A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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The church at Fordham presumably belonged at first to the royal manor; in 1285 it was claimed that Henry de Kemesek, lord of half the manor, had presented a clerk to it under King John. (fn. 1) In 1204, however, John had granted the whole church 'in perpetual vicarage', subject to a 5-mark pension payable to the then parson, to Henry, dean of Fordham, presumably to endow his hospital there. (fn. 2) When that hospital was converted c. 1225-30 to a priory of the order of Sempringham, Henry III gave Fordham church in 1227 in free alms to the order to feed its members at their general chapter, (fn. 3) presumably by its appropriation. Bishop William Raleigh of Norwich (1239-43) soon ordained a vicarage worth 15 marks out of the 55 marks at which the church was valued in 1254, and taxed on 20 out of 75 marks in 1291. (fn. 4) About 1307 the order of Sempringham sought, apparently with success despite opposition by the diocesan, to appropriate that vicarage also, when its current incumbent died. (fn. 5)
The church probably remained incorporated with Fordham priory until its surrender in 1538, although its vicarage was officially taxed in 1535, as before, on 20 marks. (fn. 6) As 'Fordham rectory', the rectorial estate once the prior's was in the late 16th century held by Crown lessees, usually outsiders; it was let in the 1590s, and nominally until the 19th century, with the rectory of 'Plumpstow' (Plemonstall, Ches.). (fn. 7) Fordham rectory was among those granted in 1600, in exchange for most of the bishop's manors, to the see of Ely, (fn. 8) under which it was held from the early 17th century to the 19th on beneficial leases. (fn. 9) It consisted almost solely of the great tithes of corn and hay; its only land was a 1 1/2-a. close, on which there stood by 1648 only a tithe barn; one barn was apparently burnt down in 1712. (fn. 10) That close, across the crossroads north-east of Fordham church, was still called the Parsonage yard in 1794 and formed part of the rectorial estate at inclosure, (fn. 11) had presumably been the site of the rector's house. At inclosure the great tithes still belonged to the bishop of Ely, who was assigned 497 a. for them. (fn. 12) His allotment was divided by 1826 into four holdings, three, 412 a. in all, east and south of the village let to the Dunn Gardners, who bought them in 1867-8, the fourth, 88 a. to the south-west, to the Seabers, who had bought it in 1853. (fn. 13) Owners of the bishops' former holding still remained liable to maintain the chancel in the 1930s. (fn. 14)
In the 13th century a tithe portion of £1 was due out of Fordham church to St. Benet's abbey, Hulme (Norf.). (fn. 15) About 1260 1 a. was given to two female recluses dwelling beside the aisle (sub ala) of the church. (fn. 16) A chapel of St. Mary, St. Thomas Becket, and St. Nicholas, to which in the 13th century John son of Robert of Fordham gave all his Fordham lands, (fn. 17) was perhaps the origin of Our Lady's chantry, worth £5 12s. in 1535, to which a last priest was appointed c. 1542. Reportedly founded by one Brampton, its endowment, which also maintained lights before the sacrament and high altar in Fordham church, then comprised a chamber and farmstead, apparently occupied with 8 a. by its priest, and 105 a. of rented land. (fn. 18) In 1540 the Crown granted its advowson to Philip Parys with the priory (fn. 19) and in 1563 sold the chantry land, divided by the 1630s among several owners. (fn. 20)
John Fordham, bishop of Ely (d. 1425), in his will endowed with £20 a two-year chantry for two priests in Fordham church, perhaps that of the Cambridgeshire parish, presumably his birthplace. (fn. 21) About 1380 some fieldland belonged to a guild of St. Mary. A guild of that name was recorded in the 1520s with one of St. John. (fn. 22) Of land and rents given before 1540 for lights, obits, and anniversaries, four lots, 6¼ a., were sold by the Crown in 1553 (fn. 23) and others in 1566, 1570 (10¼ a., including 7 a. given by William Cheesewright), 1571, and 1577. (fn. 24)
Vicars were occasionally mentioned in the 13th century, the last in 1303-4. (fn. 25) No institutions to the vicarage were recorded, following its appropriation, from the 14th century to the mid 16th: (fn. 26) presumably the church was then served by a canon from Fordham priory, where three besides the prior still dwelt in 1538, (fn. 27) or a hired priest. After its suppression the vicarage was re-established, by 1555 at latest. (fn. 28) In 1558, at the request of Bishop Thirlwall of Ely, Queen Mary gave its advowson to Jesus College, Cambridge, (fn. 29) which retained it, presenting regularly, into the late 20th century. (fn. 30) From the early 17th century the college usually chose its own former fellows, or, less often, graduates. (fn. 31)
In late 16th-century rectory leases the predial and small tithes were reserved to the vicars appointed to minister in the church. (fn. 32) By 1700 those tithes were mostly taken in money at standard rates on cattle, sheep, and horses, and by acreage and quality of pasture. (fn. 33) The vicarage was also endowed by the 1640s with 40 a. of glebe, half the 80 a. then reckoned as tithe free. (fn. 34) The other 40 a., ex-priory land, was perhaps the former rectorial glebe. The uneven distribution of the vicar's arable c. 1670, 15-16 a. in two of the main fields, but only 6-7 a. in Biggin field, (fn. 35) suggests that the priory's owners had taken their largest share in the field nearest its farmstead. At inclosure in 1820 the vicar was allotted 44 a. for his glebe and 226 a. for his share of the tithes, also retaining 4 a. of closes. (fn. 36) That land remained with the living, save for the sale of 14 a., mostly for the railway, in 1877 and 1880, (fn. 37) until 136 a. was sold to the county council in 1910. Later sales involving 35-40 a. in 1923-4 and 1928-9 (fn. 38) left in the 1950s 93 a. of glebe, part just east of the church let since the 1920s to the parish for allotments. (fn. 39)
The vicar's income, £50 in 1650, (fn. 40) had reached £70 by the 1780s, (fn. 41) £360, following inclosure, by the 1830s, and £430 by 1851. (fn. 42) It remained over £450 gross (£350 or more net) until c. 1890, falling by a third after 1900. (fn. 43)
The vicar's house probably stood originally in a 1/2-a. close, still belonging to the living in the 1810s, west of the Isleham road and just north of the rectory site. (fn. 44) His dwelling, which had five hearths c. 1665 (fn. 45) was reconstructed after a fire in 1712. (fn. 46) It was presumably the one-storeyed cottage, of 17th-century style, still standing, semi-derelict, on the site in the 1990s. Mostly timber-framed and plastered, though partly of clunch, and once thatched, it had a central brick chimney stack and a kitchen behind. (fn. 47) Thought unfit for a clergyman by 1800 when the parish clerk dwelt there, (fn. 48) although curates sometimes inhabited it in the 1850s, (fn. 49) it was finally sold in 1929. (fn. 50) In 1862 a new vicar, John Bell, bought a 3-a. site south of Church Street, a little west of the church, and built on it as his future home a new house, where he was living by 1871, later called the High House. Of grey brick, slated, it has three storeys over a basement, with a pilastered doorway in its 3-bayed north front and a conservatory behind. (fn. 51) After Bell died, it was hastily bought in 1892 from his executors as a residence for future vicars. (fn. 52) With nine bedrooms it was too large and expensive to run by the 1950s, leading several candidates to decline the living. It was sold and replaced by another vicarage house, purpose-built in 1967-8 on vicarial land south of the Mildenhall road, still in use in the 1990s. (fn. 53)
The first post-Reformation vicar, unmarried and unlearned, was non-resident c. 1560, preferring his Suffolk rectory. (fn. 54) A successor claimed 240 communicants in 1603. (fn. 55) The pluralist William Hill, vicar from 1611, resided at his death in 1639. (fn. 56)
His successor suffered imprisonment and sequestration by the parliamentarians, who replaced him in 1644 with Hugh Floyd, a Puritan refugee from Wales. Floyd so satisfied the villagers that they successfully sought his continuance in office when the county committee named another minister in 1645. (fn. 57) About 1650 he preached every Sunday, to the parishioners' 'good liking', and in 1658 was assigned a £50 augmentation out of the rectory. (fn. 58) Conforming in 1661, Floyd held Fordham, from 1663 with Cheveley, until he died in 1689. (fn. 59) In 1676 he had 300 of the 370 adults in the parish as Easter communicants. (fn. 60)
In the 18th century Jesus College's nominees, after the pluralist John Peter Allix, 1713-24, (fn. 61) were usually ex-fellows starting their clerical careers: few between the 1720s and 1750s held the living for more than 3-4 years. (fn. 62) One took it on for two terms, 1735-6 and 1742-5. (fn. 63) Some vicars c. 1725-35 served through curates. (fn. 64) From the 1750s incumbents' terms lengthened to 10-12 years (fn. 65) and between 1800 and the 1950s each of the five vicars, all still Jesus men, served for c. 30 years. (fn. 66) The first, who from 1813 reclaimed the right to name one churchwarden, (fn. 67) served in person in 1806. By 1820, owing to illness, he employed curates, whose pay he doubled by 1830 to £150, almost half the income. His successor, who served a Norwich city living until his death, still had a curate at Fordham in the 1850s. (fn. 68)
About 1806 the vicar, who was also curate at Chippenham, could provide only one Sunday service, alternately morning and evening, for his own church. He initially catechized weekly in Lent, but ceased doing so by the 1810s, because villagers were not sending him their children. About 1820 there were barely ten communicants at the quarterly sacraments. (fn. 69) By 1832 the curate provided two Sunday services, preaching at one. (fn. 70) In 1851 the resident curate claimed a Sunday attendance rising from 60 to 150 in the afternoons, besides 80-90 Sunday-school children. In 1853 he had over 500 people at church when a fire at his lodgings was reported during the sermon. (fn. 71) Suspected of 'Catholic' incli nations, he was replaced in 1853 by Joseph Peniston. (fn. 72) He drew many dissenters to hear his preaching and undertook domestic visiting, sometimes allegedly involving sexual impropriety, which provided one pretext for charges by William Dunn Gardner. The squire twice sought, apparently following disputes between Peniston and a Low Church faction over managing the school, to drive him from the parish. In 1860 Fordham's ratepayers backed their curate by 400 to 30 and applauded his exoneration, ringing the church bells. (fn. 73) Peniston remained in office, introducing harvest thanksgivings in 1861, (fn. 74) until Fordham once more had a resident vicar.
John Bell, vicar from 1862, (fn. 75) who served in person unassisted, was by the 1870s holding three Sunday services, preaching at each, besides holding a weekday evening one. Then c. 40 out of 70, and by 1885 40-50 out of 100, communicants attended communions held monthly, and by 1885 eighteen times a year. Bell started a village library and employed a woman to read the Bible to the poor. In 1885 he reported 700 churchgoers compared to 400 dissenters and under 100 people not worshipping anywhere. (fn. 76) In 1897, when there were a church institute and a choir of 30, his successor, who gave only two Sunday services, thought half the population church-people and half chapel-folk, although many in both groups seldom went to services. (fn. 77) In 1956 and 1960 difficulties in procuring vicars led to two presentations by lapse. (fn. 78) Although Fordham was large enough still to have its own resident incumbents into the 1990s, six vicars serving 1956-95, (fn. 79) church attendance was declining; only 100 people regularly came to evening services c. 1960, and 150 to a new vicar's installation in 1974. (fn. 80) When an Anglo-Catholic vicar, who opposed women's ordination, resigned in 1995, he was rapidly replaced with a female priest. (fn. 81)
Fordham church was named in 1337 for ST. MARY, (fn. 82) a dedication that it still bore in the mid 19th century. (fn. 83) From c. 1850, however, it was usually named, following the 13th-century hospital's dedication, after ST. PETER, close to whose day (29 June) the village feast was held in the 19th century. (fn. 84) The church stands south of the east end of the main village street. Built of fieldstones dressed with limestone and Barnack stone, it consists of a chancel with 19thcentury side chapels, an aisled and clerestoried nave of five bays with south porch and west tower, and a two-storeyed north chapel. (fn. 85)
The earliest surviving part of the fabric is in the north aisle: its west wall contains a blocked narrow round-headed window with deep splays, its north wall fragments of two similar ones, suggesting that the church had already reached its present size before 1200. The south aisle doorway, its arch perhaps altered to a pointed shape, is late 12th-century. The church was largely rebuilt in the 13th century, sawn-up sections of slim shafts being reused in the south aisle wall. The chancel north and south walls retain at their east ends lancets, blocked with stone by 1826. The 13th-century triple sedilia and double piscina in its south-east corner, much shafted and moulded, were heavily restored, following their rediscovery, in 1873. (fn. 86) A 13th-century priest's door from the chancel south wall has been reset in the Victorian south chapel. (fn. 87) A more elaborate contemporary doorway in the north aisle outer wall, with Purbeck marble shafts and curved mouldings on its arch, blocked c. 1850, became the entrance to the north chapel undercroft. The chancel arch retains dogtooth in the jambs of its responds. They match the octagonal piers of the later 13th-century arcades, supporting lightly chamfered, two-centred arches. In the 14th century the church received new windows, a four-light one, restored in 1860, (fn. 88) in the chancel east wall, and several, mostly of three lights, in the aisles: those in the south aisle, with four cusped squares set diagonally, preceded those lighting the north one, which have straighter, though still slightly ogeed, tracery.
The base of the tower probably dates from the mid 14th century, but its upper parts were probably completed later, including the tall arch to the nave and the transomed west window, whose tracery includes cusped triangles and hexagons; one irregular buttress at the tower south-east corner partly blocks an aisle west window. Externally the tower has at each western angle two matching triple-stepped buttresses at right angles, and to the north-west an octagonal stair turret over a squinch. In the 15th century it was given an embattled parapet, as were the aisles and the nave, the latter presumably after receiving its clerestory of twolight windows. Their Perpendicular tracery resembles that of three-light windows then inserted in the aisle east ends. The 15th-century south porch has its side walls panelled with elongated much-cusped tracery and pierced with square-headed windows.
The sumptuous north chapel, whose three bays are attached to the north aisle's three western bays, was added in the early 14th century. Its lower floor with a wide central north doorway, whose triple-chamfered mouldings without capitals are more plainly echoed in the tower west doorway, provided, through an undercroft stone-vaulted with chamfered ribs on two piers with matching responds, and having cinquefoiled one-light windows, a potential ceremonial entrance to the church. The lofty upper floor, to which the only access before the 19th century was up a small newel staircase in its western bay, has, under a high-pitched roof, matching windows, two of three lights to the north, two more of four to a different design to east and west, all with elegantly flowing tracery. It probably housed Our Lady's chantry, said c. 1540 to be on the north side of the church. (fn. 89)
The octagonal font is 15th-century. (fn. 90) From that period, too, date the oak roofs: the nave one, partly renewed in 1855 and later, (fn. 91) has ten bays, its tiebeams with carved bosses resting on stone corbels, some with crowned heads. The aisle roofs differ slightly. The more elaborate roof, to the south, has low arched braces supported on wooden corbels on the south wall. In the ornate chancel roof queenposts rise from three tiebeams, supported by leaf-carved braces, and each bearing three angels, their wide-spread wings regilded, carrying shields, with other figures bearing sacred emblems on the intermediate trusses. The rood screen was still in place, with a massive beam 10 ft. to its east, in 1745, when the chancel was still stalled with nine seats each side: (fn. 92) six of them, their misericords carved with beasts' heads, survive. Late medieval panelling, standing before them in the 1990s, carved with tracery may come from the base of the rood screen removed in 1841-2. (fn. 93) An old wooden pulpit stood in the nave in 1745, behind a brass eagle lectern, according to tradition buried in the 1650s. (fn. 94) From the late medieval nave seating there survive some bench-ends, their poppyheads mostly floral, but some carved with angel musicians. (fn. 95) The few fragments left of medieval glass, mostly mislaid during restoration in the 1830s, include a bishop's head in the north chapel undercroft. (fn. 96) Of the brasses recorded in 1745, there remains one for William Cheesewright (d. 1521) and his wife. Among later monuments are floor slabs in the chancel to three infant children of William Russell (d. 1701) and a hanging one on the north aisle wall to William Metcalfe (d. 1785). (fn. 97) Another is of Dorothy (d. 1678), widow of Sir John Washington. (fn. 98)
By 1745, when the north chapel was disused and 'slovenly' kept, its upper windows being blocked with plaster, the nave and aisles were leaded, the chancel still tiled. (fn. 99) In 1802 a singing gallery was installed across the west end, whose side parts accommodated the village children until 1893. (fn. 100) During extensive repairs (fn. 101) undertaken in 1841-2, the boarded-up tower arch behind its centre was rearranged to reveal the tower's west window and doorway, other windows were unblocked, some new pews were installed, and the north chapel undercroft, previously serving both as vestry room and main entrance, repaved. (fn. 102) In 1860 a £500 legacy from Sir Eyre Coote was used to renew the oak and lead of the tower and aisle roofs, to install a new bell frame, and partly to restore the aisle windows' stonework. (fn. 103) In 1864 William Dunn Gardner restored the north chapel, opening its upper floor to the church through three arches. (fn. 104) In 1871-3, when c. £1,200, mostly subscribed, was spent on refurbishing the whole church, two new 'aisles', designed by R. R. Rowe, were added each side of the chancel's western end. They opened by new arches in 'Devonshire marble' into that end and into the older aisles, whose former east windows were reset in the new east walls and copied in the side walls. The northern extension housed to the east a vestry, to the west the newly enlarged organ, given in 1855 by Dunn Gardner to replace a harmonium of 1854 played by the schoolmaster. That instrument had been placed since 1857 in the central west gallery, which could thus be taken down in 1871-2. The southern chapel, for which Dunn Gardner then paid, contained his manorial pew. The upper part of the chancel arch with the gable above was also rebuilt and a rose window inserted. George Townsend (d. 1881) gave a new stone pulpit. (fn. 105)
The restored church was soon elaborately decorated. In 1887-8 the aisles were cleared of pews, which had previously provided 250 of the 625 sittings, and new nave seating was installed whose design copied that of the medieval benches. (fn. 106) Marble Gothic arcading with the Creed and Commandments, given by Tansley Hall in 1871, (fn. 107) was moved c. 1885 to the chancel north wall, making way for a reredos with the Crucifixion in marble. George Townsend gave a new brass eagle lectern. In 1904 ladies of his family covered the chancel walls with painted Gothic arcading to Clayton & Bell designs, containing classically robed angels, prophets, and saints, representing the Te Deum. (fn. 108) In the 1910s the local painter, C. P. Leonard, adorned the inside of the tower with tall Gothic canopy work and filled the nave arcade spandrels with curvaceous floral patterns. The church is darkened by an almost complete series of stained glass windows, installed from 1873 to the 1910s, by Clayton & Bell, Heaton Butler, and other firms, memorials to the vicar John Bell, the local poet J. R. Withers, and local families such as the Townsends, Cootes, and Asplands. (fn. 109)
In 1552 the church had two silver gilt chalices and patens, two gilt pyxes, and a silver censer, nef, and candlesticks, (fn. 110) and in 1794 a silver cup and paten. (fn. 111) The modern plate includes two cups and a paten of 1842, the set given in memory of a curate (d. 1835). (fn. 112) There were four bells in 1552, one for a clock, (fn. 113) and by 1745 as in the 19th century, six bells with a clock. (fn. 114) Of the older bells there survive three of 1638. The other three, one probably of 1759, fell in 1793 and were recast in 1825, all six being rehung in 1860. (fn. 115) Two more were added in 1988. (fn. 116) The registers, which begin in 1567-8, are substantially complete. (fn. 117)
The churchyard, nearly full by 1879, was closed in 1896-7 (fn. 118) and levelled and cleared of gravestones in the 1970s. (fn. 119) A westward extension was consecrated in 1947. A new burial ground, on ½ a. of the former rectory close across the crossroads, bought from the Dunn Gardners in 1890, was in use from 1892. It was extended eastwards in 1928 and northwards in 1944-6, the oldest part being closed in 1980-1. (fn. 120)
Although 27 a. held in trust for church maintenance in 1575 was apparently lost after 1616, (fn. 121) by 1646 the parish had acquired a different 12½ a., owned on similar trusts into the 18th century. (fn. 122) By the 1790s the 12½ a. was officially held, with the 'Church house' on Mill lane and 1½ a., for church repairs, for which they produced £22 or more in rent. (fn. 123) They were still intended for those uses in the 1830s, after the parish had been allotted 6 a. of Moor common for the fieldland. (fn. 124) The Church land yielded £21 in the 1860s. (fn. 125) The house, divided into three cottages, one uninhabitable, was sold in 1879. (fn. 126) In the mid 20th century the Church land, let with the Poor land, apparently yielded c. £10 a year. (fn. 127) Jane Elizabeth Aspland, by will proved 1932, left the income from her residuary estate, from which c. £5,850 was received for investment in 1936, to maintain the fabric and services of Fordham church, unspent sums to be accumulated for major repairs. (fn. 128) In 1992 Mrs. Alice Lynch left for the church £2,000, used to support its choral activities. (fn. 129)