The History of the Parish
by Andrew Miller
The Domesday Book of 1086 AD records the presence of a priest at Norton but it does not mention a church. The manor had belonged to the Abbey of St Albans since c.795, although they lost control of it for a while. It was restored to them in a charter of 1007 AD.
The parish now has two churches, St George’s which is new and modern, and St Nicholas which is traditional and popular for weddings.
Sometime between 1109-1119 AD the church was built and dedicated by Hervey, Bishop of Ely. At the same service Herbert Losinga, Bishop of Norwich, consecrated chapels to St Mary Magdalene and St Andrew the Apostle. In about 1258 the priest at Norton gave the church, with its entitlement to 10% of the profit of the villagers, to the Abbey to help in their provision of hospitality to travellers, mainly pilgrims. The Abbot already had the right to appoint the priest to the church but because the Abbot could not undertake the day to day duties himself he appointed a representative, called a vicar.
When the Abbey of St Albans was dissolved in 1539 the church and the rights reverted to the king. During the next 450 years these were owned firstly by the Bowles family of Wallington, then the Haselfoote family and finally by various people until 1908 when they were purchased by the Bishop of St Albans. By then there was no right to the 10% profits as this had been abolished when the parish was enclosed in 1796. Enclosure meant that the three very large open fields in which villagers had strips of land, which were farmed communally, were divided up between the tenants. Each owner was required to enclose the land allotted to him with hawthorn hedges.
The oldest part of the church is the south end of the nave and the Norman clunch chancel arch. In the fifteenth century the tower was built and the nave extended to join up with it. The walls of the nave were heightened. The windows and porch of the church date from that time. At about the same time pews were installed for the first time. It has been said that the chancel was rebuilt in 1814 but this is unlikely. In 1814 the north doorway was blocked up and the coat of arms which now hang over the south door replaced an earlier larger one. The pulpit dates from the 17th century.
In the chancel there are memorials to several members of the Pryor family who came to own a large amount of land and most of the cottages in the village. On the south wall of the nave there is a memorial to the daughters of Katherine Cole of nearby Radwell manor who all died in infancy. Katherine was the daughter of the lord of Norton manor at that time, Richard Cleaver. Also on the south wall of the nave is a memorial to William Pym, who bought the manor from the descendants of Richard Cleaver in 1680, and his wife Elizabeth. In the floor close to the chancel arch is a memorial to their infant son, Guy, who died in April 1686. At that time the new year began on Lady Day, 25th March, which is why one Cleaver girl appears to have died before she was born and some people think that Guy died in 1685.
In the first decade of the twentieth century the church was in a poor condition and much work was done on restoring it. It was reconsecrated in October 1909 and the vicar died in December the same year. He had been vicar since c.1842 almost 68 years.
The coming of the Garden City
When the Garden City purchased most of the land in the three villages of Norton, Willian and Letchworth in 1903 it built the new town on the farmland of these parishes, leaving the village nuclei on the edge.
Norton parish formed almost half of the new Garden City Estate and its population increased dramatically as houses were built nearer to what is now the town centre. By 1907 the population had risen from about 170 to 1300 and rising. The old village church was not big enough nor was it conveniently placed for people to attend. When the new vicar, John H Bailey, arrived in 1910 the bishop warned him that he would have to work towards a new church.
However, that had to be deferred for some time since the school needed to be extended to meet new regulations set by the Board of Education. The school extension was opened in 1911.
Fund raising for the new church began and people were inventive in the ways in which they attracted money. There was a Voluntary Penny scheme under which people promised so many old pennies a week every week. Decorative stamps with a picture of the proposed building were sold. Collectors went round the roads each week to collect money. Most of the inhabitants of the parish were not well paid, most earning less than £2 per week. Some large donations were received as well.
An enormous Gothic style church that could seat 900 was designed by the architect Temple Moore with a hall and various offices attached. When World War I broke out there was not enough money raised to build the church but it was decided that the construction of the hall should go ahead. It was opened in 1915 and used as a place of worship for many years. In the 1930s St Thomas’ Wilbury was built to cater for the inhabitants of the new housing in the Bedford Road area.
After the World War II the Grange estate was developed and the need for a church nearer to where people lived became even more acute. During the 1950s and 1960s funds were raised to build St George’s Church. When this church was consecrated in 1964 St Nicholas’ Church ceased to be the parish church and became a chapel of ease. It is still an important part of the worshipping life of the parish.
St George’s Church was designed by the architect Peter Bosanquet. Its 40m high concrete spire provides a prominent landmark which was included in the logo of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation.
The stark use of bare concrete and natural wood was intended to convey the simplicity and poverty of the Incarnation. The building was designed for a church which had the Parish Communion at its heart. All the pews have a clear view of the sanctuary where the altar is set away from the wall to enable the President to face the congregation. In the centre of the altar is a stone from St Nicholas Church. Above the altar is the striking sculpture of the ascending Christ, flooded with light from the window above it. It was designed by Harry Phillips of Leeds and was intended to express the release of the Resurrection and the Ascension.
The church is supported on a central pillar surrounded by a black annular font. Beneath the font is a Roman tile from St Albans Abbey, the cathedral church of the diocese in which Norton comes. The Abbey held the patronage of the living throughout the Middle Ages and the right to appoint the vicar was bought back by the Bishop of St Albans in 1908. The parish became part of St Albans Diocese when this was created in 1877.
Bosanquet designed the churchwardens’ wands, the candleholders for the main altar, the Paschal candlestick and the hymn board. They were made locally by the now closed Norton School. Bosanquet also designed the pews, which were constructed out of a single log of African utile wood.
The two-manual pipe organ is by Degens and Rippin of Hammersmith. The wall hanging was designed and created by local people to illustrate the life of the parish. It was dedicated by Richard Cheetham, then Archdeacon of St Albans, on Passion Sunday 2000.
In the Lady Chapel there is a figure of the Virgin Mary carrying the Christ child carved in lime wood by Mark Harvey. Set in the altar of the Lady Chapel there is a stone from a mission in New Guinea with which the parish had links. To the left of the entry into the Lady Chapel there is a stone crucifix carved by a Zulu schoolboy.
The church hall, Norton Parish Centre, was extended in the early 1990s following a large bequest from a parishioner. It now consists of the original large hall, a small hall called the Clulow Room, which can be divided in two, a kitchen and the parish office. The halls are available for hire as well as being used for church activities.
In 1981 St Thomas’ Wilbury became a separate parish, thus halving the historic area of Norton.
More pictures and information about St George’s church can be found on Andrew Miller’s website.