St Mary


The original church in Bulwell was medieval. The traditional date for its construction is 1134 but this is clearly highly speculative and no documentary evidence has survived which confirms this timeframe. The demolition of the building has left little architectural evidence to assist the modern historian.

Bulwell is mentioned as a village in Domesday Book. No church is mentioned, although not every church was included by the king’s surveyors. A church in Bulwell is mentioned in 1203 when it was given by the King to Rott de Pickering for life. A list of Pentecostal offerings given to Southwell Minster mention an offering of 10d per annum from Bulwell in 1171. It seems possible that the church was built in the early 12th century.

Another puzzle surrounding the church is its dedication to St Mary the Virgin, and it was only in the 20th century that it acquired its additional dedication to All Souls. The church granted to Rott de Pickering in 1203 is described as dedicated to St Brandon. However, church dedications are frequently known to have changed over time and this may well be the case here.

Of further interest is the date of the village festival, which in Bulwell was the 5th November or the first Sunday thereafter. Normally such festivals closely coincide with a feast day of the saint the church was dedicated to, but none of the traditional Marian feast days are in November. The 5th November is in fact the festival of St Elizabeth, mother to John the Baptist.

The records held at York do not clarify the matter of the dedication. The reference to St Brandon may be a clue – two saints named Brandon or Brendan exist and one, St Brendan of Birr (one of the twelve apostles of Ireland, a monk who lived in the 6th century), has a festival on the 29th November. It is possible that the church was originally dedicated to St Brendan and was later changed to St Mary due to a preference of one of its patrons, or perhaps the church was dedicated to both and St Brendan was dropped at some point. Sadly, all of this remains speculative, and the truth of its original dedication may never be known – there may have been a small chapel to St Brendan that has otherwise escaped the history books, or the dedication may have been wrongly recorded by a careless scribe.

During the reign of King Henry III the rights to the church and its advowson (the right to appoint its priest) were disputed. Two men claimed to hold it. The first was Philip Mark, who was made Sheriff of Nottingham and granted Bulwell and its church by King John. Philip Mark seems to have been particularly hated by the lords of the realm, who tried to force his removal in the famous Magna Carta. He may have been an influence on the later legends of Robin Hood and his disputes with the Sherriff. The other man was Henry Medicus, a ’leech’ (in other words, an apothecary) who also claimed to have been given the church by the king – whether John or Henry is not clear. However the jury found no evidence to support Henry Medicus’ claim. It would appear from other sources that Henry had held the advowson for some time before the dispute led to its loss.

The king remained the patron of the church, granting its advowson to his favourites, as King John had given it to Philip Mark. He had earlier granted it to his chaplain Sylvester in return for a pension of one mark. These grants were never permanent however and the rights always returned to the king, who could then hold on to it or grant it to a different favourite. This continued until the 17th century when the patronage passed into the hands of the lords of Bulwell Manor.

There is no record of Bulwell church in the 1291 Pope Nicholas IV taxatio, and it may have been that it was valued below 10 marks at that time. Curiously, it seems to have been receiving £2 at the ninths in 1341, but to have been valued at only half a mark in 1428.

On 26 May 1300, Archbishop Thomas of Corbridge issued letters dimissory (permission to be ordained) for William de Batheley, clerk who was presented to the church of Bulwell, and also for lesser orders and that of subdeacon from any English Bishop.

In 1341 the church was not taxed during the Nonarum Inquisitiones tax survey of that year (‘ecclesia de Bulwell non taxat…’). At the time the church was recorded as receiving  40s a year from the ninths of sheaves, lambs and fleeces. Nearly a century later, in 1428, the church itself was valued at only 6s 8d, as was the church at Trowell to the west of Nottingham which is included with Bulwell in the entry; neither were taxed at this time.

In 1549, with the Reformation sweeping the country, the church had its first service performed in English. Three years later the commissioners of Edward VI visited the church to catalogue its contents. Their report listed Bulwell as possessing two bells, two vestments (one of fine silk), a cope of woollen cloth, a silver chalice, a hand bell, a candlestick and an old cope of embroidery.

Toward the end of the 16th century there was something of a local scandal when, in 1592, the rector of Bulwell, Charles Aynsworth, admitted that he had illegally married Lady Theodosia Manners and William Bradwell the previous Easter. He claimed to have been summoned to a chamber ‘within the trinitie place in the town of Nottingham’ where Lady Manners ordered him to marry the pair, and that he obeyed out of fear for his safety. No banns had been dispensed or other notice given. Why Lady Theodosia had felt the need for a secret marriage is not reported, although the lack of any title for William Bradwell suggests a difference in class may have been involved. Regardless the news must have been the talk of Bulwell for some time.

That was not the last time the church was witness to scandalous events. In 1637 there was a fight in the churchyard. The fight involved Patrick Strelley of Bulwell, Richard Damms, a churchwarden for the church, and Thomas Willey of Sookholme. Richard Damms had brought a warrant, presumably regarding one of the others, although the details are not known. Whatever the reasons, the warrant was not taken very well, and the men fought. During the fight Thomas Willey drew a sword on Richard and wounded him. A part of the churchyard wall was also broken, in what must have been quite a spectacle.

Soon after this incident the Civil War began between king and parliament, followed by the execution of Charles I and then the Commonwealth era. During this time many rectors and vicars were stripped from their positions by the new, heavily puritanical government. Bulwell, however, despite having the king’s patronage was not one of these churches and its rector, Matthew Lacocke, remained in charge throughout the 1650s. In 1650 the Commonwealth Survey of Livings showed that Bulwell’s rectory was worth £40 at this time. The turbulence of the time may have had some impact however – in 1659 the inhabitants of Bulwell were indicted for leaving the highways in such great decay that people could not pass to the church of Bulwell or to Nottingham itself.

At some time before 1743 a close of 5-6 acres was left by a John Darns, which were to be used to pay for a series of nine lectures each year, to be held on the last Tuesday of every month except July, August, and November. By 1743 however the lectures had been neglected due to a lack of attendance and the close set aside. In 1786 John Davis left seven acres, worth about 10 guineas per annum, to continue supporting the lectures once more. This time the lectures continued to be held until 1817, when interest in them had presumably waned.
In 1729 Thomas Beaumont became the rector of Bulwell. A year later he became the curate of the adjoining village of Basford. Beaumont appears to have wanted to become the vicar rather than simply its curate. In 1741 he was warned that this was risky. However, pluralism was an accepted practice as long as one of the benefices held was below £8 in value as these assisted priests with poor parishes. Bulwell was only £5 5s 6d at the time. Its patron could remove Beaumont if he wished should Beaumont take up the vicarage at Basford.

Beaumont must have received the patron’s permission as he became vicar of Basford soon after and continued as the rector of Bulwell at the same time. He also received a licence for non-residence and was allowed to live in Nottingham rather than at either Basford or Bulwell, apparently because of his poor health which made him heavily reliant on various medicines. He complained that the parsonage at Bulwell was cold and damp. Whether this was actually true seems in doubt however, as Beaumont remained as rector of Bulwell for another thirty years until his death in 1771. The church became somewhat neglected during his time in charge and it seems likely that Beaumont was indifferent towards his duties to the church and to the parish. In 1743 a visitation report said that only about 15 of the 193 communicants in Bulwell received the Sacrament each year: in 1764 between twenty and thirty attended on the three occasions during the year that the sacrament was administered.

Beaumont was still living in Nottingham at the time of Archbishop Drummond’s visitation in 1764, complaining that ‘the parsonage house is an old bad building and a damp bad situation which is the reason of my residing at Nottingham’. The building was not uninhabited: he had let it to a tenant. Beaumont reported as we that there were about 82 houses in the parish and 240 people of sixteen years or above. All were Church of England except for ‘one old man a Papist and a man and his wife Quakers’. The village had no meeting houses, almshouses, or hospitals, but there was a school with about ten pupils.

As a result of the neglect efforts were made to attempt to repair the damage. In 1768 a brief was granted towards its rebuilding. This allowed collections to be made in churches across England to raise funds. Two aisles had already been added to the church in 1766 and a rectory was built in 1772, while the churchyard was walled round and a gallery added to the church itself. Decades later, in 1800, the tile roof was replaced with slate and a tower was raised. However the complete plans for rebuilding it were never completed before the church’s demolition.

As the 19th century began the industrial revolution saw people flocking to the cities and other industrial centres. Bulwell and other settlements along the River Leen were centres of the cotton trade and mills sprung up along the river. The population of Bulwell grew rapidly, from 1,585 people in 1801 to 3,786 people in 1851.

Bulwell’s church was once again in the charge of an absentee rector, this time John Wentworth Armytage, who resided near Doncaster and only visited Bulwell once or twice a year. According to the locals his services were always read from the same sermon, ‘Occupy till I come’. In the meantime the church, despite the repairs, remained in an overall poor state – in 1843 a storm damaged the roof that had been replaced less than 50 years before – and it was increasingly obvious that the building was too small for the needs of the population.

The decision to demolish the old church and replace it with a new building was made in the late 1840s. With the Reverend J. W. Armytage absent much of the time the responsibility for organising and raising funds for the new building was taken up by his curate for Bulwell, the Reverend Alfred Padley, who was also the patron of the church. The actual building of the new church, and demolition of the old one, took place in 1850 and was completed in 1851. In a grand ceremony on 4 November 1850 the new building was consecrated by the Bishop of Lincoln. The opening of the new church was an event big enough to require a special train to bring guests from Nottingham for the ceremony.

The new church was a much larger building, able to seat 800 people (the old church had seated 220), and was situated 60 yards away from the site of the old church, nearer to the brow of the hill. Built out of local stone, it was designed in an Early English style common to the 13th century, and also frequently re-used in Victorian constructions.

The church included a chancel, nave, aisles, and an embattled west tower. Designed by the Derby-based architect Henry Isaac Stevens, the church cost a total of £3,000 to build. A grant of £400 was given by the Incorporated Society for Church Buildings, another £400 from a similar local Church Society. The Reverend A. Padley himself gave £600 while another local person, Mrs Bolton, gave £300 for the building, and donated another £600 for the purchase of an organ. The remaining money was raised by various smaller donations and collections, such as the consecration ceremony itself, which raised £233 14s 7½d from the collection. Samuel Rogers, the vicar, complained as late as April 1851 that it was still drying out and needed proper heating before people would attend regularly.

The religious census of 1851 showed that the new church was a relatively wealthy one, with glebe lands worth £113 9s and tithes worth £273 10s, as well as other income of around £70. On the other hand the parish of Bulwell was by this time one of the largest in the entire county, so its high income was certainly essential.

Only a few elements of the old church were kept on in the new one. Of course the church had not moved far so the churchyard remained the same one. At some point in the century a plot of ground was given a nameless grave marked only as for the ‘poor children from London’. A similar gravesite exists at Linby further along the river, both of them commemorating children (almost certainly orphans) brought from London to work in the cotton mills along the River Leen.

Of the three bells that had hung in the old church, only two survived, although local legend says that the third went to Basford church. For a time they were left in the churchyard, but were eventually recast by Taylor of Loughborough and formed part of a new ring of six bells that were installed in November 1860. A bell-ringing competition was held at the church to celebrate their installation. The ringers from Stavely were judged winners.

The rest of the 19th century saw several modifications and additions to the church, as the local community remained actively involved with it. In 1867 the church was given land on which a new school and schoolhouse were built. In 1870 the choir vacated the west gallery that it had previously used, and moved to the east end of the nave, nearer the chancel. They moved again in 1890, into the chancel itself. In 1872 the organ that had been given by Mrs Bolton was sold to a Mr E Charles, and replaced with a new one donated by Mrs Cooper of Bulwell Hall, in memory of her husband who had died a year before.

To handle the large parish a new chapel-of-ease was built from 1882 to 1885 in Bulwell. Dedicated to St John it survives today, although nowadays it is a separate parish church of its own, not attached to St Mary’s.

At around the same time St Mary’s was closed for a time for its own repairs. The church was completely repainted and redecorated both outside and inside. Two gas standards were added in the chancel and a new metal cross was installed, at a cost of £150. The gas standards seem to have been the first more modern technology to be installed in the church but it was soon followed by others. In 1891 the new rector and lord of the manor, the Reverend Thomas Hardy, arranged with the Corporation of Nottingham for the illumination of the church tower clock in return for £100, much of which was paid by the rector himself. In 1897 complaints led to the installation of gas burners to light the church.

There were other alterations as well. By 1890 the graveyard was full, and efforts were made to buy additional land – half an acre – to add to the churchyard to extend it. The same year a memorial tablet was placed on the north wall of the sanctuary. Made by Messrs Cox and Sons Ltd, it was made in the memory of William Henry Cantrell, who had been the rector of Bulwell from 1865 till his death a few months before. It was given by his wife’s family, the Suttons of Shardlow Hall in Derbyshire. The next year the wooden pulpit was replaced with a stone one, also dedicated to Cantrell. Then in 1893 there was a break-in at the church, during which the organ was damaged and required repair.

It was not until the end of the century that a major change was made to the church, however, when it was decided to install a dedicated organ chamber at the east end of the south aisle. The first stone was laid in 1899 on Queen Victoria’s 62nd Anniversary, by Mr W E Hardy of Bulwell Hall, and the chamber itself was finished before the end of the year. The organ chamber cost around £200. Much of the money, as well as some of the material and work, was given by the church choristers.

The next year a reredos – a decorated screen placed behind the altar – was constructed for the church and dedicated by the Bishop of Southwell. The reredos was dedicated to Thomas Hardy, the previous rector and lord of the manor, who was now rector of Harborough, Leicestershire, as shown by the tablet placed in the south wall. Another memorial plate in his memory was placed in the church in 1905, a year after his death, in the sanctuary, and in 1912 the new paving placed in the chancel was dedicated to his wife, Mary Ann Hardy.

In 1912 the visitation reports sent in that year showed that attendance at the church was low, with only 3.7% of the parish attending communion. However the population figures show why – with over 18,000 people living in Bulwell by this time and the church only able to seat around 900, only a small proportion could attend, though some more could also go to St John’s instead. The church’s Sunday School was similarly packed, with 500 scholars, and 700 attending the day school. The continued importance of the church to the community shows through in the 249 baptisms and 58 confirmations that had occurred in the previous year. The church was valued at £397 per annum at the time of the visitation.

In 1913 the church was witness to a military gathering, to honour one of their dead. The dead soldier was Private Richard Mills, a local boy who had joined the army, as part of the 1st York and Lancaster Regiment. Sent to India, he had died sacrificing his life while attempting to save a comrade from drowning at Hassan Pin, near Karachi, in January 1912. At a solemn ceremony at St Mary’s a tablet in his memory was unveiled by Major Burt, attended by a detachment from the regiment as well as members of Private Mill’s family and representatives from the Bulwell and Basford Ex-Service Association. The rector, the Reverend A. E. Rose, pronounced the dedicatory sentence, followed by a sounding of ‘The Last Post’. In the years that followed, as the Great War raged, many more locals would lose their lives in service to their country. A memorial in the churchyard built in 1921 commemorates the dead.

In 1920, the ring of bells were expanded, two new bells being cast and added, bringing the total to eight, as it still is in 2013. Six years later the church was expanded by the addition of a small chapel, known as the Lady Chapel. The organ was moved into the chapel soon after its completion, but by this point it was suffering from its heavy use. By 1929 it was declared past easy repair and fundraising efforts began to have the organ rebuilt. As part of the efforts the rector, the Reverend S. M. Wheeler, wrote and arranged a production of a pageant, called ‘A Dream of Old Bulwell’, held at the local Olympia Theatre. The pageant, which was about the past and present of Bulwell, raised £231 for the organ restoration fund. Work on the organ began in the middle of 1930. The old, worn, tracker action on the organ was replaced with a pneumatic action, while new draw stops and keyboard were added and a pedal board inserted, with an electrical blowing apparatus. In total the restoration cost around £500, the work being done by Messrs E Wragg and Son of Nottingham. The old organ was retired in August, its last playing being done by Mr Alloway, who had been Bulwell’s organist for over 50 years.

In the same year the organ was repaired a stained glass window was placed in the south aisle. The window was given in memory of Mrs Ward who had died the previous year. Mrs Ward had been born in Bulwell as Miss Edith Walker, but had married the Reverend T. M. Ward, who was the curate of St Mary’s from 1887 to 1889.

In the 1930s there was an increasing amount of discussion over the need for a church hall in Bulwell, as the church itself was not suitable for all the varieties of events held in the parish. It was not until 1936 that funds began to be raised and efforts made to decide on a suitable site, and work on the church hall itself was not begun until 1940. The construction was a joint church hall and mission church dedicated to St Alban, built around half a mile away from St Mary’s.

In 1949 the Estates Commission of the Corporation of Nottingham agreed to assist in providing a new clock for the church tower. It can be presumed that the old clock was in a bad condition or had failed entirely.

The next year there was a dispute between the rector and the church’s team of bell ringers. The rector had, apparently, invited another team to visit and ring the bells at St Mary’s, though whether this was a one-time special invite is not clear. Regardless, the established bell ringers seem not to have taken it well and went on strike for six weeks. The rector seems to have tried to get round this by replacing them with a new team although the attempt seems to have failed.

The 1950s saw another round of extensions and rebuilding work on the church. A new baptistery was built in 1956, on the north-west side of the church, and dedicated to the memory of William and Alice Pearson and Georgia Strutt. A new canopy was also constructed for the font. It was dedicated to the memory of John and Sarah Robinson. The ceremony for its dedication was also the first time in centuries that a cope – a type of formal robe – had been worn in the church, in this case by the assistant curate, the Reverend G Blackmore.

The church continued to receive improvements into the 1960s and beyond, a clear sign of its continuing importance to the local community and to the support the community provided the church. A reredos was donated for the south aisle altar in 1964, given by a Mr Stanley Thomas. Its centre panel depicts Saint George, the left two panels show the Annunciation and Nativity while the right two portray Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac as well as the Resurrection. The next year an electrical heater was installed, while the year after new oak altar rails, vestry door and chancel paving were added, the latter replacing that installed in 1912, while the rails were dedicated to the memory of Edwin Widdowson, who had been a church warden from 1891 to 1910. The door, meanwhile, was given by Dan Raynor in memory of his wife Jennie.

The organ needed another overhaul by 1967, this time costing £450. The restored organ saw particular use in October of that year however, when the church hosted a special concert by the operatic singer Constance Shacklock, who had been born in nearby Sherwood. The concert was Mrs Shacklock’s last, as she retired from performing to teach music at the Royal Academy. The church was packed with six hundred people, with only a lack of space preventing even more tickets being sold.

In 1970 the old rectory, a sprawling 26 room mansion that had grown up over several centuries, was finally demolished and replaced with a smaller, more manageable structure. Much more building work would occur later in the decade however. The church hall, St Albans, had proved to be too far from the church itself, over half a mile away, and after a long period of declining use, the decision was made to build a new one. In a clear attempt to compensate for the previous distance, the new church hall was to be built into St Mary’s itself, a decision that meant a great deal of work needed to be done on the church’s interior, to create the space for the hall. Other than special occasions the church’s full capacity was not used so a reduction in seating space was not felt to be a problem. The font and baptistery were also dismantled, the font being moved over to the west end of the central aisle. The work had been estimated to cost £50,000. However, much of the work ended up being done by local volunteers which helped to reduce the cost of the work.

The bell frame needed replacing in 1988, thanks to loose joints it had developed. The bells were taken down and the frame rebuilt over the next two years, costing around £15,000. It was completed in 1990, the same year that a stained glass window was installed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dunkirk Evacuation. The window was designed and made by the local artisan Michael Stokes, who also designed another window added in 1992 in the memory of the Holland family. More repairs followed in 1993, when a report by the church architect prompted the replacing of the lead on the roof, the repainting of the tower stonework and the fitting of wire grills on the window, the work costing £30,000.

In 1998 the current rector, the Reverend Walter Beasley, retired. The new incumbent was the Reverend Christopher Gale, who was ‘Priest-in-Charge’, a change that was met with some displeasure by many locals, although as one pointed out, rector and priest were essentially the same thing, and the rector had always been in charge of the church.

The arrival of the new millennium brought celebrations in its honour. A yew tree, donated by the Mother’s Union, was planted in the church yard. Underneath the tree was buried a time capsule, containing a variety of items relating to the church and to Bulwell and its history.

Yet another stained glass window made by Michael Stokes was given to the church in 2005, donated by Ken and Jean Watkin in memory of their two sons, Christopher and David, who had tragically died in their youth.

In 2009 a pair of plaques were discovered buried in the old Basford Social Club, which had closed at the beginning of the year. The plaques contained a list of 174 names, all of locals from Bulwell and Basford who had been servicemen and women during the two world wars. The plaques appear to have gone missing back in the 1950s and were rediscovered just before the Club’s closure. Great efforts were made, led by veteran Terry Haywood, to retrieve the plaques and have them restored. The actual restoration was done by Ian Mclair of Sign Specialists Ltd. After much debate on where to put the restored plaques the decision was reached and approved to place them at St Mary’s. They were installed in a dedication ceremony on the 11 September 2011.