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History of Ashby
part 4: St. Mary's Church


The church is impressive for its simple antiquity and draws an increasing number of visitors every year in spite of its isolated position in the middle of the fields. This 'barn church', with its nave having a very old single-framed roof and collar, goes

back some three centuries. The roof has timbers which follow the shape of the branches from which they were cut, and is thatched. The nave beams are exposed beams underside and carrying the thatch, while the underside of the Chancel is boarded. The main right of way is through Manor Hall Farm, but there are three other routes, one from Beech Farm, originally a track for vehicles but now designated a footpath, another from Lound called Snake Lane, rough but useable by vehicles, and the fourth from Kitty's Farm and Somerleyton Hall. All four intersect just below the church, a medieval junction.

The first thing that will probably impress the visitor is the shape of the Tower - on a round base but for three-quarters of its height, octagonal in its exterior. The Tower is circular inside up to the Belfry sills. It is uncertain whether an original tower fell, or whether the 13th century just saw a change in the exterior construction, which is the more likely, since the inside of the Tower is circular up to the top. In the change of the exterior from round to octagonal, on the existing round base, quoins of early bricks were used. In the round base the early English vestry window was retained. The edges of the octagonal construction are set with continuous layers of interesting tiles, of early date. Belfry lancet windows 7 ft high and 3 ft wide were added, one for each face of the tower, and with a fan vaulted roof made in early 13th century bricks, with eight ribs. It is the only known vaulted roof on an East Anglian tower. This section may be three centuries later than the original octagonal


There are no fillets between the tower and the church and inside the east tower wall is circular over the tower arch, suggesting that both tower and nave were built at the same time, pre-Conquest, though expert opinion seems more or less unanimous that the nave is 13th century. In the south west corner of the nave is a large flint and a piece of sandstone - possibly indicating a Saxon quoin of flint and oddments. The upper doorway built or reframed in the 13th century - the great period of the Inglose

family - contains 13th century bricks and is pointed. On the nave side, the doorway is pointed, with hood mould. There is no coursing in the flintwork outside, but there are again early bricks as there are at the base of the tower in the plinth, but these are later in date. The tower is about 50 ft high, with 2 ft thick and 2 ft high battlements at the corners only.

The thickness of the walls of the tower tapers from 23/4 ft at belfry height to just over 3 ft at the base. The external circle of the tower has a perfect tangent in the nave west wall. The upper doorway framed in the early 13th century with early bricks of that period is 6 ft by 21/2 ft wide and 15 ft above the ground. The nave is 54 ft long and 14 ft wide, the Chancel 29 ft long and 16 ft wide, with a sanctuary area 12 ft from the east wall. The rood steps are to the south with the exterior wall filled in with flint and brick, to bring it into a straight line with the south wall, continuous for nave and chancel. This straightening of the wall at that point probably meant the removal of a 'bulge' at the point where the steps go up - or they had very small thin clergy in those days!

The inside walls of the Nave and chancel are all of plaster, dressed originally with limewash. The roof-line being all in one, the width of the Chancel is 2 ft greater than the Nave. The Chancel may be of 13th century date, with the Nave and round base of the tower pre-Conquest. There are no buttresses, nor porches north and south. There is part of a scratch dial on the left hand jamb of the south door, and two votive crosses, one on each jamb. There are three consecration crosses, two in the nave on opposite walls, and one in the north wall of the Chancel, all in central positions lengthwise. In the centre of the consecraction crosses are incisions into the wall - points at which the rush lights were pushed in, to give light in the darker days.


A medieval will states !1472 Thomas Kees bequeathed to the new bell if they can get it within 4 years" - this was recast in 1859 and inscribed "J. Warner and Sons, London". J.J. Raven in his "Church Bells of Suffolk" (1890) lists the Ashby Bell as having

no inscription; the Returns of 1553 record "Great Bells ii" while Davis writing in 1829 said there was no bell!

Following extensive repairs to the Tower in 1924, widely supported by generous donations and numerous events and by a handsome donation from Lord Somerleyton, there followed in 1957 restoration work on the tower roof and bell chamber. By this time it was

reported that the tower and belfry were leaking badly and were full of rotten and ancient timbers, so that it had become dangerous even to toll the bell. Under expert direction, but mainly through direct labour by Mr. W. Hudson and his assistants, Mr. Ivan Emmerson and Mr. Fred Butcher, mostly in their spare time, the rotten timbers were removed, but even in their decayed state still showed the marks of the handsaw in the oak felled probably in Ashby Wood some 700 years before. Messrs. Dawber and Townsley, the roofing experts, were called in to advise. The above workers laid a thin layer of concrete mixed with waterproof cement. This was covered with wire mesh reinforcement and a further 2 inches of waterproofed concrete applied. This was treated with compound, and a heavy gauge felt covering was cemented all over with a cold mastic.

The bell was dismantled and lowered to the first floor with pulleys fixed precariously to the only 'sound beam'. The old floor joists and the bell cradle were so riddled with rot and woodworm as to be unsafe, so all was removed. A new floor was built.

A steel cradle, welded in sections, and made to bolt to two 12 ft steel girders each weighing about 11/2 cwt. Was made in the Manor Farm workshops, again mostly in spare time. The steel girders were hoisted into the belfry and cemented in place diagonally across the tower, and the cradle bolted in position. Mr. Harry Wilson, estate foreman for three generations of the Crossley family, made a new woodstock for the bell, and after this had been fitted the bell was hoisted and re-hung.


In a book written by Lt. Colonel j. Bake, B.A. entitled "Our Volunteer Army", there is a record of Thomas Moore of Ashby, a Suffolk Yeoman of 1597 and also of a Thomas Moore of 1623. Both were members of the Suffolk Yeomanry which later won honour at the

Battle of Gibraltar in 1793 and were thereafter called the Loyal Suffolk Hussars. This suggests a long tradition of service to King and Country by Ashby people.

To the left of the gate as you enter the churchyard is the memorial stone to the 7 USAAF airmen who were filled nearby in the last war. The first five were of the 100th Bomb Group stationed at Thorpe Abbotts, nicknamed the "Bloody Hundreds". A number of

Flying Fortresses set off on the early morning of May 7th, 1944, for a raid on Berlin. One caught fire before it reached the east coast. Several dozen signal flares in cartridges stored in the top turret compartment, for some unknown reason, started to explode and set on fire the entire front of the plane. Though the top turret gunner tried to put out the flames, the cabin was filled with smoke. Moving to the forward hatch to make his escape he found it blocked by the body of a man whose parachute was outside the plane. Five of the crew escaped through the gun turret while the pilot kept the plane steady, but the remaining five, including the pilot and co-pilot, died in the crash and explosion nearby. Their names were:-

commemorate two men from the American 5th Emergency Squadron based at Halesworth. The second crash occurred on the 8th April 1945 when they collided in two USAAS P47 Thunderbolts over Fritton Lake, whilst either returning from an air-sea rescue mission or just practising aerial maneouvres. One went into the Lake and parts were recovered later from the Lake in 1971 and were exhibited at Fritton Hall, the other crashed in the field opposite White Lodge, fragments being scattered over a wide area.

From the recovery from Fritton Lake, the port wing was presented to the USAAF Museum at Wright Patterson Airforce base, Ohio, where it is on exhibition.

During the 1940 invasion threat, it was reported that the expanse of Fritton Lake was sufficient for up to 70 troop carrying seaplanes to 'land' on the Lake. To prevent this, wire hawsers were fixed across the Lake at approximately 70 yard intervals. In

1942-4 the Lake was requisitioned for the testing of amphibious tanks (Valentines) and crew training. On the south side of the Lake was an underground hide-out in which troops were trained in harassment tactics in case the Germans landed in these parts.

In 1969 while on a midnight hike soon after their troop was formed, some Yarmouth Scouts came upon the USAAF Memorial and the next day the troop band went to Ashby and played the Last Post - a custom which these 5th St. Mary's Sea Scouts have kept up every Remembrance Sunday since, complete with Union Flag, the Scout Flag, and now the Stars and Stripes, subsequent to the recognition of their loyal gesture. The presentation of the Stars and Stripes was made possible in 1978 by Col. Mark R. Richards of the USA Air Force and chief of the community relations division of the Office of Information in Washington D.C. In March 1976 Col. Stephen B. Hinderliter of the 3rd Air Force HQ at Mildenhall visited the troop in St. Mary's Lane to prepare an article for future publication of this special ceremony by the Scouts in the USAAF glossy journal, "The Airman".

To the right of the churchyard path is the Leggett memorial, the story of another tragedy:-

"James Leggett son of John and Hannah Leggett died 24th July 1834 aged 16.

I drove a team the horse was young
To manage him I tried
A bramble cross'd my path, I fell,
The Wheels they prest my side.
I then bid farewell to all my friends and fears
So now dear friends wipe away your streaming tears,
Great were my sufferings time I remained
But the Lord soon eas'd me of my pains.
So now farewellmy tender parents dear
For we shall meet when Christ appear.
Weep not for me I pray
Because I died so young.
The fewer years, the fewer sins
For God's will must be done".

On the outside south wall of the Church is a modern recutting of an old stone:-

"Sarah Sherwood ye wife of John Sherwood who lived together 36 years 8 months 2 weeks. She departed this life May ye 19th 1730 between 1 and 2 o'clock in ye morning in ye 66 year of her age."

The top of the brick chimney stack on the north outside wall was removed in 1950, the stack itself being removed in 1975 and the thatch made good. In 1975 the church was connected to mains electricity, the old oil lamps being preserved, for general effect.


Descending by three steps and entering the church through the chamfered doorway with pointed arch, you will see a square font with faint arcading round the outside, of Norman character apparently of Purbeck marble, on a single shaft, with four supporting carved wooden pillars of the 15rh century and on a raised plinth, though the design of the central column with four disengaged shafts is typical of the 13th century. Traces of holes at opposite corners of the bowl might suggest that at one time there was

a hinged cover with padlock to prevent the superstitious use of the baptismal water. An injunction of Archbishop Edmund in 1236 required that all fonts be covered and locked.

Writing in the local press on October 1st, 1927, Mr. Gerald H. Lawson recorded that Druery in 1824 mentioned that the churchyard had about 8 memorial slabs and the Revd. J.W. Darby in 1832 mentions headstones to Jenner (2), Batchelor, Thorpe, Lee and above Sherwood. In 1927 Lawson mentions 33 such stones but also laments the condition of the churchyard in July of that year - "a veritable wilderness, the grass and hemlock in some places being 4 ft. high; the memorial stones were all buried by this growth - if someone would undertake to keep this hallowed part in order it would be a very good thing, and the beech, elm, and oaks which surround the churchyard form a picturesque setting to it". Mr. Lawson can rest in peace - this is now done - through

the energy of Mr. Arthur Prettyman of Beech Farm and others like Mr. Bertie Butcher of the Lodge, so that not only is the churchyard clean-mowed, but extra trees including chestnut have been planted as part of the Silver Jubilee Celebrations and to fill the gaps caused through trees falling in the two severe gales in the early months of 1975 and 1977.

Inside the church on the wall of the nave is the War Memorial, one of two submitted in 1920 - though Ashby has a small population, it made its proud contribution and sacrifice in the 3 men who gave their lives:-

"To The Glory of God
and in Grateful Memory of
The men of Ashby who fell in the
Great War 1914-1918. AD

"Their names liveth for evermore".

Opposite the entrance to the church and in the North Wall is a doorway, but now blocked up and used as a cupboard. This was sometimes called the "Devil's doorway" to allow the devil to escape after his exorcism at baptism, but more likely to allow for the re-entry of processions and to provide an entrance for the seignory of the parish. To your left, above the tower door, is the blocked-up pre-Reformation Sanctus bell window. At the elevation of the host at mass, the bellringer would pull the bell three times, one at the elevation and one each at the genuflections.

J.L. Clemence's "Lectures on the churches of Lowestoft and Lothingland" (1858-1860) contains a plan of Ashby church with measurements. This plan shows seven slabs in the planum of the Chancel, two of them being the wedge shaped crusaders' slabs, of the 12th century with crosses raised on greses, now near the alter on either side of it. They were probably moved there during the 1880/3 period of restoration. Another slab, also of wedged shape, was at the entrance to the chancel through the screen. It is impossible to identify them, but we could bear in mind those two doughty fighters Henry and Robert Inglose. The Pulphit is shown on the south side of the nave, this side of the eastermost window. In the nave there were shown two more wedged shape stones, and an oblong stone down the centre aisle. In 1865 the church was reseated and repaired with a new pulpit with ogee-headed panels, and a reading desk. Presumably this is the present pulpit on the north side at the chapel step. Six years previously in 1859 the tower and chancel were repaired, an a new east window inserted, the original 13th century east window up till then having been blocked in, at least in part, with masonry. Two of the windows in the Chancel are of the early English lancet type c. 1200 AD, while the others are debased examples of the perpendicular style.

In 1883 there were added the new oak reredos, lectern, oak choir stalls, and oak rails in the sacrarium or sanctuary. Suckling in his "Antiquities of Suffolk", writing c. 1848, refers to "the entire fabric bearing marks of apathy and neglect", but it appears that under Charles Hillyer (whose stone is in the middle of the car park) and Charles John Steward, this was put right with some energy. The chancel was rethatched in 1893. The nave was rethatched in 1929 9n reed, and the cost was met by Savile,

Lord Somerleyton.

At the north-east corner to the left of the altar is a stone shelf on an early English bracket - either a base for a statue (St. Mary?) or for Exposition, or as a credence shelf for the bread and wine though it would appear to be a bit high for that, unless they had a giant server! In the south wall is a simple arched early English piscina with triform head and edging columns, to take away the unused water after the ablutions in the Eucharist. Beside the piscina is a dropped window sill sedilia (seat) for use by the celebrants and ministers during the Eucharist.

The 'Canterbury chair' in the sanctuary was given by Mrs. Gerald Halsey, wife of the rector of Somerleyton (1926-1946) in memory of her father Canon Arthur Fitzgerald Evans. The seating in the nave is of simple (portable) benches with open backs, but there are only poppy heads on the heavy Victorian choir stalls.


An entry in Keyser's "List of Buildings having mural decorations" (1883) has:"Ashby Church Suffolk

i. Last Judgement

ii. St. Catherine

iii. St. William of Norwich

iv. History of St. Wulstan.

All covered with a fresh coat of whitewash".

Early in 1973 Mrs. Eve Baker, one of the country's foremost conservators of wall paintings and currently working n various cathedrals, visited Ashby Church, subsequent to the Recotor's request for such a visit to the General Synod's Council for Places of Worship. Her report was favourable towards the possibility of finding these murals and in due course a second visit will be made to plan a more detailed examination. There seems to have been little disturbance of the fabric of the church over the past five centuries, so we hope their survival is something wiating to be discovered. This is a job for the experts.

The Last Judgement was a popular subject for murals in the medieval period and they abound during the 15th century. The subject being Christ in Majesty, with an assembly of the nations, attendance angle sand devils, waiting for the sentences, on humans!

St. Catherine of Alexandria was noble born, of exceptional learning and skilled in rhetoric; she was martyred in the early 4th century and from the 10th century was among the most widely venerated of women saints. As a Christian, while quite young, she protested to the Emperor against the proliferation of idols at Alexandria as part of the State religion. She was confronted by 50 philosophers in public dabate but she demolished their arguments and they were burned alive for failing to answer her. She refused to deny her faith or to marry any of the host of state officials who came to woo her, and she ended up in prison. In her cell she was fed by a dove. Later an attempt was made to break her on a spiked wheel (the Catherine wheel) but it fell to pieces and she was unhurt. There was a crop of converts and these were in due course beheaded. Finally she was beheaded too, after calling down blessings on all those who should remember her in the future. Her body was translated to Mt. Sinai where the

great orthodox monastery was built and her shrine shown.

William of Norwich (1144 AD) - the mutilated body of this boy was found in a wood outside Norwich and five years later it was alleged that he was the victim of Jewish ritual murder. The authorities refused the story but the anti-Semitism of the people venerated him as a martyr. The story is similar to that of St. Hugh of Lincoln, who was 9 years old and found down a well. Scores of Jews were tortured and hanged on the charge of complicity in his crucifixion. There is a further similar story on the Continent - St. Simon a child of 21/2 at Trento in 1475. His cult was abolished in 1965.

St. Wulstan - became bishop of Worcester in 1062 AD. A pious, humble man noted for his care of the people, who protested at the Norman attempt to replace him. He fought the slave trade at Bristol and enforced clerical discipline. He was not a learned man but an effective preacher and he

encouraged learning among the clergy, this time at a low ebb. An attractive personality, he was "one of the last and certainly one of the greatest of the early bishops of pure English blood and culture".

There is little evidence of any stained glass - just one small piece in the top of the nave window.


This diocesan visitation was held at Snape Church on the 9th November 1597 AD, and required presentments from every parish.

This recorded that at Ashby "Mr. William Melling, Rector, hath another benefice called Somerlayton (sic). H e teacheth a publique school in Somerlayton". No further comment is made, on the condition of the church, the need for a surplice (in these Puritan days), tables of Commandments or Degrees of Marriage, or lack of a Prayer Book, or Bible or box for the "almes" for the poor. There is no presentment of anyone for non-attendance at the parish church or communion, nor was there a lack of 'funt or beere'. There was not even a comment on the parson, that regular substitute for baiting - what a golden opportunity lost! Poor Mr. Yowle, Rector of Pekfield (Pakefield)! He was indeed the butt of a full reporting session. It was said by the churchwardens that "he is a fighter, brawler, and contentious". Apparently a man of some spirit, if not venom, for he was said to carry out this brawling in the church at Pakefield with a Mr. Wincoppe, also a parson. At Somerleyton, there were shortcomings - they needed a 'surplesse', where Herringfleet really did complain that their poor parson (curate) was so poorly paid, the church wall in Herringfleet was decayed, and the people rarely if ever had sermons or homilies. Herringfleet also lacked a Table of Degrees of Marriage - and still does!

It would appear that everyone was satisfied with the way things went at Ashby and had no complains either of the parson or the residents. Being out of the way, it probably avoided too stringent an inspection by Redman or his officers. The churchwardens were probably an easy-going pair and not too demanding!.

The outcome of the Visitation was rather severe however on Mr. William Melling as Rector of Somerleyton - he had applied for a licence to continue the public school at Somerleyton but this was dismissed, the appeal falling on deaf ears. Bishop Redman was

stiffening up discipline against extra-ministerial occupations eg. The parsons who farmed at Nacton and Boughton received a purple warning. The Rector of Glemham was rebuked for teaching a school in his rectory, while the incumbents of Cromer and Hardwick awaited Redman's harsh rebuke. The Vicar of Besthorpe and Rector of Gunton actually found themselves in court for teaching and running schools. Later, canon law permitted curates with a master's degree so to teach, but incumbents not so. Melling did however receive a licence to preach in 1604 - a bit late in the day, but perhaps a sop to his disappointment. If he had not been licensed before, Ashby had had a surfeit of homilies, those bastions of Puritan piety. The fact that he received such a licence to preach was probably the sequel to the policy of the new squire - John Wentworth (senior) who was bent on removing the homilies as a regular and severe diet.


In the Norwich Consistory Court for the 8th July 1505 AD depositions by William Copuldyke, who had been Rector of Ashby since 1500, were made against William Beyham, formerly Rector of Ashby for 12 years from 1487, for default in repairs to the rectory of

Ashby (then in Border Lane). Copuldyke's case was supported by Peter Nobes, resident of the parish for some 30 years and then over 60 years of age, and by Adam Brikmonger also resident of the parish for more than 30 years, and by William Nodge, a young man of 25 who though resident for less than 2 years had lived in Somerleyton for 12years. These depositions were supported by John Dewper, 46, who had lived in Ashby for 13 years or more, and stated that by the negligence and fault of Beyham, the end of the barn of the Recovery had fallen to the ground, and that what remained of the barn had been deliberately demolished and the materials removed to his Recotory at Lound. Not only had he failed to keep the chancel of the church in sufficient repair, but he had failed to repair the pigeon house and other houses belonging to the rectory. Beyham was declared guilty of neglect.

The rectory was valued at ?6 in the King's Book and at ?16 in the period 1735-1757. It was augmented by Queen Anne's Bounty. The annual tithes income of the benefice in the 19th century was ?208.


Happier days, however, came in 1869 when the new Rectory was built in white brick, on a site formerly occupied by two cottages on the right of the hill leading from the Lodge to Herringfleet Hall lodge. A magnificient house, it was well built and on an admirable site. In addition to the house and laid-out garden there was a stable, gig-house, and piggeries. The land of 2 acres 2 rood and 32 perches was purchased in 1868 from Sir Francis Crossley, squire of Somerleyton and Ashby, with ?600 borrowed from Queen Anne's Bounty and repaid in 1898. The Rectory, built by the Revd. Charles Hillyer for ?1,400, ceased to be a Rectory in 1872 on the consolidation of the two livings of Somerleyton and Ashby, the Revd. Charles John Steward heaving been Rector of Somerleyton since 1866. Presumably the consolidation was on the death of Charles Hillyer on march 9th 1872 at the early age of 44. His address was given as Ashby Rectory. Subsequent curates in the house were the Revd. Redmund Walters in 1875, the Rev. Walter Goodliffe in 1885, the Revd. John Norris Dredge in 1896, but after 1989 there was no curate. The Rectory was sold in 1927, to Lord Somerleyton, and again in 1970.


These date from 1553, the spelling Askeby persisting till 1653 and Haskeby in 1726. The oldest register contains 381/2 pages and was copied out for the period 1553 - 1760 by John Bellward who was rector 1757-1792. He was also rector of Burgh Castle (1753-92). Gillingwater says of him "his literary attainments merited and preserved the respect of the learned". Bellward also served the curacy of Herringfleet.

The last 'mark' in the Marriage Register was made in 1899.

The Burial Register of 1813 contains a table of fees of that date; in brackets are the 1976 figures:-

Rector Clerk's fee


Publishing banns 2.6d (?1.50) Banns 2.0d (50p)

Service 5.0d (?8.00)

By Licence 10.6d (?8.00) By Licence 5.0d (?4.00)


Service in Church 2.6d (?5.00) Passing bell 1.0d

At the grave only 1.0d (?3.00) Digging grave and attendance 5.0d

Head and Footstone 12.0d (?9.00) Carrying bier 1.0d

Rector Clerk's fee

Burials (continued):-

Brick grave 10.6d

For person who died outside For person who died outside

the parish ?1.1.0d the parish 14.0d


Duplicate of an entry in the

Parish Register 2.6d (!.25 at times of original entry: ?2.50 at other times).

Signed: E. Thurlow,

Rector of Ashby.

Today the Church Council also receives fees to help in the maintenance of the church and churchyard, and the Rector'' fees virtually go to the Church Commissioners as they are part of his minimum or standard stipend. Under the entries for 1685, Mr. Thoams Bretton, Clerk, was drowned in Ashby Water 24th April and was buried at Ashby 26th April.


These began on the 28th November 1894, the first chairman being the Revd. Norris Dredge of Trinity College, Dublin, who occupied Ashby Old Rectory as curate to the Revd. C.J. Steward.

Overseers were appointed in 1895. There has never been a parish council in Ashby. In the Parish Meeting Book there are gaps between 1924 and 1946, and between 1951 and 1973, with entries for 1933 and 1937 only. Under the 1974 reorganisation there is now a grouped Parish Council for Somerleyton and Ashby.

Other pages on the history of Ashby