St Stephens

1138 - 1880

Early Redditch depended largely on the Abbey of Bordesley, a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1138. From small beginnings of just 12 monks and an abbot, the site was developed and grew rapidly to include an Abbey Church, accommodation blocks, farms, stores, outbuildings and other workplaces associated with the Order.
Bordesley was the only Cistercian House in Worcestershire - others, such as at Evesham and Great Malvern were of the Benedictine Order. Great emphasis was placed on manual labour and as it was usual to have more lay brothers than monks, it was the laity from the surrounding area who would use the Gatehouse Chapel of St Stephen for worship. The illustration is from a painting by J.M. Woodward, a copy of which appeared in R. S. Bartleet's "The History of Bordesley Abbey" it shows the interpretation of monastic life at Bordesley Abbey in the 14th century:

The Cistercian Order ultimately became very wealthy, as they managed large farms known as granges, often at some distance from the Abbey itself, and in this case the home farm was Hewell Grange at Tardebigge some five miles away. The monks were also good civil engineers, making use of the River Arrow to create drainage systems and fish ponds, and harnessing the water power both for corn mills and for driving trip hammers to forge iron; however there is no historical evidence for the manufacture of needles at this date, although the monks may well have made needles for their own use. Local folklore tells of secret passageways connecting Bordesley with neighbouring Beoley, but no evidence of this has been found.

At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, Bordesley was the fifth wealthiest Cistercian Abbey in England and Wales. Then, on the orders of King Henry VIII, the monks were pensioned off and within weeks of the abandonment of the site the local people were already looting the stone for their own buildings!

The Old Chapel of St Stephen at Bordesley, from "The History of Bordesley Abbey"

The Gatehouse Chapel survived, though in a poor state. It was used as a cattle shelter at one time, but in 1687 the parish of Tardebigge applied to the Earl of Plymouth, now the owner of the land, for permission to reinstate the chapel as a place of worship, and for use of the old burial ground. This was an improvement, as the parish church was still at Tardebigge, not exactly convenient for the populace of the neighbourhood of Bordesley, many of whom had by now moved about half a mile up the hill to higher ground, and established a hamlet around what we now know as Church Green, Redditch. The description by Joseph Monk (interpreted in the sketch by Norman Neasom) shows quite a few cottages and houses around the Green, yet most of the inhabitants would have walked to the chapel at Bordesley for Sunday Service, or ridden all the way to Tardebigge (the earliest place of worship in Redditch itself was the Quaker Meeting House,1704 - 1796). In 1775 the church tower of the parish church at Tardebigge collapsed and eventually the elegant new building was built, which is still very much in use today. (The ruins of Bordesley Abbey have been partly excavated and detailed reports were written in the 1960s. For several seasons young archaelogists and their helpers - among them the author of the web site - spent happy hours in the Bordesley meadows. Slides of these excavations are to be given to the Museum at Forge Mill see

The Chapel on The Green

With the growth of the needle making industry and consequent increase in population, a chapel was needed in Redditch itself. By 1805 the dilapidated chapel at Bordesley, being "in a very decayed and ruinous state and condition, the roof and ceiling thereof so much decayed that it has become unsafe for a congregation to attend Divine Worship there" was finally demolished, and an Act was passed for the building of a chapel in Redditch itself, on the acre of Green.
This area was bounded on the south by the public road from Tardebigge to Ipsley, on the northwest by the road from Headless Cross to Alvechurch, on the east by the road from Ipsley to Alvechurch and on the north "by other parts of certain Waste Lands called The Green". A report from 1839 (later quoted by The Redditch Indicator) states that The Green was used for grazing cattle, and that it was a mud patch in winter and a dust-bowl in summer.

For a description of the first Chapel on the Green we are indebted to John Noake, who travelled around Worcestershire in the 1850s, and gave detailed (if very personal) account of whatever attracted his attention. He reported that it - "had large semi-circular headed windows with keystones, pilasters, an apsidal east end, flat celing and, over the western part of the roof a cupola or miniature dome covered with some kind of dark metal which gives it an appearance of a railway engine boiler, surmounted by a gaudy globe and weathercock, and having a clock face for each of the cardinal points". He also stated that the chapel was surrounded by a wall, and a circle of lime trees. (return to chapter 6)

Although this new St Stephens chapel (which was dedicated on April 5th 1807), was intended to accommodate the "considerably increased" population of over 1,000, the continuing growth in population had been seriously underestimated, and the chapel had to be enlarged in 1816/7 and again in 1827.

Chapel Green from Fish Hill - the "cupola" can be clearly seen

an illustration of Old Redditch, copied from an old drawing by J.M.Woodward and showing the "architectural abomination" described by John Noake (above). The houses are numbered and a key giving the names of the owners is provided

St Stephen's Church 1851 - 1880

By 1851 it was decided to demolish the Chapel on the Green and to build a more substantial parish church in Gothic style. From that date Chapel Green became known as Church Green, and the area was further improved by the planting of more trees. The new church was consecrated in July 1855. The centenary edition of The Redditch Indicator recalls the church as it was in 1859, set in a small green and enclosed by a wall some six feet in height.

St Stephen's Church in 1855 by W.T.Heming - the wall can be made out on the enlarged version

In the 1880s there was a move for further "improvements" to the appearance of the focal point of the town. It was decided to remove the wall and replace with a lower one surmounted by iron railings and at the same time to enclose the "waste land" known as the Upper and Lower Greens, Lord Windsor having given up his manorial rights over his portion of the greens. The enclosure scheme also included the planting of memorial trees, improvements to kerbing and pavements, and the provision of the fountain which was to be erected later by Mr Bartleet. The rate payers were to contribute to the £1,150 cost of this investment in civic pride but, as the following poem shows, not everyone was convinced that the money should come from the rates - the Dissenters (Non-conformists, of whom there were a considerable number by this date) thought that the Church of England should pay for its own wall, and were none too happy about enclosing the green!

drawing by J.M. Woodward showing "The Improvements" - the fountain can be seen in the far right and the premises of Webb & Sons on the extreme right hand edge



THE CHURCH YARD WALL - November 25th 1880 by "Old Redditch"

The Church Wall of St Stephen's was seedy and old
It looked so deserted and "Out in the Cold",
And how could they manage to muster some Gold
To build a new wall for St Stephen's?

Apply to the Board! It's a pliable lot,
And try if the funds from the rates can be got:
They probably may not be down to the plot
To get a new wall for St Stephen's

They applied for the wall, and they put their case well:
The Dissenters, however, had their tale to tell -
They complained in the press and pronounced it a "sell"
On the town for the sake of St Stephen's.

The Church, "they submitted" should buy its own wall,
There were places beside, do the same for them all;
Than go to the rates rather let the thing fall
What had rates got to do with St Stephen's?

"Never heed", one winked slily, "T'will come to the same",
And not to be baulked in his 'nice little game';
We must call it 'Improvements' , and alter the name,
We can keep it all right for St Stephen's.

They got out some plans and propounded a scheme,
And "Church Green Improvements" was topic and theme;
That the wall was the object still none seemed to dream,
The wall that surrounded St Stephen's.

A meeting at once t'was resolved to convene,
And such unanimity never was seen;
They condemned the church wall and the useless old green,
But nobody mentioned St Stephen's.

An active committee, with funds rolling in,
Decided most promptly the work to begin:
While the Victor* looked on with a dignified grin
It was all going well for St Stephen's.

They couldn't succeed, nor get at us at all,
By asking us plainly to build them a wall:
In the name of 'Improvements' they've wall, green and all,
A very good thing for St Stephen's.

The scheme too, on paper, looked "so very nice",
"Wanted no competition", "They didn't mind price";
And the rustic old green was cut off in a trice,
And enclosed in the yard of St Stephen's.

Shut out by that fencing, unsightly and tall,
Sufficient to cut off the view from us all;
We could see just as well through that seedy old wall
As the spikes now surrounding St Stephen's.

In place of the Green that they've put out of sight,
Is a forest of fencing that hides it all quite,
And a waterless fountain that wants putting right,
Like the palings they've put round St Stephen's.

Will the fountain and water turn out as they wish?
Will the Waterworks Company "Give them the dish"?
Or will their be plenty for Fountain and Fish,
To play in the ground of St Stephen?

Let the bells of St Stephen's peal out in the blast,
Announcing the old Green a thing of the past,
And playfully tinkle "We've got them at last,
The Green and a Wall for St Stephen's"

* "Victor" was Victor Milward, the committee chairman

Though amusing, this poem barely masks the obvious hard feelings of some inhabitants, and it does seem rather disparaging towards the fountain, which wasn't opened until May 1883, and which had cost Mr Bartleet £200. The photo shows the fountain, restored for its centenary in 1983.
(back to annex Chapter 6) (back to Chapter 6)