This history of St John’s Church is reproduced with kind permission of Southern Life(UK) from their website at www.southernlife.org.uk.
Photographs are by kind permission of John Ward.
On the 17th of August, 1898 the reconstructed Church of St. John the Baptist was reconsecrated by the Bishop of Winchester and reopened for divine worship. Extensive rebuilding under the direction of Sir Arthur Blomfield, the eminent Victorian church architect and Diocesan architect to Winchester Cathedral, was now complete. This beautiful building stands today as a tribute to his skills and expertise, providing New Alresford with a church worthy of its heritage.
The Liberty of Alresford or Alresforda’, which comprised the parishes of Old Alresford, New Alresford and Medstead, was probably granted by Cynegils (King of the West Saxons from 611 to 643 AD) to the Bishop of Winchester upon his baptism and admission into the Christian faith. The boundaries confirmed in subsequent Anglo Saxon charters are identical to the parish boundaries existing today. In the Liberty the Mother Church of St. Mary the Virgin was established at Old Alresford with chapelries of St. John the Baptist at New Alresford and St. Andrew at Medstead. The Bishop of Winchester remained Chief Lord of the Liberty until its transfer to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in the mid-nineteenth century.
This Church, serving the community on the south side of the Alresford Marsh and dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was built on the high knoll almost due south of the mother church on the opposite bank. People of Alresford have worshipped continuously on this hallowed ground for over twelve hundred years. Reference to the Domesday Book of 1086 confirms the establishment of the Church and states under the
“Land of the Bishop of Winchester – In Fawley Hundred – Wakelin Bishop of Winchester holds Alresford in Lordship. It is and always was in the Bishopric”, and it included “3 Churches at 4”.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century Godfrey de Lucy, Bishop of Winchester, enlarged the fishpond supplying his palace at Bishops Sutton by constructing the Great Weir at Alresford. He then replanned New Alresford in the pattern existing today, thus expanding another market for trade and commerce in his vast estates throughout Wessex. This market established some 120 families each having a town dwelling together with strips of arable land in the Common Fields together with a seat or pew in the parish church. As in other market towns and communities Bishop de Lucy would have modernised or rebuilt the Church of St. John the Baptist, and some fragments preserved today can be attributed to this period. The construction of the Great Weir also caused the trade route between Winchester and Southampton to London to run through New Alresford, rather than Old Alresford, and the market prospered.
To assist the curate in charge of the chapelry in New Alresford the Brotherhood or Fraternity of Jesus was formed. It was endowed with property in the town supported with parcels of land in the Common Fields “Towardes the fyndynge of a priest called the brotherhood priest to the intent that he should synge within the parishe church of New Alresford as well as for the ayde and help of the curate as also for the ease of the inhabitants there for that before the foundation of the said Brotherhood they had no pryste but only a curate.” Following the fate of the monastic foundations, this Brotherhood was suppressed in the reign of Edward VI and its possessions became the property of the Crown, but were returned to Alresford by Queen Elizabeth some forty years later.
As did many towns, over the years Alresford suffered the ravages of a number of fires. During the seventeenth century four serious outbreaks are recorded, the most disastrous occurring in 1689.
“On the first of May about nine o’clock in the morning, fire broke out in The Soke, the season being dry and a north east wind blowing hard, so that in about three hours were burnt down and consumed to the ground the dwelling houses of a hundred and seventeen families including the Market House and also the Church, the damage by the oaths of the sufferers amounted to the sum of 24,500 and upwards.”
A Royal Brief excited compassion throughout the whole kingdom and some two-thirds of the total cost was subscribed.
Basically the Church consisted of a three aisled, Hampshire barn roofed structure having north and south entrances, a western tower and an eastern chancel. The timber roofs were covered with local reed thatching. Window openings, doorways and arches had typical twelfth-,thirteenth- and fourteenth-century embellishments and mouldings, fragments of which have survived and are displayed in the glazed cabinet in the church.
Records and photographs concerning the rebuilt church in 1689 are available and give an accurate picture of the building prior to the reconstruction by Sir Arthur Blomfield in 1898. In these we find that the western tower and perimeter walls of the body of the Church had been saved and, with a new tile covered roof and smaller chancel, divine worship was resumed within four years. With the addition, at successive times, of west, north and south galleries, then a north chancel aisle chapel followed by a western vestry, two more centuries were to pass before major structural works again became necessary.
However, the year 1851 was of great significance to New Alresford and the Church of St. John the Baptist. It was in this, the first year of the incumbency of George Sumner (.later to become Bishop of Guildford and whose wife, Mary Sumner, established the organization of the Mothers Union), that the parish was separated from Old Alresford and became a distinct ecclesiastical benefice with William Brodie inducted as the first Rector of New Alresford. This gave great impetus to the Church and within the next few years many improvements in furnishings and fittings were performed by local craftsmen, and all by voluntary subscriptions. But by 1895 much major repair work again became necessary and the Parochial Council sought the help and advice of the Diocesan architect, Sir Arthur Blomfield.