A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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In the late 13th century Nicholas de Segrave's men probably rendered the three-weekly suit that they owed him at his court at Fen Stanton. The lords of the Conington and Elsworth fees also both held views of frankpledge but had to pay a fee to the sheriff and seek his hundred bailiff's presence at those views. The bailiff took for the Crown fines for breaking the assize of bread and of ale and for peace-breaking, the lords retaining other amercements. (fn. 1) A court leet was conveyed with Dansetts manor in 1555 (fn. 2) but not later, perhaps owing to the absence of copyholds. No court rolls or books have been traced. (fn. 3)
The cost of poor relief quadrupled between the 1780s and 1803 to c. £108, spent on 10 adults. (fn. 4) In the early 1810s 8-10 people were regularly assisted. The expenditure, then £95- 120, (fn. 5) increased between 1818 and 1825 to £175, and from the late 1820s rose steadily to over £300 by 1832. (fn. 6) About 1830 large families received help from the poor rates. (fn. 7) From 1836 Conington was included in St. Ives poor-law union. (fn. 8) It belonged to Swavesey rural district from 1894, was incorporated in 1934 into Chesterton rural district, (fn. 9) and passed in 1974 into South Cambridgeshire district. (fn. 10)
The vestry, (fn. 11) usually consisting of the rector and principal farmers, by 1867 let the 2-a. gravel pit, set out at inclosure, (fn. 12) with the charity land as allotments for labourers. In 1895 it permitted large farmers suffering from the depression to pay rates at half the level charged on smaller occupiers. A sparsely attended general meeting in 1894 resolved not to establish a parish council: the vestry and, later, the annual parish meeting, both chaired continuously between 1880 and 1923 by the squire, P. T. Gardner, continued to manage parish business until the 1970s. (fn. 13)
The advowson of Conington church, recorded by 1217, (fn. 14) presumably belonged originally to the Picot fee. Before 1279 Henry of Whaddon granted it to Thomas of Elsworth, reserving, probably for life, the right to select a priest whom Thomas should present. (fn. 15) Henry was presumably dead by 1283 when Thomas gave the advowson in free alms to the bishop of Ely. (fn. 16) The patronage remained with that see (fn. 17) until 1902 when it passed by exchange to the Crown. Following the union of the benefice with Knapwell in 1903, (fn. 18) the Crown was sole patron until 1934, when Conington was united instead with Fen Drayton and the Crown was to present alternately. (fn. 19)
The benefice, which remained a rectory from the Middle Ages, had in 1279, besides all the tithes, a glebe of 1 yardland with 4 tenants holding 2 a. (fn. 20) At inclosure in 1800 the glebe comprised 12 a. of grass closes and 42 a. of arable (fn. 21) for which 42½ a. were allotted. The tithes were then commuted for another 212 a. After exchanges the rector emerged with 281 a., (fn. 22) which he retained (fn. 23) until Rectory farm was sold to its tenant in 1919. (fn. 24) The living long remained an adequate one, its taxed value rising from £5 in 1254 (fn. 25) to 20 marks by 1276, (fn. 26) though in 1291 it was only 13 marks. (fn. 27) In 1535 it was worth £9 16s., (fn. 28) and in 1650 and 1728 c. £110. (fn. 29) Its income rose to £254 gross by 1830, (fn. 30) £300 in 1851, (fn. 31) and almost £350 by 1873, (fn. 32) before falling suddenly to no net value c. 1880 and under £100 net in the 1890s. (fn. 33)
The rectory house, which had eight hearths in 1664, (fn. 34) stood by 1800 in a close of 1½ a. by the crossroads north-west of the church. (fn. 35) In extreme decay in 1783, (fn. 36) it was rebuilt c. 1800, in two storeys with a symmetrical three-bay south front, but only in plastered stud work. The new house, already cracking in 1836, was extended eastwards in brick in 1842. (fn. 37) It was again refurbished c. 1920, several of its 22 rooms being removed, but was half derelict in 1934, when it was sold, (fn. 38) being demolished between 1953 (fn. 39) and 1983.
Medieval incumbents, recorded from the late 13th century, often neglected the parish. The pluralist canon lawyer John de Lacy, rector in 1279, was occupied with royal and diocesan administration. (fn. 40) Some later rectors were licensed to be absent for two years or more, as in 1338 (fn. 41) and 1399, sometimes to study at a university as in 1384 and 1399. (fn. 42) Several were not in major orders when presented. (fn. 43) Between 1396 and 1406 no fewer than eight rectors held Conington, including a king's clerk and a bishop's official, and several fellows of King's Hall, Cambridge. Most quitted it by resignation or exchange. (fn. 44) In 1376 and 1377 two unemployed chaplains were despatched from Knapwell and Oakington to replace an absent rector. (fn. 45) Conington had two chaplains in 1379, (fn. 46) one in 1406 and 1483. (fn. 47)
A light for St. Mary's altar, endowed by 1279, (fn. 48) was perhaps the St. Mary's light recorded in 1494 and 1527 with another light for the Holy Sepulchre, the latter perhaps maintained by a brotherhood of the Sepulchre recorded in 1465. Henry Smith left money to complete a guild hall in 1527. (fn. 49) Under Edward VI 2 a. left for lights and obits were sold. (fn. 50)
William Gonell, collated in 1517 at the request of his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, (fn. 51) employed a curate in 1527 and 1543. (fn. 52) In 1561 the nonresident rector, a fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, though himself capable of preaching, had a curate who had not preached for six months. (fn. 53) His successor in 1567, Thomas Best, (fn. 54) though still employing curates c. 1570, (fn. 55) later came to reside at Conington, (fn. 56) where he died in 1617. (fn. 57) Edward Martin, president of Queens' College, Cambridge, who was collated c. 1630, (fn. 58) also served through curates, as in 1635. (fn. 59) In the 1640s they were thought Laudians and royalists like himself. Following his imprisonment for refusing the Covenant, he was replaced from 1643 by puritan clergymen. (fn. 60) William Whitefield preached twice every Sunday in 1650, but despite the parishioners' entreaties had not once ministered communion to them in three years. (fn. 61) In the 1660s and 1670s the non-resident rectors employed transient curates. (fn. 62) One rector was deprived in 1690. (fn. 63)
Most rectors between 1690 and 1790, though usually pluralists until 1743, retained the living for ten years or more. (fn. 64) In 1775 one provided one service each Sunday and the sacrament thrice a year. (fn. 65) Thomas Brown, 1789-1829, son3 of the owner of Fen Stanton, (fn. 66) came to reside almost at once. By 1807 he had voluntarily added a Sunday morning service. He catechized children and farm servants regularly in Lent, and had increased the number of communicants to 14 then and 18 by 1825. That level of services was sustained in the 1830s when John Shaw claimed seven new communicants. By 1835 Shaw had started Bible classes on winter evenings for the labourers during his cottage visiting. (fn. 67) J. A. Tillard, 1841-72, in 1851 had an adult morning congregation of 50 and an afternoon one of 90. (fn. 68) He eventually wore himself out by devotion to his duties. (fn. 69)
In 1873, when the rector preached twice every Sunday, there were monthly communions which half the 20-25 communicants attended each time. Of the 125 churchgoers about a fifth came only irregularly. (fn. 70) The 100 churchgoers of 1885 and the 110 of 1897 were an even higher proportion of the reduced population. By 1897 communion was held weekly, besides weekday services, especially in Lent and Advent. (fn. 71) In the 1910s and 1920s the rector had a Bible class of 20, all women, and a choir halved from 40 between 1912 and 1915. The number of Easter communicants, 45-55 between 1908 and 1912, fell below 40 in the late 1910s. (fn. 72) About 1930 church attendance ranged between 20 and 40. (fn. 73) From 1934 to c. 1975 Conington was served from Fen Drayton, (fn. 74) thereafter into the 1980s by the acting minister of Lolworth. (fn. 75)
The church of ST. MARY, so named by 1465 and perhaps by 1279, (fn. 76) consists, following rebuilding in 1736 and 1870, of a chancel with organ chamber, nave with south vault, and west tower with spire. (fn. 77) Carved fragments including the top of a piscina survive from a 12th-century building. From the 14th-century rebuilding there survives only the west tower, built of field stones mostly rendered, and originally unbuttressed. The thin octagonal spire, rising to 95 ft., with alternating gabled lucarnes, was probably added slightly later. The chancel was of three bays with Decorated tracery in its side windows. Its three-light east window was probably inserted in the 15th century. Piscinas, one reset in 1870, were in each side wall. The nave probably had both north (fn. 78) and south aisles. (fn. 79) From the 1650s the Cambridgeshire branch of the Cottons had a family vault 7 ft. wide in the south aisle. (fn. 80) Their burials are commemorated by four wall monuments, two having merely pediments and arms. That to Alice (d. 1667), widow of Sir Thomas Cotton, Bt., has a portrait bust, that to her grandson the boy Robert (d. 1697) a portrait medallion surrounded by a garland carved by Grinling Gibbons. (fn. 81)
In 1685 the nave south wall was decayed and the chancel somewhat cracked. (fn. 82) By 1736 the church was so ruinous as to be dangerous for the congregation. Dingley Askham obtained a faculty to rebuild the nave, a quarter of the cost having been raised under a brief of 1733. Work was apparently finished by 1737, when the rector proposed to rebuild the chancel, left disproportionately long, as a mere 12 ft. square. Askham frustrated that plan. (fn. 83) The nave, surviving as he rebuilt it, is an aisleless rectangle of red brick, with a stucco cornice and three roundheaded windows each side. Askham also strengthened the tower, then settling under the weight of the spire, with massive slanting brick buttresses, and inserted a new rusticated west doorway, whose broken pediment is surmounted by an oval window, reopened in 1911. He made a brick family vault, 30 ft. long, partly dismantled in 1904, on the site of the former south aisle, repewed the nave, and installed a marble font in the north wall. By 1739 a west gallery with a balustered front had been erected in front of the chamfered medieval tower arch. Marble tablets to Askhams and Gardners, mostly on the nave north wall, balanced the Cotton monuments reset by Askham on the south side. (fn. 84)
The medieval chancel survived until 1870, when J. A. Tillard had it entirely rebuilt slightly wider, including its west arch, to a Gothic design by W. M. Fawcett, and added a south organ chamber. The west gallery was removed, a new font was given, the nave and chancel woodwork was almost all renewed in oak, a new pulpit being given in 1873, and an alabaster reredos was erected. (fn. 85) In 1910-11 the badly cracked tower was reconstructed under E. E. Bowden, and the four bells, not rung for fifty years, were rehung in a new frame. (fn. 86) Until then three of the four recorded in 1552 (fn. 87) had survived, including one perhaps of c. 1375, probably by a Norwich founder. Two others, cast at Bury St. Edmunds (Suff.) in the 15th century, were recast in 1911, with copies of their black-letter Latin inscriptions to the Virgin. The fourth bell is of 1635. The nave was refloored and ceiled in 1903, also by Fawcett. The organ chamber was rebuilt c. 1976, when a new organ replaced one installed in 1905, itself succeeding one given by Thomas Brown (d. 1829). (fn. 88)
The existing plate includes silver cups with patens of 1570 and 1636. (fn. 89) The registers are complete from 1538. (fn. 90) The churchyard, levelled when a lychgate designed by Aston Webb was erected in 1892, (fn. 91) was slightly enlarged to the west in 1906. (fn. 92)