A Sad Story

The aged clerical custodian of the chapel - one is reminded of Keats’ beadsman in “The Eve of St. Agnes” - was forthwith deprived of his holy office, and the vicar of the mother church of Sonning was called to book for his laxity and indifference. It is a sad story, for the old priest was blind as well as infirm and incompetent, and the swine were wont to wander and grub in the sacred precincts. As to the Standen and Conroy chapel, this was restored and re-roofed by Sir John Conroy about a century ago when the roof of the church itself was taken off, leaving the picturesque ruin we know to-day. A fine Standen altar tomb was removed to the new church. What has transpired here during and since the Second World War is perhaps the reason for my correspondent’s misgiving, for vandalism has been rife; monumental slabs have been torn from the chapel walls; only a part of the roof remains intact; and the churchyard is a veritable jungle. I should perhaps add that as long ago as 1937 a sub-committee of the Berkshire Archaeological Society met members of the Parochial Church Council and offered to support any effort that might be made to raise the sum necessary to preserve the ruined church.

Reading Mercury 20.8.60.



Into my temporary possession has come a dilapidated book affording brief but interesting glimpses of Arborfield’s past - the register of baptisms and burials from 1805 until about 1830; kept by an illiterate parish clerk, but bearing the name of the Rev. Henry Hodgkinson - for 42 years rector here, dying 1839 aged 86. How this register came to me I cannot now reveal. It will be returned to the parish charge from which it has strayed; and at a most appropriate time, for this month marks the centenary of Arborfield’s present church of St. Bartholomew.

In this church (transferred from its ruined predecessor near Arborfield Hall) is a memorial to Mr. Hodgkinson and his wife; she died in 1804 in her 29th year, giving birth to a son in the second year of their marriage. What a parish tragedy! We can imagine the sympathy, the condolences, the funeral attended by everybody locally who could attend, from the Squire downwards. The tattered register has an entry concerning “Sarah, wife of Mr. Hennery Hodgkinson. Rector of this parish, Feberary 26.”

Another sad record in 1816, when ten-years-old Daniel May -“killed”-was buried. In 1819, “A Streang traveling woman found dead-aged 35.” Thomas Murrell, “a very old man” and his funeral in 1805: I saw reference to nobody over 90, few were elderly, mostly the deaths were of young people and the very young. Among those “borned” and baptised were several love-children, one or two “base-born.” I noted: “Oct. 29, 1815-William s. of William and Mary Ennis-Travellers they said from Salisbury......the child was born in Bare Wood Sept.18th”

In some instances, trades are mentioned - blacksmith, wheelwright, miller, gardener, paper-maker, carpenter - or simply labourer. Names like Corderoy, Brant, Mattingley, Wyndiatt, Pither, Freemantle, Betteridge, Bint, are repeated often, as of families long established. A special flourish as to the baptisms of the son and daughter of John and Mary Simonds, whose family were resident at Newlands for centuries.

The ancient bells

Still in service at the new church, consecrated in 1863 by Samuel Wilberforce Bishop of Oxford, are the recast ancient bells, two of which date from 1220; bells that have for so long spoken of welcome and farewell, joy and sadness, over the Arborfield countryside. There is stained glass that was made for the old church in the 1780’s by John Rowell, Reading man who kept to his grave the secret of making rich red glass.

The unusual wooden font, carved from the solid and with a pointed cover of oak, has been preserved: so, I understand, has the Victorian hand-organ. Transferred to the new church is the handsome marble and alabaster 17th-century tomb of William Standen and his wife Maria (daughter of the noted Samuel Backhouse of Swallowfield), his effigy recumbent in armour, she is holding a Bible and with at foot a bonneted child.

But there remains only the barest skeleton of the church that, of chalk and flint, arose about 1260; replacing a timber chapel that in 1222 was a tumbled desolation overrun by cattle and pigs, but which had succeeded a Saxon chapel. Doubtless the Bullock family were responsible for these buildings; they were of Saxon origin, and Osmund Bullock, the first recorded in 1190, gave John of Barkham charge. Several of the Bullocks of Arborfield served as sheriffs in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries; one was called, picturesquely, “Hugh with the Brazen Hand.”

Family in dispute

When, in the 16th century, Thomas Bullock sold the manor because of debts (owed in part to the queen), the family opposed the sale strongly, his uncle refusing to hand over the title deeds. They forced Thomas to execute a deed of entail - which he later repudiated, proceeding with the sale. Edmund Standen was the purchaser, but left Thomas in rented occupation. William Bullock took the matter to law but was unsuccessful: defying the Star Chamber, and encouraged by his tenants, he entered into illegal possession of Arborfield. For his contempt of court he was sent to the Fleet prison, remaining several years: at last he gave way, returned to Arborfield - where his youngest daughter was born, a happy consolation.

Thomas Bullock, by the way, willed much to his “well-beloved wife” Agnes on condition that she kept herself “sole and unmarried”: she was to have the upper parlour in the manorhouse, the chamber above, the “jake’s chamber” (lavatory) and two butteries, the old dye-house to be her kitchen; should she not want to stay, Barkham Farm was to be hers.

In bad repair, old St. Bartholomew’s had its roof removed in 1863. The walls, when stripped of plaster, were found to have those painted figures and designs that taught parishioners of things religious when books were either beyond them to read or were not available. A faculty was granted for converting the north aisle into two mortuary chapels, by Thomas Hargreaves of Arborfield House, and Sir John Conroy of Arborfield Grange.

Now even these chapels are ruins, only carved armorial bearings, some defaced heads and monumental slabs indicating original purpose. One inscribed slab declares:
“If God wills, Time cannot destroy us.”
Well, the church has been devastated by time, but what of the people whose bones lie here?

The Conroy chapel was intended to preserve the memories of those of the family who were “the only members for centuries buried out of Ireland.” A tablet to Sir Edward Conroy, Bt., mentions him as “lineal representative of the chiefs of the native Irish sept of O’Maolconroy, Co. Roscommon in the Province of Connaught”: he married a daughter of the Earl of Rosse. Another tribute is to Elizabeth wife of Sir John Conroy, only child and heir of Major-General Fisher of the Royal Engineers, “born 1791 in the Government House in Quebec.....and married by special licence in Dublin Dec. 8. 1808.” bearing six children to him and dying in 1861.

Yet another tells us that in the family vault in the churchyard rest the remains of Sir John Conroy, Kt. and Bt., who, born in 1786 in Caernarvonshire, died at Arborfield Hall in 1851. He was “created a Knight Commander of Hanover by George IV and received many other distinguished honours for his long and faithful services to their royal highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and to the Princess Victoria, who on her accession to the throne created him a peer of Ireland as soon as the state of the peerage of that kingdom would permit.” The tablet was erected by his wife and family.

This Sir John was one who, had his ambitions been realised, would have ruled the country as joint Regent for a time. Equerry to the Duke of Kent, when the duke died he became comptroller of the duchess’s household: his daughter Victoire was one of the few children allowed to play with the young Princess Victoria at Kensington Palace.

Conroy, conceited and ambitious, offended William IV by his attitude as “a kind of prime minister” who joined with the duchess in a plot to force upon Victoria an extension of the Regency and acceptance of Sir John as her private secretary. But Victoria was hostile to the plan, detesting Conroy: King William lived until she attained her majority, much to his personal gratification: as queen, she pensioned off Conroy with £3,000 a year and a baronetcy - but refused him an Irish peerage. Released from the influence of the man alleged to have been her lover, the duchess became a changed and better person. The disappointed Sir John died at Arborfield.

Written in 1963.

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