Church history

This history of St Mary Magdalene Church was written by Rev. John Hickling; Rector from 1975 to 19??


Waltham churchThe early 13th Century Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene is the focal point of the village of Waltham-on-the-Wolds, Leicestershire. The church is dominated by a central tower and fine crocketted spire of the 15th Century, but shows work of almost every period.

At the west door stands the most ancient fitting, the octagonal early English font with interlaced arcading carved with nail head and leaf forms. The nave and the aisle have three 13th Century bays to which two Western bays were added in the late 19th Century. A fireplace once stood at the West end of the nave before the church was extended.

Fine carvings

The ancient wooden nave roof is decorated with monastic figures bearing shields, books and scrolls. (It is believed this church was built for a convent of nuns settled in adjoining land). At the roof level there are many other fine carvings – some gentle, some grotesque – and the supporting stone carved corbels take up the theme. At the point where the arches join, human faces are carved and these are generally in excellent condition.

The stained glass windows are mainly 19th Century gifts in memory of clergy and their families or other prominent persons who once lived and served here.

The organ is a restored and improved late 19th Century instrument erected on its present site in 1978. It replaced an organ purchased by the Rector in 1853. The delivery label was found attached to the earlier instrument when it was removed to Stonesby Church in the year the present more adequate instrument was installed at Waltham.

The carved stone pulpit is the one from which the gentle Rector Henry Twells preached during his 17 years incumbency. Perhaps he found here inspiration to be later expressed in his famous hymns sung throughout the English-speaking world, the best known being ‘At even, ere the sun was set’, and ‘Not for our sins alone Thy mercy Lord we sue . . – ‘. Just behind the pulpit is an hour glass stand, the glass long since gone, perhaps broken or removed when long sermons ceased to be fashionable.

Minstrels’ gallery

There was, in the 18th Century, a gallery for the singers – probably under the tower, but no-one can be certain. This was removed in the 19th Century. One can imagine the fluttering in the local dovecotes of the parish when the new Rector Gabriel Edwards Gillett began to make his presence felt. No sooner on the scene than he set to with a will to restore his dilapidated church. The interior was gutted, redesigned and refurbished – largely at his own expense, for the benefice was at that time very well endowed and had 500 acres of glebe.

The leaking roof was repaired, the chancel – where harts tongue flourished through the floor – was cleared and restored as it is today; the minstrel gallery was taken out and the organ put in; the nave was extended at the West end and the heating system improved. To show he meant business, Gabriel Gillett built the huge Rectory (now Lancaster House Hospital) and set it in 19 acres of landscaped grounds on the Southern edge of the village. He also built the school – still very much alive – on his glebe before settling down to an incumbency of 40 years.

Ornate brass chandeliers

The two brass chandeliers attract enormous interest. The smaller, situated nearest the West end, has two tiers of five branches. The scrolled branches, octagonal in sections, relate to the period 1717-25. It was the gift of William Love who was parish clerk and schoolmaster and who died in 1761. The maintenance of the chandelier was the responsibility of the parish clerk and, from 1809 to 1828, Richard Tinder and his wife Sarah were paid one shilling per year for cleaning it. Later, when a second chandelier came into the church, the payment rose to two shillings and sixpence.

In living memory a list of notable folk followed this good practice – only without pay. Just one couple seem to have surpassed Richard and Sarah Tinkler in this service, and they were engaged upon the task in the early years of my incumbency. Stan and Flo Woodcock cleaned the chandeliers for 20 years. The other brasses in the church were cleaned for a similar length of time by Miss Flo Smith who is still with us, but no longer able. The Mothers’ Union now assists the verger with the task.

The larger chandelier at the crossing and close to the choir stalls was given to Waltham Church in 1835 by Sarah Morgan, having been obtained by her when it was no longer required in Grantham Church. It has two tiers of seven scrolled branches and the dove has scale-like feathering. Probably later than 1724, it is identical to that in Bushey, Hertfordshire, and very similar to those at Seal, Kent (1725), St Martin-at-Palace, Norwich, (1726) and Barton Turf, Norfolk (1727).

All are most likely the product of a single foundry in London. We still light the church with candles at Christmas, when the beauty of these fine chandeliers is truly seen.

The transepts have very good 14th Century style windows, whilst the clerestory, recently repaired, gives light and air to the church. The south door, leading to the porch, is worthy of note. From the porch you can see the oldest part of the church and its many interesting features.

The south transept was devastated in a gale on the night of 2 January 1976 when the South-West pinnacle was blown off and crashed through the roof, wrecking everything beneath. When the area was restored at the cost of £8000 it was refurnished to make an attractive corner for the children and the Sunday School. This gale alerted us to the many other urgent tasks of restoration to be done.

The chancel was screened in 1883 during the incumbency of Henry Twells. He also had the six bells in the tower restored, and then presented Waltham Ringers with a fine set of hand bells which are still used by an enthusiastic band of ringers.

The carved leaf forms in stone, so evident in the chancel, are a recurring feature throughout the church, on the font, pulpit, vestry archway, and sedilia and in the clever Victorian oak carvings on the choir stalls. At each end of the choir stalls one of the few gospel evangelists is carved with appropriate symbols: Matthew with boy; Mark with lion; Luke with ox; and John with eagle. In 1836, the chancel roof roof
blew off in another memorable gale. This led to major restoration work.

Note how the roof is supported by the figures of 10 beautifully worked angels. The mosaic reredos, depicting The Last Supper, a text, and the Apostles and Symbols, become a blaze of glory as the setting summer sun, shining through the great West window, picks out the surrounding gold at eventide. This is a fitting memorial to Gabriel Gillett, to whose energy, leadership and generosity Waltham owes so much.

Waltham’s Rectors

Waltham-on-the Wolds has had a Rector for a very long time. The list following, with a notable break in the 14th Century, names some who have held the living,

Torald – date unknown
Gunfrid – date unknown
John Gynes or de Ginges 1220
Clement de Leytton subdeacon – 1239 (died 1277)
William de Verney 1277
William de Redeburn (or Rodburn) 1322
No extant information
Michael Carpenter 1534
Simon Kelham 1560
John Bringest 1567
Edward Higginbothain 1607 (died 1609/10)
Brian Vincent 1615
William Hill 1660
Immanuel Bourne 1661 (died 1672)
Edward Holland 1673
William Whatton 1687
Edward Browne 1689
Edward Holland 1692
Richard Burgis 1722
Matthew Bradford 1745
William Rastall 1750
Bowyer Edward Sparke (who became Bishop of Chester in 1810, and Bishop of Ely in 1812) 1789
William Woodall 1809
Gabriel Edwards Gillett 1831
Henry Twells 1871
James R Turnock 1890
J Pledger Seabrooke (a hunting parson) 1893
Bertel Smith 1914
Percy Robson 1937
R A Crawley Bouvey 1947
Alfred George Lynn Lancaster 1952
John Hickling 1975

Tournai stone slab

Not in view, but fixed in the choir vestry, is a very large and important incised slab. It commemorates William de Redeburn, Rector 1322. It is of grey Tournai stone and bears the almost effaced effigy of a priest vested for mass. It is difficult to tell how this enormous piece of stone, one of a group imported from Flanders and weighing about a ton and a quarter, was brought to Waltham. This is one of the most important and interesting incised slabs in the diocese which ought to be re-sited where it can be viewed and cared for.

This church has been a centre of worship over at least eight centuries. Its sacred walls resounded with praise of monks, nuns, and people of every walk of life. As it has lived in the past so its life continues with adjustment from age to age, we trust that those who come after us will rejoice in their heritage and hand it to their successors.

The line drawing on the front cover is taken from Nicholls History and Antiquities of Leicestershire’ and shows the Church as it appeared in the late eighteenth century.