Iron railings at All Saints church
September 2020 & January 2021
Original post: September 2020
1. At the time of writing, these railings have been removed to facilitate scaffold to be erected whilst repairs to the masonry are taking place, and thereafter to allow French drains to be constructed around the church. The Oxford DAC (Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches), whose role in the diocese is to advise parishes and others on church buildings and works to them, have approved the removal of the railings for this purpose, as has Cherwell District Council : the church is in a Conservation area. The DAC’s work includes advice to the diocesan Chancellor on granting permissions through the faculty system (the Church process for getting approval to make changes to a church). Photographs of these railings when in situ and their position relative to the church is shown below.
2. The railings are normally attached to the church building and as such they might be expected to enjoy the same protection as the building. “In general, a structure attached to a building ….. will also be covered by the listing if the structure was ancillary to the principal building at the date of listing …..” (From page 3, “Listed Buildings Identification and Extent”, Historic England, online). All Saints church is Grade II* listed: the listing date was 7th December 1966.This category of listing is for a “particularly important building of more than special interest” (Historic England website). Historic England estimates that there are around 500,000 listed buildings on the National Heritage List for England. Only 5.8% of all the country’s listed buildings are Grade II*. Mixbury might not realise it but it has a church which is a bit special and for many years the railings have been part of this.
3. Irrespective of the merits of listing, much of the village, including the churchyard is in a Conservation Area: the “Mixbury Conservation Area Appraisal” (online), prepared by Cherwell District Council, is dated August 2017. Appendix 1 to this article contains relevant information from the appraisal document. The Appraisal clearly regards the Conservation Area as a whole. For example it says, “The historic core of the original village included All Saints Church, Rectory, School and Beaumont Castle” and “The church, rectory and former school are all distinctive buildings reflecting their age, type and functions.” Under “Management Plan” it says “Retention of historic features and reinstatement of lost features – Traditional architectural details and local materials are important and should be retained …..”.
4. How traditional are iron railings in Mixbury? We will look later at possible dates, but it is important to understand that the railings at All Saints church are not the only protected railings in the village. The railings at the front of the 1874-80 houses are protected as part of the Mixbury Conservation Area, although some have been lost over time. (See photograph in para 10 of the Summary at the start of this website). These railings, of a different design to those at the church, were put in place at the time of the re-building of the village apparently to stop livestock being driven along the road to the village slaughterhouse from straying into people’s gardens. They are another part of Mixbury’s rich heritage.
Mixbury school, a Grade II listed building, was built by the rector W J Palmer in 1838 and the steps up to the school door are lined with iron railings about the same size as those attached to the church. They are in various styles, suggesting that some may have been replaced at different times. They are about 30 metres from the south wall of the church, from where they are quite visible, and in a visual sense they are complementary to the church’s railings. Rector W J Palmer was the patron both of building the school and the 1848/50 repairs to the south wall of All Saints church.
There are five other uses of ironwork in and around the churchyard.
First, there are iron railings around one of the “upmarket” Painter graves. In chapter 19 of the book about the history of the Church in Mixbury up to 1900 we have highlighted the part the Painters played in the parish from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries as members of the Vestry, as churchwardens, overseers of the poor etc, and – as farmers – major employers.
We have identified over a dozen Painter graves inthe churchyard including the one with the railings. Because of the importance of the family in the history of the village there is a case to be made for listing their graves, but that is for another time.
Second, the structure of the kissing gate between the churchyard and Church Lane is made of iron railings. The gate had been temporarily taken out when this photograph was taken to reduce the chances of spreading Covid-19.
Third, there is an iron railing kissing gate in the wall beside the main gate to the west of the churchyard, which leads onto Mixbury road
Fourth, part of the wall between the churchyard and the rectory grounds is topped with ironwork although much of this is now much damaged
Fifth, the rectory fence between the rectory and the road, immediately outside the church’s main gate, is made of iron railings.
Whilst some or all of Mixbury’s ironwork and railings may have come from outside the village they are a poignant reminder that, as an agricultural community reliant on horsepower until well into the 20th century, the village had its own blacksmith who was working here throughout that time. Both railings and ironwork generally are very much part of the village’s heritage even if they were constructed at different times in different styles.
5. The village is lucky. Particularly at the start of WWII many churches lost their railings to be melted down to support the war effort. We cannot find how “many”, but the number must have been significant because in July 1943 complaints from several sources about inadequate compensation and the unfairness of the system resulted in a Parliamentary question to a member of the government, recorded in Hansard. In fact, iron railings are not now, if they ever were, a feature in many rural churches in this part of the world, where stone is often the material of choice for churchyard walls. There are none attached to any of the other 9 churches in the Shelswell Benefice (group of churches) and only Fringford has a significant run of railings down one side of its churchyard. From scanning various websites, it appears that most iron railings nowadays are to be found in large towns and cities e.g. Bath, London, Bristol. Were they ever a feature in the countryside, or did most villages lose them during the war? One church affected by the wartime cull of railings was St Philips Cathedral in Birmingham, but in the 1990s the city conceived and then delivered a project to replace them. As part of a £36 million restoration programme, a major metalwork project to restore nearly 200 metres of Victorian cast-iron railings at St Martin-in-the-Fields church, off Trafalgar Square, began in 2005. Church railings are not an insignificant issue; they have their own place in the country’s history and heritage.
6. Not only are they a rare feature on a rural church, but the reason for their positioning at All Saints is unknown. The cordoning-off of areas adjacent to the church may just have been a whim but it is more reasonable to think they were put there for a reason because, simply, they would have incurred a significant cost. A possible explanation would be that they were erected to protect what lies between them and the church, possibly burials. The PCC doesn’t know of any burials in these areas, but the core of the church has been there for over 800 years and for much of that time our forebears never left a plan saying who they had put where: indeed it is highly likely that there were originally people interred under the church itself. Could it be that in tackling the state of the south wall in 1848/50, for which the initial survey said it was so much “bulged and shaken that it ought to be rebuilt”, the builder found graves which were felt to need protection from future incursions? Perhaps there are “eaves drip burials”, although they are very rare. Graves in early medieval times were often shallow and it is reasonable to expect that builders working around them would disturb the remains of the occupants. With this in mind a possible explanation presents itself for the soil being heaped up behind the railings to the height of the stones holding them. Having discovered the shallowness of the graves the originators of the railings added the soil to give extra protection to the graves.
7. How old are the church railings? In 1986, following the PCC’s declaration in 1985 of the church as “redundant” (a technical term precipitating its closure), the Council for the Care of Churches reported that the railings were early 19th century. (This Council, which became the Church Buildings Council in 2007, amongst other things produced in-depth reports on “at risk” churches). Its report on All Saints church is over 6 A4 pages long; it gives a detailed evaluation of the both the features of the church and expresses an opinion about its condition. The PCC’s current architect says, “The railings are assumed to be early c 20th, so of limited importance and significance”, and an officer at Cherwell D. C. simply described them as “c 20th”. But even the early 20th century would place the railings as being about 100 years old. In fact, the information in paragraphs 8 and 9(iv) below strongly suggests the current railings were put in place between 1850 and 1910. Of course, age itself is not the most important factor. For a listed building “The interest is in its history and architecture. The general form and layout of the building may be as important in this regard as an eye-catching “period feature””. (Church of England website). And Historic England point out that “Group value” should obviously be considered in assessing the special interest of ancillary buildings. Just because we don’t know why the railings were put there does not devalue them, neither does an opinion that they add nothing to the church: they have been an accepted part of the layout of the church for 100 years or more – they are part of its, and the village’s, history.
8. There is evidence which points to the presence of ironwork fixed to the same parts of the church before the present railings. At various places on the south wall of the church there are “pintles” fixed to the wall behind the current railings (See below). It is evident that they predate the current railings. As these pintles seem to be fixed to walls or buttresses where there are larger blocks of stone, associated with the 1848/50 building work, it seems logical that the current railings came later. Historically they would have been used to support doors, gates or railings – as there are no doors or gates there, the probability is that at one time they held railings: indeed, the photograph on the right below shows how a pintle was used to secure the end of the current railings onto the North Aisle wall. There are also pintles on the outside wall to the left of the north door; and on the wall between the false inner and outer north doors.
There are other matters which inform the context of the church railings.
9 i. When the 1848-50 refurbishment of the church took take place, the builder was George Wyatt of Oxford; except that George wasn’t a builder, he was an ironmonger by trade. He is described as an ironmonger in the 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871 censuses. In the 1861 census he is recorded as being an ironmonger employing 9 men and 3 boys; his second wife, Martha, is described as an ironmonger’s wife. In the 1871 census his youngest son, William, is “son of an ironmonger”. When George died in 1872 William continued the ironmongery part of the family business with his mother.
The building side of the business seems to have come from George’s parents: when his father died in 1830, Pigot’s Directory for that year listed his mother, Margaret Wyatt, as “a builder of St Mary Magdalen Parish”. And when George married his first wife, Hannah, in 1829 he was registered as being of St Mary Magdalen Parish: if he and Hannah didn’t actually live with his mother, they were neighbours. His family connection with the building trade almost certainly allowed him to take the job of repairing and refurbishing All Saints church, which did not start as a contract for ironmongery. When his mother died in 1865, George inherited her building business and handed over the management to his elder son, Thomas Alder Wyatt. We do not know how George Wyatt’s name, alongside that of one other builder, appeared in the Vestry’s minutes as a potential contractor for major work on All Saints church. It did so after the Vestry received a letter from Bishop Wilberforce reminding it of its responsibility to repair the church. We have found various links between Wyatt, Bishop Wilberforce and the Oxford diocese. First, in 1848/49 Wyatt built Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry for Wilberforce, with George Gilbert Scott as the architect.
Second, in 1850 Wyatt worked with Scott to restore St Mary’s church at Great Milton. Third, in 1852 Wyatt collaborated again with Scott to build the North Aisle at St Nicholas the Confessor’s, Forest Hill with Shotover. Wyatt was clearly well-connected and highly thought of, and it would be a great find if research showed that the All Saints church railings were his work. Of course, it may just be a co-incidence that George Wyatt, the ironmonger, rebuilt the south wall of the nave at All Saints church in the mid-1800s and that the church has some unexplained iron railings along that wall which at their south-east end terminate shortly after, according to the CCC, Wyatt’s rebuilding of the Nave wall ends. We have concluded in para 7 above that the existing railings were put in place after 1850. Wyatt died in 1872 and the ironmonger business continued after that, so it is still possible that if the Vestry decided that the 1850 railings – now represented by pintles only – did not cover sufficient area, they turned to their original, well-connected, contractor to replace them.
9 ii. We do not know whether the railings are wrought iron or mild steel. Wrought iron was patented in 1784 and became widely used by 1800. In 1856 the Bessamer process for making mild steel was invented. Mild steel was less costly to make. Mixbury’s Vestry (the forerunner of the PCC) was not known for throwing its money about: in the 1840s it opposed the refurbishment of the church, referred to in the preceding paragraph, sponsored by the rector W J Palmer. If a cheaper alternative for the railings had been available it would, surely, have chosen it, but that wasn’t widely so until well into the second half of the 19th century. Until that time wrought iron would have been the material of choice. The matter could be resolved by having a small sample taken from the railings and tested, and we have asked the PCC to seek permission to do this. Even if the railings are mild steel they would continue to enjoy the significance spelt out elsewhere for them in this article.
9 iii. We have researched nearly all Mixbury PCC’s minutes since 1930 in the course of writing a book about the Church in Mixbury in the 20th and 21st centuries. We found only two references to the railings, the first in the 1990s reporting that they were to be painted, and the second in 2003 when the PCC discussed and rejected the idea that those around the tower should be removed. It is logical, therefore, to conclude that the installation of the railings pre-dates 1930. Moreover, given the attitude of the Vestry to spending money, and the parlous state of the PCC’s finances which is evident from the minutes, it would have been extraordinary for resources to have been spent on the railings without a good reason.
iv. We have a photograph on a postcard of All Saints church which dates from the early 20th century. The railings can be seen from that time. It is possible to be specific about date because card is marked “Morland Series 911”. B R Morland owned the Banbury Advertiser and had a shop in Market Place, Banbury, circa 1910 to 1920. He produced a postcard series called Morland’s Banbury Advertiser series.
In fact, the reverse of the postcard has on it an Edward VII stamp with a postmark of 10/10/10. The railings were in place in 1910.
10. It is not possible to say for certain what or when the origins of the railings may be. There is nothing like them in the rest of the Benefice, and they seem rare attached to a rural church. In 1986 the CCC applauded “the 19th century restoration” of All Saints: although all the features it highlighted are inside the church, to all intents and purposes the railings are part of the same Victorian heritage. There is a case to be made that the church’s iron railings could have been installed by the ironmonger George Wyatt in the mid-19th century whilst or after he rebuilt the south wall. Whatever, they have been part of the parish’s history and heritage for over 100 years. They are part of a group of features in the village – the “model village”, the rectory, the old school – which were pre-eminent for much of the 19th century and half of the 21st century; and part of a sub-group of railings and ironwork most concentrated in and around the churchyard, but also extending like an umbilical through the old village itself.
Update: January 2021
This section provides additional information and thinking about the railings normally attached to All Saints church.
Calling all Mixbury (and those elsewhere) mystery lovers - here's something else for you to think about and maybe help us with. It will hopefully repay close reading by all of those of us interested in the history, and future, of our church. We can still not be absolutely certain of when, and why, the iron railings attached to the church were installed. In September 2020 we employed a researcher at Oxford History Centre to trawl through the Mixbury Vestry minute book, 1843-1908 (we know from the postcard shown in the September Article that the railings were in place in 1910) and to look at other ecclesiastical records for Mixbury. She was unable to find a reference to the erection of railings at All Saints church. We had thought it unlikely that no record was made of the work, because the railings would have cost something and that alone would have been recorded somewhere: as the OHC researcher said, "the churchwardens' accounts can sometimes provide a more itemised list of purchases/works", but these contained no reference to the railings. It is, of course, possible that somewhere along the line a record of the reason for, method of, and cost of installing them was lost. Or, as we now think, the railings were put in place as part of a bigger project - the demolition and replacement of the South wall of the church - and not itemised separately.
Some thought about information we did not know or take into account when we wrote the September Article leads us to favour strongly the explanation of the origins of the railings set out in paragraph six of that Article i.e. "that they were erected to protect what lies beneath them and the church". However, we think we were pointing in the wrong direction when we went on to write, "Could it be that in tackling the state of the South wall in 1848-50, for which builder's initial survey said that it was so much "bulged and shaken that it ought to be rebuilt", the builder found graves which were felt to need protection from future incursions?" We now think the builder, George Wyatt, didn't find graves - he knew where they were because they were marked with gravestones!
We have given some thought to the position of the railings (shown at the end of paragraph one in the September Article), and the position of existing gravestones to the south of the church, in particular between the Nave and Chancel walls and the churchyard path. The first photograph (i) below is the area between the Chancel and the path. It shows two rows where the gravestones are packed together and where the graves nearest to the church are only 2ft from it. On the other hand, the area outside the nave (photo (ii)) shows only 5 or six scattered gravestones in total, all of which are some distance from the wall - the nearest to it (where the wall is characterised by the larger blocks of stone used by Wyatt) sits just outside the area which has been enclosed by the railings.
(ii) Area between the path and the Chancel.
(ii) Area between the path and the nave.
4. As part of our further work on this topic we have looked at an online record of photographs of 262 Grade I and II* listed buildings in Oxfordshire. It is evident that with older churches in particular there are frequently gravestones, sometimes chest tombs (the rich would pay more to be nearer the church), right up to the church walls by both the Chancel and the Nave, and also either side of the porch. So why are there so few outside the nave and porch at All Saints church? The explanation we find most convincing is that, nearest the wall, gravestones and the remains of bodies were moved to allow the foundations of the South wall to be inspected, the "bowed and shaken" wall to be demolished and the new wall constructed. Further away from the wall, gravestones were moved to allow scaffolding to be erected and to give workers access to the wall itself. This conclusion is given more credence by looking at a third photograph, of the buttress on the south-eastern corner of the Chancel, which shows two headstones standing away from the buttress. Although the Chancel was not rebuilt in the 1848-50 work, it is evident that the buttress is made of the same larger blocks of stone that George Wyatt used to rebuild the South wall of the Nave, and it would have needed the same scaffold and space to erect it, and the same care taken as with the foundations of the South wall. (It seems likely that all the buttresses were strengthened at the same time, perhaps because as well as rebuilding the South wall Wyatt also replaced the timbers in the church roof and re-leaded it).
(iii) The bottom of the south-east buttress.
5. If we are right, this would have left the builder, the rector and the rest of the Vestry with the question of what to do with the remains and gravestones. An examination of the gravestones in the whole churchyard shows that, by and large, the oldest graves are nearest to the church. (The row of Painter family graves shown in paragraph four of the September Article mostly date to the 19th century, and they are over 10 metres away from the foot of the tower). This fits with what we have read about medieval burial practices when, for example, people were buried under church floors or, in the case of infants, under the eaves (see paragraph six of the September Article). So, because of the age of the nearer graves, the "remains" would have been bones, not decomposing bodies. As the wall was most likely re-built up along its whole length a few feet at a time, it seems unlikely that scaffold would have been removed until the job was complete. It would therefore have been impractical, and probably expensive, to have reburied all the remains back where they came from in a rolling programme. We think the most likely course of action is that the remains were stored and re-interred in the trenches which had been dug for the foundation work.
6. Attitudes to burial in Victorian times were very different from today. Although walking on marked graves is now frowned on, many gravestones have been removed from their original locations, either because they were unstable or to facilitate the management and upkeep of the churchyard: as recently as 1999, 62 gravestones were reported to Mixbury PCC as having been removed from the churchyard and stacked around the churchyard walls to make it easier to cut the grass. Once this has happened and there is no marker for a grave, it is unavoidable for people to walk over interred remains. Nowadays, headstones as memorials are far less frequent (especially as there are many more cremations than burials) and so marking the grave is less important. This contrasts markedly with the Victorian era, which is when the South wall of the church was rebuilt. An article in the Independent by Sarah Trowbridge in June 2020, "Why were the Victorians so obsessed with graveyards?", highlights the essential difference.
"The Victorians ritualised death. Black mourning clothes were worn for set periods of time after bereavement, the length of time depending on the relationship. After this, grey or purple would then be worn. Jewellery was made of the hair of the deceased and photographs were taken of the corpse with their family. Curtains in the house were drawn after death, and the bell and door-knocker muffled. Victoria's response to Tennyson's "In Memoriam" exemplifies the Victorian approach to death, in which the dead are mourned and memorialised rather than seen as lost forever. This Christian approach is also reflected in the graveyards of the period".
7. Although a lot of these "rituals" were more affordable by the middle classes, it was the middle classes in Mixbury (particularly the Vestry, including the rector - more about them in a future article ) who would have made the decision about what to do with the bones which had been disinterred. Another consideration would have been that headstones were generally only affordable by financially better-off families: although the inscriptions on nearly all of those close to the church today are illegible, 170 years ago it is quite possible that the names of the occupants of the graves were not unknown, and their families were known to the Vestry. It is not difficult to see how the prevailing attitudes would have required repect being shown to the remains. We think they would have been re-buried and the area fenced off with iron railings to allow them to re-rest in peace.
8. In fact we have found one other example in Oxfordshire where railings were used to fence off an area adjacent to a church in order to protect what lay below. Having seen a photograph which showed railings in this configuration at St Andrew's church, Shrivenham, we contacted Shrivenham Heritage Society to ask what they knew about them. (See below).
9. By return of email we had an incredibly helpful reply. It transpires that their railings enclose the entrance to a vault which is the final resting place of the Barrington family. The vault had long been forgotten, until the summer of 2020 when workmen installing a new gas supply for a new kitchen inside the church discovered it. The committee member who wrote to us had coincidentally been transcribing the Will of Lady Mary Viscountess Barrington (died 1764) and in her Will she had described "the vault which I have built under the church of the parish of Shrivenham". It would seem that the social origins of Shrivenham's railings are a world apart from Mixbury's, but the purpose for their respective installations was the same - to protect what lay beneath. It is interesting that the logo on the first page of the national "Heritage Gateway" website is also some iron railings. They are symbols of permanence and security. It is hard to argue that this was not what was intended in Mixbury.
10. We began paragraph five of the September Article by saying, "The village is lucky", and pointing out how many churches had lost their railings during WW II to support the war effort. We are just beginning to realise how lucky we are. The photograph of St Andrew's church was retrieved from those of the same 262 churches referred to in paragraph four of this Article. The database is not entirely comprehensive: there are not 360-degree views of all the churches, so it is possible we missed some railings. But, until someone tells us otherwise, we stand with Shrivenham as being two out of 262 to have this special feature. That makes Mixbury's railings pretty special.
If you think you can help to answer these questions, please fill out the form below.
There are two key questions about these railings where at present we have no definitive answer.
First, why were they put there?
Second, when were they put there?
A third question, which might lead to answers for the first two, is do you know of a church which has railings in a similar position to those at All Saints church?