The Rev. John Richardson, better known as Jack Richardson, the author of Jack in the Pulpit, Memories of a Country Parson, also wrote A History of Mitford Church, 1977.
He says: “In 1705 charcoal braziers were used to heat the church and a spark or ember lodged in the low roof of the nave. A very small archway led from the nave to the chancel and the villagers, led by their vicar, were able to prevent the resulting blaze from entering into the chancel by screening the archway with sodden tapestries, cassocks and the like. Money was scarce so the ruined nave was left to nature and a door placed in the chancel archway.”
It seems to have remained like that for the whole of the 18th century and part of the 19th, and we can fairly take this as a metaphor for the state of the church — the Church of England — as a whole. It had no evangelical fire and some of the clergy were unfit to hold office.
Mitford, fortunately, had competent vicars during this time. But James Fergusson catches the changing mood exactly in his Mitford Church, its History, Restoration and Associations, 1884.
He describes the Rev Charles Crowe Snowden, vicar from 1853 to 1880, as a preacher whose sermons and reading of the service were much admired.
But: “His convictions and habits were matured before the revival of church life had made itself greatly felt; and to the end he continued to attend to the due and dignified performance of his sacred office, without troubling himself with the multitudinous activities which are at work in model parishes today.”
There is no agreement on when the nave was re-roofed — Pevsner says c.1840, and Richardson not until 1874, but this is certainly wrong. A picture in Churches of Lindisfarne, 1870, by F.R. Wilson, plainly shows the nave with a roof.
Furthermore, Archdeacon Singleton’s report of his visitation in 1826, quoted by Fergusson, says: “The parsonage is very neat; the glebe of 11 acres good and well ascertained...the sittings in the church 150; but from the size of the building might be easily increased.”
This suggests that the nave was already in use again by that date.
It was from about the time of Dr Singleton’s visitation that the Church of England gradually began to rebuild and revitalise itself.
‘Rebuild’ was an operative word, both locally and nationally.
Cambo church was built in 1842. The chancel at Ulgham was rebuilt in 1842, the nave in 1863. Stamfordham was restored in 1848, Stannington rebuilt in 1871, and the parish of Longhirst created in 1875 and its church built the following year.
Not surprising then that St Mary’s should be rebuilt between 1874 and 1883.
Victorian church restorations have often been severely criticised, but the work at Mitford was paid for entirely by Lt. Col. John Philip Osbaldeston Mitford (1809-1895), whose object was “to preserve as much of the existing building as was worthy and capable of preservation and so to enlarge and beautify the church as to make it a fitting place for the worship of God and worthy of its historic renown.”
Richardson says: “As the church now stands it consists of the mainly original early English chancel, with...a splendid example of early English sedilia, a nave with the original Norman arcading and a south aisle. The transepts are the ancient Mitford chapel and the Pigdon Chapel of St John, which is now a vestry.”
We might add that the bellcote at the west end was replaced with a tower and steeple, the south aisle built anew, and the nave made higher and given a clerestory.
Our photograph of the church after restoration is from Fergusson’s History, and was taken by Col. Mitford himself.
Turning to the interior, the altar is raised up on a step. On one side are the medieval sedilia and on the other, a canopied stall of oak.
The reredos has scenes from the life of Christ carved in Turkish boxwood that looks like ivory, all framed in Belgian walnut to give a very rich and satisfying effect.
The organ, by F.C. Nicholson of Newcastle, not the same firm as Nicholson of Worcester, was built in 1878, restored in 1988, and is nationally important because of its ‘untouched’ condition.
When I visited St Mary's last year, my guide kindly opened a panel in the organ case, through which we passed with some difficulty.
The space behind is full of heavy timbers, with racks supporting neatly arranged sets of vertical cords. The lever for pumping the bellows is still there, though quite redundant since the organ is now electrically powered.
Amongst other memorabilia, the Mitford chapel contains what must be one of the earliest royal telegrams for someone reaching the age of 100. It is addressed OHMS from the King at Sandringham to Edward Ledwich Osbaldeston Mitford Esq. of Mitford Castle.
The tower houses a small gallery and the baptistery. If you look up at the ceiling, you see a dove descending from a blue sky, representing the Holy Spirit descending on the person being baptised.