By Andrew Plaster
Published in B&AFHS Journal 144 June 2011
The north Somerset parish of Butcombe lies nestled in a sheltered valley to the north of Blagdon Lake, and is roughly populated of about 300 inhabitants. The parish is bounded by the parishes of Wrington on the west, Winford on the north, Nempnett Thrubwell on the east and Blagdon on the south.
Butcombe is an ancient place. The large, prehistoric long barrow on the parish’s border with Nempnett Thrubwell, known as Fairy Toot, was needlessly destroyed in Victorian times, but archaeologists tell us that many field systems hereabouts date back to Romano-British or even Celtic times. The scattered village, hidden in a maze of lanes from the main A38 road, was inhabited by the Saxons and then by the Normans, who called it Budicome. At the time of the Domesday Book of 1086, the village had a water mill. There was a windmill, here on the hilltop, used for grinding corn in medieval times. Another feature of the parish, Cleeve’s Well has never been known to dry up.
From the days of the Conqueror, who included the manor of Butcombe among his numerous West Country properties, the manor was bestowed to Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, as a reward for his part in the Conquest. After the bishop’s death in 1093, the manor was then bestowed to Walter de Budicome, whose son sold it in the year 1111 to De Mohun, Lord of Dunster, of Somerset. Sir Richard Perceval of Weston in Gordano owned the manor by marriage in 1200, and it remained in the family for four hundred years. He granted to the monks of Cistertian Abbey of Thame, Oxon “a plough land in the manor, in pure and perpetual alms, for rebuilding a certain house belonging to the Abbot & Convent”. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the manor was seized and passed to King Henry VIII’s physician, Dr. George OWEN, who then sold it to John BUSH, and subsequently whose widow married William Mann of Kidlington, Oxon.
The parish church dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, lies at the northern end of the village, and is a “small, sweetly placed church” described by the architectural historian Pevsner. The description still rings true today, but despite the antiquity of the settlement, most buildings we see today only date back to the 15th century. It does, however, still possess a Norman door and a font. In 1484, John Newland ornamented the church. The windows were gilded and the walls covered with paintings including gigantic angels in flaming red and yellow, followed later by other pictures and texts. But in Oliver Cromwell’s time the church was almost demolished and the beautiful decorations were destroyed. The fine tower (Pevsner calls it “oddly ornate”) is battlemented with gargoyles, canopied niches, buttresses and pinnacles, but inside, the nave, painted in red, white, blue and gold, is no bigger than the chancel.
In mid Victorian times, a new rector William CARTWRIGHT, found the little church in such a dilapidated state that he decided that it had to be drastically restored (Pevsner considered it “over-restored”). Services had to be suspended, on and off, for some six years until the work was completed in 1869. But this overhaul meant that a medieval altar table, which had been hidden under the floor of the chancel, was re-discovered and restored. Also in the east window of the old Lady Chapel a dozen or so pieces of original glass were found depicting a gold-crowned Madonna, a pilgrim with his staff and a woman with golden hair.
The church’s fine old and beautiful carved oak screen under the chancel arch was presented in 1921 by Mr and Mrs Ernest BAKER (of nearby Aldwick Court in the parish of Blagdon), as a memorial to their sons Aubrey and Neville BAKER, aged just 26 and 31, killed in the First World War. The screen had been built into the wall of a farm building in Aldwick, and was originally from Blagdon church. Another tragic memorial from the war, tells of how Charles KENYON of the Royal Wessex Regiment, a former church chorister, was on his way home on leave when he was recalled to take the place of a man who had just been killed. He, in his turn, died the day after his return to the trenches. There is also a memorial to a vicar’s son Lt. Col. CARTWRIGHT, who, with his wife was killed during an air raid that happened on their holiday in Seaton, Devon.
On the inside wall above the door to the porch is a board headed “Bequests to the Parish of Butcombe”. The record details of three charitable bequests made by (1) “1800. Miss Rachael PLAISTER to the Rector, Churchwardens & Overseers £100 the interest to be applied in bread”, (2) “1867. William Henry MARSHALL to the Rector & Churchwardens £250 the interest to be applied in establishing and keeping up a Musial & Choral service in the Parish Church”, and (3) “Gift for the use of the Parishes of Butcombe and Nempnett. 1858. W.H. MARSHALL Esq. gave four Cottages and Land adjoining for the use of the School to be called Marshall’s School”.
In the churchyard there is a large stone cross, the base being dated from medieval times and the top twice restored. The fine old yew tree is estimated at around 400 years old. Longbows were made of yew and a Somerset muster of 1569 included three archers from Butcombe.
Next to the church, there was a day and Sunday school, supported by Mr. Samuel BAKER, who is mentioned in Joseph Leech's book "Rural Rides of the Bristol Churchgoer". He writes affectionately of "his esteemed old friend, Samuel Baker", "In my old and excellent friend Samuel Baker's time, the children of the parish had a most affectionate and attentive patron, who took the schools under his special care and management - I have not been to Butcombe since his death (in 1841), but I recollect accompanying him more than once across from Aldwick: he used to assist in teaching the boys and girls himself, and once a year he gave them all round a new suit of clothes, and never had man or tailor a more primitive way of measuring for the same. His plan was to call them out one after the other, and take their dimensions with his walking stick, which was quite as tall as the majority of the candidates, the altitude of each having been thus ascertained, he dotted him or her down on a piece of paper, and let the matter of fit altogether to the discretion of the fashioner."
There are several Grade II listed dwellings scattered in the parish – Butcombe Court, Mulberry House, Phippens Farm, Row of Ashes Farm, Sage’s Farm, The Old Rectory, Yew Tree Farm and Butcombe Farm. The latter, in Aldwick Lane, itself has its own wood, “Hangman’s Wood” so called as it is believed that George Jeffreys (the infamous Hanging Judge Jeffreys) hanged several people there in the late 1680s. His brutal reign as Lord Chancellor under King James II lead to 320 hangings, and the judge was said to have lived at Butcombe Farm for a brief period. Butcombe Court is an 18th century manor house two miles north from the village, and was built on the site of a medieval building. It was purchased in the nineteenth century by the SMYTH family of Ashton Court, Bristol, who were the last lords of Butcombe Manor. In the twentieth century, the manorial property was sold and disposed of to various owners. During the Second World War, pupils from the Preparatory School of Clifton College were evacuated to Butcombe Court, which is now in three separate dwellings.
A gentleman Richard PLAISTER, to whom I am distantly related, acquired the Manor of Butcombe in 1725 from Francis MANN (the grandson of the aforementioned William MANN). Land was then the safe investment of increasing value, the possession of which gave its owner good standing in the county. He died in 1756 and was buried in Butcombe Church. There at the west end of the Lady Chapel is his monument in white marble, which also commemorates Elizabeth his wife, who outlived him by ten years, and four of their children. Also in that chapel, there are two other memorial tablets in marble that of the PLAISTER family, which commemorates their four spinster daughters (one of whom was the aforementioned Rachael PLAISTER) and another son Richard junior of Bristol, who was married, and all of his three children died in infancy. A short time before Richard senior’s last illness, his son John PLAISTER of Wrington disposed of the Manor of Butcombe to John CURTIS Esq, who later sold it to John SAVERY Esq., the banker.
The very first Australian novel, “Quintus Servinton” was written by a convict, Henry SAVERY, who was born in Butcombe Court in 1791, the son of the above John SAVERY Esq. After his marriage in London, he moved to near Bristol, where he was engaged in business as a sugar-refiner until bankrupted in 1819, and in 1819-22 he was editor of the Bristol Observer and an insurance broker. In 1822 he returned to sugar refining and soon became the dominant partner in the business, but overreached himself financially and forged fictitious bills to meet his debts. Panicking at the prospect of detection, he fled, planning to escape to America, but was captured in dramatic circumstances at Cowes on the Isle of Wight within half an hour of his ship's sailing. Brought back to Bristol, he was advised to plead guilty but was condemned to death. Reprieved almost at the eleventh hour, he was transported to Van Diemen's Land and arrived in Hobart in 1825. He was released five years later in 1830 and his novel was published. He fell into debt and was again imprisoned in 1840, during which time he wrote his sketches of colonial life. He died possibly of a stroke in 1842. In some respects Savery's tragic life is of more interest than his writing, but The Hermit in Van Diemen's Land offers a valuable picture of colonial Tasmania, and Quintus Servinton, in addition to its autobiographical and historical significance, is of some interest in the way, as a cautionary tale, it links convict fiction with the convict memoirs.
There was a Quaker burial ground in the parish. Its deeds, dated from 1671 to 1708, record the initial purchase of the land (on a 1,000 year lease) for the burial ground and then changes in its trustees. The land in question was a parcel and yard of a ground called "the yard bewest Hypsleys" in the parish of Butcombe, and the burial plot was situated in the northeast corner of the yard.
Today, in the village there is no sign now of the post office or shop, there is no baking in the old bake-house and the Victorian school, closed in 1950, has turned into the village hall. The well-known Butcombe Brewery set up in 1978 by Simon WHITMORE, put Butcombe’s name on the map, but in 2003 the business was sold and moved to an industrial estate in nearby Wrington. The ‘Mill Inn’ selling local real ale brew Butcombe Bitter, stands on the site of the water mill, was sadly closed in the early 1990s, and is now converted into two dwellings. It is perhaps surprising that many parts of the parish have remained little changed over the last one hundred or so years.
The parish register dating from 1692 for baptisms [entries 1778-1805 torn out] and 1693 for marriages and burials [entries 1782-1805 torn out], though the Bishop’s Transcripts commence in 1605. These and other records are kept at Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton. There is a transcript book, which is a handwritten copy of the parish register, written by a Butcombe vicar at the turn of the 19th century. The book also contains information on the manorial history and Butcombe Terrier of 1638. They all can be seen on microfiche at the Heritage Centre.
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