Richard Wedgwood and Astbury Church

Almost nothing is known about Richard Wedgwood, the uncle and father-in-law of Josiah Wedgwood. All he has left us are a total of four letters from 1772 written to his daughter and son-in-law, along with the remains of his account book. Likewise, there are only brief and infrequent mentions of him in Josiah’s letters to his friend and business partner Thomas Bentley. Official records include the obligatory references in baptismal, marriage and burial registers, but no additional information, such as parochial, estate or probate records survive. His portrait was painted by George Stubbs[1] which according to Josiah was ‘a very strong likeness.’[2] Had it not have been for the portrait’s existence I have to admit that I would have abandoned my research into this elusive Wedgwood. But having his face stare back at me provided the enthusiasm to weave these few fragmentary pieces of evidence together in an attempt to form some sort of narrative.

 

Richard was baptised on the 9th January 1700[3]. He was the fourth of six children of Aaron Wedgwood II (1666-1743), a Burslem potter, descended from the patriarch of all the Wedgwood’s of Burslem, Gilbert Wedgwood (1588-c1666). Richard’s two younger brothers were Thomas (1703-1777) and John (1705-1780) both Master Potters and who were responsible for the erection of The Big House in Burslem. Whether Richard himself ever practiced the family art of potting is unknown.

 

Nothing has survived to throw light upon the first 29 years of Richard’s life. The first established fact, besides his birth, is that of his marriage at the age of 30 to Susan Irlam on the 30th August 1730.[4] She was the daughter of Thomas Irlam, minister of the Protestant Dissenters at Congleton. It was upon his marriage that Richard bought a 75-acre estate at Spen Green near Astbury in Cheshire.[5] Richard was probably not wealthy at the time of his marriage and it appears feasible that his bride provided a substantial dowry that enabled him to buy the estate.

 

Richard and Susan had two children, John baptised on the 8th January 1732[6], and Sarah on the 28th August 1734.[7] It was Sarah who married Josiah Wedgwood at Astbury church on the 25th January 1764.[8]

 

Although Richard was an uncle to Josiah he appeared overly cautious of his daughter’s proposed marriage to his nephew. Writing to his friend Thomas Bentley on the 9th January 1764 Josiah confessed to having ‘gone through a long series of bargain making - of settlements, reversions – provisions andc andc. Gone through it did I say! Would to hymen I had, no I am still in the attorneys hands, for which I hope it is no harm to pray “good Lord deliver me” Miss W: and I are perfectly agreed, and could settle the whole affair in three lines and so many minutes, but our pappa, over carefull of his Daughters interest, would by some demands which I cannot comply with, go near to separate us, if we were not better determin’d. On Friday next Mr W: and I are to meet in great form, with each of us our attorney which I hope will be conclusive.’[9]

 

The letter reveals Josiah’s frustration at what appears to be Richards’s possibly excessive detail to his and Sarah’s pre-nuptial agreement. Although these contracts were fairly common among those of a certain social status during this period, it appears unusual, as Richard would at least have had some indication of the character of his nephew.

 

Whatever stipulations the contract included, these appear to have been settled fairly quickly for a fortnight later on January 23rd 1764 Josiah again wrote to his friend Bentley in a much more convivial mood. ‘All matters being amicably settled betwixt my Pappa (Elect) and my self, I yesterday prevail’d upon my dear Girl to name the day, the blissfull day! When she will reward all my faithfull services, and take me to her Arms! To her nuptial bed! – to pleasures which I am yet ignorant of, and you my dear friend can much better conceive than I shall ever be able to express, in three words, we are to be married on Wednesday next.’[10]

 

The only clue to Richard’s career is through his account book.[11] This spans three decades from the 1740s to the 1760s and reveals him to have been a moneylender with a wide network of debtors. The book actually begins on page 41, meaning that the first 40, along with any unnumbered pages that may have preceded these, are also missing. This, and the page that forms its rear cover are much dirtier than the inside pages suggesting that the book has been in this fragmentary condition, possibly discarded in a dirty attic somewhere, for a considerable amount of time. The left-hand pages of this double-page account book refer to disbursements by Richard underneath the name of the borrower. The corresponding right-hand side refers to the same person’s repayments.

 

The left-hand page begins with the date column, followed by details of the payment, a separate reference number, and three columns for £ s d. A single horizontal red line denotes the end of each year, while a double horizontal red line records the start of a new borrower on that page. Many of the headings, such as that of George Prescott of Chester are followed with the first entry recording the ‘balance in the old book.’

 

Under many of the borrowers headings are the names of other individuals. Some such as Barnewell and Townsend, George Ottway, William Sheppherd, and ‘Brother Wedgwoods’ appear more frequently than others. These appear as some form of 3rd party or intermediary between Richard and the borrower. Like the borrowers, these individuals also have their own reference numbers. Some of these appear to run chronologically although some individuals have more than one number. These are most likely to be references to an account in a different journal that has not survived. One payment of Samuel Parsons of Newcastle mentions ‘for this and two other books.’ Many other borrowers, such as Phillip Antrobus jnr of Congleton, also contain references to ‘the cheese book’ and the ‘cheese account books.’

 

The majority of payments made by Richard to borrowers and their repayments were recorded as both single transactions (with corresponding date shown) and as an annual total. These varied considerably from single payments of as little as 2s and annual payments of only £1, up to both hundreds of pounds for both single and annual payments. Money was lent either on bill, as a bank note or cash itself. Some of the money was paid directly by Richard to his debtor while others received payment through Barnewell and Townsend who may have been solicitors acting on Richard’s behalf. It would appear that annual interest on the sum of £35 was 1s 8d as four separate examples for this amount testify.[12] Another entry records the interest on £600 as being £6 15s. As well as interest, payments for dividends infrequently appear. The majority of payments were repaid in the same sums as they were disbursed, while a few repaid the loan as a total annual amount. Like the third-party names recorded on the left-hand (disbursements) page some also appeared on the right-hand page when the sum was repaid. The repayments of Edward Steere of Chester show they were ‘by cash received by Carkman.’

 

Account holders came from both near and far, although the majority were centred in and around the Congleton and Sandbach district. The remainder came from the counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire including Nantwich, Knutsford, Newcastle, Leek, Lichfield, Stone, Stafford, Shrewsbury, down to neighbours in Astbury and Smallwood.

 

Samuel Yarwood of Smallwood appears to have had moderate amounts of cash paid directly to himself. His account contained sixteen transactions in as many years from 1747 to 1762. There were also disbursements ‘to HKP [housekeeping] for 2700 bricks, tobacco, and six measures of wheat.’ Some of Samuel’s repayments were ‘by his cheese account’, always paid in cash direct, with the exception of two repayments ‘by HKP for teamwork’ suggesting that occasionally labour was offered as an alternative to money.[13]  Where stated, other individuals borrowed for tobacco, cider, a side of bacon, and wheat among other commodities. Thomas Wilmott of Golbourn has three entries in his account stating ‘to a dairy order’d to Manchester’ twice and another ‘to Frodsham.’ The relatively high figures of £44, £54 and £79 respectively suggest this may have been a herd of dairy cattle.

 

One of the entries in the account of John Irlam [brother-in-law?] of Westminster refers ‘to housekeeping for cash lent Mr Eddington his daughter £25 and for her board seven months after £10.’Irlam’s account also mentions payments to The Presbyterian and Independent Funds. Other account holders from the London area included Park Lane, Temple Bar, Smethwick, Hackney, Blackfriars and Covent Garden. The Majority of those in London appear to have dealt with Richard through Barnewell and Townsend.

 

Richard Fern of Leek appears to have had an account with Richard Wedgwood from November 1754. A series of sixteen transactions then occurred with Fern usually borrowing between £100 and £200. However, by March 1756 Fern had been declared bankrupt as Richard recorded ‘to cash paid Mr. Wilson and my expenses going to Leek to see Mr. Fern after he was absconded.’ The following month he recorded ‘to cash paid com[missione]rs and my expenses at proving Fern a bankrupt.’ In May Richard appeared again before commissioners on the same business and later that same month spent two days in Congleton with them examining Fern.[14]

 

Jane Frost of Congleton had an account that showed infrequent payments of small amounts until her death in February 1758. Richard acted as executor for the administration of her estate, disbursing the payments for funeral expenses, burial fees, and other sundries.  He paid outstanding debts that Jane had owed as well as legacies mentioned in her will. He was also involved in the sale of her house in May, as two sets of minimal expenses record. However, no suitable buyer was found and the following month, after paying for £2 10s 6d worth of repairs on the property, Richard resorted to advertising the dwelling at the cost of 11s 6d. In October he received ‘by cash of Mr. John Hodgkinson of Smethwick the whole purchase money for the house called The Cheshire Cheese in Congleton that I sold him by virtue of being executor to the will of Jane Frost widow deceased £180.’

 

Possibly the largest sums of money being lent were those against mortgages.  The account of Nathanel Wettenhall of Hankow mentions ‘to John Wilson’s account for a mortgage bearing the date 24th March 1755 £1000.’ Likewise Thomas Stanley esquire of Ashenhurst was lent ‘cash upon a mortgage of several estates in Wincle’ at £1500.

 

The book was probably meant to record all of Richard’s financial transactions and many references are made to cheese. One individual, Philip Antrobus jnr of Congleton, mentions ‘to his cheese account’ suggesting that he may have had stocks of cheese on credit. Among the debts of Joseph Bingham of Derby is a payment of ‘13 cheeses £1 3s 6d.’  Many other borrowers are listed as having what appears to be both a cash account and a ‘cheese account.’ Edward Lambert of Church Hulme had ‘22 hundred cheeses at £19 6s’ totalling £21 9s. Corbett Costard of Fordsham is recorded with a quantity of Gloucester cheese and an entry under a ‘sundries’ account dated Oct 31st 1757 mentions ‘to cheese sent to Bridgnorth.’

 

It appears however that neither Richard nor his son John had a large herd of cattle despite their 75-acre estate. A possible hypothesis is that Richard bought milk from local farmers which he then used to make cheese. This theory is strengthened taking into account the relatively large repayments for individual cheese accounts, and that Josiah referred to ‘my brother cheesefactor’ in a letter to Bentley.[15]

 

Upon the death of his father-in-law, Thomas Irlam in 1754, Richard appears to have acted as an executor and dealt with the administration of the estate.  It may have been his father-in-law that influenced Richard’s involvement with the dissenting society at Congleton, as Thomas left £35 to the society. Thomas had been minister of ‘The Protestant Dissenters’ at Congleton and after studying in Yorkshire had settled in Congleton c.1690. In an agreement of the Presbyterian and Congregational Ministers of 1691 he signed himself as ‘Minister at Congleton’ presiding over the chapel in Mill Street.[16]

 

Richard lent considerable sums for the maintenance, or even rebuilding of, The Congleton Dissenting Society Chapel. This included money for timber, boards, laths, nails, lime, hair, ironwork for a pump, hinges for gates and scaffolding, as well as the services of a carpenter, joiner, blacksmith, glazier, and labourers. It also appears that Richard also advanced the sum of £2 ‘for one years rent.’[17] Although these were loans there are also entries that suggest Richard gave money as well such as ‘by P[rofit] and L[oss] my own subscription £10.’[18] The book also suggests that Richard helped the society with £20 ‘towards the building of the parsons house.’[19] He also persuaded his brothers Thomas and John (of The Big House in Burslem) to do likewise as their account in Richard’s book reveals ‘to their gift to The Congleton Society £5.’[20] Even after Richard’s death Josiah received a letter informing him that Richard gave to the Revd Mr. Cooper of Congleton 10s per quarter ‘for the good of true religion …’[21] no doubt as an invitation for his son-in-law to do likewise!

 

Richard’s wife Susan died five years after her father and was at buried at Astbury on April 2nd 1759.[22] From this point it appears that Richard spent more and more time with his daughter and son-in-law. Writing to his brother John on the 1st of February 1765 Josiah explained ‘Your lobsters made an excellent dish, were extremely good, pleased my daddy vastly who stay’d with me three days upon the occasion [of the birth of his granddaughter Susannah, bap. Jan 17th 1765] and was as usual very merry and very good company. “Tell John Wedgwood” says the old gentleman “that I drink his health and thank him for his lobsters, they are very fine, and a creature that I like.”’[23]

 

It appears that Richard had succumbed to a fever during the Christmas period of 1769.[24] Writing to Bentley from Richard’s house at Spen Green on New Years Day 1770 Josiah informed his friend ‘My Good Father, in whose room I write, has had some comfortable sleep to night and is much better for it. His fever has in a great measure left him and I hope he is in a fair way of recovering, though we must expect it only by very slow degrees.’[25] The following day, still at Spen Green, Josiah again informed Bentley that ‘My father is not quite so well as he was yesterday, but not withstanding these little relapses continues to mend upon the whole.’[26] It would appear Richard’s health improved considerably towards the end of the month as he informed his friend ‘I left Spen Green yesterday, and this time have brought wife and child away with me…her aid was very much wanted to nurse and comfort an aged and worthy patient, and I was well pleased that she was able to pay this debt of duty and affection to him, he is now pretty well recover’d and sends his best respects and thanks to you.’[27] It would appear that Richard was well enough by July to accompany Josiah on a trip to London.[28]

 

By June 1772 Richard appears to have been regularly visiting Etruria from the four letters that still exist, written to his daughter and son-in-law while they were staying in Bath preparing for the opening of the showrooms there: ‘I came here about noon from Spen Green…Mr Cox and I with the key you sent found the experiment books N4 and N5 in the desk, which he took out and said he would enclose in a box which he would direct to Mr Bentley….If you were at home and had time to reconsider the order you have given Mr Wm Heath to Build the small houses for your workmen, you perhaps would alter. For whether the ground will be wanted for the pottery or not I do not know, if it will can the building you are attempting be conveniently converted thereunto, I am doubtful thereof. But if this ground is not wanted for the pottery may it not be emptied and occupied in a very different and respectable manner, viz. for an inn…But perhaps you’ll reply you want habitations for your workmen, and I also believe those must be had first, but if there is no other ground but this which seems to break your original plan. Surely there is, however pray excuse me in attempting to meddle in the thing which no ways concerns me, and in which my advice may be deemed impertinent but if you’ll excuse me that ground opposite to your beghest workmens’ houses, which the turnpike commissioners allowd you and on which Wm Heath tells me you intend to build for a cratemaker and something else but whether he said a Smiths’ shop or a joiners I don’t recollect.

 

The ground I mention will be sufficient for all these viz. for a cratemaker a Smith or joyner shop and six or more small habitations for workmen. The cratemaker, the lowest…the little houses the next, all cellerd …and what is got out of the cellars to levell the ground on the back for gardening…And the smith or joiners shop at the higher end. But if this ground is designd by you for some other more usefull plan then I will mention another viz. That to the lane above Nixon’s house betwixt and this square near Heath’s is to build on. I have said a great deal, and perhaps every word is too much, but every word that I have said is my sincere wish, that every plan and prosecution thereof may end in your satisfaction, reputation and comfort and also that your health may be continued and restored and that you may both come again to your own abode, children, and servants is the sincere wish, desire and prayer of

 

                                                Your affectionate father

 

                                                          Richard Wedgwood.’[29]

 

A couple of days later Richard felt the need to explain the sentiments of his previous letter: ‘I wrote a deal about the houses you are building for your workmen for which since on further reflection I am uneasy thereat, for whether the place you have fixed to build them on be right or otherwise, or some other time you may change your mind about them, yet as you are so far from home, and that there is no probability of your living at home soon and so an opportunity of consulting thereof  therefore I ought not to have wrote a word about them, and for which I ask your pardon, begging you’ll believe that every wish is for your happiness.’[30]

 

He also enlightened Josiah with dealings back at Spen Green: ‘Jonathan has bought severall cows some for milking others feeding, which with those that are layed cows make in all fifteen and three young ones but whether three young ones are enough or not as I don’t know his instructions so I dare not say but its very far on now to buy any more.’[31] Some of these visits were simply overnight stays as remarked by ‘Yesterday came here about noon…and dined of beef and rice pudding and drank tea and set off again for Congleton about 6 o’clock…Etruscan air is very good.’[32]

 

That Richard could be considered as a hard-nosed businessman is demonstrated in a letter from Josiah to Thomas Bentley in March 1773: ‘I am just returned from waiting upon Sr Wm Meredith at Derby on a money affair betwixt my father and him. We were to have received 1900l. but have not seen a shilling…He just told my father the money could not be had and sent him to his attorney. This has put my father a good deal out of temper, and caused a little disappointment or two…As my father thinks himself insulted as well as disappointed … he does not seem disposed to take it very patiently, and if a quarrel should insue I must be his second of course.’[33] A Fortnight later Josiah informed Bentley that: ‘Sr Wm thought proper to send an apologie to my father in a letter, with promise of the money, so I hope that matter will end better than I apprehended.’[34]

 

On one of Josiah’s visits to his father-in-law he took the opportunity of sending Bentley a gift: ‘I came here last night on my way to Liverpool, and my wife came with me to make her brother a visit where I shall leave her til’ my return…I am now you know in the land of cheesemaking, and having this morning seen some very fine samples of the manufacture of the county, I could not resist the temptation of sending my dear friend a taste of it.’[35]

 

After accompanying Josiah on a trip to Buxton in October 1774 Richard returned to Spen Green to find his son’s heath failing. Josiah explained to Bentley: ‘I am just return’d from visiting a sick brother[-in-law] at Smallwood in Cheshire, and as I am to go back early in the morning this obliges me to say a few words to you by candlelight, for my poor brother is in so dangerous a situation that I do not know when I can leave him. He is confin’d to his room and almost to his bed, is emaciated extremely, and nothing will stay in his stomach – He is, I fear, in the last stage of a worn-out constitution. I have sent to beg Doctor Darwin’s assistance…’[36]

 

The following week Josiah wrote: ‘My poor brother died yesterday morning, to the great grief of his father and sister, and all his relations; for who can but lament to see a young man, the only son of an aged and affectionate father with everything in his possession to render life agreeable and happy, cut off in the prime of his life, with all his unfinish’d plans and shemes of future life buried with him in the grave forever.’[37]

 

And so eight years after mourning the death of his wife Richard was now grieving for the loss of his only son who died unmarried and was buried alongside his mother on November 21st 1774.[38]

 

Shortly after the funeral Josiah commented: ‘My father remains at Spen Green at present, but the place, and the scenes every hour bringing to his rembrance the loss he has sustain’d seem to affect his spirits too much. I intend to take a ride to him in a day or two and prevail upon him if I can to return with me to Etruria.’[39]

 

In May 1776 Josiah thanked Bentley ‘for a good letter…though it made my father ready to beat me, and you would not have escap’d much better…had you been by the fireside along with us. “Did not I tell you? Often tell you?” the old gentleman exclaim’d “what it would come to, that other people must carry the tidings of your improvements to Court, when you are not only permitted, but commanded to carry them yourselves and now you oblige their Majesties to send for, and fetch that homage, which you ought to have carried, and cheerfully paid in your own proper persons” – I had no plea to make against this charge, and therefore acknowledg’d the justice of the reprimand, but have promise’d to send you some fine things, quite new, to go and make your peace offering with, and I hope to keep my word when I have time to turn me round a little.’[40]

 

From 1777 Josiah’s letters mention more of Richard’s bouts of illnesses when he would be cared for at Etruria.[41] In November 1779 he informed Bentley that ‘My poor father, I am afraid, grows weaker and weaker, and though we are very willing to flatter ourselves upon a little recovery from extreme lowness and oppression of his spirits to think him better and recovering, yet I am afraid that upon the whole he is weaker and worse. He has quite given up animal food and fermented liquors of every kind. Doctor Darwin gave us some hopes of his recovery, but was afraid he was weaker than when he saw him before, which was the worst symptom he observ’d in him.’[42] Richard was reunited with his wife and son at the family grave at Astbury on the 8th January 1782.[43] A book of accounts, mainly for joinery at Etruria Hall, recorded that on 5th January 1782 payment for ‘takeing down ye bedstead used by old Mr Wedgwood and helping to lay out ditto.’[44]

 

It would be impossible to locate exactly where Richard lived if it were not for the existence of a mid-C18th map of the neighbouring manor of Alcomlow that now forms part of the Rode Hall estate. On the right-hand side of the map bordering the manor of Alcomlow is stated ‘Mr Wedgwood’s Land.’ Although the small fields were converted to larger ones in the C19th with the removal of many of the dividing hedgerows shown on the map it is still possible to place this onto a modern-day aerial photograph. Using Alcomlow’s natural boundary of a stream and extending this to encompass 75 acres and then returning using the most discernable boundaries of field edges and tracks to join up to the manor of Alcomlow produces a highly-probable layout of Richard’s Spen Green estate.

 

The earliest large-scale map that shows Spen Green is the tithe map c.1840 for the township of Smallwood, being a sub-division of the parish of Astbury. In the Astbury Parish Registers Richard and his family are always described as being ‘of smallwood.’ The map shows a small nucleus of buildings centred around a crossroads. Placing Richard’s Spen Green estate onto the tithe map of Smallwood reveals that the majority of dwellings actually fell outside of his land. His estate shows only three main dwellings. Due to Richard’s social status it is highly probable that he occupied the largest of these three, especially considering that this was also referred to as ‘Spen Green Farm.’ It appears that Spen Green Farm remained in the hands of the Wedgwood family after Richard’s death for almost another twenty years. During the early 1790s it was leased out to a family called Johnston[45] until being sold in 1800.[46]

 

According to the current owners of Spen Green Farm, with information from the previous owner, as well as information from the deeds, the original part of the dwelling was built between 1640 and 1645. The present owner said that Sarah’s ghost is said to haunt the old part of the house.

 

What was Spen Green like during Josiah and Richard’s time? Unfortunately no records survive which help to answer this question. However, using the 1881 census can provide an insight. It may seem a little strange discussing the demographic statistics of Spen Green 100 years after Richard’s death but in reality, apart from the natural increase in population, very little had probably changed. The majority of the dwellings were likely to have been rude and small cottages. More than half the households consisted of three individuals or less and the two largest households only consisted of eight individuals. Most families were what historians term as ‘nuclear families.’ The majority of individuals were farmers, agricultural labourers and farm servants. There was little migration with the majority of individuals being born in either Smallwood or Astbury.

 

A third of all dwellings appeared to be farms.[47] Richard’s Spen Green Farm was still the largest in the vicinity, although now had been reduced from 75 to 50 acres. It was farmed by 33-year-old Joseph Bracegridle who had been born in nearby Knutsford and lived with his 30-year-old wife Priscilla. It would appear that Joseph and Priscilla had took up residence at Spen Green Farm upon their marriage, as both of their children had been born at Smallwood. The farm was large enough to necessitate the employment of two farm servants, one of whom was Joseph’s younger brother John, along with a female servant. Also present was Joseph’s seven-year-old niece Priscilla Baker originally from nearby Sandbach.

 

Although you have to use your imagination to visualise the Burslem of Josiah Wedgwood’s time, at St Mary’s church at Astbury the scenario is almost the opposite. The church is virtually unchanged since Josiah and Sarah walked down the aisle to marry there in January 1764.[48]

 

The main architectural styles of the church are Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular. Incorporated into the medieval masonry are stones that feature Saxon and Norman carvings suggesting the reuse of materials from an earlier building. This would have replaced the original church, probably a small wooden structure, which was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.

 

Most churches were ‘restored’ during the Victorian period. That meant not only stripping away fittings such as pews and pulpits to conform to the latest fashions but also changing architectural features including raising floor levels. Thankfully St Mary’s remained virtually untouched and still possesses more complete early fittings than other churches in the county.

 

However, it must not be imagined that the building has not suffered in the past. During the siege of Biddulph Hall in the Civil War of the 1640s, Sir William Bereton’s troop of Roundheads stabled their horses in the church. The Soldiers smashed the medieval stained glass windows, and carried off some of the pre-Reformation furnishings, including the organ. This they buried in a field at the bottom of the village, still known as Organ Croft. The fact that the pipes were dug up in this field during the early C20th lend credence to the story.[49] Another of the fields south-east of the church is known as ‘The Longshoots.’ This is where the compulsory archery practice of the medieval period took place and evidence of the archers sharpening their arrows can still be seen on a buttress on the east wall.

 

The main approach to the church is from the west. The entrance steps are obviously older than the C16th arched gateway above them. This was a prominent position and no doubt the place where village proclamations were made. Immediately to the left of these stood the village stocks, where from the C14th, when it was ordered that they should be provided in every village. Here it was where those committing petty crimes would receive their punishment from their neighbours. Until the mid-C19th a charnel house stood at the north-west corner of the churchyard. One inhabitant who saw it cleared of its contents said that there were many loads of human bones which were then interred in the east end of the churchyard.

 

The first thing that appears peculiar is the size of the church in relation to the community that surrounds it. This is because the church was the mother church of its parish. With the steady growth of the neighbouring village of Congleton into a town the church had to be enlarged during the C14th and C15th to cope with the increase in population and has remained largely unaltered since its completion in 1493. While Congleton has continued to increase Astbury has remained virtually the same for centuries. The second unusual element is the detached tower and spire. Towers are always placed either at the west end of a church or over the central crossing and only deviated from this plan where there was not enough space or where the ground was feared inadequate to support its weight.

 

The south porch has a chamber above it and in this small room the incumbent would have lived before the building of a rectory. The room contains an iron-banded floor, iron barred windows and a ‘squint.’ This small aperture would have given the incumbent a view of those entering the church. Under the east window and above the stone staircase that leads up to the room is a space approximately 3ft by 6ft and in height 3ft from the floor. This would have been where the incumbent slept. There are two large ancient oak chests, too large to be removed and must have been assembled inside the room.

 

The west porch, which has the appearance of a three-stage tower, is also known as the peel tower and was built for a specific purpose. The name ‘peel’ is a relic of the custom of driving the villagers’ cattle to the manorial precincts where protection could be offered against the cattle-raids from the Welsh. The ground floor chamber forms the porch and main entrance to the church. The first-floor chamber contains a red-brick fireplace and in this room the parish council probably met to conduct its business. They governed their parishioners before the days of local government in its modern sense. The churchwardens’ accounts paint a picture of life during the first half of the C18th in how they relieved their less fortunate parishioners:

 

1718 Paid to Rebecca Lingard complaining she had no money

 

         and wanted both brod and fire                                             £0-1-0.

 

1730 Paid to Randle Barlow for being week                               £0-0-6.

 

1730 Pd for wascoat and breaches for Hughes lad                            £0-10-0.

 

1737. Pd for a pint of Ale for Hugh Barlow being bad with coyld        £0-0-2.

 

1738. Given to Mary Sherrott to buy her Tobackee                    £0-0-2.

 

1740 Given to Mary Wooten towards buying an ould wheel               £0-0-6.

 

1741 Pd for half a skin and thread to mend Wm Clowes breeches   £0-0-5.

 

1741 For mending em and making a Coat out of his wasecoat         £0-1-4.

 

1743. When Ann Kirks was whipped paid for mete and drinks £0-2-0.

 

The parish constables were also responsible for passing on tramps and other vagrants that entered the parish:

 

1730 Given to a Woman with child to conduct her away           £0-0-8.

 

1810 Apr 28th. Paid to different passes                              £3-2-4.

 

1825 Oct 25th. Paid to a poor cripple in distress                          £0-0-7.

 

1826 July 7th. Paid to 4 poor men                                       £0-0-8.

 

1829 July 27th. Paid to 3 families on tramp                                  £0-6-0.

 

The constables also saw that their usual instruments of correction were kept in an efficient state:

 

1813 Mar 13th. Paid for a pair of hand cofts                                £1-0-0.

 

1828 June 25th. Paid Wm Broadhurst for a pair of stocks                   £1-18-0.

 

                     Lock for do.                                                       £0-2-0

 

                     Richd Buck’s bill for iron work for do.             £0-8-10.

 

1831 Mar 25th. Pd for constables staff                               £0-3-0.

 

Sparrows were once considered a pest, not only concerning the crops they destroyed but also during the nesting season when they would wreak havoc with thatched roofs and quite literally a price was put upon their heads. The price paid by the church was 6d a dozen:

 

1811 Jan 21st. Paid Mr Piggots son for 71/2 dosen of sparrow heads         £0-3-9.

 

1812 Jan 10th. Pd yong Hargreaves for heads                                     £0-4-0.

 

1816 Dec 22nd. Paid for 21 dozen of sparrow heads to Samuel Whitehurst

 

                                                                                      £0-10-9.

 

It was not only sparrows that were considered a threat and had a bounty placed upon their heads:

 

1731 10 foxheads                                                                 £0-10-0.

 

1734 3 ffox’s heads                                                              £0-3-0.

 

It was probably also in this room that the church court would have met to deal with matters of probate including proving the wills of its parishioners and granting probate. The second-floor chamber has three large windows facing north, south and west, which offer an excellent observation point considering the purpose of the tower.

 

The keystone at the centre of the arch over the outer doors is decorated with a skull and crossbones reminding parishioners of their own mortality. Inside the north-west corner of the porch lurks the Astbury Devil portrayed as a writhing dwarf. In the other three corners sit a musician, each with a different instrument – a harp, a lyre and a bagpipe, attempting to drive him out.

 

In the north aisle is a roof boss depicting the Green Man, or rather a Green Cat, with foliage growing from the corners of the mouth believed by many to represent fertility and new life. On the ceiling of the south aisle two C20th figures are depicted. One is the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the other Field-Marshall Montgomery. One of the windows in this aisle are unusual as they feature Astbury church and Old Moreton Hall in the lower portions.

 

The font and its cover are Jacobean (1610) as is the lectern of black oak in the form of an eagle and the pulpit constructed from materials of an earlier Elizabethan one. The altar rail is Elizabethan.

 

On the north side of the nave is a C15th wall painting showing the Blessed Virgin blessing St George before his battle with the dragon. There is no other known example depicting this scene in St George’s Life.

 

The Jacobean box pews dating from 1610 are particularly interesting. One in the south aisle has a brass plate which reads ‘Regd Swettenham’ and continued on the wood ‘Half of this pew belongs to Edmd Swettenham, of Somerford Booths, esq.’ while another has ‘Green, 1761, since sould to Saml Leadbeater.’[50] These are a reminder of the days when pews were rented from the church. Where Richard sat is impossible to determine as the church does not possess a contemporary pew or seating plan. However, where he now lies is by the south porch.


[1] Richard Wedgwood by Stubbs. Oil on panel. 28in x 23in.

[2] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 8th Oct 1780.

[3] Burslem Parish Register.

[4] Wedgwood, Josiah C History of The Wedgwood Family p152; This appears not to have been at Astbury as there is no mention in the otherwise complete-looking marriage register.

[5] This is recounted in Wedgwood, Josiah C History of The Wedgwood Family p152; orig source will of JWI.

[6] Astbury Parish Register : 1732 Jan 8th John son of Richard Wedgwood cheese factor and Susannah Wedgwood of Smallwood.

[7] Astbury Parish Register : 1734 Aug 25th Sarah daughter of Richard Wedgwood and Susannah in Smallwood.

[8] Astbury Parish Register : 1764 Jan 25th Josia [sic] Wedgwood of Burslem Par[is]h and Sarah Wedgwood of this par[is]h, by licence.

[9] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 9th Jan 1764. (E18055-25).

[10] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 23rd Jan 1764. (E18056-25). This forms an anomaly as the marriage occurred only two days later.

[11] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book. This may be a working ‘day’ book rather than a true account book.

[12] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book, p90

[13] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book p.79.

[14] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book p.81.

[15] Letter Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Burslem 16th Jan 1769. This establishes that ‘brother John’ was producing cheese in 1769.

[16] This eventually passed to The Friends of Unitarianism. The old chapel was removed in 1883 and the present building erected on the site.

[17] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book p.91 and 96.

[18] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book p.91 and 96.

[19] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book p.91.

[20] 24293-32. Richard Wedgwood Account Book p.91.

[21] 24299-32. Letter. John Staley Congleton to Josiah Wedgwood 22nd April 1782 ( after Richard’s death).

[22] Astbury Parish Register : 1759 April 2nd Sarah wife of John Wedgwood Gent of Smallwood. This entry in the parish register is incorrect. John did not marry. Sarah was the name of his sister. It may have been John who reported the death of his mother to the Parish Clerk. It was not uncommon for these clerks to fill in the registers en-bloc a week or so later and the clerk may have made the mistake of mixing up details that John had given him. The inscription on the tombstone records ‘Susan wife of Richard Wedgwood buried April 11th 1759.

[23] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to his brother John Wedgwood 1st Feb 1765. (E18059-25).

[24] Letter Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Etruria 28th Dec 1669 (E18278) and 29th Dec 1769 (E18277-25).

[25] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 1st Jan 1770. (E18280-25).

[26] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 2nd Jan 1770. (E18281-25).

[27] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Etruria 22nd Jan 1770 (E18285-25).

[28] Letter Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Etruria 2nd July 1770 (E18312-25) and 30th July 1770 (E18313-25).

[29] Letter. Richard Wedgwood to Josiah Wedgwood 30th May 1772. (30164-32).

[30] Letter. Richard Wedgwood to Josiah Wedgwood 1st June 1772. (30165-32).

[31] Letter. Richard Wedgwood to Josiah Wedgwood 13th June 1772. (30166-32).

[32] Letter. Richard Wedgwood to Josiah Wedgwood 21st June 1772. (30167-32).

[33] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 27th March 1773.

[34] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 9th April 1773.

[35] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Smallwood 18th May 1773. (E1846-25).

[36] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Etruria 10th Nov 1774. (E18563-25).

[37] Letter Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Etruria 19th Nov 1774. (E18564-25).

[38] Astbury Parish Register : 1774 Nov 21st John Wedgwood Gent of Smallwood.

[39] Letter Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley Etruria 26th Nov 1774. (E18569-25).

[40] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 15th May 1776. (E18699-25).

[41] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 7th May 1777. (E18755-25); Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 6th April 1778. (E18755-25); Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 1st Nov 1779.

[42] Letter. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley 17th Nov 1779.

[43] Astbury Parish Register : 1882 Jan 8th Richard Wedgwood Gent of Etruria.

[44] E43-31380.

[45] Commonplace book, p324.

[46] A letter from J colclough of Sandach to Josiah Wedgwood II, dated 11th November 1817, confirms that the estate was sold to Mr Davenport of Knutsford in 1800. Davenport later sold it to John Morris of Lawton , and in circa 1817 Lawton sold an unspecified part of the estate. The letter mentions a discrepancy concerning the division of the estate as well as attempting to confirm the existence of a will of Richard Wedgwood and what had become of it. Josiah II’s response to Colcloughs’ letter states that ‘a will was made which was not proved for reasons that I cannot inform you of as I was very young at his death, but I have understood it was necessary from my mother being his sole heir. The will has since been lost and the attempts to find it have been fruitless.’

[47] The 8 Farms listed in Spen Green and Spen Green Lane were

                50 acres – employing 2 men and 1 woman

                34 acres – employing 1 man

                33 acres – employing 1 man

                14 acres – employing 1 girl

                10 acres

                7 acres

                5 acres  

                4 acres

[48] Astbury Parish Register : 1764 Jan 25th Josia [sic] Wedgwood of Burslem Par[is]h and Sarah Wedgwood of this par[is]h, by licence.

[49] Richards, Raymond Cheshire Churches p28.

[50] There are also two in the central aisle with inscriptions.