Guyhirn History


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 in 1878.


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 in history!

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 Victorian ancestors.

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 cursory sentence:

"Yellow brick, 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 Opening

"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."