Dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, the parish church of Ecton lies just off the High Street, with the graves of centuries around it. When the Spanish Armada threatened invasion in the 16th century the tower was sufficiently prominent to be chosen as one of the five beacon towers of the region, and it is as true today as when Cole wrote in 1825, that ‘various pleasing presentations of the lofty tower of the church offer themselves picturesquely to view through the aged trees which skirt the domain’. It is only perhaps unfortunate that the limestone ashlar work of the top stage, added in the 15th century, does not quite harmonise with the mellow ironstone of the rest of the building.
When Henry de Campania - his is the first name on the list of incumbents - became Rector in 1220, the church was probably already beginning to develop its present form, enlarged from what the Victoria County History says may have been an ‘aisleless church with central tower, north and south transepts and short chancel’. In the 13th century a new tower was built at the west end, and the walls of the nave were breached to provide an aisle on either side. The chancel was lengthened, with a tomb recess in the north wall and a low side window, where the sanctus bell may have hung, on the south side - its outline is still visible behind the choir stalls. At this time, too, a south porch was built, its jambs bearing various markings but most noticeably a scratch sundial, one of more than 130 in Northamptonshire. An old drain stone was at some point built into the outside wall of the south aisle and replaced there during restoration in the 1950s.
The 14th century saw further development; the north aisle was widened and a chapel was added on each side of the chancel, the one on the north side now being the vestry. Typically, the church has a rood loft. The bottom few steps of the narrow stairs which led to it were discovered near the entrance to the Lady Chapel during the work in the 1950s and its position is apparent from the openings high in the walls of the nave.
The roof of the nave was raised and the clerestory introduced in the 15th century, when the final stage of the tower was built and the north porch added - the date 1456 is clearly carved in Roman numerals on the left buttress. In the 17th century a doorway, still visible from the outside, was cut in the 13th century tomb recess to provide an entrance for the Rectors to what became their private chapel and burial place. In the furtherance of this project the chancel arch was blocked and the north and south arches to the chapels were obscured by the large memorial tablets now seen near the north entrance to the church.
The congregation, meanwhile, was not faring so well. In the church review of 1637 it was stated ‘First the seats in the Church are all of them broken rotten and all of them unhansome except five or six seates therein. Some places in the church wants whiting especially over the middle yle on the south side thereof. The beare (bier) wants mending and the south church doore and the steps entring into the north Church doore wants mending’. No doubt the seats were replaced; almost two hundred years later, in 1825, pews were installed and at the west end of the church, above the blocked tower arch, a gallery was built which was still in use within living memory. On ‘Feast Days’ - the celebration of the Patronal Festival - the Silver prize Band of Earls Barton played there after leading a procession of members of the Ancient Order of Oddfellows through the village.
Early this century the chancel was fully restored and choir stalls were introduced, largely at the expense of General Sotheby but ‘with the exception of a small public subscription’. He began, too, the refurbishment of the Lady Chapel, but it was his widow who completed the work. She recorded ‘To the Glory of God and to carry out what she believed to be her husband’s wishes, this chapel was completed and the Altar and Reredos added by Edith Marion Sotheby in 1911’. She was a Scot and, touchingly, amongst the painted figures on the beautifully carved screen she included her own St. Margaret of Scotland.
The walls of this chapel are crowded with Sotheby memorials and others to members of the Isted family, from whom they inherited the estate. The memorial to General Sotheby himself reads like a review of the military history of the second half of the nineteenth century, his career spanning service in the Crimea, India, China and Africa; almost as a footnote to his life, a few lines commemorate the wife who did so much to perpetuate his memory.
The most elaborate of the monuments is one of coloured marble, complete with putti, ingeniously commemorating Anne Isted, Spinster; she died in 1763. ‘This monument’, the inscription reads, ‘should have recorded the amiable and truly Christian character of the worthy person in whose memory it is erected if her own commands had not expressly prohibited it’.
In the body of the church are several memorials to past Rectors and parishioners, the most outstanding being those to the Palmer and Whalley families, who between them ministered to the parish for more than two hundred years. John Palmer, Rector 1641-79, was so notable a mathematician and astronomer that in 1667 he was invited by the Secretary of the recently formed Royal Society to enter into a ‘Philosophical correspondence especially in Astronomy and Algebraical Aequations’; it was known, wrote Oldenburg, that he had made many observations with his ‘excellent telescope,’ at Ecton. There is a wall monument to him in the chancel, surmounted by a bust by Rysbrack, as is the monument to his grandson opposite, the patron of the church in his day.
A bronze tablet, unveiled by the American Consul-General in 1910, recalls Benjamin Franklin’s connection with the village. At the top of is a bust in relief and below a quotation from one of his speeches at the Convention of 1787, when the new Constitution of the United States was drawn up and signed at Philadelphia; ‘The longer I live the more convincing proof I see of this truth, that God governs the affairs of men’. The church still receives occasional visits from members of the Franklin family.
Two other wall tablets record the establishment of village charities. John Barker, who died in 1729, left to the parish a meadow which he expected to produce sufficient income to provide cloth for coats for two poor men of the village, ‘as the minister and Churchwardens of Ecton shall think convenient, and the remainder of the money to be given in a Dole of bread on St John’s day’. Two doles of bread, another tablet records, were to be purchased out of the dividends of Stock left to six Trustees of the parish by the Rev. Palmer Whalley in 1801, ‘half to be distributed on Lady Day, and the other half on St Michael, on which days he desired the Common Prayers might be read in Church’. The bread was to be given to frequent attenders, ‘particular regard being had to those who should regularly attend Holy Communion’. The Dole table in the churchyard was recently restored but all Ecton charities were combined in November 1992 to form two charities only - the Relief in Need Charity and the Educational Charity.
There are five stained glass windows in the church. Two of them were erected by Mrs Sotheby in memory of her husband, Major General Frederick Edward Sotheby whose notable military career has already been mentioned. For one of these, in the chancel, she chose the depiction of the story in II Samuel XXIII where, rather than drink water brought to him at the risk of other men’s lives, David poured it out on the ground as an offering to God, so illustrating those qualities of courage and unselfishness which Mrs Sotheby prized in her husband. The other window, in the Lady chapel, was copied from a card designed by her sister, which had so pleased her husband that he had declared a wish to have a ‘coloured window’ made from it, a wish his widow had now fulfilled. A third window in the Lady chapel is dedicated to Mrs Sotheby’s mother.
In the north wall of the chancel is a window erected in 1924 by Alfred Sotheby to the memory of his parents, Admiral Sir Edward Southwell Sotheby and his wife. (Alfred also paid for the restoration of the tomb recess below, in the course of which work the ancient aumbry was discovered). This window is a copy of one in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, designed by Sir Edward Burne Jones and executed by William Morris and Co. in memory of Alice Liddell - Alice in Wonderland. The fifth window, in the north aisle, has no Sotheby connection but was dedicated by a former Rector, the Reverend John Cox-Edwards, to the memory of his son, lost in the disaster to the Empress if Ireland in the St. Lawrence River in Canada in 1914; just below is a memorial tablet to his parents.
Over the years the maintenance of the fabric of this old church has caused constant problems. Within the last fifty years there has been trouble with dry-rot in the Sanctuary and in the main beam in the Lady chapel, and the south aisle has had to be completely re-roofed; a solid floor, surface with parquet tiles, has been installed in the nave and the old gallery and pews beneath have been removed. The friable ironstone of the walls is subject to severe weathering. Stonework repairs have been carried out to the clerestory windows and latterly a major programme of work to the tower has been completed with the aid of a grant from English Heritage. In addition, the font, which had once been lost for many years and had been found serving as a drinking trough in a local farmyard, has received specialist conservation work. It was satisfying for all concerned when on the occasion of the last Quinquennial the report was able to speak of ‘the present well cared-for appearance of the church’.
A current problem is the heating. Since that Sunday at the end of October 1909 when it was reported ‘New heating apparatur used for the first time. It was highly successful...the temperature of the church has been made all that could be required’, standards of comfort have risen! Several attempts have been made to upgrade the system; the solid fuel boiler was replaced first with an oil-fired, then with a gas-fired one, and it is hoped that today’s modifications, including a new pump and extra radiators will suffice for some time to come.
In other ways the interior of the church is constantly being improved and embellished. Amongst the gifts made by individual parishioners have been a nave altar, a communion rail in the Lady chapel, a large vestment chest in the vestry. A loop system has been installed for the hard-of-hearing and a group of ladies has long been busy making new seat cushions and embroidering hassocks; others are renowned for their beautiful floral creations on special occasions. Just inside the north entrance, a coffee bar provides a welcome corner for congregation and visitors alike and the children have their own corner opposite. The whole building is lovingly looked after by members of the congregation.
The church, a Crown living, is fortunate in having its own Rector who, although also Warden of Ecton House, The Peterborough Diocesan Retreat House and Conference Centre, is able to concentrate his pastoral responsibilities on the one parish. Since he came in 1990, the Reverend Peter Naylor has officiated at twenty-one weddings, seventy baptisms and thirty burials while his wife, Patricia, has built up a thriving Sunday School, now known as the Sunday Family, of twenty-nine children. Today in 1996, there are 106 names on the Electoral Roll of the parish. Whatever changes the future may bring, the prayer of the church will always be that of Mrs Phipps when, on September 27 1925, she first switched on the electric lights and prayed that the ‘Heavenly light might shine in the hearts of the people of Ecton’.
The tower houses the historically interesting mechanism of a faceless clock, which once took up most of the middle chamber; it was heard for centuries but only the works could be seen. A gift to the parish from the Rector, Richard Middleton, in 1630, it was perhaps a timely reminder of him to the village from which he was so often absent, for he was also Chaplain to Charles I. In 1690 chimes were added, playing ‘Britons strike Home’ four times a day during the week and a metrical version of Psalm 4, beginning ‘Hear me when I call’, on Sundays. Though the chimes ceased to play fairly early this century, the clock itself, maintained by the village blacksmith, still functioned until the 1950s. In 1996 restoration was considered, but a report from Smith of Derby, Clockmakers, advised that this would be impractical. They suggested the whole installation should either be put on display in the body of the church or placed on permanent loan in a museum; an alternative proposal to install an external electro-magnetic hammer on one of the bells was considered too costly at £2,700 and the whole idea was dropped.
The bells themselves date from 1612 to 1749. Until 1749 there had been only five but in that year George Freeman, a native of the village, gave a new treble and this gave the ringers of Ecton a chance to show their worth. A painted plaster panel in the ringing chamber records the names and heights of those who on 2nd April 1756 ‘rang the First Six Bell peal 720 upon 6 bells of the Parish’. They are all there, dressed in knee-breeches, stockings and buckled shoes, the tower master, presumably, distinguished by his frilled shirt, white stockings and the bunch of keys at his waist. Their bells are raised and their clay pipes and no doubt much needed liquid refreshment lie at hand on a bench. The feat was repeated when George III came to the throne in 1760 and then not again, it is believed, until 1926.
Much pleasure can be gained from taking time out to wander around this beautifully kept churchyard, the peace and tranquillity of ‘God’s Acre’ shining through the frenetic lifestyle of the mid 1990’s. Entering the churchyard via the north gate will take you through a line of trees including holly, lime and silver birch, with a wide border flanking the path to the main door of the Church planted with rose trees, shrubs and seasonal flora.
Close by are the headstones of Thomas and Eleanor Franklin, uncle and aunt of the great American statesman and scientist Dr. Benjamin Franklin. The present generation of the Franklin family are regular visitors to Ecton. On the north side are two flowering cherry trees planted in 1968 by Robert Franklin from Houston, Texas, and on the south side is a Franklinia Altamaha, planted by the Georgia branch of the Franklin family in 1995.
The shapes, sizes styles and materials of the headstones take many forms, from the local sandstone to the modern marble; wooden crosses bearing simple inscriptions to large ornate tombstones and memorials. Unfortunately the varied climatic conditions we experience and the passage of time has completely eroded many of the original inscriptions on the older headstones.
One small headstone standing along the north wall bears the initials TW with the date MDCCVIII (1708). The oldest complete headstone is that of William Lovell who died in 1729 but there is is a small stone now lining one of the paths inscribed CH 1674, whiich, from the church register, must be that of Cicelie Hensman. There are many broken sections which have been laid almost like paving at the east perimeter between the two Sotheby family memorials. Typical of many English country churchyards, the various graves, tombs and memorials shows recurring family names through the generations; descendants of these families reside in the village of their ancestors today.
At first glance the large `tombstone’ opposite the west door appears to be fairly ordinary but it is reputed to be a dole table from where bread was distributed to the poor of the village. According to one local stonemason this table could tell many a tale with the youth of the village using it for other recreational pastimes over the years!
Several memorials are dedicated to those who died in foreign lands. One of the most interesting is opposite the east side of the church and tells of a disaster at sea; Joseph Cox Edwards, who lies next to his mother - wife of the then rector of Ecton - lost his life to the disaster which struck the `Empress of Ireland’ in the St Lawrence river in Canada on 29 May 1914.
During recent years members of the community both past and present, have worked tirelessly in an effort to gain recognition in the annual `Best Kept Churchyard’ competition. The summer of 1996 brought success when Ecton became runners-up with a total of 93 points out of a maximum of 100 - just one point behind the winners! May their achievement spur them all to greater glory in years to come - and future generations too. A fitting accolade to the memory of all who rest in this beautiful corner of Ecton.
The Ecton Feast coincides with the Patronal Festival of St Mary Magdalene [when]; on Sunday afternoon the ‘Oddfellows’, Girl Guides, Church Lads’ Brigade and others would parade through the village before a service in the church which was accompanied by the Earls Barton silver band up in the gallery. Afterwards the band members enjoyed the hospitality of tea in villagers’ homes before playing later near the shrine.
One of the regular features in years gone by was the visit of the fair. In the twenties Billings’ fair would be set up in a field in West Street next to the school; later Strudwicks’ brought theirs to the field behind the ‘World’s End’,(now the carpark), or over the main road.
There was always a church fete, which was at the Hall until Col Sotheby died and afterwards between the church and the rectory (now Ecton House). More recently the fete moved into the gardens of the House. Another feature is the flower festivals, creatively designed around the theme of the weekend and beautifully displayed in the church.
In some recent years Ecton Feast was taken literally with memorable banquets - ‘Norman’ in 1986 as part of the Domesday Festival and ‘Elizabethan’ in 1988 during the Armada Beacon Festival. Prior to these an American Connection festival and a Victorian Music Hall are also not easily forgotten. For these events marquees were erected on the lawn of Ecton House and normally sensible Ecton villagers donned strange but appropriate costumes and, under the influence of convivial company, let their hair down and had a good time.
The Ecton Feast has given enormous pleasure to a great many people during its long history as well as raising a vast amount of money for worthwhile causes, mainly for the restoration of the church but a percentage is always donated to charity. Long may it continue.
From the Church Register
Next time you drive up the hill towards Earls Barton spare a thought for Thomas Morris, an Ecton man, who, in 1702, was ‘barbarously robbed and murdered by 3 Highwaymen upon Wellingborough Road in Barton Hill’ He was described as a husbandman, that is a farmworker, so he was probably killed for just a few pence.
The church registers, with descriptions such as this, bring to life those distant times. Here we find the sad story of William Child ‘a Youth of 11 Year of Age, killed by a fall from Apple Tree’ in 1764. It was October so perhaps he was scrumping. Not all died so young - Frances Sturman a widow, ‘commonly called Nurse Sturman’, was ninety when she died in 1767. Ecton women seem to have always been long-lived. Some men too although we are not told how old Thomas Charles was - only that he was ‘A Poor insane old man’!
Several village lads were drowned ‘swimming in the river’ and there are the expected infant deaths from disease - smallpox being the culprit in 1789 and measles in 1797; how parents must have dreaded the telltale signs in their children. Of course families were much bigger then - the registers show that many couples were producing a child a year.
This was probably especially true of one Ecton woman whose child’s baptismal record reads thus: ‘Joseph, third, or fourth Bastard Child of Elizabeth Jolly, common abandoned Prostitute, who has once been brought to open Penance in the Church, was baptized, 1st Jan 1788 P Whalley, Rector’. An intriguing note was added that - ‘Some anonymous Person sent by Mr Isted a £20 Bank Note to indemnify the Parish from Charges’.