Guyhirn is a typical English
fenland village, situated on the north bank of the navigable river
Nene about twenty miles from the Wash. Ten years ago a new bridge
was built across the Nene to take the busy A47 Peterborough to Wisbech
trunk road away from the centre of the village. The bridge is situated
at two very busy road junctions. On the south bank it meets the
A141 road to March, Ely and Huntingdon; and on the opposite bank
the B1187 takes traffic from the A47 towards Lincolnshire. Guyhirn
is also where two important waterways meet. The tidal Nene and the
freshwater Moreton's Leam run roughly parallel for twelve miles
between Stanground and Guyhirn. At the site of the new road bridge
Moreton's Leam empties into the Nene through a sluice gate. The
washland between the two rivers is liable to flood in the winter
and spring, and becomes an important site for wildfowl. Moreton's
Leam is well used by many local fishermen.
Guyhirn le Gyerne 1275 ElyF, (le) Gy(e)herne,
-hyrne, hirne ib. et freq to 1513 Ct Cuherne 1278 ElyM (p) (le)
Gehirn' 1438 Sewers, Geyherne ib., -hirne 1438 Imb Guy(e)hyrne,
-hearon ib., Gyhorn 1819 Carter This is a difficult name, perhaps
a hybrid, a combination of guie, "guide" and hyrne, "angle,corner." Guyhirn must always have been a critical point in the drainage of
this part of the fens. The tide flowing up the Wisbech river came
as far as this. Ring's End is quite close. It was here that Bishop
Moreton erected his Tower House for the effective supervision of
his new drain, and long before the construction of Moreton's Leam,
the meeting here of fresh water and tides probably led to the construction
of works for the safe guidance of their flow at this corner.
Together with the villages of Wisbech
St. Mary and Murrow, Guyhirn was originally part of the civil and
ecclesiastical parish of Wisbech St. Mary. The parish also included
the hamlets of Thorney Toll and Tholomas Drove. In 1871 Guyhirn
and Thorney Toll, together with Rings End (which is on the south
bank of the river Nene in the parish of Elm) were formed into a
separate ecclesiastical parish. Mission churches were built in Thorney
Toll and Rings End and a new church, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott
RA, and dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, was erected in Guyhirn
When the foundations
of the 'new' parish church of St. Mary Magdalene were being dug
in 1877 an interesting discovery was made. Quantities of fine chiselled
stones were unearthed. These were later verified as being the remains
of an old Gothic Church which stood on, or near, the site hundreds
of years before. Watson's 'History of Wisbech and District' tells
us that at Guyhirne there was from very early times a church, "Capella
Maria Magdalene de Guyhirne" and, also, that in the year 1406
a certain Sir John Gray was Chaplain of Guyhirne. At the beginning
of the 16th century it appears that the old church at Guyhirne was
allowed to fall into decay. Following the retirement of one William
Susan, Chantry priest of Guyhirne, on a pension of £3 and ten shillings
per annum, the village was left without a resident clergyman for
over three hundred years -surely one of the longest interregnums
From around the year 1550 when the old church or chantry
dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene was allowed to fall into oblivion,
no place of worship existed in the village for some 110 years. It
is, however, recorded that 'certain lands' remained "towards
the finding of a priest to minister to the inhabitants of Guyhirne." This land was finally utilised in 1660 when a Chapel was built for
a type of worship clearly that of the Commonwealth Puritanism which
preceded that date rather than the Restoration Churchmanship that
followed it. The building remained, however, a 'Chapel of Ease' to the nearest
parish church i.e.
Wisbech St. Mary. No provision was made for a resident clergyman
and Divine Service was performed in the Chapel at regular but infrequent
intervals. This state of affairs was to last for over two hundred
years until the opening and consecration of the new St. Mary Magdalene's
with its own vicar in 1878.
This period - the
mid-Victorian age - was a high-water mark for religion and Churchgoing
in England. To be seen in church of a Sunday was not only a mark
9f respectability; it was necessary for social acceptance. Indeed,
in the case of domestic servants and the like it was often one of
the conditions of employment. Genuine religious zeal walked hand-in-hand
with not a little hypocrisy and smugness and it is in this perspective
that we must regard the phenomenal program of church-building embarked
upon by our worthy forbears of the period. However lofty or spiritual
the motive, the building of a new church was seen also as something
of a status-symbol, a mark of achievement and an assertion of triumph.
Even today it cannot be denied that the neo-gothic pile that is
St. Mary Magdalene's presents a somewhat pretentious, if not arrogant,
front to a village that in every other respect is on a small scale.
It would seem that the incongruity of this never occurred to our
The building of
the 'new' Church at Guyhirn is a fascinating story. It begins with
the inheriting by the Very Revd. J .F. Montgomery of some lands
and property in the district. His benefactor, one W.R. Pollard Esquire,
was an old friend. The Dean and it says a lot for the man - "determined to devote
a considerable sum to the glory of God, and as a token of respect
to his departed friend." At any rate he 'put his money where
his mouth was' and in the event gave £1 ,500 towards the building
fund -and all this, as the first vicar said on the occasion of the
opening ceremony, "to a village which had no claim upon him".
The site was given by the Vicar of Wisbech, the Revd. Canon John
Scott, who also gave the sum of £200. Substantial donations were
made by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the Incorporated Church
Building Society, the Duke of Bedford, the Bishops of Ely and Winchester,
the Ely Diocesan Fund, Marshall's Charity, the Sons of the Clergy
Corporation and St. Peter's College, Cambridge. These gifts, together
with numerous smaller amounts from parishioners and friends, resulted
in the erection of the building whose centenary we celebrate this
year. The total cost amounted to £3,721 and the contract was undertaken
by the firm Girlings of Wisbech.
The church was built
to a design by Sir George Gilbert Scott, probably the most famous
of all Victorian architects and certainly the most productive. His
hand is seen in literally hundreds of churches throughout the length
and breadth of the country. Ely Cathedral was restored by him and
he was official architect to Westminster Abbey but his most famous
monuments are probably the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park and St.
Pancras Station. The Canon Scott already mentioned as Vicar of Wisbech
was the architect's brother.
Pevsner, in his mammoth work 'The Buildings of England', devotes
eight whole lines to extolling the merits of the tiny seventeenth-century
Chapel of Ease but dismisses St. Mary Magdalene's with a single
with lancet windows, and not at all typically Scottian". What
Pevsner fails to mention but which are surely worthy of note are
features like the impressive bell-turret housing three bells, the
oaken porch, and inside the building, details like the carved-stone
angels on either side of the chancel arch and the carved heads on
stone facings elsewhere in the chancel. The structure as a whole,
it is true, presents a somewhat barn like appearance but it must
be remembered that in 1878 this was a very poor district indeed.
In retrospect is seems a miracle that it was built at all.
What the Church
lacks in the way of architectural embellishment is redeemed by the
beauty of many of its interior furnishings and ornaments. These
bear eloquent witness to the love and devotion of generations of
faithful souls who have worshipped within its walls. Some of these
items are worthy of special mention.
"The village, with its various
flags and decorations, presented a pleasing sight in honour of the
Church opening, even the railway station putting on an unusually
festive appearance, with the aid of evergreens and signal flags
- red, green and white, - rather a bewildering sight, one would
fancy, to an uninitiated engine driver." This is how an eye-witness
describes the scene in Guyhirn on September 24th 1878, - the day
of the official opening and consecration of the new Church of St.
Mary Magdalene. The writer goes on to recount how people coming
from a distance arrived by rail in the morning (this was long before
Dr. Beeching, remember) and how those coming from Wisbech and surrounding
areas arrived later by carriage, pony-and-trap or on horseback.
Those living in the village itself would, no doubt, have walked.
How easy it is to forget how much life, and social conditions generally,
have changed in a hundred years!
There appears, however,
to have been some aspects of life that were the same then as now
- e.g., the common practice of building contractors to be eternally
optimistic. Incredibly it appears that, on this occasion, the builders
had cut things so fine that "while people were assembling
for the service the workmen were putting in one of the east windows." Much to the relief of all concerned - not least, one imagines,
to the new vicar himself - it seems that the work was finished in
time and the service went ahead as planned.
The ceremony of
consecration was performed by the Lord Bishop of the Diocese, the
Rt. Revd. James Russell Woodford, D.D. Bishop Woodford was the founder
of Ely Theological College and although that establishment was closed
in 1964 his name is perpetuated in the address of the new Diocesan
Office in Ely - Bishop Woodford House. After the reading of the
Litany by the first vicar of the parish, the Reverend William Carpenter, and the completion of the legal formalities,
the Te Deum was sung by the choir. Accompaniment for the
singing was provided by a Mr. King, organist of Wisbech Parish Church, "0n the harmonium'; there being no organ at that time.
Neither, it would appear, was there any form of heating!
Our same eye-witness records, "The exceptional coldness of
the day made the want of a warming apparatus felt."