1863 to 1969 The Missing Years

This is the short period in its long history when it ceased to be the parish church.

Throughout its history Escomb village had been very small. In the Bolden Book of 1183 it consisted of only 13 villeins and their families and by 1801 there were still only 167 inhabitants. In the early 19th century, with the arrival of the railways and the Industrial Revolution, the village began to grow; the George Pit coalmine opened in Escomb village in 1837and an Ironworks was opened in 1846 in the next village, Witton Park, then still part of Escomb parish. The Revd Henry Atkinson was appointed as vicar in 1848, the first resident vicar for many centuries, and a vicarage was built at the top of the hill around the same time. By 1851 the village had grown to 1,293 people and by 1861 the population was 3,755.

In his 4 yearly return to the Bishop of Durham in 1861 the Revd Atkinson pleaded for a new church to be built as the small Saxon church, seating 65, was quite inadequate for the needs of the parish. Several dissenting chapels were also opening at this time.  In 1863 a Victorian church, St John’s, was built at the top of the hill, opposite the vicarage, which seated 250 people. It cost £1,100 and became the parish church. The Saxon church was virtually abandoned.   Many of the roof tiles came away, leaving the church open to the weather, the false ceiling fell in and the building deteriorated very rapidly.

Before Restoration

Before Restoration in the 1870’s

The Revd Thomas E. Lord

It was a possibility that the Saxon church would be demolished. In an address to the British Archaeological Association in 1886 (after the restoration of the Saxon Church) Bishop Joseph Lightfoot said, “It will interest you to hear that the other day I stumbled upon a report made by a Rural Dean to my predecessor, in which he states that it (the Saxon Church) is in a sad state of decay and would be better removed if it could be done.”  In the 1870s, an appeal for public subscriptions led by Thomas Lord and another local vicar, the Reverend Dr R. E. Hoopell, aroused a lot of interest, not least with antiquarian and archaeological societies. The Saxon Church was restored in 1879-80 for £500 – £550 and a service to mark its restoration was held in October 1880, at which Bishop Lightfoot preached.

After Restoration

A painting of 1881 shows the restored church still retained one of its wall paintings above the North door and extending down to the doorway itself.  The walls were bare stone, un-whitewashed, and the floor was flag-stoned, except for the small patch of cobbles in the North West corner. There were now chairs rather than the pews which were known to exist in the early 19th century.

There are only a few sources to be consulted about what happened to the Saxon church after 1880, the main one being the Parochial Church Council (PCC) minutes which exist in full from 1888. The attitude of each successive vicar seems to be the key factor as to whether the Saxon church was promoted and thrived or was ignored and neglected.

In 1888 the new church was insured for 18s 6d and the Saxon church for 7s 6d, the total annual expenditure of the parish being £24. It is interesting to note that each year during the 1890s there was a shortfall between the amount raised via church collections and the parish expenditure. In his quadrennial returns to the Bishop in the 1980s Lord reported that there was a service in the Saxon church on Sundays at 3pm, although we do not know whether this was all year round as there was no heating or lighting.

The Revd James Kemp

By 1898 the Revd Kemp had succeeded Thomas Lord, who died in office in 1897.

During the 1880s and 90s there was considerable national interest in the Saxon church, with many articles appearing in antiquarian, architectural and historical journals. Visitors to the church were increasing. In 1898 the PCC voted to make a small charge for visitors to the church of around 6d, the funds to be spent on cleaning and repairs. These accounts were presented at vestry meetings. It was also resolved that a visitors’ book for the old church be kept by the vicar (now in Durham County archives). It is recorded in 1904 that the Saxon Church receipts were £2- 14s- 7½d that year and the roof was reported to be in poor condition. 1n 1905 receipts for the Saxon Church (also referred to as ‘the old church’) were £4-12s -9½d

In the 1900s the parish of Escomb was temporarily doing rather better financially. However, the minutes of 1908 record, “In the opinion of the vestry everyone is exercised with regard to the upkeep of the old Saxon Church.” The upkeep of two church buildings was obviously becoming a strain.  In 1911 the Saxon Church raised £10- 5s- 4d. In 1916-17 the new vicar, the Revd Robert Ragg, was concerned that general parish expenditure was rising and exceeding income again. The Saxon church fund stood at £10- 9s- 10d.

The Revd William Hodgson

Under The Revds Kemp and Ragg (1897 to 1919) there are very few references to the Saxon Church besides brief reports of income. In 1919, however, the Revd William Hodgson became vicar for the next 15 years. He was a fiery and charismatic character, it appears, with strong missionary leanings, and he became a passionate advocate for the Saxon Church. To give a flavour of the man, the PCC minutes of 1922 record, “The vicar in his opening remarks spoke of the spirit of the times as being full of change – that we were living in an age that had forgotten its duties to God in public worship; its disbelief in the revelation, its shallowness of thought and want of conviction and its deluded optimism in political reform.”

Through the 1920s, the parish raised money for the Escombe Church Restoration Fund, which by November 1925 had raised £554- 1s- 10d. The church was refurbished, Mr Carol being the architect. The minutes record that a re-opening ceremony took place on 1st June 1927. The Bishop celebrated communion at 10.30 am with clergy of the diocese and various visitors present.  At 2.30.pm a procession formed at the gates of the new church, including the Bishop, the choir, members of church organisations, the Mothers Union and representatives of public bodies. They ‘marched’ down to the old church. The service took place partly in the churchyard and partly in church with the Bishop blessing the restoration work and preaching. There followed an evening service in the Saxon Church, the preacher being the Archdeacon of Auckland. St Andrew’s choir ended the service with “Christ and his Soldiers”.  Below are photos of the 1927 opening ceremony.

In 1928 Mr Johnson left a bequest of £1,000 for the upkeep of the old church. New church furnishings were also donated in 1928. The Escombe family representative W.M.Escombe CBE, DSO, whose company were freight brokers to the P and OSN Co. and ship and insurance brokers, confirmed in a letter of the 1960s that the family subscribed money to provide new altar furniture between the wars and an inscribed visitors’ book. It is presumed these were the donations of 1928.

A faculty had been obtained for these new furnishings for the Saxon Church and a Service of Dedication of Gifts to the Sanctuary was held on 30th May 1928 at 6.30 pm, the Bishop of Durham presiding. Tea was offered to visitors attending at 9d a head. The ‘gifts’ dedicated were:

1 new holy table in oak

2 oak candlesticks

1 oak cross

1 credance table in oak

2 oak fold stools

1 oak alms dish

1 carpet 12ft x 12ins for communicants to kneel on.

On June 4th 1928 there was a meeting to nominate trustees for the gift to the Saxon Church. Other fundraising suggestions were discussed. The rural dean was to be approached to get a few good preachers for Sunday afternoon services in the old church.

In May 1929 some further repairs to the old church were authorised including two window guards. Money needed to be raised for seats. On June 26th 1929 the annual celebration (the 3rd) of the restoration of the Saxon Church was planned to take place. The Bishop cancelled at the last minute.  250 invitations went out to clergy and choirs across the diocese. It was reported that none came. The service was conducted by the vicar and it was poorly attended, as was the tea and the dance. There was a loss on the day of £1- 10s- 0d. Obviously, the third time round, enthusiasm for this annual celebration of the Saxon Church had waned!  William Hodgson’s pique is recorded in the minutes as follows,

“The vicar’s remarks at the beginning of the service may not have pleased everybody but surely the churchwardens, vicar and laity are entitled to some explanation from the Bishop if he cannot come to a service himself why he does not send a substitute. There are plenty of good men who I am sure would have been glad to come. I think it is time the Heads of the Church of England were opening their eyes to the fact that if the church is to hold its own, that they must do their full share and not neglect to attend a public meeting which has been billed for three weeks.”

In 1931 the annual service marking the restoration of the old church was held again. There is no record of a service in 1930. There were no comments about its success. In September of that year the vicar also suggested holding lectures on the old church to raise funds. There was no mention that these actually took place and no further mention in the minutes of the Saxon Church up to William Hodgson leaving the parish in 1934.

The Revd Ralph Hitchcock

He came into post in December 1934. There was the consideration of a Diocesan Trust Fund for the Saxon Church. The Bishop was approached and expressed an interest and the Rural Dean also took up the cause. On 12th June 1935 another special service was held at 3pm to aid fund raising. The Bishop of Durham presided. On the back of the Order of Service is written the following,

“The 1200th anniversary of the death of the Venerable Bede which we have recently celebrated has helped us to go back in thought to his day and to be inspired by such a life so wholly given to Christ.

We like to remember that it was during these days in which Bede lived, possibly at the time when he was being admitted as a boy of 7 to the monastery of Monkwearmouth, that the stones of this church were being brought from the Roman Camp at Binchester and being built into their positions in which we see them today.

It is possible that the Venerable Bede came to Escombe, and we like to think that he did. Here is a church which we wish to see well used for prayer by parishioners and by pilgrims from near and far, as Bede used so well and loved the precincts of Jarrow.

We think of Bede’s chair at Jarrow, still in good order. We require some 60 chairs for this church and we shall be very glad if friends will kindly help towards the cost of these. The offertory at this service will be used for this purpose.”

The minutes record that 50 oak chairs be purchased for £14- 7s- 6d. After the 1935 service the annual service seemed to have lapsed and there is no mention of the Saxon Church again in the PCC minutes until 1939. However, in his 1936 quadrennial return to the Bishop, Ralph Hitchcock wrote,

“I should like to bring forward again the suggestion of asking the Diocese to help in the upkeep of the Saxon church and the possibility of forming a Diocesan Trust. Archdeacon Rawlinson was….making enquiries in this matter just before he left for Derby.”

In 1939 it was recorded that hay was being stored in the churchyard and permission to cut the grass for hay was to be granted by the PCC and put out to tender. In July 1940 a motion was put to install electric lighting in the Saxon church, but this appears to be put on hold.   Old photos show the church and churchyard as it was around this time Ralph Hitchcock died in office in March 1943 after a long illness.

The Revd Charles Pattinson (also Bishop’s chaplain)

He took up office in 1944 and from the minutes it appears he did little regarding the Saxon Church. Only the following few references were in the minutes. It was decided to put in a faculty to install electric lighting and gas heaters, but the latter was later reconsidered, after the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) raised objections. An appeal to raise funds for this was a possibility. This did not appear to progress as in December 1947 the PCC considered holding a midnight service on New Year’s Eve in the Saxon Church but decided against this as there was no heating or light. In 1948 Charles Pattinson was appointed as Precentor of Durham Cathedral and left the parish.

However, we know from his personal notes and correspondence that he was working actively on behalf of the Saxon church. In a typed statement written in 1968 when he was then Archdeacon of Auckland, he recounted that when he arrived in the parish he found the two churches, the vicarage and garden in “a sorry state of neglect”. He described the Saxon churchyard as “a kind of scrap metal merchant’s yard” whilst the interior of the church was “depressing and filthy beyond description”.  He reported that the lectern “was a grim affair made of some sort of red varnished wood and the wooden altar was similarly varnished only in bright yellow”. A working party made the place presentable.

He then reported that the PCC was keen to raise funds for repair, the first thing needing tackling being the poor state of the roof on the North side. The work was undertaken by Mr Mascall, a builder and a regular worshipper. W.A Forsyth, an eminent London architect, wrote a detailed inspection report in August 1945 for the DAC. He gave his services free of charge.

J. Seymour Lindsay, a lighting expert, visited the church and drew up detailed coloured drawings at his own expense, which were approved by the DAC.  The Revd Pattinson then reported that all was in readiness when he left the parish in 1948 and that he handed over the whole file of correspondence and the drawings to his successor. He then commented that his successor  “cared nothing for the Saxon church and allowed the scheme to drop”. These detailed, coloured drawings have not been found, and the Revd Lee, 10 years later, reported that there was no trace of them.

The Revd Walter Greenwood

He took up office in June 1948. From mid July to mid August services were to be held in the Saxon Church on 4 Sundays. The PCC was not unanimous about this. In 1950 services were to be held in the Saxon Church from June to August over 7 Sundays. The keys to the church were to be made available at the Post Office, with a notice to this effect on the church gate. Heating and lighting were still being discussed !  In 1952 services were held in the Saxon Church over 4 summer Sundays, expanded to 8 in 1953 and back to 4 again in 1954. In 1955 there was a note indicating that the Saxon Church account was still in operation containing £73- 14s- 1d. Summer services continued during 1955-6. When Walter Greenwood left, no vicar was appointed and Alan Lazenby, vicar of Witton Park, was priest-in-charge. He discussed the possibility that the parishes of Escomb and Witton Park be merged. Services in the Saxon Church ceased and the grass in the churchyard remained uncut. The Revd Lazenby moved to Houghton le Skerne in 1957and the Rural Dean, the Revd JohnTurnbull, took temporary charge of Escomb. In 1958 an increased number of visitors to the Saxon church was recorded, the churchyard grass was again being cut at an annual charge of 10s and pamphlets about the church continued to be printed. We do not know when the first pamphlets were produced.

The Revd Henry Lee

He was appointed to the living in September 1959. A set of altar linen was donated to the church by a lady in Somerset, litter bins were requested from the Council and postcards of the church were produced as a new source of income and sold from the post office.

In January 1960 the refurbishing of the Saxon Church was agreed as public interest was rising. Lighting and seating were to be installed. However, there were again delays as the new heating system for the top church was taking precedence. In May 1960 the holding of summer services in the Saxon church was revived from June to the end of July.

In June 1961 a committee was formed re the future of the Saxon Church, to be held in Durham. In June 1962 plans for the refurbishment of the church were prepared by Sir Albert Richardson KCVO and were passed by the PCC and agreed by the Diocesan Pastoral Committee. The refurbishment was estimated at £6,500 and was to include a new altar, a new carpet, a lectern and altar rails, pews and electric light fittings, 2 cupboards, a font cover and draught screens. 10 electrical heaters (not fixed) were to be provided, the walls whitewashed and a water supply connected. Clear glass was to be installed in the East and West windows and the tomb slabs were to be removed from the floor into the porch.

A public appeal was launched  and a flyer still exists, with signatories including the Revd Lee, a number of key Durham clergy and Rosemary Cramp (archaeologist) . Amongst the Patrons listed are the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishop of Durham, Lord Barnard, Lord Starmer, the chairman of Durham County Council and Dr Joan Evans, president of the Society of Antiquities . The appeal was for the sum of £5,000, being beyond the means of a small parish of 900 residents and with only 27 on the electoral roll. The Historic Churches Preservation Trust donated £500 to the Saxon Church Fund. By 1964 the fund stood at £2,161-18s-1d.

In 1963 architects identified a large amount of work needed on the top church, amounting to £6,500. The Diocesan Pastoral Committee deemed it appropriate to start making arrangements for the Saxon Church to become the parish church once more, thus abandoning St. John’s. All at the AGM regretted this decision and the PCC resisted the process to change the parish church until repairs were finished. It was planned to demolish St John’s but the PCC voted to continue with St John’s as the parish church.  New housing was also planned for Low Escomb.

In 1963 the Diocesan Pastoral Committee approved of the closure and demolition of St; John’s church but the Revd Lee refused to sign the form required by the Church Commissioners. The Bishop’s letter of December 1964 announced the suspension of patronage of the benefice of Escomb. In 1964 the Revd Lee retired, having obviously opposed the plans for the new arrangements for the parish. The Rural Dean acted as priest in charge from 1964.

In 1965 the restoration work was finished and regular services started in the Saxon Church. A service of thanksgiving for the restoration was held on 4th July. In 1967 there was planned a merger of the parishes of Escomb and Witton Park under the Pastoral Reorganisation Measure of 1949. The parishes were to be joined, with Escomb becoming the parish church and St John’s to be demolished.  Escomb voted yes to this proposal but Witton Park voted no. Therefore a plurality was proposed instead, with each parish retaining its separate status and church but with a shared vicar.

In December 1969 the Saxon Church was officially declared the parish church again and the Revd Harry McClatchey was appointed as the first vicar of both parishes. In 1971 St John’s church was demolished. It had lasted a mere 108 years and had become too large to serve a village much decreased in population. The Saxon Church came into its own again after nearly 1,300 years.

G. Beddow



The minutes of the Escomb Parish PCC 1888 to the present

The Quadrennial returns to the Bishop (Bishop’s visitation) from 1861 to 1949

Church documents, letters and photographs

The Orders of Service for services in 1928, 1935 and 1965

Correspondence and notes of the Revd Pattinson re the planned 1940s renovation

Architect’s report on the Saxon Church 1945

3 thoughts on “1863 to 1969 The Missing Years

  1. Although I am not quit sure when, but can anyone shed any light as to why the decision was made, to not only knock nearly all of the headstones down but to also smash others and dump them round the inner wall, in the graveyard of *St Johns Church in Escombe? II has been said that this was a ‘health and safety’ measure as it was to be made into a dog walk area is this true? As I have ancestors buried in the graveyard,a reply to this would be really appreciated.

    Thank you.

    • Wear Valley District Council (now Durham County Council) maintained the churchyard as it is a closed churchyard. When the church was knocked down in 1971 I understand the council wrote to people related to those buried in the churchyard, that they knew about. I also believe a notice was put in the press. For those who replied and did not want headstones moved, they were left in their current positions. When there was no reply the headstones were moved to the walls of the churchyard to enable better upkeep of the grounds, mowing etc. None were smashed but some may have been damaged over the last 40 years.

      I hope this helps.

  2. This history of the survival of such an important building illustrates why there are so few in existence. We owe gratitude to the people of Escomb and others for their care. I hope to make my second visit this year.

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