St. Mary's Church, Donnington

church (26K) Donnington Church and its site have a long, and interesting history. It is situated in the midst of a central plateau on a hillside sweeping from the foothills of the Malverns to the north east, towards the River Leadon (pronounced “Leddon”) to the south west. There is evidence of an early Celtic settlement on Haffield Bank (“The Camp”) to your left as you approach Donnington from the A417 main Gloucester to Ledbury road. Imagine the vantage point these early settlers would have had - even now, with its veneer of civilisation, the view of the surrounding countryside is quite breathtaking.

Bearing right at the grassy triangle (formerly the site of an elm tree - the “Cruse Elm”), and following the road through the village, you reach the church, again on your left. Notice the clump of trees beside the road just before the public footpath sign - the surrounding bank is covered in snowdrops in spring. The sunken pathway leading away from the church follows the route of an ancient “holloway”, so called because it was literally “hollow” having been worn down by years of passage. At one time it is believed the route of the main Gloucester - Ledbury road followed this track, but it is likely that the present road is of more recent origin, built perhaps to provide a carriageway from the Rectory, now a private house, to the Church.

This old route was used by Colonel Spence-Colby, who lived at Donnington Hall in the early part of this century, to go to and from church, and he insisted on it being swept each Sunday before he and his family walked along it. It is grassed over now but one villager remembers it being paved, and walking along it as a child.

The Roman Occupation at Donnington

image006 (6K) Roman remains have been found following excavations in a gravel pit in the south west of the parish, including a kiln, an ancient floor, pottery, a hypocaust tile, a portion of tesserae (pieces of mosaic), and a circular structure, containing fragments of broken Roman red tiles and shards of pottery. These last included a fragment of decorated Samian ware of the 2nd century. A short length of wall was partly uncovered in 1956.

The Anglo Saxon Period - Dunna's Tun

Perhaps the most significant legacy from this period of history is our village's name. The name “Donnington” is derived from the personal name “Dunning”, which means either sons of “DUNN”, or “DUNNA”, or the tribe of the Dunnings, together with the Old English word “tun”, meaning “farmstead” - Dunning’s farmstead. The same name survives in several other Don(n)ingtons, as wide apart as Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, West Sussex and Gloucestershire.

The Norman Conquest - the Domesday Book

Following the Conquest, Phillimore’s 1983 translation of the Domesday survey (1085/6) records Donnington amongst lands belonging to “the Canons of Hereford”, as follows:-


“In Donnington 1 hide which pays tax. In lordship 1 plough; 6 villagers and 6 smallholders with 7 ploughs 1 female slave; meadow 8 acres. Value before 1066, later and now, 25s. One of the Bishop’s clerks holds from him.”

An earlier translation, quoted by a former vicar of Donnington, J. E. Gethyn-Jones, in his own History of the Church published in September 1958, describes the female slave as a “bondswoman”. He further adds that “Donnington was then, what it is today, a small agricultural community with about 1,000 acres under cultivation”.

The 12th and 13th Centuries - the “Vinefields”

image008 (31K) Following the Conquest, William apportioned existing settlements to his barons and knights, and the settlement of Donning’s “ton” became annexed to lands belonging to the Bishop of Hereford. Our land was no doubt attractive to the invaders, being then, as now, fertile countryside capable of supplying the necessary produce for the city. This is reflected by examples some years later of entries in the Bishop of Hereford’s registers:-

In 1121 one Arnald de Donynton and an Adam held certain lands in our parish. These lands had been given previously by William Constable of Gloucester, to the monks of Gloucester.

In 1261 a Peter de Donnington gave a lease of a Mill to the Hospital of St. Katherine in Ledbury, and later confirmed this as a gift. Perhaps the Bishop, in whose custody the Hospital lay, and who was Peter’s Lord Spiritual and Temporal adviser, prompted this benefaction.

It is now known that the Bishop of Hereford of these times lived at Ledbury, and the household accounts of one Bishop Swinfield for 1289/90 contain entries relating to white wine from a local vineyard, now believed to have been in the Manor of Haffield, part of Donnington (see adjoing map). The remains of these large vine terraces - more extensive than the sites of other local vineyards of that antiquity - strongly suggest this to be the source of Swinfield’s supply.

The 13th Century - “Donnington Court”

image011 (28K) The site where the Church now stands was occupied by a moated “court”, believed to date from the 13th century, and which J.E. Gethyn Jones suggests may have housed a family named de Bruit. Moated sites of this antiquity are common on the Welsh Border, with the moat serving as a status symbol rather than a defensive measure. Sometimes they served as fishponds, but at Donnington it looks as if separate fishponds were constructed a little to the south-west of the moat (see sketch map, opposite).

It is also quite usual to find a later farm house close to a moated site, such as here where we find the present day Donnington Court Farm.

The 14th Century; Feudal Dues, and the building of our Church During the 14th century, further entries in the Bishop's registers relating to Knights' Fees, Feudal Aids and Inductions occur. Many authorities suggest that our church was built during this period, as indeed seems appropriate since two of the following entries refer to the induction of a priest:-


(1)1304 “Johannes de Donintone tenet ij virgates terre apud Donyntone per militem”.
Translation: “John of Donintone holds 2 virgates of land (about 60 acres) within Donyntone on behalf of the military”.

(2)1305 Jun 1: “Thomas de Cruse de Woolhope, priest, inducted. Patron: Thomas le Rous”.

(3)1316 Oct 12: “William de Bedstone, priest, was inducted. Patron: Abbot & Convent of Wigmore”.

See also the list of presentees for the Rectory of Donnington where Thomas de Cruse de Woolhope is the first entry.

image012 (4K) Further evidence for the church having been built in this century is provided by its architectural style. The oldest part of the church reflects the style of this period, known as “Early English”, featuring plain pointed archways, and a short square turret or tower. The present steeple is a modern addition, as can be seen by the photograph reproduced below, showing the church in the late 19th century with just a wooden tower, and without its present spire.

image014 (68K) The Court Roll of the “Manor of Haffield Donnington” dated 17 Sept. 1463 records a John Burton was fined 2/- (two shillings, or 10 pence) for having wrongfully and without leave “cut down 3 large and 3 small oaks” in his lord’s wood. Two shillings was a considerable amount of money in those days. Wood, however was an important commodity; for instance at the Battle of Agincourt the skill of the English Longbow Archers was the deciding factor in bringing victory to Henry V, and the King decreed that each parish should be responsible for providing the raw material for making the Longbow.

Yew was particularly suited for this purpose, hence many churchyards today still contain a yew tree, and Donnington is no exception. The Yew Tree near the centre of the churchyard has been estimated as almost 500 years old, and has a certificate to prove it (on view in the church) following “The Yew Tree” campaign, sponsored by - amongst others - the Archbishop of Canterbury, and David Bellamy.

The seat surrounding the base of the tree is of special interest, as it was handcrafted by a local blacksmith, forming a memorial to a local parishioner. Its creation was a very difficult task; the smith forged sections, then assembled them around the trunk and rivetted one securely to another.

In 1476, Bishop Thomas Milling of Hereford secured the help of a permanent suffragan, Richard Wycherley, episcopus Olonensis, for whom, in 1483, he obtained from the dean and chapter the mastership of S. Katherine's Hospital at Ledbury. There is a reference, dated November 11, 1483, in the Dean's Register at the time, that bishop Wycherley also obtained the rectory of Donnington.

The 16th Century, and the Church Bells

image016 (6K) An inventory of Church Goods taken in Donnington by the Royal Commissioners on 25 May 1553 records “a chalice with paten of Silver parcell gilt” and “thre belles whereof the least is XVI (16) inches di(ameter) the second XXI (21) inches the third XXII (22) di(ameter) inches brode over in the mouthes”. There are at present only two church bells, and the Rev. Gethyn-Jones adds: “what a pity these ancient treasures have gone!”. He does however state later, when describing the present day church, that the smaller one may be the one recorded in this inventory. The larger one bears the inscription

“God Save the King. Richard Skipp, Gent, 1682”.

In the past people in the neighbouring parish of Eastnor could use the sound of Donnington Church Bells to foretell the weather. An old Eastnor saying goes:-

“Bromsberrow rings for summer swelt,
But Coller sounds for snow;
Ledbury chimes for rain and heat,
If Donnington’s heard 'twill blow' ”.

The 17th Century, and The Civil War

It is easy to imagine the English Civil War, of 1645-1660, passing by small settlements such as Donnington, with the major skirmishes at the more famous battle sites. However, tradition, and, so far, only tradition, says that the old Rectory at Donnington was burnt down by Cromwell’s men. Might this statement have some bearing on the following story told by J.E. Gethyn-Jones?
Apparently, earlier this century, a former resident of Donnington Hall, Edward Gray, Esq. presented a cannon ball to the church, around which was pasted a paper with the following legend:

image018 (4K) “This cannon ball was discovered in the year 1868 when two workmen were cleaning out a ditch in a field called 'Sourmeadow' ... The oldest man in the parish, upwards of 80, stated that in his younger days he used to hear old people say that in former years a great many cannon balls had been discovered on a Bank called 'The Tump' on the Vineyard Bank ...”

J.E. Gethyn-Jones' most compelling explanation for the canon balls' presence is following the “Battle of Redmarley”, fought on 27 July, 1644, between Cromwell's General Massey, and the Royalist General Mynne - at which 170 Royalists, including Mynne, were killed. Only 17 of the casualties have been identified as buried in Redmarley churchyard - where were the other dead buried? Why were the cannon balls here? Both of these questions may have the same answer, especially if Donnington was then a Royalist stronghold.

The 18th Century, and the earliest Donnington Parish Registers

As stated earlier, the church is believed to have been built in the 13th or 14th century. However, prior to 1754, Donnington was still a chapelry of Ledbury, and records of Donnington baptisms, marriages and burials were recorded in Ledbury parish registers. The earliest Marriage in Donnington’s own parish registers was recorded in 1754, whilst Baptism and Burial entries begin in 1755 and 1765 respectively. As it happens this year coincided with Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, intended to enforce better recording of marriages throughout the country and, incidentally, required all marriages to be solemnized in the Established Church. Special books were issued to all parishes containing standard forms; formerly marriages had been recorded usually as a single line entry amongst records of baptisms and burials.

Please see the Donnington Burial Registers 1765-2006 for a transcript.

In 1777 John Skipp, as a result of a visit to Italy, became involved in a dubious deal over Church property (a picture), but emerged with honour vindicated. An etching of the picture was preserved for a time in Ledbury.

Earlier in the century, Jacob Tonson, the celebrated 18th century bookseller, and founder of the Kit-Cat Club (a literary circle) bought the Vineyard, and other lands surrounding it in 1728, for his retirement. Tonson used to send a horse and wagon carrying apples and cider from the Vineyard back to his nephew, in Lincolns Inn, London. In turn, the nephew was asked to supply the “best vines that money could buy” to plant in Tonson’s country home. Tonson died in 1736, and a funeral hearse took 8 days to carry his body back to London for his burial at St. Mary le Strand.

The 19th Century; Stage Coaches and the “Penny Post”

image020 (10K) The 19th century was a time of much activity in Donnington. A Mail Coach passed through daily, with letters delivered between 9 and 11 a.m., and despatched at 6.15 p.m. The Post Office was then, as now, at Greenway. A charity school, supported by the Rector, is recorded in the middle years of the century, but was closed in the 1870's. The children then attended Eastnor or Haffield schools. The Haffield School, begun by Dr. W. C. Henry, who occupied Haffield House from 1837 to 1892, was erected in 1875 at a cost of £800 by Dr. Henry, and had seatings for 154. This in turn was closed in about 1950 and was bought by a local farmer, who for a short time used the building for keeping pigs! It has now, however, been converted into a very attractive dwelling house.

In 1862 Donnington church was re-pewed and restored, at a cost of over £700. Later, the North Aisle, Vestry and Porch were added, and the Chancel extended. The exact date of the extensions is not known, but a brass plaque in the Church records their benefactor, Samuel Tingle, who died in 1878, “Leaving £200 to the Rector and Churchwardens for the Repair and Improvement of Donnington Church. This sum has been expended in the erection of a New Porch, Tiling the Aisles, Extending the Chancel and other improvements.” The tablet was erected by John Lander, Rector, and Churchwardens John Cummins, and James Chadd. This century also saw the arrival of our “oldest” family, the Smiths from the North Cotswolds, who have now farmed The Vineyard for 4 generations. The Lectern commemorates Amy, their youngest daughter who died in Australia in 1891.

For a period in the 1870's Donnington possessed a Sextress, a rather formidable looking lady, in the person of a Mrs Ann Pullen; however perhaps the most colourful character of this century, as far as our history is concerned, was the aforementioned Rector of that time, the Reverend John Lander. He was born in Gloucester in 1817, the son of John Lander and Elizabeth, née Watkins. He came first to Donnington in 1845, and it is said that he refused to live in what was then the Rectory, and instead bought the house now known as “Netherways”, which remained the Rectory until about 1950. The cellar steps in this old house are made out of tombstones from our churchyard! He married firstly in 1841, Maria Louisa Le Breton-Pipon, a widow with three children, and secondly, in 1856, Isabella (Elizabeth) Cadell, a Scottish lady.

He was educated at Winchester and Pembroke College, Oxford, became Curate of Preston, and was Rector of Donnington, for 45 years from 1845 - 1890, after which he retired to London. He also took over a Church of England parish in Belgium, and is said to have travelled extensively; it is believed he met his second wife whilst touring. They married in Edinburgh, and an engaging account of their journey back to Donnington on the Saturday following their wedding, October 25th, and the enthusiastic welcome given survives in the following extract from his diary:-

“25th Saturday. Fine morning. Lilla took a sketch of the Abbey. Strolled into the Churchyard with Mr. Glynn. Lilla admired greatly the view of the high partially covered hills fine timber towering above the abbey and the town. After luncheon at the Bell Inn started carriage in front dog cart with baggage in the rear for Donnington. Beautiful drive through Eastnor Park ... the Castle itself with its lake beneath formed a most delightful view. Rather cold and fresh, passed through the Park. Soon through Eastnor and on the Upper Gloster Road. There astonished to see gig with Mr. & Mrs. Newton and presently Dr. Henry with H. & Miss Mary H. The young ladies horses starting off at full gallop rather excited us. Dr. Henry riding up very kindly recognising us and begged to be introduced. So passed on at the Brand Oak greatly pleased to find a very pretty arch from one side of the road to the other with a flag, red and white lettering “Welcome”. And there also a little beyond stood quite a crowd of neighbours raising their hats etc. in kind recognition of us. At Smallings again we found another arch, or rather festoon, with two pretty flags of red and white. Then at Grove Elm a very pretty gothic looking arch of laurel and evergreen alone which I thought the carriage would have scarcely passed through, but it did with perfect safety. And now arrived at the Rectory gate we found another festoon of flowers and laurels with a flag beneath bearing the words “May they ever remain United”. An arch of evergreen over the gate itself and the school children ranged on either side of the path scattering flowers in our way and presenting us with nosegays. Our ovation concluded with three cheers for the newly married couple, after Lilla had dispersed her supply of plum buns to the children.”

The sketch of this homecoming, was made by C.W. Radcliffe Cooke of Helens, Herefordshire when a pupil at the Dyck (Dyke) House for the occasion. image022 (290K)

Reverend Lander himself is commemorated in the stained glass window in the south of the Chancel, behind the pulpit, whilst his first wife Maria, and Elizabeth Lander, possibly his mother, are commemorated in the East Window of the Church, behind the altar, with the inscription:- “Elizabeth Lander obiit Aug 31st 1854; Maria Lander obiit July 20th 1850”.

Residents recorded in Littlebury's Directory of Herefordshire, 1876-7:-

Lander Rev. John, M.A. (rector), Rectory
Wickens Jas., Esq., J.P., Donnington

Chadd Jas., frmr. hop grower, The Farm
Cross John, blacksmith, Rose cottage
Cummins John, farmer, Dinchall
Fowler Thos. Stallard, farmer, The Court
Mayo William, farmer, Lower house and Smallings farms
Revell William, cider maker and dealer, The Nurdens
Saddler Thos., sub-postmaster, Greenway
Smith Charles, farmer, The Vineyard
(and in Ledbury parish)
Church (St. Mary's). - Rev. John Lander, M.A., Rector;
James Wickens Esq., Churchwarden; Mrs. Ann Pullen, Sextoness.

Donnington during the first half of the 20th Century

The fundamentally good state of the fabric of the Church today is due largely to a magnificent bequest made by the late Sir John Mitchell of the firm of Mitchell and Butler, Brewers. He lived at Haffield House, and died in 1931, leaving the following bequests:- £2000 in trust with the Hereford Diocesan New Board of Finance to be invested and the interest to be used to keep the church and his grave “in good order and repair”. £250 to the Rector and Churchwarden (this spent on repairs) During the early part of the century, the churchyard was extended, and minutes of a Parish Meeting of April 14th 1926 record discussion of getting it underway. Later, a new pathway to the church was constructed, by Mr J. Jones of Ledbury. On a more mundane level, on 9th January 1927, rats having attacked the church organ, it was agreed that funds be raised for the repair of same by means of private subscription and collection card, and that the organ be protected against further attacks - “the Rector to take the necessary steps to get the organ repaired.” 8th Jan 1928: The church organ needed tuning. Also in 1928 a memorial to Mrs Bertha Mitchell, the wife of Sir John, was agreed upon. The window to her memory, on the west side of the chancel is dedicated to St Bertha, with the inscription “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of Bertha the wife of John Edwin Mitchell who died March 30th 1928” On 17th April 1932, a proposed union of the benefices of Donnington and Bromsberrow in the Diocese of Gloucester, recommended by the committee of Hereford Union of Benefices, was discussed, with the unanimous opinion against the union. The Organist's pay was raised to £26 per annum - incidentally, an unofficial roster of “organ boys” can be found behind the organ; several of them have written names and dates of their service in pumping the organ! On 6th September 1936, the parish council minutes recorded permission in writing was obtained from the Misses Lander for the glass in the East Window (the inscription to Elizabeth and Maria Lander, referred to earlier) to be replaced by clear glass as suggested by Mr Anderson (Mr Ellery Anderson, consultant architect to Hereford Cathedral) and with the same inscriptions. The cost to be met out of Sir John Mitchell's bequest. Jan 30th 1938 That the Rector's offer of a small wooden pulpit, to the design of Mr. Anderson, in memory of the late Rector the Rev. F. A. Reiss be proposed by Col. Spence-Colby seconded by G. Sawkins. (The Reverend Frederick Augustus Reiss was Rector of Donnington from 1904 - 1936; Sawkins was footman at Donnington Hall).

Donnington in the latter half of the 20th Century, and today

J.E. Gethyn-Jones records, in 1958, “The neatness of the churchyard, undoubtedly one of the best-kept in the West of England, is a tribute to the keenness of the churchwardens, Messrs. H.W. and M.P. Smith, and the devoted attention of Mr. Sidney Reid whose work in the churchyard is indeed a labour of love.” Barbara Davis’ history of the church of 1987, records similarly, and that “We have won the Best Kept Churchyard competition, organised by the Rural Community Council of Hereford and Worcester on several occasions”.

falls (39K) Today, as in 1987, the churchyard is maintained by Robert Daniels, of Donnington Court Farm, and his son Stephen. Inside, several local ladies have a monthy cleaning session, and maintain a fresh supply of flowers. In 1994, Jennie Davies wrote “Safe in Print - Memories of Donnington, Ryton and Broomsgreen”, sold to aid the upkeep of the church. Proceeds from the sale were used to purchase 3 exquisite altar “falls”, embroidered by a local Ledbury seamstress - Wendy Gibson. Designed by Bettyne Hicks, each one encapsulates some item of local produce - poppies amongst stems of wheat (adjacent photograph), a group of daffodils, with an arum lily, and apple blossom. The cloth is blue silk with gold tassel.

2009 saw a major change to the boundary of the graveyard. After many months of planning and preparation, the graveyard was extended by about 10 yards along its northern border, and the opportunity taken to simplify the entrance and gate leading from the adjacent lane. The members of the PCC donated many hours of their time in planting a new hedge and repairing the after effects of removal and fence building. The new extension was consecrated by Bishop Michael Perham of Gloucester on Sunday 27th March 2011, following a celebration of Lent Holy Communion.

image026 (16K) In the 19th century, the 1851 census for Donnington recorded 113 individuals; in 1861 105, and in 1871, 89, with just 16 inhabited houses. J.E. Gethyn-Jones’ history of 1958 records 100 souls, and the October 1996 electoral roll for Donnington numbers 55 persons.

This apparent decline reflects a movement away from the land, following the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, this movement can be seen even within our own lifetimes. The past forty years has seen even further mechanisation replace the comparatively labour intensive processes of the 1950s. Now, as we enter the 21st century, we have satellite monitoring, coupled with a computer on the ground, available to tell our farmers the best times to harvest their crops. Nevertheless the land remains much as it always was, with many of the same crops as were grown in the 19th century (“wheat, beans, hops and apples”, as recorded in Littlebury’s Directory). Let us all hope the Church can continue in the same tradition.


The photograph of the old church, the extract from the Reverend Lander's diaries, and the sketch are reproduced by kind permission of Fiona Dean. Other illustrations are from a private collection. This web page is a copy (with a few updates) of a leaflet written by Rosemary Lockie in 1997 for a Church flower festival. Our grateful thanks go to Sarah Blizard, Jennie Davies, Barbara Davis, Fiona Dean, Reverend Richard Hart and Bettyne Hicks for their assistance in preparing this history.

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