The following guide was written by Bob Breach (revised 2005) with illustrations by Henry Gamper
A church has stood on this site for perhaps a thousand years. Melbury Abbas as the Second half of the name suggests was owned by the great Abbey, the Benedictine nunnery of Shaftesbury, founded by Alfred the Greatin 888 AD. He made his daughter the first Abbess. The first firm evidence of a Christian ministry here is of one Eilan, priest of Melbury in a document of 1150 AD. He is described as dependent on the generosity of the people since there was no farm or glebe.
At some point a stone church was built and a building survived until 1852, though it
was then in bad repair. We know it had a tower with three bells, at least one transept, and a west door. It was demolished and the present church, a larger building took its place on the same ancient site. It cost Sir Richard Glyn, the patron, who owned nearly the whole village, £2500.00. On 21st December 1852 the Bishop of Salisbury dedicated the new church to St Thomas, whose feast day it then was. The Rector, Henry T Glyn, a member of the patron's family, and many clergy assisted in a long ceremony.
The parish of Melbury Abbas has a population of three hundred and one in one hundred and twenty five households (2001 census). Of the people, fewer than 30% are retired and 16% are under school-leaving age. Onehundred and thirty are working- a third of them for themselves. The major occupations are agricultural related (30%) followed by services and manufacturing.
There is no school, pub or shop, but a thriving village hall and Club offers a bar, pool, skittles, a stage and a place for meetings. The WI, the Village Produce Association, the Melbury Abbas and Cann Group Parish Council and the St. Thomas's Preservation Society all use the hall a good deal. Live music, pantomime, skittle and darts matches are held throughout the year.
The history of the village can only be sketched here. Mesolithic man (a hunting and fishing nomadic people), left some evidence of his presence and on the downland which encloses much of the parish can be seen extensive evidence of Iron Age man. Scattered evidence of the Romans has been found, but the first certain settlement here was that of the AngloSaxons. The Domesday Book entry of 1086 records a village which probably had a population of about two hundred inhabitants and four mills. The name Melbury, which is Saxon, probably means a many-coloured fortified place. The village continued to exist through the Middle Ages.
In 1538 Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey and then sold the village to a new landlord, the Arundels of Wardour, about six miles to the north-east. The Arundels held it to 1818 In 1829 the Glyns, bankers and investors, bought it. In 1919 the Glyns sold Melbury largely to local people and the Dorset County Council.
Until after the second world war most of the people earned a living directly from the land, through the long agricultural history of alternating prosperity and depression.
After Domesday the numbers of people grew, halved probably after the black Death of 1349, recovered slowly and then grew sharply from about 1750.
In 1851, the year of the rebuilding of the church, four hundred and forty four lived here, but then the bad times and poor living drove them from the village so that the population had halved by 1901.
Among the oldest and most interesting buildings are East Melbury Farm, Manor Farm, and The Old Rectory near the church; two erstwhile inns, Glyn Arms and Spread Eagle; Writh, Allan's and Horders Farm in West Melbury'Grove Farm, Houses Farm, Parham's Farm, Church Farm and Melbury Mill; many smaller houses including Spring and Spinney Cottages, Cornhill Cottage, Downside and the adjacent row in The Street, By the Way, Summers's House and numbers 15 & 16.
Winterfield, a large house of stone from the site, was designed by a pupil of Lutyens in 1921. Many houses were rebuilt of greensand stone in the mid nineteenth century.
The complicated road system derives directly from an ancient network of farm lanes.
There has been continuity of human settlement and Christian worship here for about a thousand years.
You are looking at a well proportioned Christian shrine of Victorian Gothic, derived from the architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is one of the many churches in North Dorset restored or rebuilt by the Victorian reformers. The same architect, George Evans, built a church in nearby Compton Abbas.
The church looks largely as it would have done at its opening except that the lighting and heating are of course modern.
It consists of a south entrance porch, through which you have just come, a nave with a three stage tower at the south-west end, a chancel and sanctuary, a small vestry on the north side, a north and south transept (the latter partly concealed by the organ) and a south aisle.
The main structure is built of Shaftesbury green, a greensandstone which varies in colour from one bed to the next, quarried a quarter of a mile north and west along Quarry Lane, in a field belonging to Manor Farm. It is a soft stone, but here of good quality and cut thickly enough to avoid the use of iron clamps to hold stones together. (Clamps were used in some churches and they rust, causing much trouble). Between the outer skin of the best hand cut ashlar and the inner skin is rubble, perhaps from the old church. The inner skin was rendered and limewashed. The Victorians used a lime mortar from one of the many lime pits in the parish. Lime mortar is better than the cement mortar used in recent times to patch up the pointing.
The dressing stone for windows and doors is the yellowish Bath stone. Altogether there is a good deal of it, notably in the chancel arch. The Bath stone, even outside, has worn well but some of the sandstone has shaled and a new surface is to be formed by a limewater technique to avoid the necessity of replacing damaged stones.
The South Porch
The porch behind you contains the locked entrance to the belfry tower reached by a spiral staircase to the bell chamber and the tower parapet.
The Bath stone facing of the door arch has luxuriant foliage Carving.
In 1995 the PCC arranged for the clearing of the Victorian tile drains and as they were dug out a large vault was discovered between the porch and the outside wall of the south aisle. Six steep steps led down the an arched vault of something over six feet cubed, extending under the porch floor. It contained the collapsed remains of four coffins, three with burial plaques lying on top. They named two ladies of the Foot family buried respectively in 1876 and 1883 and William Foot, eleven months old. The Burial Register gives his date of death as 1843, nine years before the new church was built. This raises interesting but unresolved questions.
As you enter from the porch, stepping on an old Stone with an unreadable name, you see on your left an elaborate Stone font with a roof hung cover, on a plinth of blue lias stones. One of the baptistry stained glass windows shows Christ with the text "Suffer little children to come unto me' and the other with Christ up to his waist in water with the legend "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." The fond stands in a traditional place, signifying the entry of the child, at baptism, into membership of the church. The baptistry is lined with encaustic tiles typical of Victorian Gothic Churches.
As you enter the Central aisle look up, as Christians should. The roof is elaborate for a small country church with hammerbeam rafters of Softwood, probably cut on site.
The pews are pine-seated with oak surrounds and fleur de lys ends, generally arranged as in the original building. The floor is of large cut stones, probably Chilmark, laid on sand and mortar.
Behind you is the big west window where much blue glass conveys a feeling of tranquility. In the middle, Christ offers his peace to St. Thomas and to St. John. The figures are framed in a straight sided Gothic arch which suggests a sanctuary. The glass forms a mosaic of bright colour. Only one window in the north wall of the nave contains stained glass, the Carver window, a remarkable piece which shows considerable advance on the techniques of the earlier glass.
The Carver family
placed the window in 1920 as a memorial to Lionel Henry Carver, eldest son of Henry and Blanche Emma. Henry had been the much loved Rector from 1880 to 1915, one of the many long serving clergymen to devote their lives to one remote rural parish. Lionel returned from a commercial career in the Far East to take a commission in the Irish Guards and was killed on 26th May 1918, six months before the Armistice. He is represented as St. Michael in shining silver armour. Next door St. Thomas represents his parents. At the apex is a lovely symbol of trumpet, cross and lily.
The pulpit is a pleasantly carved oak structure of appropriate size.
The north transept is unremarkable except for the banner of the Mothers' Union, once active in the parish, and a tablet to a church warden, Richard Harding, died in 1879, and his wife Ann. It is now used by young children during services.
The South transept is occupied by the organ and the church "glory hole". The organ probably existed in the old church. It was rebuilt and enlarged at some unknown date and restored on a number of occasions, most recently in 1985. Mrs Henry Carver played during Henry's ministry and Arthur Henstridge (1899-1991) recalled that when he was a boy he pumped it by hand. William Young Foot, died in 1875, is recorded on a tablet.
Chancel and Sanctuary
The chancel is dominated by the glass of the east window and supported by glass in
the north and South walls of the sanctuary. The three eastern panels portray the Central events, the presentation of Christ to Simeon, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
There are touches of realism among the symbolic statements - a lamb, soldiers scared or asleep and clutching their spears. The makers declared a doctrinal position in the three long texts: 'Christ is the end of the Law for Righteousness' and "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us' and "He was raised again for our justification'. At the early service in the winter the window glows in glory as the sun rises. God the Father, at the top of the window, is blessing, with his left hand.
In the south wall are St. Peter and St. Paul. On the other side Sir Richard Glyn's arms and motto "Firm to my Trust'. Since he paid for the new church he deserved his modest tribute.
The Santuary has encaustic tiles similar to those in the baptistry and they extend down the the pulpit and a simple altar table and furnishings. Behind the altar, heading the tiles is another long text: "Whosoever eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life'. The ten commandments originally on either side of the east window, now grace the west wall. The simple roof was decorated with the faded stars in the last century.
Α small barely adequate room but with a north door through which the Rector could go across the lawn to his house. Two interesting stone memorials from the old church have been tucked away here: one of the Rev. Hugh Grove, of the ancient family of the Groves of Chissenbury, Wiltshire who died in 1792 and an even earlier Rector, the Ref. Peter Smith, Rector for almost forty eight years to 1763. The Glyn Arms appear again this time with the motto in Latin, FIDEITENAX, with the name of Henry Glyn, Rector 1847-1880. A print from The London Illustrated News of 1852 depicts the opening of the new church and shows the yew tree, which stands still outside, as already well-grown.
The South Aisle
As you come under the chancel arch and past the organ you turn into the south aisle, which is not much more than an extension of the nave with a poor view of the altar and no stained glass. This brings you back to the main door, the original Victorian one, with a massive wrought iron lock and key. It is a village tradition that the medieval door was moved to a rebuilt Church farmhouse just below and across what was then a country lane.
The stone carvings of St. Thomas, are Victorian. One of these angels, on the south side of the chancel arch, was badly damaged. It was replaced recently through the generosity of Henry Gamper in memory of his wife Annalisa. The shield resembles that of Zurich, her birthplace.
All the nave and transept rafters have carved heads or figures at the ends and where the arches meet, some thirty in all. Many are winged angels, two of a man's head reputed locally to be Glyn's, a cowled nun, a winged lion and an eagle. Most of the angels who look benignly down on the nave are playing musical instruments: harp, trumpet, lute, Cymbals and a small portable organ. Two are singing from open books and two pray with clasped hands. One has a shield, another a chalice, yet another enjoys eternity with folded arms. At the west end are two figures, probably Christ and His Mother.
Outside the Church
The Tower - the tower rounds off the pleasing exterior of the church. It has three stages, with a six-sided stair turret at the South-east Corner ending in an elaborate pinnacle. The other three corners have plainer finials. There are double latticed windows on each face of the tower, decorated with Saxon-like heads, and it is topped with a castellated parapet.
The Outside Carvings - no angels here but a wealth of human and beastlike images. On the south porch is a mitred bishop and a crowned King. On the aisle wall is a griffin-like figure and a gargoyle on the north-east wall of the tower. On the north and south nave walls are moustached and bearded Kings in a Saxon style recalling Melbury's Saxon origins. On the top of the south transept gable is a five-headed cusp, like a broccoli head and the tower finials have smaller One.
Just behind the church, to the North lies the Rectory - now the Old Rectory. The site probably housed a priest from medieval times but the present building has a small
Queen Anne core, was rebuilt at the end of the eighteenth century and enlarged by the Victorians.
Graveyard - this lies in front of the church and in it the dead of Melbury have been buried for centuries. Most of the tombstones are mid or late nineteenth century. At one time the churchyard was open until the Victorians' sense of propriety led them to put the present greensand wall round it. In 2004 the graveyard was used for the first time since 1894. Nearly all the upright headstones were re-sited round the westboundary and area, cleared of conifers, is used for ashes. The main area will be used for burials. The site now resembles its appearance in 1852.
A handsome Lych-Gate was added to the wall in 1920 as a tribute to the 'gallant soldiers' of the First World War whose names are listed on a stone recently restored and complemented on a separate stone by the names from the Second World War. Unusually, more men were lost in the second war. Opposite the lych-gate is a large mound of earth with a base of good stone, formed when the footpath was cut.
The church was preserved from the wet by an elaborate system of tile drains which conveyed surplus rain under the graveyard to an outfall over the steep east slope.
On the south side of the road at the bottom is a cemetery, given by the Glyns in 1900 because the graveyard was full. A little to the west and across the lane is the old school, built by the Glyns in 1844, well before the state provision of education. It is a curious building with an elaborate and largely useless belltower. It once housed, at the north end, the village school mistress. The whole building in now a private house, the school having closed in 1983. South of it are the erstwhile Rectory stables, subsequently used by the school.
The Church Today
The Victorian ideal, the resident priest in his parish, Caring for his people and leading them in worship and godly living is no longer achieved at Melbury, but the church is not a museum piece. It is the home of lively Christian worship for a faithful congregation and an Occasional house for the great rites of passage-christening, wedding and funeral to a much wider community. It remains a striking familiar and loved building on its ancient site, symbol of faith and continuity.
Melbury is part of the Shaston Team Ministry, based in Shaftesbury and staffed by the team with much assistance from retired clergy and the laity.
The Church Electoral roll stands at Seventy and an average Congregation at twenty.
Special Occasion Services attract large Congregations, including Rogation, Easter, Harvest Festival and Christmas.
The buildings are maintained in an excellent state, the necessary work financed by the St. Thomas's Preservation Society, which runs a programme each year of fundraising events.