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All Saints Church Ravensden

This page was written by Trevor Stewart

Church (Phillip Jeffrey)

All Saints Church, Ravensden (photograph courtesy of Phillip Jeffrey)

The first record of a church in Ravensden appears in 1166 when Simon de Beauchamp of Bedford Castle included it in a list of 14 churches with which he had endowed the newly founded Newnham Priory. However archaeology has suggested that there was an earlier tiny Saxon church on the same site but on a slightly different alignment, and also that much of the church gifted by Beauchamp may actually have been destroyed in a major fire in the 13th century. The earliest documented Vicar is Abel the Prior of Newnham in 1229.

Until 1650 the vicarage stood on the site abutting the churchyard where now stands Oak Cottage.

The view of this ancient church standing atop its hill as it has done for centuries, is a scene that is always suggested as being ‘’truly rural England.’’

Ravensden has never been a rich church, and although the Duchess of Marlborough and the Duke of Bedford were in their turn the Patrons, they do not appear to have been local enough to want to supply finance to maintain the fabric of the building. It therefore cannot claim to have much by the way of architectural distinction. What it does have in plenty though is visible evidence of the care and attention given to it over a thousand years by a comparatively poor village. The work of local craftsmen, using whatever materials were available to them to build and repair walls, struggling to keep the church intact, is amply evident. Here can be seen coursed and uncoursed (straight from the field) limestone, used alongside recycled carved Norman remnants, rubble, clunch and recycled red tiles. This mismatch all adds to the charm of the building. The timbers of the king posts are rough hewn, the chancel arch is slightly off centre in respect of the roof ridge and the tympanum over the south door has clearly been reconstructed from two unmatching halves, one of which could have come from above the north door.

The Church was granted Grade 1 Listed status in July 1964 but this has in turn brought new demands and an increased maintenance responsibility.

The 19th Century

The latter part of the 1800s saw other particular challenges in the form of ‘’absent Vicars’’ and alleged feuds between the Squire and the Churchwarden.

In 1851 the Rev. Thomas Syer M.A was appointed as Vicar and in 1854 the Duke of Bedford who is still shown as the Patron, disposed of his patronage to Syer.  Thus he became both Patron and Vicar!  Syer resigned the Ravensden living in 1864 but continued his patronage. However he never appears to have actually lived in the village preferring to stay at his Club in London and to minister to his second parish St. James, Piccadilly.

Rev William Price Turton took over in 1864 but it seems that he was never able to get on with Colonel Sunderland the Churchwarden, (there are a number of recorded disputes - even a court case between them), and it was Sunderland who in 1870 reported Turton to the Bishop of Ely resulting in a Bishop’s Commission hearing in February 1871 and the Vicar’s suspension from office.

Sadly Rev. Turton died in 1871 during his suspension and the incumbency was again taken by Syer, this time until his own death in 1892. Once more though, he declined to live locally, preferring to delegate his various responsibilities to others, in particular to Rev. V.W.. Popham of De Parys Avenue, Bedford who took the services for several years. Syer chose to conduct any other necessary business by correspondence. So what of this rather unusual character?

Syer was the son of Thomas Sier a landowner and gentleman. Born at Dewshall in Herefordshire in 1826 he was educated at Queens College Oxford and obtained a B.A. in 1846, M.A. in 1848, and after he had been ordained, his Doctorate in Civil Law in 1853. Syer was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1847 and for some time was a member of the Oxford Circuit. He seems to have been a very successful lawyer but in 1848 or 1849, persuaded the University to translate his legal degree to one of Divinity, thereby opening the way for his ordination into the Church of England by the Bishop of Rochester. It was about this time that he changed the spelling of his surname from Sier to Syer.

He served first as Curate to the Hon. and Rev. W. Eden at Bishopsbourne, Kent. Strangely it appears that he was also appointed as the Minister of St. James Church in the same year that he was given Ravensden (1851).  It is hard to imagine how the Patrons of the two parishes could have thought that he could fulfil both roles!

While holding the Ravensden livng between 1851 and 1863, on those rare occasions when he was not in London, he did not stay in the village, but  at ‘’The Cottage’’ Goldington Road,  (thought to be Livius Cottage).

Two further points of general interest concerning Syer are worth mentioning here. There is a famous painting by artist Bradford Rudge of the Bedfordshire Times stagecoach leaving the Swan Hotel, Bedford for the last time on 21st November 1846. The passengers shown in the picture are named and among them is Rev. T. Sier standing to the right in a group of three in front of the hotel entrance.

Also Syer was apparently was a much travelled man and kept a full diary and manuscript regarding his jourmey’s through Africa, Asia and Europe over many years. The Bedfordshire Times of 14th December 1861 reported that ‘’Rev. Thomas Sier had been offered a considerable sum of money for the publication of these documents.’’ It is not known if the offer was accepted.

Having resigned the Ravensden living in 1863 he managed to keep control of the parish by retaining his patronage. After his death at Watford in 1892 (followed by burial in Herefordshire), this was finally taken up by the Bishop of Ely.

Syer had little or no interest in Ravensden and there are newspaper reports in the early 1880’s regarding the ruinous state of the church: damp was streaming down the walls, green mould and lichen was prevalent on all internal surfaces and wood worm appeared to be infesting ancient furniture. But nothing was done!

In 1892 there is a further report in the Bedfordshire Times concerning ‘’the contumacious Vicar who refuses to reside in the parish, or give up the living, or indeed to do anything but allow the decay and ruin to continue to run riot.’’ The report also notes that the Vicarage is in a similar condition with doors and windows hanging off, many roof tiles missing and even sheep inside the property.

The newspaper goes on to record that it had been told by the Diocesan authorities that there is nothing that can be done ‘’as Dr. Syer is in complete control and has a long purse and a great knowledge of the law.’’

There is correspondence that shows how the absent Syer in his capacity as Vicar, still attempted to influence affairs at the School, questioning the number of staff that were being employed and the costs. The Churchwarden was Chairman of the School Managers!  Syer also indicated ‘’that he wished to comply with the legal demands on his purse in respect of the parish’’ but suggested ‘’that he was actually a great loser financially by the holding of it.’’ He indicated further ‘’that he had sought in vain to find a gentleman willing to take it off his hands.’’

Church British History Online

All Saints Church, Ravensden

So the neglect continued until the Churchwarden got actively involved. He decided in 1893 to post a notice on the church door saying that the ‘’church would in future be closed on Sundays,’’ no doubt this was because of the neglected and unsafe condition of the building, but also there was no Vicar to take services and probably a very small congregation with many villagers opting to attend the now flourishing Zion Baptist Chapel.

The difficult situation between the Squire (Mr. Wythes), the Churchwarden and the would-be Squire (Colonel Sunderland), already strained almost to the limit, was now exacerbated further by the current problems. Both were school managers and required to provide funds for the school (which at times one or other of them declined to do), and both claimed to be representing the interests of the village.  The whole matter came to a dreadful conclusion in 1894 when an architects report recommended changes to the furniture and fittings of the church ‘’to enable the services to be carried out as public worship and not as a series of isolated worshippers screened and secluded from each other. The present high pews should be taken away.’’

It is said that Sunderland, already being heavily criticised, took further exception to the report and its contents. He ripped out much of the furniture in the Church and disposed of various books and bibles, claiming that, as the person who had paid for them, he was entitled to do as he wished!

The circumstances did not really improve with the appointment of two new Vicars between 1900 and 1904. However under the Rev. Alfred Field, inducted December 1904, things did at last begin to look up and he worked hard to recover over 50 years of neglect both spiritually and physically. It was only five years though before this changed, when Field decided to convert to Catholicism and to leave the parish at very short notice.

There is a slightly happier end note, in that in March 2007 a parishioner browsing in a Bric a Brac shop in Bedford, came upon one of the Ravensden Bibles that had been sold all those years before.  He immediately purchased it and returned it to its rightful place in All Saints.