From the Thorley Archives

'God's Acre' in Thorley

 

"I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls
The burial ground God's Acre." -
Longfellow

 

St James the Great's original churchyard measures almost exactly one acre and so can therefore be dignified by the title of 'God's Acre'.

In common with many others, Thorley's present day Christian churchyard probably has its origins as a pagan burial place situated in a prominent place in the village. Christian missionaries adopted these original sites where tombs were associated with rebirth. In the Saxon period, and we have evidence that St James the Great has a Saxon foundation, churchyards were used as places of communal assembly and recreation. In some churches the churchwardens' accounts give details of village festivities, dancing and fairs taking place. No such records exist for Thorley however. Churchyards were also used as the place where local justice was administered and, until 1979, the churchyard had its own stocks and whipping post. These were subsequently entrusted to the local town museum for preservation. Our churchyard also suggests the typical Saxon rectangular croft shape with the church located towards the northeast corner. This enables the wider south and west aspects for preferred burials on the sunnier sides. Its slightly higher aspect indicates that many centuries of burials have raised the level of earth above the floor level of the church.

Gravestones only became part of the scene in the 1600s and our oldest headstone dates from 1717. Details of all interments may be traced in the Database of Churchyard Monuments section of this website.

The original churchyard was first enlarged in 1888 on land donated by the Lord of the Manor, Lord Ellenborough and then 100 was raised by parishioners to enclose the area with a new wall to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The 1888 wall foundations can still be identified running from the beech tree steps. A further extension was added in 1946 on land given by Mr Wilfred Tinney.

Where the church room now stands, in the northwest corner of the churchyard, there were three farm cottages built in the 1700s. By 1860 they were in such a dilapidated state that the Rev. Vander-Meulen replaced them by a church room that then also served as one of three schoolrooms for the parish, the other two being a cottage in one of the Parkside Cottages - on London Road close to the Whittington Way traffic lights - and a second cottage near Rumbolds Farm. A Board School was subsequently built in 1875 at the bottom of Church Lane. In 1994 a complete rebuilding of the church room was undertaken thanks to the legacy of a local farmer, Reginald Newman.

The old Church Room prior to rebuiding in 1994
(Photograph - Bill Hardy)

Specimen trees became a feature for churchyards during the 1800s. We have good dendrochronological and photographic evidence that the monkey-puzzle tree was planted in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The planting of the giant sequoia could date from the mid 1800s as it became fashionable then to plant sequoias with the name Wellingtonia after the Duke of Wellington. The origins and significance of our ancient yew trees is the subject of another 'From the Archives' article. Recently a cutting from a 2000-year-old yew tree in Surrey was planted to commemorate the new millennium.

Our ancient Yew Tree

We are indebted to Roy Griggs and Max Streets' team of volunteers who are entrusted with the management and sensitive upkeep of this much-visited part of the church. This year the Parochial Church Council have adopted a new set of Churchyard procedures for tending graves so that this consecrated area remains a respectful place for visitors.

Bill Hardy
April 2004

 

Postscripts

As space for new burials was almost exhausted, part of the churchyard in which burials had previously ceased in about 1888 began to be re-used in August 2009 following a public consultation.

In August 2014 the Friends of Southern Country Park assisted in the removal of invasive elder and ivy from the trees in our Churchyard, including our ancient Yew.

From the Archives