A Brief History of the Parish of Cleeton St Mary

by Peter Hewitt

The Parish of Cleeton
Before 1876 Cleeton had been part of the parish of Bitterley and had no church of its own. The village of Cleeton is not recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, although its name suggests that there was a Saxon village in existence before the Norman Conquest. There is strong evidence that it was part of the manor of Sherrif’s Ledwyche which was in the parish of Bitterley. The famous Shropshire historian Eyton suggests that Cleeton was a small settlement on the edge of the manor and as far as the Domesday Survey was concerned too small to be assessed separately but included in the parish of Bitterley as a whole.

By the 13th century the parish of Bitterley had within its boundary three manors, Bitterley, Henley, and Sherrif’s Ledwyche (of which only Upper Ledwyche Farm now remains). Ledwyche was recorded in 1216 as being held by John de Ledwyche and in 1526 a new manor of Cleeton was recorded as being held by his son John who had taken the title John de Cleeton. For some years the two manors were assessed together and had to provide ‘one knight’s service for forty days’. Providing a knight’s service was a condition of land tenure imposed by the Norman Kings, and is the basis of the feudal system. It was an onerous service because in addition to providing a trained knight, the manor had also to provide his arms and armour, horses, a troop of foot soldiers and a baggage train.

So long as the only place of worship was the church at Bitterley the people of the manor of Cleeton would have had to go to Bitterley for all important festivals, baptism, marriage and burial. There is on the other hand some evidence that worship of some kind had taken place in the village before the Norman Conquest. Wills and other legal documents of the late 17th century have references to a field called in one case ‘Shrineley’ and in the second ‘Shriveley’: either would suggest that in the Saxon period a field had been used for holding services, the saying of Mass (Holy Communion) and possibly the hearing of confessions by an itinerant priest. This was a common practice where a settlement was at some distance from its parish church. Over the years field names have not remained constant so it is not possible to identify this field. Were it possible, field walking might locate the remnants of a shrine, possibly associated with a well. Another 17th century deed mentions a field ‘a parcel of land St Margaret’s Chapel’. This poses interesting problems as the mother church at Bitterley is dedicated to St Mary so if a chapel had been set up it ought to have had the same dedication. It is known that in the late 14th century the Abbot of Wigmore had acquired the manor of Cleeton in dubious circumstances, and in 1392 he was dispossessed by the King, but it is possible that a chapel was built at this period. It is possible to identify the location but unfortunately it lies behind Cleeton Court where in the 19th century a large pond was built, so any evidence has long since disappeared.

Feudal Times
The early manor and village of Cleeton consisted of a manor house on a moated platform inside a larger enclosure which can still be seen above the ruins of the 14th century manor house. Close by there are the remains of a cluster of house platforms which, according to Trevor Rowley who wrote The Shropshire Landscape and visited the site, is a very fine example of a deserted medieval village. The Lord of the manor would have lived in a house on the moated platform and the villagers in the houses nearby. As was the norm in feudal England the villagers would have farmed strips in the various fields in return for work done for the lord of the manor. They would also have had turn-out (grazing rights) on the common and the right to run their pigs in the woodland. The strip fields can still be seen when light snow lies on them. The woodland, of which there was more than today, was managed and harvested on a rotational basis by the process known as ‘coppicing’ in which trees were cut to encourage the growth of long straight stems which could be used for making hurdles, fencing, baskets and for use in building. After cutting each tree was left for three years and another part of the wood cut; so in this way regular crops of useful wood were produced without cutting down trees. It can be said that our medieval ancestors were more prudent with their management of woodland than we are today. Evidence of this use of the woodland persists in the common name for woodland in the area, namely ‘coppy’.

In 1340 when the rest of England was suffering the ravages of the Plague, the Midlands, including Shropshire was also suffering a severe change of climate and this was accompanied by outbreaks of ‘murrain’, a disease which decimated the cattle. As a result a number of settlements above 600 feet and facing north suffered badly and collapsed, including Abdon, Cold Weston, and Cleeton. The villagers migrated and the lord of the manor was forced to divide the manor into a series of farms, the Manor Farm, the Court Farm, the Goldthorn Farm and the Callow Farm, which pattern has remained as the basis of the village to the present time. It is possible that about this time that the lord of the manor moved his dwelling down to the site of the ruined manor house, while Cleeton Court served as the dower house and the meeting place of the court leet. Cleeton Court was recently surveyed by a building historian, Mrs Madge Moran, who found that it was a ‘medieval timber framed house encapsulated within a stone shell’. The roof structure suggests that the original house was a ‘two bay open hall of unusually fine workmanship’.

Farming and Mining
The soil and climate, which can be very harsh in winter, make the village suitable mainly for marginal farming of a pastoral nature, and to a large extent dependent upon turn-out on the common in winter. Even so, many of the farmers have traditionally needed to follow a second occupation to augment that which they could get from the land. In many cases the second occupation was mining and later quarrying. This pattern of dual occupation has much in common with South Wales in the early days of its mining history. Coal had been mined in short shaft Bell pits, the remains of which can be seen all around. The earliest record of coal mining dates from 1215 when the Abbess of Wigmore was receiving rent for ‘mines on the Clee’, but as the records of the time are not precise one cannot say where the mines were sited since it could be anywhere from Brown Clee to the Magpie. By the 18th century coal and iron were extensively mined on a commercial basis by the Knight family of Downton, around the Cornbrook area. Local men worked in these small mines on a subcontract basis known as the Charter System.. The iron was worked at the furnaces and forges of Bringewood, Charlecotte, Willey and Tilsop. By the end of the 18th century the iron ore was worked out and it was then that the coal mines became more important. Mines were worked up to 1927 when Barn Pit, the last working mine, closed as the result of the collapse of the shaft; fortunately there was no loss of life. In the mid 19th century when coal mining was beginning to decline the quarrying of basalt began as an important industrial activity, and in the heyday of sett making in 1904 over two thousand men and boys were involved.

Church and Chapel
Another similarity with South Wales was the strength of Methodism in the area. In 1823 Methodist missionaries from Darlaston came into South Shropshire and established the Hopton Bank Circuit, from which grew the network of small but active Methodist Chapels, may of which were dependent for their growth on the support of the miners and their families. The 1851 Religious Census showed that they were well attended and providing the spiritual support which the established Church failed to do in areas of industrial growth until later in the 19th century. While there was no Methodist Chapel in Cleeton the villagers had strong connections with Melville Chapel and Hopton Bank Chapel. It is interesting that the Church of England still maintained its social cachet and as men became wealthier, or their status changed, they tended to renew their connection with the established church. This renewed allegiance was not necessarily exclusive and often they would attend both places of worship.

The Pardoe Family
In 1484 the Treasurer at Powis Castle was Thomas ap Adam, a minor Welsh princeling who owed Richard III three knights’ service. However, when Henry Tudor invaded Wales, Thomas decided to throw his lot in with henry and after the Battle of Bosworth was rewarded with a number of manors in the Welsh Marches including Bitterley and Cleeton. He took up residence in Cleeton bringing with him his priest George Pardieu. In 1542 the will of Thomas Adams was witnessed by George Pardoe, and the fact that he was a witness and able to write a legible hand shows that he was a man of position in the Adams house, possibly a bailiff as well as priest. By the late 17th century the Pardoe family were squires in their own right, holding the manors of Credden, Cleeton, Faintree, Burford and Nash. In 1791 Thomas Pardoe was Sherriff of Shropshire and the family had also forged links by marriage with important families in the County including the Lacons and Childes. In the 19th century the Pardoes, in common with the squirearchy of the time, started to send their sons to University to be educated, and many of them took Holy Orders. The livings of Bitterley, Burford and Nash were held by three generations of Pardoes all called George, but these men had curates to do the parish work, being absentee rectors. This was a very common practice in the period when a clergyman might have more than one living, a state of affairs which had to be remedied in the reign of Queen Victoria. In the late 1840s the Revd George Dansey Pardoe and his wife entered into a series of land deals with Beriah Botfield MP, the coal and iron magnate who owned Hopton Court, and as a result they became the owners of the land round the present church. This was the period when the landed gentry initiated ‘good works’ of social improvement to benefit the local community. Whilst not always completely altruistic, the result did much to improve the quality of life for the villagers. Between 1860 and 1880 the Revd George Pardoe, son of George Dansey Pardoe, endowed and built the school, four almshouses, the Church and the Rectory. The church was in the first instance a Chapel of Ease attached to the parish church of Bitterley. George Pardoe had been educated at Oxford where he had been influenced by the writings of the Tractarians, Pusey, Froude, Newman and Keble, who were the leaders of a reform movement in the Church of England and became known as High Churchmen because of their return to the older traditions of vestments and ritual for worship. He was also the brother-in-law of Sir Charles Ouseley, Professor of Music at Oxford and the founder of St Michael’s College, the famous choir school at Tenbury. It is not surprising that the Church which George Pardoe founded in Cleeton displays his High Church philosophy, with its expansive chancel, to allow for ritual.

The building of these important buildings effectively moved the focus of the village away from its original centre round the manor house. By 1902 George Pardoe had discharged all his mortgages and owned all the farms in the village. In 1916 his son the Revd George Southey Pardoe was killed in action whilst serving as a Temporary Chaplain to the Forces, and his death is recorded among the Fallen of the Village on a memorial above the Font. There is a certain irony that the family connection which began with the Battle of Bosworth, should be ended with the death of the last male of the line on a battlefield in France.

Back to the History of St Mary’s Church


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