Wight Life

The Island Then and Now

By John D Whitehead

Bonchurch 'Old' Church

Drawing of Bonchurch Old Church

Bonchurch Old Church from a drawing by G Tompkins dated 1794

WHAT A LOT OF PLACES there are in the Island which carry the additional designation 'old'. In the case of this little church it is well warranted, of course, for it is, I believe, the most completely Norman structure on the Island. It was built in 1070, only four years after the Conquest, and only the porch, the little 'bell-cot' and the windows are of more recent date than that. The first sketch shows that the bell-cot did not exist in 1794 and, though there was a porch in those days, comparison of the two sketches proves that it has been replaced since then. The windows, sadly, were replaced; some in the 12th century and others in the 15th century. However, the main fabric, including the chancel arch and the south door, are genuine early Norman — 905 years ancient. It is deserving of a great deal more veneration than, I feel, it gets.

The internal measurements are 48 ft 6 in long and 12 ft wide but, once upon a time, it had a gallery which extended from the west wall to almost level with the south door. In those days, it is said, it could accommodate a congregation of 90 people — ample, one would feel, for the population then, since the district consisted of no more than three farms, Bonchurch Farm, Mackett's and Mare Pool. In acreage, Bonchurch was the largest but, judging by the tombs in the churchyard, the Mackett family were the most prolific. The earliest decipherable tomb is that of `Thomas Mackutt' who died in 1616. Another Mackett was buried in 1627, and the largest tomb is that of 'William Mackett' who died, aged 81, in 1646. They lived to a great age, those Macketts; Richard died in 1760 aged 96 and Robert lived to 90.

Drawing of Bonchurch Old Church

Bonchurch 'Old Church' as it is today

Shanklin 'Old' Church

Drawing of Shanklin Old Church

Shanklin Old Church, enlarged from a detail in a Brannon engraving dated 1823

Yet another 'old' edifice, though junior to Bonchurch by several hundred years, is Shanklin 'Old' Church. The two are closely connected; from the early 16th century through till 1853, the livings were combined under the title 'Bonchurch cum Shanklin'.

Comparison of the respective present-day sketches of the two buildings offers an interesting demonstration of the lack of planning — the pure chance which, in Victorian days, controlled what we now call 'conservation'. In 1848, a new church was fell consecrated for Bonchurch and the old one into complete neglect and oblivion; a state which, happily, preserved it in its original form. In almost the same year, despite the enormous drawback of the Shanklin church being so far distant from the rapidly expanding town, it was decided to more than double its capacity. The result was the destruction of 99 per cent of the original fabric. Only a few feet of the chancel walls survived extensions to the nave and the erection of north and south transepts, topped by the ornate central bell tower.

How very few of our ecclesiastical buildings which survived the destruction of Henry VIII have come through the Victorian era without desecration!

Drawing of St. Blaisins Church

St. Blaisins Church, Shanklin ( better known as the 'Old Church') as it is today

Yaverland Church

Drawing of Yaverland Church

Yaverland Church from a sketch by Percy G Stone dated 1882.

While we are on the subject of Island churches, it may be of interest to consider the case of Yaverland, which steered a mid course through the ravages of Victorian restoration. It is the focal point of a typically Island site, surrounded by green lawns and shady trees, adjacent to a picturesque manor house. No doubt, the district round Yaverland held less promise of expansion for the Victorians than Shanklin or Bonchurch. Certainly they overlooked it until much later — until 1888 in fact. Perhaps the Out of restoration they had already carried out had left them with waning enthusiasm by then, or perhaps they worked in alphabetical order so that this one was near the bottom of the list. Even so, they could not leave it alone, though they failed to destroy the entire building.

The original Norman doorway can still be seen inside the modern wooden porch and, within, the Norman chancel arch is still intact. The whole west wall seems to have been 'restored' by the simple process of knocking it down and rebuilding to a completely different design, crowned by a quite incongruous bell tower.

Drawing of Yaverland Church

Yaverland Church as it is today

I hope that, in more recent times, we have learned to offer the dwindling store of our architectural heritage some degree of respect. May this European Architectural Heritage Year teach us to reverence our ancient buildings.