Published: 25/08/2020 By Richard BennettA Local Hidden Historic Gem
Former Church of St. Helen, South Wheatley, Retford
Although today the villages of North and South Wheatley, about six miles from Retford, are frequently considered to be a single village, historically the two were separated by the “Wheatley Beck” and marshland and treated accordingly. The church of St Helen is an example of this, being specifically for South Wheatley, while North Wheatley had its own church, dedicated to St Peter and St Paul.
The church was dedicated to St Helen and was a small building with perhaps originally only a chancel and nave. The tower was added to St Helen’s Church probably around 1480 and was built in two stages. A former north aisle was also noted in 1869 though this too may have been a later addition. When the tower was completed a single bell was cast for it in Nottingham. At some later point, two further bells were added to the church to create a peal of three.
In 1831 , South Wheatley’s population was down to just 35 people. While many parish churches saw a revival in the 19th century as religious faith was rejuvenated during the Victorian era, South Wheatley struggled. The village was too small to properly support the church, although its inhabitants clearly did their best. In 1840 efforts were made to put some new pews in the church. In 1851, it was reported that a typical congregation was 35 people – essentially, the entire village population. The church did not have a Sunday School of its own though. The few children growing up in the village attended one in North Wheatley.
In 1869, the church was described in some detail, the last full description before it was demolished. "A small church, having nave, chancel, western tower and south porch. The nave has a lead roof, the chancel is tiled. There is a Norman doorway and a really fine Norman chancel arch. The roof is of flat pitch. The tower has an integral spiral staircase to the ringing chamber level. The interior is neglected. The church is in a lovely site but not much cared for."
The end of St Helen’s became almost inevitable towards the end of the 19th century. The Church of England was making an effort in this time to reorganise itself and adapt to the changing face of Britain. Many town and city parishes were created or split apart to create more. In the countryside, smaller and poorer parishes were targeted and South Wheatley was both of these. By 1880, the church had become virtually disused except for funerals.
In 1883 a decision was made, and South Wheatley parish was joined to North Wheatley parish permanently. Soon after its priest, the Reverend T.C.B. Chamberlain, sought and obtained the permission of the Bishop of Lincoln to close and pull down South Wheatley church.
St Helen’s was demolished in 1884-5. Its walls were pulled down by traction engines and the stone from it was used to repair walls and causeways around the village. All that was left standing was the tower itself and a part of the chancel including the original Norman arch. Many of the furnishings of the church were taken elsewhere. The three bells in the tower remained there until 1896 when two of them were taken down and recast, then added to North Wheatley church and remain there. The remaining bell was still there in 1958 but sold later. However, the timber bell frame still remains. In living memory the tower roof collapsed and parapet stonework has been lost, and eventually the entire standing structures were engulfed in a deep covering of ivy that threatened to destroy them.
The ruins of the church have continued to stand since then. The churchyard remained in use however, being used for burials by the inhabitants of North and South Wheatley.
After more than a century of neglect, in 2013 a large project was undertaken to restore the ruins. The work was funded by English Heritage who gave £100,000, as well as a further donation of £37,500 from Nottinghamshire County Council’s Local Improvement Scheme.
The overgrowth that had almost swallowed up the ruins was cleared away, leaving the old tower clearly visible, and the nearby trees were pruned back, improving its appearance for visitors. Structural work was also done to make them safe for visitors. The Church is now Grade I listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Take a visit and see for yourself the history attached to this previously forgotten local landmark.