St Oswald's Church, Sowerby, Thirsk, North Yorkshire

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How St Oswald's grew from a chapel to a church and how it grew lop-sided

This is the story of a medieval chapel that served the village of Sowerby for 700 years until it became too small, and was then enlarged - twice - within some 60 years or so.

Today you can still see the different stages in this history of our church, which remains a place where you are welcome to visit, to sit, to pray and to enjoy.

photograph of St Oswald's church

The first historical reference we can find dates from 1145AD, when Roger de Mowbray, nephew of William the Conqueror, gave the care of the Chappell of Sowerby to the Prior of Newburgh.

For about 500 years the Lords of the Village were the family of Lassels. In 1446 AD William Lassels is recorded as buried in the Chappell of St Oswald's of Sowerby, in the tomb of his ancestors.

In February 1600, Queen Elizabeth I made a grant of the right to appoint the vicar of the Parish Church of Sowerby. That grant was acquired by Sir Thomas Lasscells of Walbron in the County of York.

We have a record of all the vicars (or incumbents) of St Oswald's from 1569 to the present day, in the vestry.

From about 1140 to the middle of the19th Century, St Oswald's was a chapel serving a village. The date shows that it was part of the wave of building stone churches that happened after the Norman Conquest of 1066. It was a simple rectangle with a small sanctuary. The nave is still part of the church - the original sanctuary has gone.

The church tower was added in about the 15th Century.

Layout of church in 15th century

Things changed dramatically after the industrial revolution. Thirsk prospered during the 19th Century. The well-off businessmen moved to the nearby, but separate, village of Sowerby, where they built the "villas" that now line parts of Front Street. A major increase in population, but a medieval chapel.

By 1839 there was something of a crisis. Sowerby was growing, and a Chapel dating from the 12th Century was no longer anywhere near big enough for those who wished to worship there. On 2 April 1839 a meeting was held to discuss the problem. This led to a public meeting of the parishioners and landowners of Sowerby on 16 April 1839, and to the gathering of subscriptions, pledges of money to cover the cost of rebuilding the Chapel.

The Archbishop of York gave £100, and the Incumbent, the Reverend William Dent £50, but many pledges were of £1, £2 or £5. Some were much smaller, but all were gratefully recorded. Matthew Palliser gave 6d. Mr James Palliser was one of the chapel wardens at the time, and so maybe that was his son making his contribution. James Pattison also gave 6d, Thomas Alcock 1s 0d, and John Elliott 2s 6d. The Church Building Society gave the largest single amount, £150.

The total pledged was £624 15s 0d, of which all but £20 was paid as promised. An architect was retained to prepare plans: the celebrated Edward Buckton Lamb (who also designed churches at Thirkleby, Bagby, Aldwark and Healey).

On 12 May 1840 a petition for a faculty was addressed to the Most Reverend Father in God Edward by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of York Primate of all England and Metropolitan, reciting that:
The present Chapel of Sowerby aforesaid is become very dilapidated from age and injudicious alterations and is totally inadequate for the accommodation of the Parishioners and your petitioners propose to rebuild the said Chapel according to the Plan hereto annexed which has received the Sanction of the Archdeacon of Cleveland.

The faculty was granted on 15 June 1840:
Authority to take down and rebuild and enlarge the said present Church of Sowerby upon the present site agreeably to the plans annexed to your said Petition and to sell or make use of the old materials of the present Church as may be most expedient.

The Reverend Dent records:
The whole of the works according to the plans and specifications of the architect were completed in May 1842 and the Church was re-opened for Divine Service on the 22nd of the month, when two sermons were preached (one in the morning by Archdeacon Headlam and one in the afternoon by Revd H Duncombe) after both of which collections were made amounting to £29 17s 6d.

The final cost was £1,097 15s 1d. The account of Mr Lamb, the architect, was £84 9s 8d.

Layout of church in 1842

On 23 February 1881 a committee of the church was appointed to inspect and investigate the wants of the Church and seek estimates for the probable cost.

On 29 June 1882 architect C Hodgson Fowler FSA wrote to "the Incumbent and Gentlemen". He described the church. He wrote of the original Norman stonework, though much altered, the only good feature being the "very beautiful doorway", and of the church building: "some forty years ago … it was enlarged and remodelled in the very poor modern Norman we now see." His summary of the church was: too good to pull down, too much altered to "restore". He produced a plan for reseating which filled almost every space in the building with pews. It would have accommodated 304 adults and 12 children. He provided for oak panelling to line the sanctuary, made from the old pews.

On 13 November 1900 a meeting of the congregation was held to consider enlarging the church by adding a north aisle. The architect Mr Brierly attended a further meeting on 27 December 1900 and stated that he had made careful calculations as to the cost of the proposed additions including the new large vestry capable of being utilised as a parish room, and while not absolutely guaranteeing the correctness of the estimate was of the opinion that the work could be completed for £1450.

A faculty was granted on 21 March 1901:
To enlarge the nave of the church by building the same out to the north and to add clergy and choir vestries at the west end thereof, and to rearrange the seating. There was provision for the reburial of any coffins or human remains and the removal and replacement nearby of any monumental stones or slabs.

Things went awry. When the specifications were put out to tender, estimates received were well in excess of the architect's estimate. The committee engaged in correspondence with the architect, calling on him to justify his figures, then tried to find an alternative architect, at which point he declared his fees would be payable in any event. Eventually the committee had him rework the specification to come in under the figure he had given.

Part of the problem may be that the committee was short of the funds needed. Some members of the committee had to sign a bond to secure a bank loan to cover the cost of the work pending sufficient funds being gathered in.

Layout of church in 1902

The new aisle and vestry were dedicated by the Archbishop of York on 18 December 1902, a debt remaining of something over £200. This was paid off in February 1904.

A postcard showing the interior of the church in 1904 shows seats in the centre section, not the present pews, so it is reasonable to infer that the pews could not be afforded until after the church had recovered from the costs of building the north aisle!

In 2012 we re-organised some of the seating, installed better toilet and refreshment facilities so we can make better use of the space in the church for the various activities that take place here. It is a living building with a great history!

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