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Church House

Church House This diagram taken from the deeds of the Old Vicarage dated 1859 is the last known documentary evidence for the Church House in Chewton Mendip. Or is it? A Church House may have still been standing at the turn of the 19th/20th century when a photograph of what was then called Navestock Cottage was taken. That building and the site plan look suspiciously small to have accommodated the people who were listed as living there. The photograph also shows a tiled or slate roof which does not match the earlier descriptions of a thatched house. The photograph may show a smaller building that was on the site of the original Church House which became redundant in the 1830s when the workhouse in Wells was built.
 The earliest record so far discovered is from the Hampshire archive when a Church house is mentioned in the transaction when Roger Manners sold two thirds of the rectory manor of Chewton Mendip to George Kingsmill in 1591-2. The lease for The Church House was held by a family called Butcher which could have also described their trade. They lived in Priory Grove which is assumed to have been the site of Chewton Priory which suggests that the original Church House was a former priory building, possibly in Priory Grove or near the church as shown in the diagram. Another possibility is that it was on the site of  Chewton House.
An agreement between the bishop of Bath & Wells and the prior of Jumieges in 1241-1242 mentions several buildings including what is called  Priory Farm, accommodation for curates and a place to provide hospitality. Other sources show that the priories had an obligation to provide help to the sick which may have been the initial function of the Church House. The Court House may have also been on the the site of Chewton Priory or Chewton House. These premises were in addition to the vicarage or rectory house.  Most of the monastic  buildings were demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries but some buildings were retained and used as farmhouses or something similar. If the original Church House survived that original wave of destruction it was probably already a ruin when Mr Jenkins house was built c 1780. What was Fillis  property may have been the ruins of the original Church House.
Church houses acted as a form of village hall and social services centre after the reformation. Another use was to host church ‘ales’  which were part celebrations and part fundraising events. Church ale would be brewed specially for the purpose. It may seem incongruous today for the church to be promoting the consumption of alcohol and some accounts of the events show they could be very bawdy but beer was the standard drink because the water was unfit to drink. Both the uses as a hospital and drinking den means that the Church House may have been at a discreet distance from the church itself.
 The other possible site for the Church House fits with those criteria. Chewton House is what is now the home of Earl Waldegrave but it is believed it was originally the site of a coaching inn, possibly the Unicorn. The Hampshire archive hold records that state a Richard Loxton was the tenant of a property taken over by the Yorke family in 1692. The Loxton estate  and ‘Ye Inn’ the Town tithing were subsequently in the possession of the Yorke family. Records relating to Red Sheard also support the link between an inn and this part of the village.
 The churchwarden accounts, which start in 1699, and the poor book  ,which started 1730, are full of references to the Church House but do not identify where it was. One page of the poor book from c 1756 suggests that the Church House was not in the churchyard.
Church House quit rent and little housePayments for the rent of Church House rent was an annual item and there were frequent records of the cost of maintenance of the Church House was common. Two things are unusual about the records on the left. Firstly, this is the only reference to ‘the little house’ and the second is the specification of the location. The simplest explanation is the whim of the clerk who decided to call the Church House the ‘little house’ but that is inconsistent with the known uses of a Church House.
 Another explanation is the ‘the little house’ was what was later called ‘the Folly House’ which may,or may not, have been on the site of the group of cottages called ‘The Folly’. What is clear from the records is that the 18th century Church House was thatched because most of the costs related to thatching the Church House. The use of the word ‘helm’ have been interpreted as a contraction of ‘helmet’ and thus a reference to roofing material. However, there are numerous references to the provision of reed for thatching so ‘helm’ may have ben an alternative spelling for Elm which was wood used for structural timbers. Other records show that the Church House was whitewashed so it was probably built of stone but that description would fit most of the houses of the time and some structures that persist to the current day.
None of the records give a direct impression of the size of the building but it was probably larger than the Folly House based on the rent paid for it. Payments for rebuilding the  Court House, which may have been an earlier name for the Folly House, specified 100 spars for the roof which suggests a reasonably sized building. A record from c1769 states that the parish paid the considerable sum of £3 4s (£3.20p) for eight dozen ‘helm’ and a further £1 8s 6d (£1.42) for more thatching material. These payments provide some clue that the Church House was a substantial building however you intpret the word ‘helm’.
The Church House was used to accommodate people, either as a form of temporary ‘work house’ or hospital. A record from c 1770 is for a payment of 6d (about 3p) to an unspecified person, or people, for carrying a bed to the church house.
There are frequent references to payment for people in the church house receiving treatment for various illnesses. Small pox is frequently mentioned but other references are less clear and just mention ‘ye sickness’ or ‘the fever’.
The Church House is not mentioned  Collinson’s or shown in the 1794 map but that is not surprising but that source describes most of the buildings as being of ‘mean construction’ and are consistent with the description of the work on the Church House paid for by the parish. There are records of a Church House being built in Widcombe and it is probable that the former Methodist Chapel of Chew Hill took over some of the functions of the Church House in the middle of the 19th century.
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