All Saints


Elston is a village of over 600 inhabitants situated just five miles south-west of the market town of Newark and a similar distance southeast of Southwell. The village is most famous for being the home of the Darwin family, which has produced several notable natural scientists, since the 17th century. The village is also notable as since early times it has had two churches, a result of the village being divided into two parishes.

Domesday Book mentions a priest called Norman holding lands at Elston and that another landholder, Ilbert de Lacy, was making a claim for the ‘priest’s land’ against Bishop Remegius – though what priest isn’t mentioned. It seems probable though that a church was already there in the village, a pre-Conquest structure most likely, that may have formed the basis for one of the later churches in the village. The next mention of a church in Elston is of a tragic incident. Gabriel d’Eylston (Elston), son of Ralph, of a family of knights, was struck by lightning and killed while on the church porch. The date of his death is not known exactly, but was around the late 12th century or early 13th century. However this may have been Elston Chapel, which seems to have been the first of the two churches in Elston to be built from architectural evidence, during the 12th century.

Elston All Saints itself dates to the 13th century, however, and some parts of the original church, including the tower and some of the chancel windows, still survive. The first patrons of the church were the Eylston family and it is likely that one of them sponsored the construction of the church. There is certainly no mention of the church being constructed on the orders of any higher ecclesiastical authority. The exact date of the church’s construction is not known but the first rector for the church mentioned in sources is Henry Moryn, who took office in 1270, so we can assume the church must have been completed before that. Certainly in 1233 Archbishop Gray gave a pronouncement from Elston concerning the institution of the vicar of Hickling; we may assume it was made from one of the two churches in the village and thus may have been from All Saints.

A few years later, in 1291, a tax survey ordered by Pope Nicholas IV valued the church as worth £5. A similar tax report of 1341, called the Nonarum Inquisitiones, also taxed the church at 100s but gives more detail about the church’s income sources. The church received the ninths of sheaves, lambs and fleeces from the villagers which was worth 5 marks (£3 6s. 8d.) as well as a tithe on hay worth another 3 marks (£2). Altar dues provided another 3 marks to the church.

None of this was a great income and the church’s priest must have lived a relatively poor existence in the early days of the church. It may have been this that prompted the chaplain of Elston, Robert Rose, to go hunting in the park of the Archbishop of York without a licence. He was caught in 1330 stealing deer and suffered a period of imprisonment until he was pardoned by a court in September of that year.

In 1307 archbishop Greenfield issued a mandate to his official to cause the church of Elston to be served by a chaplain at a payment of four marks (£2 13s 4d) per year during the suspension of William, the rector. He had apparently been suspended for certain causes (ex causis legitimus) at the visitation, but we are not told what these were. However, in August 1308 the sequestrator was informed that the sequestration of the rector's goods had been relaxed.

In 1428 the value of the church had fallen according to a tax called for by Henry VI. At this time Elston was taxed 6s 8d., i.e. 10% of its value which would have then been £3 6s. 4d.

On December 4th, 1480, Joan Methley of Elston, the widow of John Methley, a lawyer, willed that she desired to be interred in the aisle of Elston church, before the altar of St. John Baptist (coram altari S. Joh. Bapt.). To the fabric of the said aisle she left 40 s. of her husband's gift. To John, her son, a chalice, a Missal, and a vestment, along with all the furniture of the chapel.

In 1577 Adam Arnold, an inhabitant of Elston village, was sued 'for refusinge to use the office of a churchwarden.' He defended himself in court, claiming that his house had not been charged to serve as a warden. Many churchwarden posts were elected by the parishioners but some parishes used other methods and in Elston the office may have been meant to be (or thought to be) tied to certain dwellings with those who lived there responsible for the church. The judge listening to the case ordered that another warden be appointed while the dispute was ongoing. Sadly there is no record of how the dispute was resolved, nor for that matter whether the church itself suffered during it.

Elston All Saints seems to have suffered little from the turbulence of religious conflict that plagued England through the 16th and 17th centuries. The church did not have a chantry (at least none is mentioned prior to the Reformation) nor was it attached to a monastic priory and so the biggest changes of Henry VIII’s break with Rome – the closure of those institutions – had little effect. There was a change of rector in 1533, Gregory Cook replacing Sebastian Gardiner. However as the latter had served as rector for the church for 43 years the changeover probably had little to do with the Reformation.

At the same time Reverend Cook became rector the church passed from the patronage of the Archbishop of York (Edward Lee in 1533, but prior to that Thomas Cranmer) and passed to Robert Nevill and his daughter Alice. The church had previously been patronised by private individuals, lords of the manor of Elston generally, including the Mountenay and Bosvile families. It had passed to the Archbishops of York only in 1490.

At the Reformation the clear annual value of the parsonage of Elston is given in the Valor Ecclesiasticus as £9 15s. 8d., less summary payments yielding a total of £9 8s. 8d. The parson at the time is named as Gregory Cooke. Also at this time the Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral is noted as holding a portion of Elston and Syerston worth £22 11s. 6d. annually.

In 1587 the churchwardens reported that 'the churchyard is out of repair but it will be presented at the next court if it is not amended'. In 1603 they reported that there were no recusants and that there were 84 communicants and 40 children and infants, 'and these are the just numbers of all men, women and children in our parish'. In 1608 the wardens stated that 'our church is out of repair, for which Mr Pettie has given us liberty until Michaelmas twelvemonth; [he has also given] until Whitsuntide to provide one cushion and pulpit cloth'. In 1616 the bell was broken and the churchwardens asked for time to repair it.

Richard Gymney, the rector at Elston for two years between 1610 and 1612, was apparently not well liked by his parishioners or the churchwardens, who presented him to the archdeacon for not being resident in Elston for one and a half years. As Richard was also the vicar of Stoke he likely resided there instead. In turn he presented the wardens for not providing a decent seat for him to read services from, and for the lack of a decent pulpit in the church. Although only rector for two years he also served as curate for Elston chapel for most of the 17th century, during which he made many further presentments.

In 1637-8 the churchwardens of 'nearly every parish' in the archdeaconry were cited for not producing rails for the communion table in their church. Around this time the altar was also moved to the chancel from the body of the church.

The 17th century saw further conflict. During the Civil Wars Newark was besieged by Parliamentary forces for several years and Elston suffered some hardship as a result of the nearby fighting. Troops on both sides routinely plundered the nearby villages for food, produce and livestock during the siege and in 1644 there was a brief skirmish in the village when a Royalist troop resting there was ambushed and defeated. The church however survived without any appreciable damage. Towards the end of the Commonwealth period, from 1658, until just after the Restoration in 1662, Elston was without a rector. The delay in the appointment of a new priest for the village was almost certainly due to the confusion caused by the Restoration and the rearrangement of the church hierarchy as priests resigned or were reappointed. Further trouble was caused later in the century when the Glorious Revolution overthrew the Stuart King James II. Elston’s rector George Lascelles was recorded as taking the Oaths of Allegiance to his new monarchs William III and Mary II in 1689.

The Lascelles were the owners of Elston Hall at this time and had been for much of the 16th century. There is an inscription over the tower arch dedicated to John Lascelles, 3rd son of George Lascelles, who died in 1616. Many members of the family were buried under the church tower, an area sometimes called the Lascelles Chapel as a result, and the south aisle is sometimes called the Lascelles Aisle. During the civil war the family had been divided in its loyalties. Another George Lascelles had served the King before switching sides and one story tells of how he had pursued King Charles in 1651 only for the king to escape with the help of his relative John Lascelles. The son of that George Lascelles was also called John and was the patron of the church in 1689, although he lived for only a couple more years and the patronage passed to his mother Anne Lascelles.

Anne Lascelles had, before marrying John, been in a marriage to Robert Waring and had a daughter also named Anne, who married a man named William Darwin and they had two sons, William and Robert. In 1708 the latter bought out the Lascelles interest in Elston Hall and so the Darwins became the lords of the manor in Elston. William’s fourth son was Erasmus Darwin, who was born in Elston in 1731, the first noted naturalist of the Darwin family but hardly the last for his grandson was the famed Charles Darwin, the man who wrote ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859.

Charles Darwin did not live in Elston, though he likely visited the village on occasion, as other branches of the Darwin family did remain there. Besides being lords of the manor they also replaced the Lascelles as patrons of Elston All Saints. The church has remained in the patronage of the Darwin family ever since. A couple of Darwins, both named John have also served as rectors of Elston, the first from 1766 to 1805 and the second from 1815 to 1819. The close relationship between All Saints' church and the Darwins is demonstrated by the numerous memorials in the church to various family members, including 14 marble and one brass monuments, and the various restorations of the church in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin himself wrote in a letter of 1839 of how his great-grandfather William Darwin had discovered a fossilised Ichthyosaurus in a piece of stone next to the well in the rectory grounds.

In 1743 Archbishop Herring visited Nottingham Archdeaconry and toured the deaneries, receiving reports from the parish priests as he went. The rector for Elston at the time was George Chappell, who had served the parish since 1732, and who was also the vicar of Barnby-in-the-Willows, and assisted his relative, Edward Chappell, the rector of Thorpe, by acting as the curate there. Elston was where he chose to reside however. The village at that time had 19 families living there, and George reported that there was one dissenter amongst them, an old woman who was a papist (Roman Catholic). He also reported that he gave services at Elston and Thorpe, only a mile away, each week alternating. He also gave the Sacrament four times a year at Elston and that about 30 of the 44 communicants in the village attended it last Easter. The church clearly remained a thriving part of the community, albeit a shrinking community (in 1676 another rector had reported 70 communicants in the village).

At some unknown date towards the end of the 18th century, probably in the 1780s, a second aisle was built onto the north side of the church, possibly to match up with the single existing aisle that had been there for centuries. Soon after, in 1793, the tower’s peal of three bells were replaced by a new set of five, purchased by Robert Waring Darwin, the patron of the church. All five bells, which were hung by T Osborn of Downham, Norfolk, survive to this day although they have been rehung several times and have suffered some damage over the years. A bell-ringing competition was held at the church when they were first hung up.

At this time the church owned glebe lands worth £2 17s 4d per annum. It also received 18s 10. 5d from the tithes on the tenths (of produce) each year.

In 1816 Robert Darwin gave £350 to charity to be used for church purposes. The parish clerk was to receive 1s a week partly in recompense for cleaning the church and its windows when the wardens requested. The residue of the interest on the £350 was to be spent on repairing the fabric and ornaments of the church with any left being used on churchyard maintenance. Unfortunately Robert Darwin passed away that same year, apparently without actually transferring the £350. Some of it was paid by his trustee William Brown Darwin until 1829, but it was a few years before the cease of this payment was noticed by the Charity Commissioners, who had to order William to pay the rest of the money and restore the charity.

William seems to have been a keen supporter of the church himself, despite the above confusion. In 1837 he spent £2,000 of his own money, a considerable sum, on restoring and beautifying the church. As part of this work the Darwin family mausoleum was built within the church. Some of his devotion to the church may have been the result of the tragic deaths of his three daughters to various illnesses between 1835 and 1838, at the young age of 13, 14, and 15 years, which must have been a great loss to William. All three girls have memorials in the church dedicated to their memory.

Census information showed Elston’s population had grown considerably in the previous century, to several hundred inhabitants. A religious census taken in 1851, while giving lower figures for the population than the main census, does also tell us that Elston’s congregation typically numbered around 77 in the morning and 60 in the afternoon – though some people may have gone to both services and so been counted twice. There were also 40 Sunday scholars at the time.

Further work was done on the church in 1859. Due to subsidence, and some rather poor quality work done in 1837, major repairs had to be carried out on the chancel. The Darwin mausoleum, built only two decades before, had to be taken down. It was never rebuilt and the family members buried in it were reinterred elsewhere in the church. A new vestry was also constructed as part of the work. This time much of it was paid for not by the Darwins but by the rector at the time, the Reverend Frederick Swire, who also paid £2,000 to build a new parsonage house in 1855.

The division of the village into two parishes finally came to an end in 1870, when Elston Chapel and its jurisdiction were transferred over to be attached to All Saints. The chapel had long been attached to Stoke parish but had become increasingly unused. Before long the chapel was made redundant and passed into the hands of the Church Conservation Trust.

All Saints continued to be used and built upon. In 1882 another round of building work took place, this time mostly interior improvements. A memorial west window was placed, in the memory of John Thorpe of Elston Hall. A new oak pulpit was also added and similarly dedicated to him, given by his nieces. The 1880s saw several other memorial windows placed in the church and dedicated to various Darwin’s. Around this time the rectory was listed as being £227 in value.

In 1912 a sixth bell was added to the church’s peal. It was hung by John Taylor and Co of Loughborough, who also rehung the other five bells, which had become unsafe, retuning them and adding chiming apparatus. The new bell was dedicated to John Lloyd Wharton, who had been a conservative MP and who had died that year. His daughter had married Charles Waring Darwin, son of the lord of the manor, Francis Darwin, and so came to Elston back in the 1890’s and it was she that gave the new bell to the church in her father’s memory. The new bell was added amongst extensive restoration work that caused the church to close for several months. The work mainly focused on replacing much of the interior fittings and furnishings. A new altar was installed with new vestments and a set of oak panels placed on either side of it. A stone piscina and aumbry were added for the convenience of the priest. The chancel arch was also raised, and the church was re-roofed. The old pews were removed and replaced with chairs. The church reopened on the 23rd December 1912 in a special service headed by the Bishop of Southwell during which the new altar and bell were dedicated.

That same year another visitation report lists 'Elston with Elston Chapelry' as being a parish of 312 people with a rectory worth £180 in value. There were 73 people attending the church day school and another 53 in Sunday School. The Rector, Charles Hubert (or Wilfred) Whitfield, had performed four baptisms and 24 confirmations in the previous year.

When electricity first came to the village at some point in the early 20th century the Darwins were of course the first to have it installed. However they also paid to have it installed in the church as well, which thus came to have electrical lighting in advance of many rural churches.

Like other churches, a war memorial was set up in Elston church in the wake of the First World War. It can still be seen in the porch of the church, and lists those local inhabitants who lost their lives fighting in both world wars. One of them, Corporal Frederick Hickman, had been born in the village but had actually emigrated to Canada in 1908. Nonetheless he returned to Europe as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was killed in France only a few months before the end of the war in 1918. Another, Sergeant Arthur Spowage, also died in 1918, having received the Distinguished Conduct Medal three years earlier for his courageous actions. During the Great War school children would come into the church every day at noon to pray for their fathers, brothers, and other relatives off fighting in the war.

In 1993 the silver communion chalice was stolen from the church by a man who then tried to sell it on at a Newark Antique shop. He was caught in the act by the police, presumably alerted by a sharp-eyed shop-keeper, who returned the chalice to the church before the rector had even realised it had been taken.

The Darwin family has continued to patronise the church through the 20th century and on into the 21st. Charles John Wharton Darwin was followed as patron by his daughter Vivien Mary Kindersley before it passed to a different branch of the family, to Christopher Darwin, soon after the turn of the millennium.