Our church building originates from the fourteenth century, having been built by the Berkeley family. The presence of the Norman font suggests that there was an earlier Church (although this was reputedly partially built into the North wall in the eighteenth century – reference Pevsners Gloucester). There was certainly a Saxon Church, as the Doomsday Book states “Stoche hath one priest”. This was probably a wooden building, and there would have been some sort of priest’s dwelling. Archaeological excavations have revealed Roman occupation in the parish. Coins found on the site suggest that this occupation was from about AD270-350. This covers the time that the Christian Constantine was emperor, so it is possible that there was Christian worship in the Parish at that time, and almost certainly by the time St Augustine came to England.
In the 1930’s Arthur Mee in his ‘Gloucestershire – The King’s England’ described the village as:
One of the little places around Bristol, with a mediaeval Church between its green and busy railway junction. A quaint red-roofed building, with many gables, the Church has an embattled tower on the south side, opening with a plain massive arch with a pinnacled leafy hood, and in the simple inner doorway hangs an old studded door. Inside, the walls are cream, the roofs white and some of the walls are leaning. Square fluted pillars divide the Nave and the Aisle, and the Norman font, with a bowl like a great cushion capital, is partly built into a wall. The low altar rails are Jacobean. A 13th century window has a face among old fragments.
In more recent times the population in the parish increased considerably. This was due to building of the railway in 1858, Sir George White’s “Aeroplane Works” from 1910 through two World Wars and further, and the general building programmes from the 1960’s onwards. The congregation at St Michael’s increased correspondingly. In 1991 the Church of Christ the King was built at Bradley Stoke, still in the ecclesiastical parish of Stoke Gifford, with the Reverend Stephen Smith as its vicar and the Reverend David Widdows as the team rector. Each congregation had its own district council, both joining together in a parochial church council. Building of the new church was financed by parishioners throughout the diocese under the Diocesan Development Programme. Finance for equipment came from within the congregation and others as the result of an appeal fund for £50,000 in 1988.
Beyond the wall at the tower end of the churchyard there was a building for a private Sunday School. This was started in 1786, six years after Robert Raikes’ first Sunday School. There are two interesting memorials on this side of the churchyard. One, in the form of an angel, is in memory of Fanny Pauline Close, wife of Admiral Francis Arden Close, of Stoke Park. The other, a broken pillar, is in memory of Martin Harding, a connection by marriage of the Mortimer family at Walls Court Farm, who died in a hunting accident.
Many old family names appear on the gravestones around the Church. The plot of ground near the Vicarage wall at the West end is consecrated for the burial of caskets from cremation. A pedestal for flowers, given by Mrs Bailey in memory of her husband, is at the corner. In the front of the Church are the oldest gravestones and vaults, the lettering of some being worn by time and weather. Silas Blandford, accountant to Norborne Berkeley is buried beneath one of the three table tombs. Miss Blandford, librarian and historian of Filton is his descendant. On the corner near the kissing gate is a gravestone covering the remains of Esau Dust in his final resting place.
Most Churches dedicated to St. Michael are situated on higher ground, and Stoke Gifford is no exception. The railway embankment makes it seem less obvious now, but the Church can be seen from most parts of the Parish. Old photographs show the Church to be almost completely covered by ivy.
It was partially removed during the nineteenth-century alterations, and again in 1922, to prevent damage to the walls. At the nave end of the South wall is a blocked arched doorway. This would have been the most public view of the Church from Church Road before the coming of the railway.
To the side of this archway was a Rose window. This was removed during the nineteenth century alterations after much consternation and debate by the parishioners. It was replaced by a perpendicular window of the same design as the two already there. It was described by the architect Lingen Barker as a “Bull’s Eye.” Windows (including stained glass) had been vandalised many times so that in 1990 permanent plastic covers were put over them.
It is pennant and limestone (not a good mixture) with flush ashlar quoins, a perpendicular parapet and gargoyles. On the South wall is what was thought to be a scratch sundial with a style hole and a circle of small holes but could be a stonemason’s mark. On the East wall near the ground another blocked doorway can be seen. This led down stone steps to the coke boiler.
The tower is a triangulation point for Ordnance Survey and is marked on the Ordnance Survey map. The reference point is checked regularly. A triangular block is on the roof as a marker. The RAF also probably used the tower as a landmark during the Second World War. The floodlit tower can be seen as a beacon and inspiration to all who see it. Before she died in 1990 Rita Southgate’s mother Mrs Enid McGroggan bequeathed the money for making this possible. This was as a result of a conversation between Rita and Joy Bailey who were discussing how beautiful the tower would be if it was floodlit.
Another thing that has delighted passengers and staff at Parkway station has been the sound of hymns and carols at Christmas and summertime coming from the Green. The church bells can no longer be heard as another reminder of Christianity. In times gone by they seemed to call “All good people come to church” and spurred people on to get to church on time.
Inside the porch are stone benches and the remains of a Holy Water Stoupe. Parishioners on entering would dip their fingers in the water and make the sign of the cross, remembering their baptism. Small loaves were placed on the benches every week, being given by Webbs Charity for the poor and needy of the parish, also perhaps for the communion bread. These were delivered at one time by David Hutton’s grandfather. Perhaps because of the very close bombing during the second world war it was proposed in 1942 that smelling salts and fresh water should be placed in the porch.
It has a distinctive O-Gee arch, with crocketed finial and pinnacles and is probably l4th century, however being made in sandstone makes its date uncertain. The pattern had almost disappeared by 1986 when it was expertly recarved by stone masons who were called in to repair the deteriorating state of the porch. At the same time stone slabs were placed outside for the congregation to linger before going home or taking coffee. The vicarage rooms were converted for church use from part of the vicarage which had previously been used as a flat and during the war as shelter from the bombing.
The Church Building
The heavy oak studded door might have been used in bygone days by some people knocking and claiming sanctuary. Above the door is the Georgian Coat of Arms, with the White Horse of Hanover. The Ten Commandments are on the West wall of the North aisle. They may have been moved at some time from the Chancel. Between 1992 and 1993 the boards were expertly restored by Mrs Katherine Woodgate Jones. Margaret Jocelyn paid for this to be done in memory of her father (Margaret herself keeps the Book of Remembrance written up). The great hatchment of the Beaufort family which used to hang here is stored in Bristol museum in the hope of eventual restoration. A Berkeley hatchment with a Bloody Hand (relating to a war in Ireland) is remembered to have been in the Vestry in the 1930’s but its whereabouts are now unknown.
The silver communion plate given by the Berkeley family in the eighteenth century which was once held by the museum is now back in church. This consists of a large wine ewer given by Elizabeth countess of Hereford in 1720 made by John Bignell; the chalice by Andrew Folberg and two 1775 patens by Frederick Kandler.
At the West end is the organ which was given to the Church by Mrs Gladys Burden in 1939 two years after electricity was installed (this also was given by Mrs Burden). The present organ was first installed at the North wall of the East end. It was transferred to the site of the old organ in 1952. The introduction of electricity gave a new look to the Church, and the Evening Post took some pictures beforehand, showing the Verger Fred Curtis, lighting the oil lamps. Here at the West end in 1850 was “a platform from which the village choir performs with their own voices and two flutes. There are several great singers amongst the congregation, who seem to join with amazing unction and energy” (The Church Goer Rural Rides). Fred Curtis had the important job of stoking the boilers under the Church. The heat came up through wrought iron grids above the aisles. These were later filled in and in 1980 were covered with carpet. On the South wall are the arms of Parsons of Hammock.
In the bell chamber there were once four bells; the original no.2 bell was removed long ago but the three which remain are of considerable historical interest. Although the bells themselves are excellent castings of good tone, the condition of their fittings has progressively deteriorated so that it is no longer possible safely to use them in any way.
Treble Bell: Diameter 30″, note D-flat, weight 5-cwts. Bristol Foundry, mid l5th century Inscribed: (Crown)STEPAULEORAPRONOBIS (St. Paul, pray for us)
Second Bell: Diameter 36’/z”, note B-flat, weight 8-cwts. Thomas Gefferies, Bristol, c.1520 Inscribed: + snacx : ta (crown) ma : ri : a (mark) ~ (Holy Mary) T(HOMAS) G(efferies)
Tenor Bell: Diameter 39’/4″, note A-flat, weight 10-cwts. Roger Purdue I, Bristol, 1620 Inscribed: W G . R L . C D . W S COME.WHEN.I.CALL.AND.SERVE.GOD ALL 1620.
The missing bell was the original no.2 of the peal and would have been about 33″ diameter and weighed around 6’/4-cwts. Parts of the bellframe are of medieval origin, further alterations being made probably in 1620 when the tenor bell was cast. In the last century (possibly when the old second bell was removed) much of the frame was cut away on three sides and replaced with mere timber props. What is left, and the bells themselves, is listed for preservation. A new frame and all new bell fittings will be required before they can ring again – may it not be too long before we can hear and heed again the message on the tenor: Come when I call, and serve God all.
Our former Diocesan Bells adviser, David Cawley, provided this information, adding “Let’s hope it moves someone to do something, what a pity that the fastest growing parish in the Diocese is deprived of the loudest sound which is made to the glory of God.”
The Arch is eighteenth century.On the North side is the Vestry. This used to be known as the Duchess’s Room and was open to the Chancel. It was used by the Duchess of Beaufort, where she would sit by the eighteenth century fireplace and take part in the service. She is reputed to have made quite a noise rattling the fire with the poker when she thought the sermon should end. So that she could see the Vicar the pulpit was placed in the lower part of the Chancel next to the Belfry. From this position it was very difficult for the rest of the congregation to hear the sermon, and the Vicar no doubt found it hard to make himself heard. Perhaps because of this, or his Welsh oratory, Vicar Railton Jones in the 1930’s was apt to gesticulate and thump the pulpit to press points in his sermon, One day he was shocked to be interrupted by a young lady Lily Wicks shouting “Vicar you’re on fire.” The candles then used for illumination had set his sleeves alight.
The old altar rails are Jacobean. In 1923 two small girls, Marjorie Powell and Margaret Taylor undertook the task of removing the white paint and restoring them to their original condition. Also in the Chancel is the old bible, given to the church by Admiral Close towards the end of the nineteenth century, which is now housed in a typical bible box (given by Rita Southgate) of approximately the same date.
For many years the repositioning of the pulpit was discussed. It was removed during the alterations of the 1970’s and replaced by an Eagle Lectern, given by St. Philip and St. Jacobs Church in Bristol, who had acquired it from the bombed Church of Emmanuel. The legal fees were paid by Mrs. Johnson in memory of her mother. Some pews were also removed to make more space.
The Chancel was altered at this time. A platform was built and the whole area carpeted. The altar was brought forward and new altar rails were purchased. Volunteers completely redecorated the Church. Wooden kneelers were replaced by hassocks, skillfully embroidered by the ladies of the Parish. People who wished to contribute to the cost had their initials sewn on the back. The stained glass window at the East End was made by Joseph Bell of Bristol in 1900. The figures bear a close resemblance to Admiral and Lady Close. As part of her GCE studies Nina Shiels designed and embroidered the banner, which symbolised St. Michael’s challenge of Light against Darkness. The Archangel was depicted in rich colours on a previous banner. Striking pictures of archangels hung on the Chancel walls until about 1930. They were on plaques of thick paper and showed St. Michael the champion of faith with his sword, St. Raphael the pilgrim with his staff and a fish & St. Gabriel the angel of divine revelation. The Cherry wood candlesticks were made by Windsor Davies, headmaster of the School from the ‘Judas Tree’ which had to be cut down from the Vicarage garden when the Parkway Station was built. There are memorial tablets to the Berkeley family round the walls of the Chancel. The Berkeley Coat of Arms, which used to hang in the Vestry, is no longer there. Church records, dating from 1588 – the year of the Armada, which used to be kept in the Vestry are now in the safe keeping of the City Archives in Bristol. Records for Poor Law Relief, administered by the Church Wardens and overseers which were in the Muniments Room at Badminton are now with the Gloucester Records office.
The North Aisle or Lady Chapel
The stone vaults between the Chancel and the North aisle are of the Lawford family, and of John Silcocks who founded a charity for the needy of the Parish.
The fourteenth century East window with its “face among the fragments” is the only piece of old stained glass left after Cromwell’s men came during the Civil War and can be seen above the 1914-18 war memorial window.
The Font, partly built into the North wall, is Norman. Its dog-toothed pattern was discovered by the Vicar’s wife in the 1920’s and was later restored. In the 1950’s Douglas Williams made the lid from an oak builder’s plank found by Vicar Evans. At the same time he also made a frame for a triptych which a local artist Jack Curtis had painted of St Michael and two saints. It was not passed by the diocese for hanging in the church so was stored (temporarily) in the vestry for 20 – 30 years until it was returned to the artist’s widow. Jack Curtis had inserted a very small unnoticeable picture of the Britannia aeroplane which was lost in the mud of the River Severn. This was during the last year of Vicar Evans’ incumbency. When the heating system was changed Doug remembers covering the old metal pipes under the grills with rubble and concrete. The Orthodox Cross on the inside of the font lid was previously in the sanctuary and was fixed there by Vicar Donald Shiels in the 1960’s. The stained glass window of St. Michael was given by a former matron of Stoke Park, commemorating the hospital’s 60 years association with the Church.
Maintenance and Preservation
The church was restored in 1894 by Lingen Barker, the Duke of Beaufort’s architect. A new roof was put on the nave, the old oak box pews were removed, and a new pulpit, vicar’s stall, lectern and pews were installed.
Some eighteenth century panelling was discovered at the West end, but there is now no trace of this.
The belfry and tower needed major repairs in the late 1920’s and 1960’s. The Church has a fabric committee whose task is to maintain and preserve the structure and its contents in a safe and usable condition and to undertake to complete as many tasks as possible identified in the Quinquennial Report (Paul Smith 1996). Every five years an inspection, funded by the diocese, is undertaken by the church architect. His report is sent to the church and diocese. It indicates the work that needs to be carried out under three categories – urgent, essential and if possible. Payment for this work comes from church funds, but personal donations are given for specific purposes, such as the new sound system and commandment boards restoration. Much valuable work such as churchyard maintenance, dry-stone walling, inside decoration and chattels etc. has always been done by stalwart volunteers.
Until the twentieth century the Lords of the Manor bore the brunt of the responsibility for maintenance, but especially during recent years the parishioners alone have met each crisis with tremendous money raising efforts. As time goes on, the building has become much more expensive to preserve. It has stood the test of time since the Wars of the Roses to the present time and always it has been the House of God for the faithful, to meet and pray and worship.
Reproduced with the kind permission of the author ©1997 Ros Broomhead