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It is possible that there was a little chapel at ‘Estham’, as it was then known, before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The large manor of ‘Estham’, which then included Bromborough, was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, a survey of England ordered by King William I. ‘Estham’ had become the property (the most valuable in Wirral) of Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, who granted the tithes (taxes on land) to St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester in 1093.
St Werburgh became Abbess of a convent there around 675 but though this was later replaced by a monastery of Benedictine monks, her name was retained). A successor, Earl Randle Gernons, granted the manors of Eastham and Bromborough together with their churches to St Werburgh’s in about 1152. So Eastham had its own parish church then although it was still referred to as a chapel and was served by the mother church at Bromborough.
“The little chapel was probably built originally of “wattIe and daub”, a lattice of tree branches filled in with mud or clay, “Iarge enough to cover the altar and to shelter the sacred elements (of bread and wine used in Holy Communion services) from the rain and storm,” as historian W F Irvine wrote in 1896.
It has been suggested that Norman elements can be identified in the present church (the north wall of the Stanley Chapel), although the main building period seems to have been the 13th century and early 14th century. A steeple was built around 1320. It appears that one priest served both Bromborough and Eastham at this time. Pope Honorius referred to “eccl’ias (church) de brombro’, cum capella (chapel) de estham”.
The church remained the property of the Abbey until 1541. In that year, the Abbey was dissolved and the building became a Cathedral by order of Henry VIII, shortly after the Church of England broke away from the Pope. Eastham church then became the property of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, who still today appoint the vicars
ln 1538 Henry VIII ordered all parishes to compile records of births, marriages and deaths, having heard of such requirements in Holland (which was then ruled by Spain). Queen Elizabeth I subsequently enacted that such records be properly stored. Not many records going back to 1538 survive. Eastham’s go back to 1598 and are preserved in Cheshire and Chester Archives — but are undecipherable to the untrained eye today. These records of “Christings, Weddings and BuriaIls”, say that Margrett Barker was christened in 1598 or, as the Latin script says, “Margrett Barker filia Radulphi Barker, baptisat. xxx Martij”. The registers and other early documents were kept in the great chest in the south aisle until recently. (A field in Eastham was named Barker’s Hill).
The GentIeman’s Magazine of 1761 reported that there was no chapel in the parish nor any meeting house (presumably meaning no Methodist or Quaker places of worship), the inhabitants being of the established Church, “except a few Papists who go to mass at Hooton”. lt also said that the locals were “a robust hardy race of people and many of the poorer live chiefly on barley—bread and potatoes and buttermilk. The concourse of passengers to Liverpool occasioned by the great increase of trade in that town affords an opportunity to get some money for the hire of horses, which they furnish at very easy rates”.
Much of the church has been rebuilt at various times, the biggest changes being in the Victorian era. The main body of the Church was rebuilt in 1574 and part of the tower in 1752. In 1854 the Church was re-roofed and a new clerestory (upper tier of windows) added. (It is recorded that on 26 October 1855 the churchwardens paid three pounds and ten shillings (about 2180.00 at 2006 values) for 4,000 bricks.) In 1862, the chancel was restored and a new south wall built. In 1877, much of the rest of the building was restored including the north wall. More work on the roof was done at this time. The floor was lowered by about 30 cms (a foot), exposing again the bases of the pillars.
In 1874, a new communion rail, a new desk and a new pulpit were installed, paid for by donations from parishioners. In 1881-2, a new organ chamber was installed and all remaining whitewash, which covered earlier coloured pictures on the walls, removed. A new vestry was built in 1912. In 2003, a small extension was built to house a toilet at a cost of £75,000, replacing the former lamp room, funds coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund and donations by parishioners.
Church interiors have changed much. In most medieval churches, only the chancel contained seats. The chancel is the area leading up to the altar where the priest offers bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus. In the 1600s and 1700s, a gallery of seating existed at the west end of St Mary’s. At other times, there was a musicians’ gallery at the back and also box pews. The latter were seats with panels at the back and at the sides to block the gaze of others. These were reserved for richer parishioners who paid for their use. By the 1850s, many of the box pews had become dirty and mouldy. In 1874, new oak pews, the same for everybody, were installed. There is still a faded notice on one of the present pews saying that it is free and “unappropriated”.
While the chancel continues to be reserved for worship, the vicar of St Mary’s, in common with many others vicars, is making fuller use of the body of the church for community activities as well as it continuing to be used for services and private prayer. One section of pews at the back of the north aisle has been taken out to make space for a crèche and for small meetings.
A report in St Mary’s parish magazine for September 1874 quotes the welI—known American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was American Consul in Liverpool, as describing Eastham in his English Notes as “the finest old English village I have ever seen, with a rural aspect, utterly unlike anything in America, in its midst a venerable church with a most venerable air”.
The church “grew” from then on. At that time, Eastham parish then covered seven townships: Eastham, Hooton, Childer Thornton, Little Sutton, Great Sutton, Overpool, Netherpool and also part of Whitby, all but the first now being part of the borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston. In 1851 the total population of these scattered communities was 2,411.
At one time the vicar had the right to pasture a horse, cow, colt, or heifer at nearby Netherpool or Hooton. Records also say that at one time he “hath all the fish taken in the river Mersey within the extent of his parish on Sundays and Fridays”.