The Vicar of Yaxley
by Diana Kennedy
This article was originally published in the August 2002 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
Yaxley (the name means cuckoo-clearing) is a small village in the north of Suffolk. One of the villages more noteworthy inhabitants was Sir Frederick Ashton, the Choreographer who died in the late 1980s and is buried at Yaxley. In the 1800s Henry Sewell was the Curate at the church of St Mary’s Yaxley from 1846 to 1850 and then from 1861 to 1896 his son William Henry was the Vicar.
Henry Sewell was born 1805 in Yaxley and married Ann Pretty, 17th June 1835 at Eye, one mile east of Yaxley. Henry was Curate at St Mary’s Yaxley from 1846 to 1850 to the vicar, the Rev Robert Rose Rolfe. Rolfe was largely an absentee vicar and Henry was left in charge. Henry died aged 45 and was buried 26th September 1850 at Yaxley. Ann his widow died in 1856 and was also buried at Yaxley on 28th March 1856. Henry Sewell was also the Patron at Yaxley holding the advowson which, after Rolfe’s death, enabled his son to hold the living. So before the age of 14years his son was destined for the church. After Henry’s death his widow Ann, according to the 1851 census held the patronage.
William Henry Sewell was the eldest of the two sons of Henry and Ann and was baptised 4th January 1837 at Eye. Destined for the church in 1861 he became the vicar at Yaxley where he remained for 35 years until his death in 1896 aged 60. In his Memorandum Book he wrote in 1861
‘ Certainly I did not find such irreverence in church as I could remember as a boy; the Sunday School being taught in the Chancel – teachers standing inside the alter rails, one North, the other South and the clerk taking the children’s club halfpence inside the alter rails if not on the Holy Table itself. But on Sunday the whole school was crowded in the Chancel: the singing women sat beside the organette in the singers’ gallery at the W end of the nave. In the Jacobite pew sat on the S nave, next the screen, Mr Churchwarden Tillott: in the next pew the Allens; next to them Mr Churchwarden Fulcher. And then on the N side of the nave, next the prayerdesk, sat people from the Vicarage. But the labourers kept to ancient tradition the men sitting on the N nave; while their wives sat in the S nave. And should we not all keep to the good old ways? William described the 17th century pulpit as ‘a good specimen of a bad period, the Jacobite’. While at Yaxley, Henry was instrumental in renovating the church of St Mary. Of the church building itself he wrote ‘the state of the fabric in the year 1861 is best described as being neither wind nor water-tight’.
He also describes the difficulty he had in persuading the appropriate authorities that a thorough repair of the church was essential. Eventually he overcame all obstacles and work went ahead and on 24th June 1868 there was a Grand Re-opening with invited clergy and refreshments.
William Henry himself gathered together the brasses and ledger slabs to members of the manorial families of Yaxley in the Chancel and south aisle. He also rearranged the fragments of 13th century glass in the east window to good effect. He died on 14th November 1896 and was buried 20th November 1896 at Yaxley. In his Will he left £1,707 13s 1d to William Fisher a Gentleman and George Bloomfield a Carter.
In the church the only Victorian window is a memorial to William Henry Sewell, Holman Hunts ‘Light of the World’.
There is also another memorial to William Henry Sewell which can be seen on a brassplate. This commemorates a widow, Elizabeth Pretty, who died in 1874, aged four score and nine years. It is possible that this is William Henry’s grandmother, for in the loop of the P in the inscription is a profile of William Henry Sewell.
There were no further Sewell’s at Yaxley as William Henry’s younger brother, Robert Henry Hunt Sewell, moved away from Suffolk.
Robert Henry was baptised 27th March 1840 at Eye. In the 1881 census his occupation is given as Shipping Agent. Having moved away from Suffolk he was living at Grosvenor Park Road, Walthamstow, Essex. He was married to Margaret Ada born 1842 in Shoreditch and had one daughter born in 1878 in Walthamstow.
Sadly Robert was to die at the Kent Lunatic Asylum, near Maidstone on 27th June 1908. He left £2, 377 16s to his widow Margaret Ada.
Suffolk Burial Records
Memorandum Book (Suffolk Record Office FB 128/A1/17)
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