The history of
St. George’s Church,
Ruishton village and its Church
The spread of Christianity in our region is likely to have begun as early as the 8th century with the foundation in Taunton of a Saxon Minster Church. It is thought that missionary priests from this church had come to Ruishton long before the Norman Conquest, to establish a chapel or preaching place. The site they chose was probably where our present church stands, overlooking the rush-grown river lands that gave the village its name.
In 878 AD (the year the sun was eclipsed) Alfred the Great gave Ruishton to the bishops of Winchester. This land was then acquired by the Great Manor of Taunton in 904 AD, although their hold on this new territory was not always secure. For a time parts of the Manor territory fell into secular hands and in the 10th century the powerful Bishop Ethelwold was forced to reassert the claims of Winchester upon the land of “Risctun”. Thereafter the Bishops held the Manor with scarcely a break until 1822, dominating the economic life of the vale.
In 1120 AD the Manor Churches were granted to Taunton’s new Augustinian Priory. It may have been the Canons of the Priory (serving Ruishton as the Minster priest had done) who inspired the building of a new church in the12th century. This new church was probably dedicated to St. George, a saint popular at that time. Its Norman remains can still be seen at the south door.
Before long, the Prior and Canons became distracted by the needs of their own community. They failed to care for the Parishes which had been established. There were complaints that people had died without the benefit of the last rites.
In 1308 responsibility for several local churches was given to the Vicar of St. Mary’s Church in Taunton. The Prior undertook however, to find a resident priest for Ruishton and Stoke St. Mary “which are sufficiently close to each other”. In token perhaps of a special affection for the church at Ruishton, the Prior was given leave to send certain worthy brethren of his community” to assist at the mass on Sundays and other solemn occasions.
No records exist of the men who served as parish priests at this period, although their home “le preistes howse” is later mentioned in a manor survey, as is “le churche-howse, a forerunner of the village hall. Nicholas Bassley was priest in 1531, and four years later John Stotte was receiving from the Prior a yearly stipend of £6 13s 4d.
Building and rebuilding slowly transformed Ruishton’s Norman church, until by the 16th century only one major project remained. As the middle ages ebbed away and the River Tone nearby carried “all maner of marchaundses” to the prospering town of Taunton, an ambitious west tower was begun. The new tower was intended to equal any other tower in Somerset. On the eve of the Reformation however, the dissolution of the Priory had intervened and the builders left our fine west tower unfinished. St. Georges Church was left without its ancient patron and the tower without its crown.
The years of religious change which followed the reformation seem to have had little effect on the history of Ruishton. There are records however of the bishop’s efforts to keep discipline among the clergy and the people. In 1577 a parishioner was suspected of usury (lending money with excessively high interest), another parishioner attended church while excommunicated and there are also records of quarterly sermons not being preached. A dispute over tithes which reached the Court of Chancery in Elizabeth’s reign, was matched by an argument no less heated which disturbed the churchyard in 1616, after pigs and sheep had been “rooteing upp the graves”. The church was out of repair in 1605 with the new Book of Common Prayer nowhere to be found. In 1629 Richard Harding was serving as parish priest without the bishop’s licence: more than that he preached and kept school with as little right.
The Civil War and its aftermath also left its mark. A Parliamentary army marching to Taunton’s relief in 1645 found “scarce a man……in a whole village, so barbarously had the Enemy unpeopled the Country”; and in the same year Robert Proctor of Henlade was threatened with death for refusing the oath of allegiance. He died soon after his release from imprisonment in Orchard House. It was little wonder that non-conformity found allies in Ruishton and its neighbours. In 1669 large conventicles (secret religious meetings) were reported at Stoke St Mary and Creech St Michael and 16 years later at least 11 villagers were implicated in the Monmouth Rebellion.
Timothy Batt was appointed minister of St George’s Church soon after the Restoration (of the Monarchy). He gained a reputation for saintliness and his preaching earned him the title “silver-tongued Batt”. In 1662 however he was ejected from the living (dismissed) because of his Puritan views. He lived into blind old age and borrowed his dying words from St Paul: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”.
A calmer mood settled on the village in the 18th century. By 1742 the church was a building of comfortable cluttered appearance with a service once a month. The appearance of the church was dominated by the pulpit, placed well down the nave. Box pews gave a crowded feeling and hat pegs lined the walls. The squire had a pew in the south aisle and the village musicians led the singing from the gallery at the west end. The churchwardens accounts from the late 18th century survive and list as regular expenses, strings for the bass viol and candles to light the singing.
A school was endowed (gifted) to the village and in 1742 the village children were taught to read but not to write. They were also taught “the principles of the Christian religion” although the effectiveness of this teaching is questionable, as in 1768 vestry records report “several enormous Crimes” in the neighbourhood. In 1841 more than 500 of “the veriest ruffians and blackguards” gathered to watch a brutal prize fight near to the inn at Blackbrook. An inn which records show was known to Thackeray.
By 1822 the evangelical movement had reached the village and a house was registered for non-conformist worship. An Anglican revival soon followed and by 1851 St George’s Church records that an average of 100 people attended the Sunday morning service and as many as 170 in the afternoon. In 1866 a drastic restoration of the church was undertaken. The gallery and the box pews were removed and replaced with respectable Victorian benches brought from the Savoy Chapel in the Strand. Needless to say, not everyone was happy with the changes: the minstrels objected to the new-fangled choir.
During the 20th century the village of Ruishton was transformed. New houses were built in great numbers with a population in the region of 1400 residents. A new school built in 1975 enabled pupil numbers to increase to 140 children aged 5-11yrs in 5 classes with a preschool unit taking children from 2 ½ - 4yrs 10mths. A motorway now borders the parish on its western side and flood prevention measures reduce, to some extent, the “grete floodes and drowning of the medews” which are recorded in 1505.
The increasing of the rural population however did not have a significant effect on the reducing congregations of local parish churches. Thus the combining of resources became necessary and by 1944 the Rev Boyle had become vicar of the United Benefice of St Georges, Ruishton and The Church of the Holy Cross, Thornfalcon.
The beginning of the 21st century saw further changes for St George’s Church. In 2008 under the ministry of the Rev. Ian Aldersley, St George’s Church became part of a United Benefice, not only with The Church of the Holy Cross, Thornfalcon but also with St. Michael’s Church, Creech St Michael. A new Rectory for the Benefice was built at Creech St Michael enabling the diocese to sell the Vicarage at Ruishton. Some of the funds raised were then used to build a meeting room and toilet on the site of its old vicarage garages, for the use of Ruishton’s parishioners. This was followed in 2011 by the induction of the Rev. Rebecca Harris who became its first female Rector.
For approximately twelve hundred years the Christian message has been preached in and around Ruishton. Over the centuries buildings have come and gone and many different people have had varying degrees of impact on its evolving community. It is quite remarkable that through rebellion, war and an increasing secular society St George’s church continues to stand firm.
This guide was originally written in 1981 by Tom Mayberry and illustrated by Shirley Pippin.
Rev. T.A. Thomas B.D. A.K.C., Vicar
E.A. Talbot and N.B. Trood, Churchwardens
It was revised in 2012 by GM Coles MSc
Rev R. Harris BA Hons. Rector
M. Gibbins, Churchwarden