In earlier centuries, Church attendance on a Sunday was compulsory and the Church was very influential in people’s lives. Still to be seen on the outside of the church is a ‘Mass Dial’, similar to a sundial, which was there to enable the priest to decide the proper time to say Mass. The congregation would, presumably, have been summoned by the bells. At the beginning of the 20th century congregations were large and attending church was a social event. The following is from ‘Life and Times of a Wiltshire Farmer’ by Bob Combes, whose family farmed the land at East Farm:
Attending Church in 1910.
‘The weekly event that does stick in my mind is the regular visit to Church every Sunday morning, an event I used to dread. The reason for this dread has nothing to do with a distaste for religion – in fact, once I got used to it, I quite enjoyed the sights and sound of the morning service. But to get to Church, we had to walk, Father being too busy to drive us. And at any rate, a walk of a mile and a half in each direction was considered quite normal in those days, even for the legs of a three year old.
So every Sunday morning, we set off at half past ten, up the hill to the main road, then down to the cross roads with a pub on either side of the road, and the village smithy straight ahead. Then a right turn into the village street past the shop and bakery, where sometimes we met the baker. Lucky man, he had to walk only as far as the middle of the village, for he was ‘Chapel’ and was in fact a lay reader there. I wonder why, when on both sides of the family we had close connections with the Congregational church, we were now adherents of the Church of England? I suppose it was all a matter of position in the village. After all, we might only be tenants, but Father occupied more than a third of the parish acreage and was one of the biggest employers of labour. No doubt Mother felt that, with such a background, it would be unseemly to attend Chapel when by going to Church she would be mixing with the elite of the village. In those days, position was of prior importance, especially when dealing with one’s employees and their families.
Further on, past the Church Hall where village entertainments took place, the Fovant Brook followed along the side of the road until it flowed under a little stone bridge to feed the watercress beds. We soon came to the school, nearly there now, with only the Doctor’s house to pass, then the Rectory and beyond it was the Church.
Nearing the Church, we met more and more members of the congregation, who exchanged greetings with Mother. Then, just before eleven o’clock, the children arrived from the school, where they had met for Sunday School, under the supervision of the Rector. He, with flowing cassock and books under his arm, shepherded his small reluctant crocodile of a flock towards the Church, with the schoolmistress following as “whipper-in”.
Our family pew, inherited from the previous tenants of East Farm, was second from the front on the north side of the aisle, behind that of the Doctor’s wife. In all the long years that I was to live in the village I never saw the doctor himself in Church. Not that Father was very much better, but he did come sometimes. When this did happen, our own pew being somewhat abbreviated, the overflow moved into the pew in front. Why we never moved to a larger pew I could never understand, unless to do so would have been to lose face. After all, we could only move backwards, a retrogressive step. The Church choir was not very large, a few boys, one or two elderly men and several young women or girls who were the mainstay of the singing. Mr Blake, the organist, was a truly remarkable character. He had contracted smallpox at a very early age and as a result of that illness had been blind, virtually from birth. He learned to play the organ and the piano and also undertook piano tuning. For more years than I can remember, he came to the village on a Saturday afternoon and stayed the night with friends. He played the organ in Church at both morning and evening services, returning to his lodgings in Salisbury on the Monday morning.
Any description of the Church in those pre war days would be incomplete without mention of Mr. Tom (Simper) who was churchwarden. Mr. Tom was a very tall man, with a high, dome shaped bald pate, which seemed to exaggerate his considerable height. In Church he read the lessons and took round the offertory plate and woe betide the member of the congregation who failed to pay up when the plate was shown before him. He would continue to stand before the offender, intoning the words of the offertory hymn in a deep unmelodious voice, until the offertory was duly made. History does not relate that anyone had the nerve to refuse the unspoken but obvious demand.’
Enlarging on the story of Mr. Blake, the organist in the description above, a member of a well-known village family commented that his cousin, as a boy, used to pump the organ each Sunday (there being no electricity in the church in those days) and tells the tale that, during the sermon, Mr. Blake would escape outside to smoke his pipe. On his return, if the sermon had not come to an end by the time he felt it should, he would sound a gentle note on the organ. If this did not appear to encourage the Rector to hasten towards the end, a louder note would be played!
In today’s more secular society congregations are much smaller. The Rector is expected to look after several local churches and hold services in them and the Chapel has visiting preachers. Those who still worship at Church or Chapel are well served in the village itself; Catholics will find their nearest church at Tisbury or Wardour and those of different faiths, such as Quakers, must travel further afield – usually to Salisbury.