The Anglican church of St John the Baptist in Aldford, Cheshire (Grade II listed) on the Eaton estate, was built in 1866 over an earlier structure. Designed by architect John Douglas, it is a stark Gothic Revival structure, mashed with neoclassical pillars within. The Pevsner entry describes the memorials within only as: ‘Some tablets from the previous church’ (Hartwell et al. 2011).
The Wikipedia entry gives very limited further details about the memorials, including a wooden tablet commemorating Frances Jones (d.1719) and another to Job Watson Royle, killed in 1812 at the Battle of Badajoz.
The Historic England list entry describes the building but not the memorials.
Let’s consider the memorials a bit further, since I visited this church recently with my MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students. We had discussed how rebuilt churches deploy earlier memorials on their internal walls and I’m surprised by how little attention this seems to receive. I suggest that Aldford might reveal how 19th-century churches operated as selective custodians of their older memorials, whilst simultaneously shedding light on the very few additional post-rebuild memorials added within them.
First, a quick survey reveals a significant number of pre-rebuilding memorials, re-positioned neatly and respectfully upon the new building’s internal walls. First, there is an early 17th-/early 18th-century benefaction board.
The aforementioned early 18th-century wooden plaque commemorating Frances Jones is now situated below the family’s coat of arms. Therefore it is fixed to the southern wall of a church its creators would never have experienced.
The next memorial to survive is of surgeon Job Harrison; he is commemorated on an oval marble tablet, with the surgeon’s date of death given as 1789.
Moving to the early 19th century, there is the aforementioned memorial tablet commemorating Job Watson Royles (d. 1812).
The memorial tablets in the north aisle all seem to commemorate the same family – that of the incumbent of the church Rev Thomas Edwards (d. 1842). There are plaques to three of his children, one below the other: Gamul, Margaret and Mary Ann. In addition, a further tablet is to another Edwards, perhaps Thomas’s mother (although my photo isn’t a good one and I’ll need to go back and check).
Put this sequence together, the mid-19th century church is dominated by a small but significant number of pre-1866 memorials. Thus, in addition to commemorating their subject matters, they collectively cite the earlier church.
Another distinctive feature inside the church is a plaque above the south door dedicated to the foundation of the church in 1866. This juxtaposed next to an older equivalent, presuming retrieved from the old church: I’m unsure of its date. I suspect their juxtaposition is to commemorate the connection between past and present church.
Post-1866 19th-century memorials
In contrast, there is only a handful of post-1866 memorials; clearly the churchyard was now the principal/only space for burial and commemoration. There are two brasses dating to the late 19th century at the east end of the north aisle, and that’s it. Let that sink in: it means that at the time when so many of the extramural memorials were being erected, only two are added inside the church. Now I’m not suggesting this is unique to Aldford: but I am suggested that the rebuilding of the church reveals in stark relief a broader trend often concealed elsewhere by the panoply of memorials.
The same applies to the 20th century: there are hardly any new memorials. The exceptions prove the rule. Unsurprisingly, the wall-mounted plaque commemorating the men of the parish who died in the First World War is an exceptional 20th-century presence in the church. This is combined with the book of remembrance close by just west of the main (south entrance).
The other 20th-century memorials are rare and restricted to the local aristocracy/ church people, notably John Maylor of Churton Lodge who died 1887. The tablet and stained glass window were dedicated by his widow in 1904.
Another is the plaque to the Aldford schoolmaster who died in 1958 aged 58.
Inside the chancel, on the east-facing (altar-facing) side of the pillar beside the organ, there are three memorials to successive organists.
In short, the mid-19th-century rebuilding has not only meant that earlier memorials are selectively redeployed, but very few are subsequently installed. Unlike older buildings, this contrast is more starkly expressed. As such, the memorials re-positioned and displayed simultaneously commemorate their subjects, as well as honouring the building that came before.
Perhaps these observations merely convey a widespread trend, but it might be one so regularly observed as to warrant little detailed attention. Certainly, church historians and archaeologists just don’t talk about this issue in a coherent way, and most local guides talk about the history of building without recourse to the furnishings and fittings that populate them, so this disjunction and the role of old memorials re-displayed on their walls, seems to be regularly overlooked. The style of reporting on memorials in Pevsner and other sources also serves to obscures how often new churches in the 19th century were populated with selectively rehabilitated monuments and memorials.
Hartwell, C., Hyde, M., Hubbard, E and N. Pevsner. 2011. The Buildings of England: Cheshire. Yale: Yale University Press.