At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Otley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Otley west doors (15th Century) west door figure: St Luke the Evangelist? (15th Century) west door: Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation (15th Century)

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Cycling around high Suffolk on a summer's day can make the modern world seem very far away, but as you come down along the narrow lanes which dogleg through the ridges of rolling fields from Monewden you emerge into the surprise of a proper road just north of Otley. Soon there is a bus garage, an old chapel, and then a shop, more cars and a housing estate. You might even think that Otley was outer-Ipswich suburbia, but this is a large, proper village, with a strong sense of its own identity. Otley College, the 'agricultural college' of Ronald Blythe's masterpiece Akenfield, is a mile or so away on the far side of the village.

The church is just off the main village street down an avenue of chestnut trees, which make a carpet of blossom every spring. The path leads up to the 19th Century east wall of the chancel and then around to the south porch. The tall Perpendicular tower rises over falling ground to the west, and there are remains of flushwork monograms at its base familiar from nearby Helmingham and Charsfield. These probably date from the start of the 15th Century. A surprise is that the original west door is still in situ, sensitively restored in the 19th Century by the workshop of Henry Ringham which was in St John's Road, Ipswich. Three figures stand under towering lily-like tabernacles. The outer two appear to be the Blessed Virgin and the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, perhaps giving a clue to the medieval dedication of the church, while the central figure appears to be holding a book. Perhaps he is the donor, or possibly the evangelist St Luke.

An enthusiastic series of bequests in the late 15th Century left money for the bells, but then curiously in 1510 John Gossenold left the relatively large sum of 20 marks to the making of the steeple (which is to say, the tower) in the churchyard. Perhaps the tower had to be adapted to accommodate the bells, but it is curious. In any case St Mary was in a poor way by the 1830s, and in the first years of the reign of Queen Victoria the church underwent a considerable and largely pre-ecclesiological restoration at the hands of the firm of Pink & Erlam. They shortened the chancel and reroofed the nave to which a west gallery was added. The rector at the time was the well-known evangelical Francis Storr, and his main concern seems to have been to enlarge the capacity of the church and to make it suitable for congregational worship focused on the pulpit. However, another restoration of the 1870s by HM Eyton tells a more familiar story of removing the west gallery and refurnishing the church for the fashionable High Church services of the day. All in all it feels a fine old village church, with a sense of continuity and the sense of being at the heart of a faith community, at once rustic and yet renewed. 

Beside the vestry entrance is a memorial in Latin to Alfred William, third son of Henry Gretton, rector of this church, and Mary, his wife. Fell asleep in the Lord on the 14th day of July 1894, aged 18. Henry Gretton was an enthusiastic Tractarian, who inherited a church which had already been serviceably restored for his favoured kind of worship. He appears to have keenly added to this, and his influence has left an interior which is High Church in character but with a number of interesting survivals.

The remains of an ancient stoup stand to the right of the entrance, and you step into an open space with a south aisle. The font is a typical octagonal East Anglian font of the 15th Century, presumably contemporary with the completion of the tower. The 1880s glass beside it in the west window of the south aisle is an unusual depiction of the Christian virtues. Turning east, the benches are mostly from Eyton's restoration, but there are a few older ones. One substantial bench end at the front of the north side carries the shield of the Beauchamp and Fitzalan families, and probably dates from the 17th Century. The pulpit is a handsome piece, also of the 17th Century, the imposing stairway likely added by Francis Storr. Stepping into the chancel, the decorative glass in the east window was installed at the time of the 1837 restoration, and was donated by Storr in memory of his father Paul Storr, the Regency designer.

A late medieval series of bequests unearthed by Simon Cotton and Peter Northeast give us a sense of the life of Otley parish in the years before the Reformation. In 1461 Edmund Ingold gave 9 marks towards buying an antiphoner. This was a large book in illustrated manuscript form used for the Sarum Rite liturgy of the Catholic Church. Agnes Woodward in 1474 left money for a pilgrim to go on pilgrimage to 3 different places, that is to say Walsingham, Woolpit and Bury St Edmunds for the soul of the testator and John Wodeward, her late husband. And in 1489 Peter Fletcher left 26s 8d for my executors to buy 22 brazen candlesticks to be placed on the candlebeam before the crucifix in Otley church and to the new bell in order to have a four-fold sound.

Of course, the Reformation of the 1540s and 1550s put an end to all this, but an interesting insight into this church in the 17th Century is given us by the journal of WIlliam Dowsing, the Commissioner in the Eastern Association for 'the Destruction of Monuments of Idolatry and Superstition' according to the Ordinance of 1643. His journal details his progress through about three hundred churches in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire over the course of 1644. Dowsing's journal records a visit to Otley on 27th February, one of four churches in the journal for that day: A deputy brake down 50 superstitious pictures, a cross on the chancel, 2 brass inscriptions & Moses with a rod & Aaron with his mitre taken down & 20 cherubims to be taken down, 6s 8d. Trevor Cooper, in his 2002 edition of the Dowsing Journal, thought that the deputy was probably Thomas Denny, and it's not clear if Dowsing was supervising him or if the journal entry is an account of Denny's report afterwards. The superstitious pictures were all in glass, the cross on the chancel would have been the gable cross outside, the brass inscriptions would have had Catholic prayer clauses (Dowsing left inscriptions alone if they were not what he thought superstitious) and the 20 cherubims to be taken down would have been roof angels - the journal shows that an order was given for these to be removed rather than Dowsing or Denny doing it themselves, as it would have been a long job.

The reference to Moses with a rod & Aaron with his mitre is interesting, because it is likely that these were not medieval survivals at all, but painted panels flanking the decalogue boards. A number of 17th and 18th Century examples survive in East Anglia. It's the only time Dowsing refers to such things, and it isn't clear why he wasn't happy with them, as they were unlikely to have been considered idolatrous. Maybe Denny was simply playing it safe. It is worth saying that Dowsing was warmly welcomed at most of the churches he visited, for churchwardens were keen to obey the new law. The 6s 8d quoted in the journal was the charge for Dowsing's advice. This was preferable to the fine of 20s for not having carried out the work, although Dowsing often halved his charge or waived it altogether where he felt the churchwardens had made an honest effort.

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual feature of this church is locked away in the vestry, but for your protection, not its own. Shortly after my first visit to this church in the 1990s, I received an e-mail from the then-churchwarden Alan Bates telling me about it, and inviting me to go and take a look. In 1950, when a workman was replacing the floor of the vestry, he had found underneath it a total immersion baptismal font. Since it forms part of the drainage system of the church, it was (and is) full of water. In one of those delightful acts of serendipity, the workman's surname was Dowsing.

It is about six feet long and three feet wide, with an extension on the north side for the minister to stand in. There are steps down from the west end, which is also where the water flows in, draining from some part of the roof. It goes out through an overflow in the east end, probably into the pond which lies beyond the churchyard boundary. It appears to be made of concrete, although the varying layers of water over the years have created brick-like strata markings on the walls. The photographs I took on that occasion are towards the bottom of this page.

There is a theory that the bath was installed by Anabaptists who had charge of the church during the 17th Century Commonwealth. It seems more likely that it was installed by an evangelically-minded rector in the early 19th Century, in which case it was probably Francis Storr. Nevertheless, of the dozen or so known surviving total immersion fonts in Anglican churches in England, this is one of the oldest.


Simon Knott, January 2021

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chancel looking east looking west
font Gosnold memorial pulpit
virtues Patience, Modesty Temperance war memorial
killed in action Buried in Witnesham churchyard family pew
total immersion font (early 19th Century?) total immersion font (early 19th Century?) total immersion font (early 19th Century?)

Otley Alfred William, third son... Otley


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