St. Martin's Church
The first written reference to a church in Desford is in the Matriculus of 1220, when Hugh de Grantmesnil, a local baron, gave the church to the Abbot of Ware. The Abbot was proctor of the monks of St Evroult in Normandy and he was therefore the first recorded patron of St Martin’s. The first Rector was Brian de Walton in 1246. The earliest parts of the building date from this time and are in the Early English style.
In 1265 the Manor of Desford became part of the Duchy of Lancaster, but the Rev Robey Eldridge remained under the patronage of Ware. There followed a succession of Rectors who often had more than one benefice and employed someone else to take the services in Desford.
In 1349 Desford lost two Rectors, probably through the Black Death because the second one was never even installed. Sometime after this, the tower and spire were added to the church, in the Perpendicular style. However, the belfry tower windows are in the earlier Decorated style, so perhaps there was an earlier small tower.
In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, became King Henry IV, so the Manor of Desford was merged with the Crown. He was patron of the church until 1410, followed by his second wife, Joan of Navarre. In 1416 the House of Ware was given to the new Priory of Sheen and the Prior remained patron until the Reformation.
From the early 1500s the records of the Archdeaconry of Leicester provide a lot of information. In 1517 the churchwardens, William Fletcher and Thomas Holand, were responsible for many things: the fabric of the church, the churchyard, the provision of bread, wine, linen and vestments and for maintaining good conduct during services. The Rector, Edmund Lay, was an absentee priest and the curate, William Aston, served the parish.
Following the Reformation and upheaval during the reign of Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I became patron of St Martin’s and every monarch since then has been the patron. Elizabeth passed a law to keep a Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths and we are lucky that Desford’s registers survive from 1559 onwards. The population of Desford in 1564 was 200.
In 1609, 1658 and 1675 bells were added to the tower. The clock dates from about 1630/40 and is one of the oldest working clocks in Leicestershire. The weathervane which now sits on a windowsill in the nave, dates from about 1619.
The 17th century saw the spread of Puritan influence and in 1644 a parliamentary decree ordered that all church organs should be silenced. Under Cromwell, the Rev Richard Layghtenhouse was ousted and Thomas Case, the Rector who followed him, was presented by the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England (in place of the monarch).
In the 18th century there was evidence of prosperity. Some families could afford to give money for charity, gifts of church plate, memorial plaques and headstones. The earliest surviving gravestone dates from 1715. The house now called the Old Rectory dates from this time, with wattle and daub walls (one of which survives) and a thatched roof. With the Enclosure Award in 1760 the Rector received about 21 acres of land known as Glebeland. The Glebe Farm was later built on Church Lane and survived into the 20th century. A report of the Archdeacon’s Visit in 1773 gives details of all the maintenance work that needed doing both in and outside the church. The Churchwardens Accounts from 1789 – 1829 provide further information. Each year everyone in the parish had to pay a church levy to maintain the church. This varied from one penny to sixpence.
From 1801- 1849 the Rev John Fry was Rector (see article). In 1821 Desford had a population of 872 living in 160 houses and 218 children attended Sunday School. The historian Nichols visited Desford in the early 1800s and wrote a good description of the church. The south aisle was being used as a school. There was a West Gallery which could hold 100 children. The choir and village band would have played there.
By the time of the 1851 census, the Rev Robey Eldridge was Rector and we get a good picture of his family and servants; a typical middle-class Victorian family. In 1882 when Rev Archibald Fox arrived, the church was in a dilapidated state and he began raising funds for a major restoration programme. A list of subscribers survives. The architect was Stockdale Harrison, a well-known Leicester architect, and the work was completed by Desford builder, Amos Dilks. The north aisle was completely taken down and rebuilt in the Early English style. The east window and those in the south aisle were all replaced. This was when the church’s only stained-glass window was added, in memory of George & Sophia Webster of Hallfields Farm. The gallery was removed, the chancel arch enlarged and a vestry was added. The chancel roof was rebuilt and a new floor of Minton tiles was laid. The stone pulpit was given in memory of Henry & Mary Chamberlain. The refurbishment was completed with a new altar, altar rail, reading desk and choir stalls plus replacements of the old-fashioned high pews in the nave.
Whilst the work was taking place, services were held in the school. A grand re-opening service on 21st May 1884 was attended by the Bishop of Leicester. Afterwards a lunch for 100 people was served in the Board Schoolroom (now the Medical Centre). After seeing the church through this huge upheaval, Rev Fox left in 1885. His successor, Rev John Bright Archer, saw the last of the restoration work to the tower and spire and made improvements to the churchyard. The wall was built and entrance gates erected.
You might think that no more work would be required, but in 1910 Rev Thomas proposed plans for further restoration of the church, the partial rebuilding of the Rectory and the building of a parish room. There were numerous fundraising events and work was carried out in 1912 -13. The Rectory was largely rebuilt, creating a Rector’s study, a parish room, new kitchen, scullery and sanitary arrangements. A well was sunk to provide water.
Services were again held in the school for two months whilst work was carried out to the church. This included the creation of the boiler room, a boiler and heating system to replace the two old stoves which had previously heated the church. The choir vestry and bell ringers’ gallery were built. Gas lighting was installed. With a gift in memory of Joseph Halford Goodacre of Desford Mill, the old bells were re-cast at Taylor’s in Loughborough and three new bells made, with a new frame to hold them all. Many other gifts from parishioners provided new furnishings, including the hymn board. There was insufficient money to build a Parish Room, but land had been given for it, next to the churchyard, by Charles Seddon.
The church re-opened on 31st October 1913 with a ceremony attended by Rev Bowers of Market Bosworth, who banged on the church doors to demand entrance.
The Register of Services in the 20th century gives us a commentary on all sorts of topics from the weather to epidemics and national events. We can read about activities during the First World War and beyond to the dedication of the War Memorial in the porch on 9th December 1920. It is known that there was a porch in the Middle Ages as it was used for meetings and even a school at times. An engraving of 1713 shows a small porch but by 1884 this had disappeared, perhaps as part of the restoration. The present porch was built as a memorial to those who were killed in the First World War and the British Legion planted the chestnut trees in the churchyard as a tribute.
In 1926 the Diocese of Leicester was formed, so Desford’s link to Peterborough came to an end. Sunday School was held in the schoolroom. On the first Sunday of the month the children (often about 100) went into church and there were usually several baptisms. The Sunday School Anniversary was in June and an opportunity for children to have new clothes. The Sunday School Treat was to places such as Bradgate Park. People did not have a week or two summer holiday; just the two days at August Bank Holiday. On the Monday the church held its Garden Party which was attended by hundreds of people.
In the early 1930s the Desford branch of the Mothers Union was set up, led by Mrs Thomas, the Rector’s wife, and they made their own banner which can be seen displayed in church. They were instrumental in setting up the Lady Chapel in the south aisle, with many items donated or bought second-hand. The chapel was dedicated on 22nd November 1941. In 1939 a new Rector, Rev Alfred Lynch, arrived and he started the Parish Magazine.
In 1946 a reed organ was bought to replace the harmonium. Electric lighting was installed in part of the building. In 1949 an ex-army Nissen hut was erected on the land set aside for a Parish Room, with an opening ceremony attended by the Bishop. The hut was intended as a temporary solution but was used for the next 30 years for many church and community events.
In 1955 the Rev Ellis Connor came to Desford and he introduced the Harvest Supper. He also instigated more restoration work which included a new electric system to replace the half-gas, half-electric lighting. Excerpts from the Parish Magazine give a picture of many social activities during this period. In the 1950s the Garden Party was held at Rotherwood, the home of Mr & Mrs Bedingfield and a procession headed by the Rose Queen ended here after parading round the village. Later the fete moved to the Rectory grounds (now the Old Rectory).
In 1963 the reed organ was replaced by a larger and more powerful pipe organ. A special chamber was built to accommodate it in the chancel. This involved more fundraising, even though the organ was bought second-hand from a church in Blaby. It was dedicated by the Bishop at Michaelmas 1966.
The 1970s saw more restoration work and a new heating system. In 1975 the brass lectern was purchased from St Hilda’s Church in Leicester that was being demolished. A new weathercock was installed after the old one blew down and the spire was damaged in a storm in 1976.
In 1980 the church bought the old Infant School building on Main Street and this became the Church Centre. Two houses were built on the site of the Nissen hut. In 1981 the Rectory (now the Old Rectory) was sold and a new Rectory built further along Church Lane. In 1984 the parishes of Desford and Peckleton were merged, which meant that the Rector had to look after two churches and their parishioners.
In 2004 the pipe organ was replaced by an electronic organ which has proved invaluable to accompany the wide range of church music and numerous concerts; not to mention the capacity to record tunes, so that the organ can be played when no organist is available! Advances in technology meant that a PA system was installed, followed by a digital projector and screens.
The early years of the 21st century saw several structural changes which involved the inevitable fundraising. In Phase 1, a lift was installed to enable disabled access to the church and some of the pews were removed (and replaced by chairs). The font was moved from its traditional place at the back of the church to the former Lady Chapel. In Phase 2, the choir stalls were moved to the north wall of the nave and the Rector’s vestry was converted to make a kitchenette and toilets. The altar was re-sited against the north wall and the pews turned to face it. In Phase 3, the remaining pews were removed, the main door was moved to the outer wall of the porch and a new glazed inner door installed. Not everybody agreed with all of these changes, but we believe that the church is now a versatile space which can fulfil its role of serving the community.
Alongside these changes, in 2012 when the Rev Richard Sharpe retired, the diocese took the opportunity to dissolve the benefice of Desford and Peckleton and create a new benefice with St. Bartholomews, Kirby Muxloe. Since then the Rector has lived in the Vicarage at Kirby Muxloe and the Rectory at Desford was finally sold in 2021.
The parishioners have witnessed and embraced physical and liturgical change throughout the 800+ years of history and will continue to do so in the future.
See listing of St. Martin's Church Rectors and Patrons dating from 1209
St Martin’s Church: an illustrated guide by Caroline Wessel
The Church and it's People by Caroline Wessel (History Series)
A Stroll Through Desford Churchyard by Caroline Wessel (History Series)
A Tale of Ten Rectors by Caroline Wessel
Twentieth Century Rectors of Desford by Caroline Wessel
A database of the gravestones in the churchyard can be searched on request.