A beautiful ruin dating back in part to the twelfth century, with the base of a medieval weeping cross and the shrouded effigies of two sisters in the churchyard, the remains of the old church of St Augustine in Rugeley are a real treat.
With the population of Rugeley rising in the early nineteenth century (in 1801 there were 2,030 inhabitants; by 1821 the population had risen to 2,667 inhabitants, many of whom were employed in the manufacture of felts and hats), the old church was outgrown and a new one was built on land opposite.
Consecrated on 21 January 1823, the new St Augustine’s was built on land belonging to Viscount Anson, the cost met from a variety of sources. According to some, stone from the nave of the old church was sold off to raise funds, leaving just an arcade of arches to connect the fourteenth century tower with the old chancel.
I understand that in the 1970s the church yard was landscaped (or possibly vandalised, depending on how you look at it), and the gravestones which once surrounded the church (as shown in a photograph from the 1860s here on Staffordshire Pasttrack) were broken up and used to pave what was once the nave and north aisle, creating a mosaic of carved names and epitaphs belonging to the old inhabitants of Rugeley.
Others have carved their own names into the stone of the tower where bells once rang, but doves and (slightly less romantically) pigeons now coo.
As already mentioned, one tomb that does remain in the churchyard itself is that of two women, Elizabeth Cuting who died in 1695 and her sister Emma Hollinhurst who passed away a year later. Effigies of the sisters tied into their burial shrouds are carved on top of the tomb. An information board nearby tells how this unusual monument gave rise to a local legend that that the women had been buried alive in sacks by Oliver Cromwell, despite Cromwell dying in 1658. Full marks for imagination but, if you are going to make up a story that you want people to believe, you should probably check your dates first.
The board also directs you to the remains of a fourteenth century cross, with a recess in one of the corners suggesting that it was a ‘weeping cross’ where penitents would once come to kneel in prayer.
As nosey as ever, I wanted to see inside as well as out and so I peeked through a a dirty window into the old chancel, and spotted some interesting looking stonework and signs that it still seems to be being used in some capacity.
I believe that at one time it was used a Sunday school and also a classroom for the now demolished Rugeley Grammar school which once stood next to the churchyard, where the Chancel Primary school now is. Incidentally, the school has the possibly the loveliest school library I’ve ever seen, in the form of its new Discovery Deck narrowboat, built in 2013 by Nick Thorpe in Hixon and painted over the Christmas holidays by staff and parents.
Unsuprisingly for a town with a canal running through it, this wasn’t the only narrowboat we saw. As we crossed back over the Trent and Mersey one was passing another of Rugeley’s ruins – an old canalside mill dating back to 1863. It seems that this part of the town’s industrial past may become apartments in the future and why not? Living in an old mill, alongside a canal, in a charming old town with the Staffordshire countryside on your doorstep? I can think of worse places to live…
Oh and finally, somewhere in the churchyard I found an Easter egg.
History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Staffordshire (1834) by William White
Picturesque Views and Description of Cities, Towns, Castles, Mansions, and Other Objects of Interesting Feature, in Staffordshire by William West