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Shirenewton Church - History

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This history of The Church of St. Thomas a’Becket, Shirenewton was compiled in 1984 by Mr. Fred Davis one of the Churchwardens and long time village resident. It represents this research over the years into the history of the church and locality. This text was initially published in a church booklet and is reproduced in its entirity here. We hope to add an update to bring the history up-to-date shortly.

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Early History

Shirenewton was not mentioned as a settlement in the Domesday Book of 1086, but was added to the lands of Caldicot belonging to the Sheriffs of Gloucester between 1086 and  1127. The whole of this area was at that time part of the extensive forest of Wentwood, and Sheriff Durand caused a clearing to be made in the forest, for the purpose of cultivating the land. This work, begun by Durand, was probably continued by his nephew, Walter FitzRoger who succeeded him as Sheriff on his death in 1096.

The natural outcome was for a small hamlet to be built, in order to house the people who worked on the land thus cleared. This came to be known as the Sheriff’s New Town, in time condensed into the name Shirenewton.

Walter FitzRoger formed the manor of Caldecot-cum-Newton before retiring to become a monk at Llanthony Abbey in 1123. He was followed as Sheriff of Gloucester by his son, Milo Fitzwalter who was made Earl of Hereford, after a lapse of that title in 1141. Hence the name Earls Wood. When Milo was accidentally killed by an arrow while deer hunting in the Forest of Dean in 1143, his eldest daughter, Margery, took this area as her share of the vast estates, securing the title of Earl of Hereford and Constable of England for her husband, Humphrey de Bound.

The Church

Mention of the de Bound family brings us to the Church. The first Humphrey de Bohun, known as “Humphrey with the long beard” came over from Normandy with William the Conqueror, his cousin. The Church was built by the fifth Humphrey de Bohun, called “The Good Earl” soon after he succeeded to the title and the lordship of the manor of Caldecot-cum-Newton on the death of his father in 1220. He also built a Rectory and endowed the Church with the village and 60 acres of land, arable, meadow and wood. The land was in various separate places, some still known as “The Churches” south of the village towards Runston, and “Parson’s Grove” to the north near the village of Earlswood, thus creating the “Rectory Manor of Nova Villa”, the rector holding the title of Lord of the Manor.

The Church has a solid square tower, placed between the chancel and the nave; the practice at this time being to build churches with a two-fold purpose, as places of defence as well as of worship, and this is a good example of a Norman fortified church tower. It has a battlemented top with a turret at the N.E. corner and slits in the sides, originally for defence purposes, although today they are used to hold the four spindles which operate the hands of the clock. The Church was dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket, the Arch Bishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his Cathedral in 1170.

Five bells were placed in the tower in 1746, all cast by William Evans who, with his two sons, had a flourishing business with the foundry in Welsh Street, Chepstow. Their work was of a very high standard, and they cast bells for many churches in South Wales as well as in the West Country. All the Shirenewton bells bear the inscriptions with what seems to have been the Evans’ trademark a bell in between the letters W and E, as follows: -

1st…W-E 1756. Come let us ring for Church and King.

2nd…W-E 1756. Peace and Good Neighbourhood.

3rd…a scroll. 1756. William Evans cast us all.

4th…W-E 1756. Christopher Howell and Robert Phillips, Churchwardens.

5th…W-E 1756. The Rev. Samuel Butcher, Rector, 1756.

A Sixth bell was added in 1918, given as a war memorial by Capt.C.O. Liddell of Shirenewton Hall. The bells have not been rung for 20 years, owing to the fact that the wooden framework on which the original bells were hung has become unsafe, due to the ravages of time, weather and woodworm. In 1964 the estimate for retuning and rehanging the bells was £1,400, well out of reach of funds available at the time. The latest estimate was around £16,600. A set of Ellacombe chimes is fitted to the bells; and these are what are heard on  Sundays, calling the faithful to worship. I cannot refrain from commenting that the faithful have little need of such prompting, while the rest, far more numerous remain indifferent.

(Note: the bells have since been replaced and this will be covered in the forthcoming update section)

A marble tablet on the north chancel wall bears this inscription, “In affectionate remembrance of Edward Inwood Jones, M.A., for 8 years Rector of this parish, who died April 18th, 1856.” To his exertions the parishioners owe the restoration and enlargement of their church, A.D. 1853

Evidently the parishioners were delighted with their rebuilt church, and obviously it was a remarkable achievement on the part of their Rector. It seems that the tower was the only part of the original building left intact, the chancel and the nave being completely rebuilt and the nave extended to form a North Aisle. This enlargement appears to have been necessary to contain the large congregations of that time. In his returns for the census of places of worship in 1851, the Rector had stated that services were held on Sunday mornings and afternoons, with average attendances of 80 each. There was also a Sunday school with 37 children in the morning and 24 in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, many things of historical and architectural interest, relics of former worship, seem to have been swept away in the process of this restoration, and later historians and others interested in the preservation of ancient architecture have been scathing in their remarks on the way in which the restoration was carried out. Sir Joseph Bradney; the well-known historian, said, “Much was done to detract from the ancient character of the edifice.”

This was not an isolated case, as the same thing happened in other parts of the country in the 19th century. There seemed to be a wave of resentment against the past, and some people wanted to obliterate all that reminded them of former religious practices and forms of worship, rather than being content to repair and restore what was already there.

There had obviously been a Rood Screen and Loft in the original building, as the blocked-up doorway high up in the wall to the left of the arch, which led to the loft from the tower staircase, is still plainly visible.

A large Holy Water stoup, probably removed at the time, now stands in a corner of the porch.

At the top of the north and south walls of the chancel are six corbels stones, which jut out from the wall and act as supports for the roof timbers. They are carved in the shape of human heads, one of the Archbishop Becket, one of the Bishop William Blethin of Llandaff, and others of local squires and their ladies.

Above the porch is a priest’s room or parvis, in which, possibly visiting clergy rested between services, and the Rector sat to receive the tithes brought in by local landowners.

A manuscript of the time of Charles II states:- “In the wainscot of the (chancel) ceiling is carved the name David Patnod, probably a benefactor.” He was the last Roman Catholic Rector, and possibly the chancel roof was renewed by him. There was a figure of him praying in one of the earlier stained glass windows of the chancel, with the arms of France and England and the inscription in Latin:- Orate Pro Anima David Paynod. This disappeared at the restoration.

A pipe organ was presented to the church in 1908 by Captain C.O. Liddell of Shirenewton Hall. Until 1974 it was situated at the foot of the tower, but was then renovated and removed to it’s present position at the west end of the Lady Chapel in a space which had previously been partitioned off as a choir vestry. This gave more space under the tower, and improved the view of the chancel from the nave.

In 1966 a large area of ground adjoining the churchyard was given to the church by Mr. P.W.O. Liddell of Shirenewton Hall as an extension, there being no more room left for burials.

The North Aisle was converted into a lady Chapel in 1967 at the instigation of the Rector, the Reverend (later Canon) G.F.L. Riggs; the necessary furniture, in the shape of an Altar with riddle posts and curtains and a housling bench were provided by the Liddell family in memory of Capt. C.O. Liddell. An oak lectern was given by Mr. Sleeman of Mynyddbach, in memory of his wife, and a lectern Bible, in memory of Mr. F.C. Price of Weyloed, a former treasurer, P.C.C. secretary and churchwarden, was given by Mrs. Price and her family.

In 1968, an oak reredos, redundant from St. Woolos Cathedral and offered free of charge to any church wishing to make use of it, was accepted on behalf of the P.C.C. by the Rector, the Rev. G.F.L. Riggs and installed below the East window. At the same time, a new alter rail was given, also by the Liddell family, in memory of Mr. P.W.O. Liddell, his son, Capt. Ian Liddell, V.C., killed in action shortly after winning the V.C. in the second world war, and his daughter Mrs. Jenny Bourne.

An oak panelled screen with door, matching the organ panelling and connecting it to the west wall, was erected in 1981, as a memorial to Mr. G. Cornaby, organist from 1962 to 1978, the gift of Mrs. P. Cornaby.

The Processional Cross for use in the church was provided by the P.C.C. in 1972 as a memorial to our late rector, Canon G.F.L. Riggs, who died shortly after retiring through ill health in 1971.

The church registers, dating from 1730, were deposited at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, in 1960; now at the County Record Office, Cwmbran.

The clock, paid for by public subscription, was installed in the tower as a war memorial after the First World War.

Charities

A sheet metal plaque on the wall of the porch, dated 1862, records details of three charities for the use of the poor in the parish:

  1. Timothy Blethin of Dinham.

“The annual sum of thirty shillings, to be divided between 12 widows of good life and conversation, inhabitants of the parish.”

  1. Rev. William Dyer.

“To be paid half-yearly into the hands of the Rector and churchwardens for the time being, and by them laid in flannel amongst the poor at the feast of St. Thomas.” (Dec. 29th)

  1. William Jenkins

“In trust for the maintenance and support of the funds of the school established for the education and instruction of poor children in this parish in the doctrine and principles of the Church of England, and for their instruction in reading and writing.

Incumbents

1287 Richard de Bures                              

1323 William Seaward                              

1396 John Kirketon                                   

1399 Adam de Usk                                   

1399 Thomas ap Adam                             

      ? Ranulph Brid                         

1438 William Colle                        

1438 Richard Spicer                                  

     ? William                                                   

     ? David Paynod                                   

1543 William Johns                                   

1593 John Morgan                        

1596 Morgan Roberts                               

1597 Edward James M.A.                         

1603 Francis Godwin D.D.            

1613 Philemon Blethin M.A.                      

1618 Thomas Williams                              

1633 William Murray                                 

1640 Morgan Owen M.A.                         

1646 Richard Williams                               

1674 Marmaduke Hopkins M.A.               

1675 Joshua Hotchkiss M.A.                     

1680 Edward Williams 

1693 John Beaven

1727 Josias Prosser

1733 Lacun Lambe M.A.

1738 Westcott Littleton M.A.

1743 James Birt M.A.

1750 Samuel Butcher

1760 John Parsons M.A.

1773 Jeremiah Davies

     ? William Dyer

1816 James Ashe Gabbe M.A.

1844 James Davies B.A.

1847 Edward Inwood Jones M.A.

1856 Charles Ranken Hall M.A.

1884 Daniel George Davies

1891 George Platt Dew

1913 L.E. Richardson

1919 Frank Earnest Walters M.A.

1931 W.E.H. Williams

1933 Arther Swan Morgan M.A.

1956 Basil G. Williams BSc

1962 G.F.L. Riggs B.A.                             

1972 Wynne V. Lake B.A.

1977 L.C.J.G. Jones B.A.

1983 Richard William James

Memorials

Some earlier Rectors and others were buried in the chancel, but their memorial stones, if not their remains, were removed during the restoration and placed outside the church. Some stones still remain inside, built into the tower wall behind the choir stall and set in the floor near the lectern, partly covered by the front pew. Outside, near the Priest’s door in the chancel is a stone, which has aroused much interest. The inscription reads: “Here lyeth ye body of Henry Morgan of this parish, who departed this life the 11th day of June in the year 1731, aged 56.” At the top, on the left hand side is engraved a cherub’s head, and on the right, a skull and crossed bones. This has led to some people to believe that it is the grave of Sir Henry Morgan, the former pirate, but he died in Jamaica in 1688. Another likely theory is that people who died of the plague sometimes had their tombstones marked in this way.

At one time a very small headstone near the porch bore what must be the shortest epitaph in the churchyard: “E.W. dyed in 1712.”

Another tombstone, so far undiscovered, recorded the death of the Rev. Richard Williams, Rector, in 1674. He died, it said, on the 29th May, and was buried the following day, the 30th May. There appears to be no explanation for this unusual haste.

Notable Past Rectors

Adam of Usk (1399) whose autobiography has been published and who exchanged livings with his cousin, Thomas ap Adam, Vicar of Panteg, whom he called “Thomas ap William of Weloc”, in the same year.

David Paynod, last Roman Catholic Rector, who died in 1543 and is buried in the Churchyard. He was called “Sir David Paynod” after a strange custom of his time his will stated: “To be buried in the Chancel at Newton. To Llandaff, 8d. To Jenkin ap John, my russet coat; to my wife, a cow and a calf, 2 platters and a tablecloth; to the wife of Howell Wrono, a calf and 2 platters. I have more silver spoons, and I give the same to Sir Roger Lawrence, Vicar of Caerwent, Sir William Cheltnam, Vicar of Caldecote, and David Etkyns and the other six to the said vicars to sing for my soul. My books I give to the Vicar of Caerwent and a pewter pottel pot and my little coffer. To David Morgan a jerkin, and to my Clerk, my black coat.

Francis Godwin, (1603-1613) son of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, was at the same time Bishop of Llandaff. He was transferred to the Bishopric of Hereford in 1617. At that time, the Diocese of Llandaff was very poor, and its Bishops were allowed to take livings to compensate for their low income as Bishop. This area was in the Diocese of Llandaff until the Diocese of Monmouth was created in 1921.

Philemon Blethin (1613-1618) son of William Blethin, Bishop of Llandaff.

William Murray (1633- 1640) Bishop of Llandaff 1647-1640.

Morgan Owen (1640-1645) Also Bishop of Llandaff 1640-1645.

Edward Williams (1680- 1692) Also Vicar of Chepstow, where he lived.

Edward Inward Jones (1847- 1857) Mentioned elsewhere as being responsible for the restoration of 1853.

Charles Ranken Hall (1856-1884) Brother of Home Secretary, Sir Benjamin Hall, of  “Big Ben” fame.

G.F.L. Riggs (1962- 1971) Much loved and respected by his parishioners. Beautified and enriched our Church. Appointed Canon of St. Woolos in 1969. Carefully researched the history of the Church and Parish, and made copious handwritten notes, fortunately still in our possession, and from which much of the information contained in this article were taken.

The Village and Parish

The Village stands 500 ft. above sea level, with a good view of the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel. At the 1851 census the population was given as  933, compared with the population of Caldicot at 661. It has expanded considerably in the secound half of this century, with several new small housing estates being built. This increase, may I add, is not reflected in the size of church congregations.

The name Shirenewton has had several variations over the years, such as “Sheref Newton”, “Neweton Nether Went”, “Nova Villa”, etc., and even had a welsh name, Trenewydd Gelli Fach”, which means “The New Town in the Little Grove”.

In the last couple of centuries there has been a number of licensed premises in and around the village. The earliest, the Five Bells, held from 1767, now a private house, and for some years the village shop, in the centre of the village. The Tan House, near the site of the former tannery (1713). The King’s Head (1822), reputed to have been a coaching inn, now the Old Rectory on the road to Crick. Upper House (1847), now also a private house, near the present recreation centre. The Butcher’s Arms (1851 –1876), now disappeared. The Engineer’s Arms (1861-1876), now a private house. The Tredegar Arms (1861), still licensed, and the Carpenter’s Arms (1860), and the Cross Hands (now the Huntsman Hotel), both still licensed, on the Chepstow- Usk, road.

One of Shirenewton’s most famous sons, Bill Benjamin, was, in his youth, trained as a prizefighter by James Carruthers of the Grondra. He twice fought Tom Sayers, the English champion; Dick Shon Shamus, and after retiring kept the Cross Hands Inn for some years. He Died in 1906 and is buried in the churchyard.

Notable Houses

One of the oldest houses in the parish, called the Grondra, is built on a round hill, called Daggers Hill, south of the village. The name is said to have come from the Welsh “Cron-Dre”, meaning round homestead. Another spelling, “Greneraye” suggests that it might have originally been a granary, built to hold corn grown on the land first cleared for that purpose. Certainly there has been a building on the site for at least 500 years.

On or near the site of the present Shirenewton Hall was a house occupied by William Blathin, Bishop of Llandaff, 1575-1590. His son Philemon, Rector 1613-1618, bought Dinham House where the family lived for some years. Other members of the family lived at Llanmelin, and a Major William Blethin lived in Magor. Although well-to-do, the family later seems to have descended in the social scale, as the last one recorded, Timothy, the carpenter. William Hollis, a paper – maker lived at Shirenewton House as it was then called, until 1848, having moved from Mounton. He was High Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1831.

The family of Lowe, one a botanist and one a genealogist lived there later. They changed the name to Shire Newton Hall.

It was then bought, with the estate, in 1900, by Captain C.O. Liddell, who extended it and created the remarkable Japanese water garden in the park below. The family remained there until comparatively recently.

Newton Lodge, the large house in the village square, was at one time the village post office.

The house near the S.W. corner of the churchyard known as Caepwcella was, in its original form, built as the Rectory when the Church was built. It remained so until the last century.

Paper Mills

There was a flourishing paper – making industry, with mills along the Mounton Brook in the 18th and 19th centuries, the brook supplying the necessary water for pulp making, as well as power via water-wheels. There were six mills near Shirenewton. The uppermost was called Little Mill, and then came White mill, where white paper was made. Some ruins of it can still be seen, just below the present water treatment works, also called White mill. This mill had existed for around 200 years previously, as a corn mill called Curbehind, the name being changed when it was converted into a paper mill around 1730. Nearby were Tuck Mill, a fulling mill, then Dyer’s Mill, Itton Court Mill, and Pandy Mill, where brown paper was made. This industry brought much employment and prosperity to the area.

Manors

The area below Gaerllwyd between the Chepstow-Usk road and the Mouton Brook belonged to the manor of Caldicott-West End. It was sometimes known as Gamaged Land, after the first holder of the lordship.

The lower part of Shirenewton with Mynyddbach and the Cwn valley was in the manor of Caldicot-Cum-Newton.

There was a small manor composed of the Argoed farms and the Cribba Mill, towards Earlswood, called Argoed Manor. It was divided into three parts called Butler’shold, Hentsfoothold, and Parker’shold.

The rest of Shirenewton and Earlswood was in the Rectory Manor of Nova Villa, and the rector was Lord of the Manor. It was a copyfold manor, with the property let out by copy of Court Roll, for one, two or three lives at the will of the rector. There was no Manor House as such, but the business of the manor was transacted and Courts Leet held at the Rectory.

The Society of Friends, or Quakers, was active in Shirenewton from the 17th Century. George Fox, their founder, stayed here and preached at a meeting before continuing on his journey through South Wales. A Meeting House was built in 1730 in the centre of the village, and was used until it was closed in 1853. It was later taken over by the Methodists, and has had various uses since. Now part of a private house, it is still known as The Old Meeting House. There is a very small burial ground with a wall around it and a few graves, just behind the Post Office, and the iron gate bears the inscription: Friends Burial Ground 1700.

Friendly Societies were strong in the village in the latter half of the last century; no less than seven of them altogether. They held a combined parade and church service on Whit-Monday, 1890, followed by a dinner at the Five Bells, with rustic sports afterwards. Tintern Works Band provided music.

FS Davies

 

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