There was a church here, and probably on the present beautiful site in the park, in the time of the Great Survey. At first dedicated to Our Lady, for the last half-century the establishment seems to have been under the protection of Saint Michael. This was one of the results of the consolidation, in 1817, of the two rectories of Erwarton and Woolverstone, each parish having a building which had been originally consecrated to the service of the Virginia.
The existing church in Woolverstone is very different from the humble edifice in which Timothy Dalton ministered for a score of years. Then it consisted of a small nave and chancel, which are respectively the south aisle and chapel of to-day, together with a western tower and a southern porch of generous proportions. This aisle and the porch are of the Decorated style of architecture (circa 1307-1377), while the tower evidently belongs to the Perpendicular of a later date. In the beginning of the present century the entire structure was in a melancholy condition of neglect and decay. To the Berbers family, of the Hall, shall be awarded the credit for all that has since been done in the way of repair and improvement. It is a case of reconstruction rather than restoration. Such generosity is unusual. In 1832 the late archbishop of that name began the work by adding a transept, vestry, and chancel aisle on the northern side. Messers. Henry and Parker give the following description of the premises1 as they appeared in 1855: "Woolverstone. St. Mary. Chancel, nave, with south porch, modern north transept, west tower. Chancel, Decorated, with a good two-light window and doorway in south wa;;' the latter with ball-flower in the drip-moulding; east window modern. The porch has been of wood. It still has a good roof, but has been repaired with brick. There is a stoup on the east side of doorway. Tower, Perpendicular, with angle buttresses and battlement. Font of the same style-an octagon with statues around the pedestal." In 1864-66 the venerable chancel, including the piscine and sedilia, was rebuilt by Sir Gilbert Scott, at the expense of Mrs. John Berners. The present rector has furnished us with a sun-picture of the outside of "The Old Woolverstone Church, with chancel as restored, 1864-66." We see the tower and south walls, it being easy to distinguish the older masonry from the new. He writes: "Without a doubt, Mr. Dalton has with the eyes of the flesh gazed upon the southwestern wall and porch, and upon the tower -- except the battlement -- precisely as you see them in this print."
All this was a mere trifle, however, in comparison with the extensive alterations made in 1888-90, under the orders of Captain Hugh Berners, R. N., at a cost of eight thousand guineas.2 The unsatisfactory additions of 1832 were torn away, and in their stead were erected an entirely new nave and chancel and choir-vestry. The brick battlement on the tower was replaced by one of stone. Other ancient work was successfully restored. The north wall of the original nave and chancel was opened by the cutting of four large arches. The bay which now separates the two chancels -- the earlier one being the present chapel -- is filled with wrought-iron grilles. On the north side of the new nave is the choir-vestry, to which access is had by means of another archway with a screen of oak and cathedral glass. In its exterior lines the ap-pearance of the former building, compact and symmetrical as it was, may not have been improved. With-in everything is bright, convenient, and church-like. In the later chancel there is a rood-screen, which is -- as are the roofs, stalls, canopies, altar, pulpit, and benches -- of oak, skilfully carved. The stained glass and organ are modern. We are indebted to the Rev. Mr. Wood for two other photographs of the buildings in their improved state. In one of them we see two meek-eyed fallow deer grazing peacefully in the open park, within a stone's throw of the foundation walls. In the other we have a good interior view of the chancel of Mr. Dalton's day, but of course in its present dress.
We are specially in the stoup, font, piscine, and sedilia, because of their antiquity, and because our minister probably used the front, and, perhaps, the sedilia. A bit off the time-scarred timber roof, more than five hundred years old, is left in the corner of the porch, above the stoup; which latter has been entirely renewed, or at least rechiseled, The battered face in the wall by the side of the door, reminds us of the violent methods of ultra-Protestantism in the ultra-Protestant neighborhood. The piscine still holds its proper position in the first sanctuary. Like the priest's bench in the adjoining window, it has passed under the hand of the "restorer"; and it is altogether probable that neither of them would now be recognized by its original builder. With its beautiful new cover of carved wood, the old font stands in "its ancient usual place," a step or two in advance of the lofty tower arch. As is the case with the larger number of Suffolk fonts, this is octagonal in shape, having curiously cut panels in its sides, and supported by quaint figures around the pedestal. In the staunchly built tower of a pre-Reformation date there were once three bells. Two of them, together with two of the sacred vestments, were sold by the lord of the manor, "philipp Wolverston, Gentilman," in 1546. When he was brought before the royal commissioners seven years later, he pleaded that the articles were of small value, and that he had supposed "ye sayd church to be hys owne chapel." He was fined and paid twenty pounds therefore; but the money does not seem to have come to hands of the church-reeves, and the parish had only one bell3 until the princely Captain Berners made good the original number a few years since.
In the porch is set up a list of the rectors of the parish from1308-1817, in which last-mentioned year it was joined to Erwarton. The first incumbent was John de Ramsholt,4 and the date of his institution was June 1, 1308. It is probable that only a part of the church had then been built. Three hundred and six years elapsed before the advent of Timothy Dalton. His successor was apparently Daniel Smart, on September 14, 1660; but the Episcopal books prove that Dalton was followed by Jonathan Skynner (or Skinner),5 on October 14, 1636. His signature as rector occurs on the registers. He was unpopular in the parish. During the Long Parliament the people petitioned for his removal.6 The pulpit passed into the care of Bezaleel Carter, a Presbyterian. We know that he was there in 1645-47.7 There may have been other incumbents before the coming of Mr. Smart at the time of the Restoration. There is no evidence of any visit to Woolverstone in 1643 or 1644 by William Dowsing, the Parliamentary image-breaker. Yet it appears by his Journal that he was at Ipswich and several other places in its vicinity. At Copdock, six miles from Woolverstone, he "brake down 150 superstitious Pictures, 2 of God the Father, and 2 Crucifixes; did deface a Cross on the Front, and gave order to take down a Stoneing Cross in the Chancill, and to level the steps; and took up a Brass inscription with ora pro nobis and cujus animæ propitietur Deus."
At Wenham Parva," one picture was of the Virgin Mary"; but that was not so bad as what he found in Haverill, the birthplace of Samuel Ward, and only thirty-five miles away from Woolverstone, to wit: "about a hundred superstitious Pictures; and seven Fryars hugging a Nunn; and the Picture of God and Christ; and diverse others very superstitious." At Mr. Ward's church of St. Mary-le-Tower in Ipswich, he took up "6 Brass Inscriptions . . . and pray for the soul in English; and I gave order to take down 5 iron Crosses and one of Wood on the Steeple." At Hadleigh, which had furnished Dr. Rowland Taylor for martyrdom in Queen Mary's time, Mr. Dowsing :brake down 30 superstitious Pictures, and gave order for taking down the rest, which were about 70; and took up an Inscription quorum animabus propitietur Deus; and gave order for the taking down a Cross on the Steeple." It may have been that Dowsing overlooked Woolverstone, or that, as at Wenham Magna, "there was Nothing to reform."8
- Henry and Parker's Churches of Suffolk, No. 279.
- White's History, Gazetteer and Directory of Suffolk (Ed. If 1891); Pawsey's Ladies' Repository for 1892.
- Ramsholt is the name of a parish on the east side of Orwell.
- The bishop wrote Skinner, but we follow the registers and the records of Ipswich town.
- See, post, under the title: "The Smale Houes at Woolverstone," p. 103.
- Browne's Hist. Of Cong. in Norf. And Suff., 608.
- Ravens's Church Bells of Suffolk, pp. 97, 117, 256.
- Dowsing's Journal, edited by Rev. C. H. E. White, pp 15-52.