The south Gloucestershire parish of Tortworth is bounded by the old parishes of Berkeley (Alkington tithing), Charfield, Cromhall and Thornbury. Unlike most parishes, which have their main village, dwelling and public buildings are distantly spread out all over the rural parish. Avening Green, the small hamlet is in the north-east, and the landscaped Tortworth Park with its arboretum in the south-west.
The manor of Tortworth (then Torteword) was mentioned in Domesday Book of 1086. The name means ‘Tortha’s homestead’, but no records appear to exist before the Norman Conquest. The manor passed through a series of owners – the families of DE KYNGESTON, DE VEEL, THROCKMORTON, and DUCIE.
By the 16th century, the manor of Tortworth was in possession of the THROCKMORTON family. The ivy-covered ruins, which may be seen behind the churchyard wall, are all that remain of their manor house, whilst two of their magnificent tombs can be seen in the church. In 1631 Sir Robert DUCIE, Lord Mayor of London, bought the manor, and it has remained in the family’s ownership ever since. His granddaughter Elizabeth, the sole heiress in 1703, married into the MORETON family, hence the occurrence of both names.
The parish church of St Leonard’s was originally built between 1460 and 1490 but the oldest tombs date back to the time of the THROCKMORTONS. Both are dedicated to Thomas, one of whom died in 1568 and the other in 1607. The latter memorial, an alabaster reclining effigy was probably carved by Garret JOHNSON, who also sculpted Shakespeare’s portrait bust in Stratford-on-Avon. The stained glass above the tombs is also very also probably dating back to 1472, when Lady Alicia DE VEEL was the lady of the manor. She was rumoured to have been one of the King’s three mistresses. The font, with its Jacobean cover, is Norman. The tower houses six bells, one of which is engraved with a crusader’s ship and the mark of John GOSSELIN, “Bellyetter and Burgher” of Bristol 1420-1450. In 1872, considerable restoration work was carried out in the church, the entire costs the gift of the Earl of Ducie and the work carried out under his direction. The DUCIE monuments provide an interesting record of the DUCIE family and the history of Tortworth. The parish register (from 1592) and records are kept at Gloucestershire Record Office.
Francis Reynolds MORETON succeeded to the title Baron Moreton in 1785, inheriting from his elder brother who died childlessly. He had established himself in a naval career and is usually known as Captain REYNOLDS. He obtained considerable fame in the wars with France and America in the West Indies. On his memorial plaque in the church, he is particularly remembered for his part in the action against the Comte de Grasse in 1782, which ended the war. He maintained his interest in the navy and served on the board of the Admiralty. It was at this time Ducie Island in the Pacific was named after him. On the death of his brother, he had to resign his commission and take up the Ducie estates. He ordered a thorough survey of the land and farms with a view to bringing them up to an acceptable state of repair and to provide employment for the day labourers residing on his property in Tortworth, Cromhall and Wickwar. Tortworth farms at that period were well known for the excellent Gloucester cheese produced. Among records of improvement to the farms of this time are frequent references to the ‘cheese room’. The farms were mostly pasture land. There was little acreage under the plough. There was also great stress laid on orchards adjacent to each farmhouse, usually extending to two or three acres. His brother’s widow had become greatly interested in the Sunday School movement, started by Robert RAIKES in Gloucester, recognising the deprivation of the rural poor was as great as that of children in the city slums. Her work must have inspired her brother-in-law and no doubt influenced him to set up a school at Tortworth to improve life for the people of the parish. The Ducies, through succeeding generations, maintained their interest and oversight of the school, which has expanded on the same and present site.
In 1808 the estate passed to Baron Moreton’s son Thomas, who was later created Earl of Ducie. His wife Frances supported Dr Edward JENNER of nearby Berkeley, in his early work with vaccination against smallpox, was vaccinated herself, in spite of opposition, informed royalty of its success and thus gained royal support for Jenner. There had been an earlier connection with JENNERS and Tortworth in 1795 when Edward Jenner’s nephew Henry, inoculated 111 paupers from Tortworth with the more virulent smallpox venom, against wishes of his uncle who was attempting to prove the absolute safety of the use of cowpox.
Henry George MORETON, the second earl, was responsible for a great change in the whole appearance of Tortworth, which is largely 19th century, although medieval signs remain in such field names as Congyre and Deer Park. He built a new mansion in Tudor style in 1850/51 in Tortworth Park. It is in a different location and, when the old Tortworth Court was no longer required, many of the stones from it were incorporated in the new cottages and estate buildings near the church.
The third earl and countess took great interest in the school and were concerned for the welfare of their tenants and estate workers. They set up an orphanage in the house now known as Littlemead. One of the buildings near the church housed The Tortworth Co-operative shop, possibly one of the first rural co-operatives in England. Many farmhouses and cottages in the parish date from this period. He was responsible for much tree planting in the parish and around the church, and even creating an arboretum, which surrounds Tortworth Court. The arboretum is said to be one of the horticultural world’s best-kept secrets, which at one time rivalled Westonbirt. Today there are more than 300 trees, and North American oaks stand proudly alongside rare Himalayan species.
Tortworth Court was commandeered by the Government during the Second World War as a naval establishment. In the later years of the war, an American Hospital was built in the park. American servicemen in their smart uniforms were a familiar sight in the parish and many Anglo-American friendships developed. After the war, the buildings constructed for the hospital and, for a time the house itself, became H.M. Leyhill Open Prison. Tortworth Court was then used as a training school for prison officers. Now, after a devastating fire and then extensive refurbishment some five years ago, it is a luxury hotel. The arboretum is open to the public, and the beautiful Tortworth Lake, hiding serenely in woodland on the estate, opens on the first Sunday of the month from February to October.
Avening Green, a small hamlet, is about a mile north-east from the church. Once a separate manor, it was a probable site of a woollen mill until the late 18th century when the site was purchased and redeveloped by the DUCIE family and incorporated into the Tortworth Estate. The houses are now mainly in private ownership.
Behind Avening Green next to the Little Avon river is the parish boundary with Alkington parish, formerly part of the very large parish of Berkeley. Beyond the boundary, there are small hamlets of Damery, Huntingford, and Lower and Upper Wick. In the past, inhabitants of these hamlets might have attended the Tortworth church, which is much nearer than Berkeley Church, several miles away. I am distantly related to a branch of the ORGAN family of Wick and Huntingford, whose baptisms and burials are recorded in Tortworth Parish Register. An Organ gravestone in the churchyard is inscribed “John ORGAN of Huntingford in the parish of Berkeley, Yeoman, who departed this life 24th Nov. 1775”.
Two things in the churchyard are worth investigating. One is a 14th century preaching cross with a modern top. This was probably built by Nicholas DE KYNGESTON, who was then Lord of the Manor and responsible for a market and fair here in 1304, once a focal point of community life. And at the edge of the churchyard, beyond the numerous DUCIE family gravestones, can be found a large memorial – a seat with large stone canopy over it – dedicated to Julia, Countess of Ducie. Said to be haunted, it marks the place where a private family gate once led to the old manor house.
The famed ‘Tortworth Chestnut’ – one of the oldest trees in the country – may be found in the field to the right as you approach the church from the road. This venerable old sentinel – a Spanish sweet chestnut now surrounded by palings to stop people climbing on it or breaking off branches – is reputed to be 1200 years old, starting from a nut in about 800AD. Although it has been spoken of as boundary tree of the manor in the reign of John (1199-1216), i.e. 800 years old, in truth, no one really knows its age. But this ancient tree is still thriving with branches taking root all around and new life still sprouting from its ancient trunk each spring.
The greatest change in the 20th century was the advent of the M5 motorway (with its junction 14) built in the west of the parish, and the resulting increase of road traffic through the parish. Memories of the older people recall parties at Tortworth Court for tenants, estate workers and school children, the peaceful lanes where cattle could graze on the grass verges and the excitement when mains water and electricity, at last, arrived in the cottages.
As the 21st century dawned a new venture began in the parish with the opening of the Tortworth Estate shop. This enables local producers to sell their goods locally and the annual Producer’s Day in the summer have proved popular as they allow the public to meet the people who grow or make the goods on sale throughout the year.
‘A Guide to the parish and church of St Leonard, Tortworth’ booklet
Bristol Evening Post newspaper – ‘Bristol Times’ section, 2nd May 2006
Western Daily Press newspaper – ‘West Weekend’ section, Dec. 2006
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