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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There was a church at Snailwell by the 11th century. (fn. 1) Snailwell church, always remaining a rectory, belonged from the 12th century to the bishops of Ely. (fn. 2) About 1200 the advowson had possibly been shared or disputed between the bishop of Ely and the Capeles family, but in 1208 Walter de Capeles and his heir Aubrey each granted half the advowson to the bishop of Ely in return for one carucate. (fn. 3) In 1279 the advowson belonged entirely to the bishop, but the king presented in vacancies, and during confiscations, in 1302, 1361, and 1436. (fn. 4) By 1808 the advowson had been acquired by John Tharp in exchange for that of Burgate (Suff.). (fn. 5) In 1829 the patronage was held in trust for John Tharp (d. 1863), a lunatic, and thereafter descended in his family, with Snailwell manor. (fn. 6) In 1942 the rector of Snailwell was appointed vicar of Chippenham, and the livings were held together thereafter, with the advowson of both remaining with the Tharp trustees. (fn. 7)
In 1279 the glebe comprised 80 a. given by the bishop of Ely. (fn. 8) Throughout the 18th century the glebe was reckoned at c. 130 a., of which some two thirds lay in the open fields. (fn. 9) During the 18th century all tithes were collected in kind, and in 1796 tithes from the sale of barley, wheat, rye, and oats raised £201. (fn. 10) The glebe rent, £75 in 1804, rose after the inclosure award of 1806 to £105, the rector having been allotted 100 a. (fn. 11) They were concentrated in Newmarket field and West fen. (fn. 12) From c. 1910 the glebe was let out, and in 1943 it was sold: the Chippenham Park Estate purchased 24 a. in West fen, and Maj. Clarke bought the rest. (fn. 13)
Though a small parish Snailwell, being unappropriated, remained a valuable living throughout the medieval and modern periods. In 1256 the rectory was worth £13, in 1291 £20, and in 1535 £27. (fn. 14) In 1650 it yielded £120. (fn. 15) In 1786 the living was valued at £200; in 1796 at £237; and in 1804 the tithes and glebe brought in £310 gross. (fn. 16) In 1834 all tithes were commuted for a rent charge of £480, all arising from the Tharp manorial estate. (fn. 17) Between 1866 and 1892 the living was worth c. £530, but by 1896 its value had fallen to £450, (fn. 18) and thereafter declined further. (fn. 19)
About 1664-74 the rectory house had six hearths. (fn. 20) The present old rectory, built in the early 18th century, has two storeys, its main range being flanked by wings on the north-east and south-west. In 1804-5 it was described as being spacious, modern, and in substantially good repair, but the manorial steward suggested that it was unnecessarily large for such a small parish. (fn. 21) The entrance facade has 19th-century stucco with a gabled porch, while the main staircase was built, in Queen Anne style, by Augustus Tharp, rector 1856-77. (fn. 22) There were great celebrations there in 1866, on his daughter's marriage, and in 1870 on the return of his son from India. (fn. 23) The rectory house was partly destroyed by lightning in 1908. (fn. 24) After 1932, when a new rector leased the house to Lord Howard de Walden, it was occupied by Mrs. Powles, (fn. 25) the previous rector's widow and Lord Howard's aunt. In 1943 the house was sold to the Chippenham Park Estate. (fn. 26) In 1934 the rector had built a new rectory, called Snailwell House. (fn. 27) From 1943 it was thought that the rector should live in Chippenham, but money spent on Snailwell House led to its being retained as the residence of both parishes until 1972, when the new incumbent of the joint livings took up residence in Chippenham. (fn. 28)
In the Middle Ages Snailwell rectory was sometimes held in plurality by absentees. Two candidates were presented to the living within six months of each other in 1302, and within four months of each other in 1349. (fn. 29) Two rectors came from the same Norfolk village of Walpole: Godfrey was rector in 1311-17, (fn. 30) and in 1348 Richard was assisted by a chaplain. (fn. 31) In 1349 Thomas Durrent was presented twice, and Robert Seyr once; but after 1351 Seyr was recognized as rector. (fn. 32) One rector served for only four months in 1361, and another named in 1367 was dispensed in 1369 to hold Snailwell in plurality. (fn. 33) The rector c. 1381-93 was a prominent figure in the area, (fn. 34) and John Warde, rector 1491-1526, was resident in the parish. (fn. 35) Dr. Nicholas Hawkyn, archdeacon of Ely, who held Snailwell in plurality 1526-34, (fn. 36) leased it in 1533 to Rowland Bacchus. (fn. 37) Under Elizabeth I Edward Leeds held Snailwell in plurality with two other Cambridgeshire parishes, and between 1603 and 1612 it was held by two eminent scholars and pluralists. (fn. 38) Daniel Wigmore, archdeacon of Ely, was rector from 1622 until 1637, when the living passed to his son Gilbert. (fn. 39)
After 1660 the living continued to be held by well-connected clergy. Dr. Boldero, rector between 1663 and 1674, possibly until 1678, was resident in the parish. (fn. 40) Dr. Henry Harrison, prebendary of Ely, held Snailwell from 1679 in plurality. (fn. 41) In 1682 his son William may have been helping his aged father (d. 1690) to minister to Snailwell. (fn. 42) As Snailwell was valued at over £100 a year, a bishop asked the bishop of Norwich to let him appoint in 1696, apparently a Dr. Harrison. (fn. 43) The younger Harrison, probably resident in 1697, but employing a curate in 1704, probably retained Snailwell until his death in 1723. (fn. 44) His son married a granddaughter of Sir Samuel Clarke. (fn. 45) William Towers, rector 1723-44, held the living in plurality. (fn. 46) In 1744 the bishop of Ely presented his son, who held Snailwell with Feltwell (Norf.), until debts forced him to resign in 1754. (fn. 47) His successor also held Snailwell with Feltwell. (fn. 48) In 1768 John Warren, prebendary of Ely and son of the archdeacon of Suffolk, became rector, holding Snailwell in plurality with another living. (fn. 49) Being chaplain, secretary, and executor to the bishop of Ely, and also chaplain and domestic manager to Lord Sondes, he probably spent little time in Snailwell. Before resigning in 1772 he had to compensate an aggrieved clergyman with whom he had agreed to exchange the living. (fn. 50) In 1773 James Nasmith resigned from two other livings to take up Snailwell, and in 1778 he refused the mastership of his old college, saying that he was occupied with improving his living at Snailwell and with farming. In 1796 he did however resign to take up another living. (fn. 51)
Between 1796 and 1931 the parish was served by only four rectors. Nicholas Isaac Hill, rector 1796-1854, (fn. 52) although offered the richer living of Burgate (Suff.) by John Tharp between 1802 and 1804, refused, despite persistent and repeated invitations from Tharp's steward. (fn. 53) In 1853 Hill distributed over 300 kg. (50 stone) of bread amongst the villagers. (fn. 54) Between 1843 and 1854 the elderly Hill employed three curates in succession. (fn. 55) His declining health from 1853 onwards worried his parishioners, who mourned his death in 1854, after 59 years of service. (fn. 56) In 1856 Augustus Tharp, vicar of Chippenham, and the younger brother of the patron, became the new rector, holding both livings until his death in 1877. (fn. 57) His successor, E. T. Mortlock, had already been active in the parish before his presentation in 1877. (fn. 58) Ernest Powles was rector from 1895 until 1931. (fn. 59) Through the 20th century members of his family have been almost continuously resident in the old rectory, and they have played an important role in the affairs of the parish. (fn. 60)
In 1603 there were 72-77 communicants. (fn. 61) Between 1796 and 1820 services were tolerably well attended, but there was a slight decline by 1820 which puzzled the rector who rarely left his parish. (fn. 62) Between 1806 and 1897 there were prayers every Sunday morning, and a sermon was preached in the evening. (fn. 63) In 1851 30 adults attended the morning service and 80 in the evening, with 50 children at both services. (fn. 64) In 1885-97 services were regularly attended by 80-100 persons, with a small minority of under 15 neglecting worship. (fn. 65) In 1885 there were on average 124 communicants, with a slight increase by 1897. (fn. 66) Communion was held quarterly between 1806 and 1825; monthly in 1885; and fortnightly from 1897 until 1996. (fn. 67)
The parish church of ST. PETER, so called in 1791 (fn. 68) and perhaps from c. 1400, (fn. 69) but dedicated to St. Andrew in the late 13th century, (fn. 70) consists of a clerestoried nave with north and south aisles, chancel and west tower. (fn. 71) Its 11thcentury round tower dressed in Barnack limestone, of three stages with a plain parapet, had until c. 1850 a lead spire, which probably collapsed before 1877. (fn. 72) The early 13th-century chancel and south aisle were partly rebuilt in the early 14th century with the lancet windows being filled with tracery. In the late 15th century the south aisle was lengthened by six feet, and a clerestory was added with three two-light, cinquefoiled windows in four-centred arches, with a hammerbeam roof of six bays, with moulded principals, purlins, and figures of bishops and priests carved on the soffits of beams. In 1644 William Dowsing destroyed the cross on the steeple, six other crosses, and nine inscriptions, stripped the lead from the north aisle roof, (fn. 73) and perhaps mangled the carved figures on the beams, extant in 1791. (fn. 74) In the late 18th century funds were routinely spent on the upkeep of the brickwork, and drainage. (fn. 75) In 1791 the church was thought to be picturesque, being surrounded and almost hidden by a grove of trees. (fn. 76) By 1820 it had, however, fallen into disrepair, the windows offering limited protection from the weather, perhaps helping to reduce attendance. (fn. 77)
In 1878 a new rector immediately closed the church in order to have it thoroughly restored. It reopened in 1879. (fn. 78) The soil in the churchyard, which had risen, was lowered, and the trees were removed, gravestones were replaced, and the south aisle was rebuilt on its previous early 13th-century lines, and the porch in its 15th-century style. The roofs of the nave and the north aisle were repaired, and the whole of their exterior was covered in Bangor slates. The chancel walls were put into a perpendicular position. The chancel arch, screen, and stained glass are all 19th century.
Sir Isaac Thornton's marble tombslab in the south aisle, below a wall tablet to him, with his coat of arms engraved upon it, was surrounded c. 1790 by 'high gothic rails' creating a 'chapel' there, but it had disappeared by the late 19th century. (fn. 79) About 1740 there was a small 'chapel' within gothic rails in the north aisle, and c. 1850 there was a tomb with a canopy there, perhaps part of the Clarke family vault, where Sir Arthur Clarke (d. 1806) had been buried. (fn. 80) It became a war memorial chapel, and has a commemoration plaque for the rector E. Powles, who served as chaplain to the Royal Suffolk Hussars during the First World War. Between 1883 and 1896 the family and friends of the former rector, N. I. Hill, paid for a new vestry, and for its mural decorations. (fn. 81)
Three bells in the West tower were cast at Bury St. Edmunds in the late 14th century and early 15th. (fn. 82) There are three black marble tablets in the south aisle, and two slabs for prominent villagers in the nave. In the churchyard beside the south porch there lies a 13th-century coffin, said to be of Templar origin. (fn. 83) The churchyard itself was enlarged westwards and consecrated in 1940, after a strip of land was bought in 1932 from Lt.-Col. G. P. Tharp. (fn. 84)