Churches in the community
Churchgoing in the UK has been declining steadily since 1890. In the years 1968 to 1999 Anglican church attendance almost halved from 3.5% of the population to just 1.9%. However, although the influence of the Church on religious beliefs may have diminished, no one can deny its importance in shaping the townscape of our villages and towns.
It is said that the difference between a hamlet and a village is that the latter has some sort of community centre where people can get together: this was commonly a church. The church has been the nucleus around which settlements have clustered and grown, giving us our built environment. The building of a church could be the work of one of a number of agencies, the two most common being a religious foundation or a lord of the manor. Abbeys and priories were frequently large landowners with estates donated by kings or nobles, and they had churches built to serve groups of tenants. Similarly, the lord of the manor might build a church, partly to serve his tenants, but also as an investment: he would be entitled to receive the tithes. During the twelfth century many lay builders of churches or their heirs made them over to religious houses as an act of piety.
In Saxon times there were numerous minster churches built for groups of priests who would service surrounding communities in chapels, or sometimes in a church that had been built by the lord of the manor. The name lives on in such buildings as York Minster and Beverley Minster.
Although in most cases the church came first and dwellings were then built near it, it could be the other way around, with a church built to service an existing hamlet which then grew because of the availability of the church. The churches of both Ewell and Epsom were built on land owned by Chertsey Abbey, and it is likely that the Abbey was responsible for the earliest churches. At Ewell it is probable that there were already dwellings in the vicinity, given the suitability of the area for settlement, and that the village grew to the west of the church nearer the springs that are the source of the Hogsmill River. At Epsom the church was situated on the chalk to the east of the river terrace gravel on which the centre of Epsom around the High Street was built. The original settlement was close to the church and to the west of it. It is of interest that both churches are very close to Stane Street, but it is not known to what extent this is significant.
Churches are more than reminders of the site of the early development of an area: they are frequently the most outstanding buildings. It is noteworthy that in The Buildings of England, the invaluable account of buildings of historic and architectural interest initiated by Nikolaus Pevsner, the report on a town or village invariably starts with the church. Few other buildings have so much to show of fine architecture. Until recently, there had been a tendency to decry Victorian architecture, but now its quality and the fine workmanship are being appreciated. Certainly St. Mary’s Ewell (1847–8) has details of great beauty and is a big improvement on the old church, which had been referred to as having a patched and unprepossessing exterior and having altogether been much maltreated. St. Martin’s, Epsom, too, with its three periods of architecture, is fascinating: it has been described as an oddly composite building. The oldest part, the tower, dates from 1450. The nave dates from 1824, and the chancel and transepts result from a big rebuilding scheme that started in 1908 but was not completed. It had been hoped that the rebuilt church would become a cathedral in the new diocese that was to be created, but in fact Guildford was chosen as the site.
The monuments in the churches and their inscriptions (sometimes taken from an earlier church, as in the case of Ewell), with the information they give on prominent former residents, provide a useful starting point for an understanding of local history.
It would be difficult to overestimate the part churches have played in the development of society. In medieval times churches had no pews and their large floor spaces enabled them to fulfil their function as community centres, much as a church hall or social club today. There would be a few benches around the walls for the inform and elderly. This is thought to be the origin of the expression, ‘the weakest go to the wall’.
Church vestries made up of representatives of the congregation have been important organs of administration of local government. By the end of the sixteenth century they had become responsible for matters such as the upkeep of local roads and bridges and the care of the poor and orphans as required by the Poor Laws and they eventually took over most of the functions that had been exercised by the manorial courts. These administration duties came to an end in 1894 with the Local Government Act, which created urban and rural districts with councils made up of elected members. These varying functions of churches have left us with a unique collection of buildings which form a significant part of the national heritage. Society would be much poorer without them.