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Church of St.James, Buttermere

Church of St.James, Buttermere Date Photo Taken 2014
Uploaded 15/01/2015 16:56:54
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Map Latitude 51.3474380663105 : Longitude -1.5088015794754028
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Original Media Location: Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

Probable repaired 12th century font.

The church of St. James at Buttermere has been in existence since at least 1268. It is located in possibly the most tucked-away position of any Wiltshire church, and is also one of the smallest. The earliest surviving description of the building is in an archdeacon's survey dated 1787, when we learn simply that the church is small and in good repair, except that it needs whitewashing. There is a parsonage cottage in good repair, but the rector lives in the neighbouring parish of Combe in Hampshire (now in Berkshire).

In 1806 the topographical artist John Buckler visited Buttermere to paint a watercolour of the church. (His collection of drawings and watercolours of Wiltshire churches is kept at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes). The view of the church exterior from the north-west shows that the church consisted of a simple nave and chancel, north porch and a west end surmounted by a wooden turret. It is a small church with a low appearance; the flint walls are rendered, but there is a hint of ashlar quoining at the north-west corner of the nave. There is a larger, Decorated (14th century) window in the nave to the east of the north porch; the porch appears to be 18th century. There is a smaller, two-light Perpendicular (15th century) window in the west wall, beneath the weatherboarded spirelet.

In 1812 the newly-created rural dean, the Rev Charles Francis, compiled notes about the churches in his deanery. His description of Buttermere is as follows:
'The church is a very small building chiefly of flint with no pillars or aisles or separation from the chancel, but its sides are parallel from east to west walls. On the west end is a low wooden turret which as well as the porch and church are tiled.' He also noted that the church possessed a silver chalice and cover, and a pewter plate and flagon. The Eucharist was received three times a year by just five communicants. The rectory cottage (which in 1787 was in good repair) was now 'in a most ruinated and falling state', presumably because it had not been lived in for so long.

By 1812 Buttermere was served by a curate, the first of a succession who acted as the absentee rectors' substitutes until 1869. Nathaniel Dodson, for example, lived in Abingdon and was rector of Buttermere for nearly 50 years, from 1818 to 1867. The curates he employed were mostly incumbents of nearby parishes such as Ham, Tidcombe and Linkenholt. These men had no need for the tumbledown parsonage cottage. In 1841 it had been divided into two homes occupied by families. In 1867 the situation changed with the arrival of the Rev. William Burkitt as rector. He chose to live in Buttermere and stayed there for 41 years until his death in 1910. He first lived with his family in Ham until a new Rectory was finally built in Buttermere in 1876. This substantial brick house was designed to have a drawing room, dining room, kitchen, scullery and study on the ground floor, and six bedrooms upstairs.

In the 1840s the state of the church building was beginning to cause concern. The churchwardens' accounts suggest that little money was spent on its upkeep. It must have been very difficult for them, with no resident clergyman to turn to for advice and support. In 1854 a parish vestry meeting decided that the church was unsafe and too expensive to restore. A London architect, Robert Jewell Withers, was engaged to design the new church and to supervise the construction.

The contractor was encouraged to clean and reuse as much of the materials from the old church - flints, roof and floor tiles, paving slabs and sound timbers - as could be salvaged, and to reset the old windows on the north side of the new church and at the west end. The piscina and font were to be repaired and replaced, and old tiles were to be used for the passages in the nave and the chancel. The old bells were to be rehung. The new church had room for 75 people and measured 48 feet by 17 feet 6 inches. A number of fittings and embellishments were given by individuals, such as the east window, which was presented as a memorial to his parents by Henry Hissey. The work was completed in 1856 and the new church was consecrated on April 21st. The project cost £506. A total of £418 was raised from nearly sixty subscribers, including grants from the Incorporated and Diocesan Church Building Societies. This left £88, of which £36 was donated at the consecration service. The accounts show that the small remaining debt was paid by 1872.

The consecration service was led by the Bishop of Salisbury. The church was crowded and there was not enough room for everyone. A second service was held in the afternoon just for the villagers. In the evening the poor were given a supper of beef and plum pudding. No doubt this was a momentous occasion in Buttermere - a small village where any excitement was rare. The whole day would have been enjoyed by all the residents and remembered for many years to come.

In the 19th century the appointment as rector was for a lifetime. It was therefore not possible to make any changes in Buttermere until the Rev Burkitt's death in 1910. The beginning of the 20th century saw a general reduction in the influence of the church in rural society, and the church authorities soon began a process of sharing and amalgamation. This began in 1912 when Buttermere was united with Combe. The next change took place in 1933, following the departure of the Rev. Charles Hall in 1930, who was to be the last resident clergyman. Buttermere was now to be separated from Combe and instead united with Ham. In 1956 the two villages united with Shalbourne and Bagshot (the living was vacant from 1966-1972). At this time the vicar lived at Shalbourne. The next change came in 1979 when the Wexcombe Team Ministry was created. Finally, in 2002, came the Savernake Team of eleven parishes: Burbage, Chute with Chute Forest, Collingbourne Ducis and Everleigh, Collingbourne Kingston, Great Bedwyn, Ham and Buttermere, Little Bedwyn, Shalbourne, Savernake Forest, East Grafton, Tidcombe and Fosbury.

Any small community with a remote church inevitably has only a small number of people who are able to serve the church. As early as 1783 it was noted that the inhabitants consisted wholly of farmers and labourers. There were just three farmers who took it in turns to hold the offices of church warden. The 19th century censuses show that Charles Cummins, who was employed as an agricultural labourer, became parish clerk in c.1890 and held the post for over 20 years. He was also a churchwarden for seven years. His son Walter was elected as a school manager in 1926 and as churchwarden in 1929. Buttermere church is still open today and is cared for by a small group of dedicated volunteers.

The parish registers for Buttermere, apart from those currently in use, are available at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. The baptisms, marriages and burials all date from 1720 (the earlier register was lost in the 18th century). However, the bishops' transcripts date back to 1605, although there are some years missing.

All these changes mean that, like many small churches, Buttermere no longer has a service every Sunday. In 1915, when there were still over 100 people living in Buttermere, the church was full every Sunday & three small Sunday schools were held. At some point after 1945 the services were reduced to seven each year, held on the first Sunday of the month from May to October (the latter being Harvest Festival). There was also a special service on Christmas Eve. The normal congregation ranged from 12 to 35, but Harvest and Christmas Eve services both filled the church. The same system was in place as recently as 2008. According to a resident, the monthly Buttermere services were popular with the clergy as the remote location and absence of electricity create a special atmosphere.

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