First mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon will of about 900 AD, Kersey was already a thriving community at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Domesday Book of 1086 describes the village’s inhabitants and their farming activities and mentions a church “with three acres”. By calculation the population then would have been about 150.
Kersey is next mentioned about 100 years later in the tax records of Abbot Sampson of Bury St Edmunds. About this time, a local heiress, Nesta de Cockfield, gave land on the northern side of the valley for the foundation of an Augustinian Priory, followed by the gift of the patronage, or advowson, of the parish church. This meant that the Prior became responsible for providing priests for the parish church.
From the 12th century onwards, Kersey grew significantly and enjoyed considerable prosperity. The Lord of the Manor of Kersey was granted the right to hold a weekly market in 1252 and early in the 14th century, the church, already rebuilt since the 11th century, was further enlarged.
Tradition has it that local wealth was based on wool exports, although there is no evidence for this, but sheep rearing figured prominently in the pattern of farming recorded in the Domesday Book.
What is indisputable though is that clothmaking was well established by the beginning of the 14th century in nearby towns such as Hadleigh and Sudbury and there are indications that Kersey might also have been involved, although the association of its name with a type of course, ribbed cloth made up in short narrow lengths is not supported by historical evidence. The development of the village was checked by the Black Death in 1349. A large proportion of the population died and work on the enlargement of the church was suspended.
The village recovered during the 15th century and some of the work on the church was completed, including the construction of the tower, but the Priory, which had been in financial difficulties for many years, went into decline and was dissolved in 1444. Its lands passed to King’s College, Cambridge which also took over the responsibility for appointing the parish priest, a right which was not relinquished until the 1920s. The college sold its lands in 1930.
By the end of the 15th century, cloth making in Kersey and neighbouring towns and villages was enjoying a boom which lasted through the 16th century, but when the centre of the woollen industry moved north to Yorkshire in the 17th century, Kersey became almost entirely dependent on agriculture and its population and prosperity rose and fell in line with that industry.
There was a peak in the middle of the 19th century, when the population rose to nearly 800, but after the 1870s it fell steadily to its present level of around 350. The changes in village life over the past 150 years have been particularly marked. In 1844, the population of 787 supported three shoemakers, two tailors, two blacksmiths, two corn millers, a grocer and draper, a baker, a saddler, a wheelwright, a brewer and several bricklayers and carpenters, as well as two public houses. In 1992 there were two public houses, one general store and a sub-post office. However, by 2009 there was only one public house and neither a village shop nor a post office.
Universal free education reached Kersey with the opening of the village school in 1873, but it was not until the 1950s that the village enjoyed the material comforts of mains electricity, running water and drainage. Now, at the beginning of the 21stcentury, relatively few Kersey people work on the land, many have jobs in nearby towns or London, and a large proportion of inhabitants are retired.
The oldest part of the building, the south wall of the nave, dates back to the 12th century, indicating a Norman rebuilding of the original Saxon church. A more extensive reconstruction was begun in the 14th century; the chancel was enlarged and the north aisle built and joined to the nave by an arcade of seven arches in about 1335. Work was also started on the tower, but was halted by the Black Death in 1349. When work restarted in the 15th century, the nave walls were raised in height, new windows inserted and a new ceiling constructed. The tower was finally completed in about 1481 and the north and south porches were added.
The tower arch is out of centre with the nave, possibly indicating that the original intention may have been to widen the nave and even provide a south aisle, but this was never undertaken. The chancel was rebuilt in 1862 by King’s College Cambridge and a small vestry added in the north east corner. Apart from this, the exterior of the church looks much as it would have done 500 years ago.
The interior of the church has seen many changes. Five hundred years ago, chancel and nave were separated by the rood screen, six panels of which, recovered from a local farm, stand in the Sampson chapel, with the rood beam above, reached by a small staircase at the south wall. The walls were painted and adorned with statues and there were no seats.
At the reformation, the rood beam and rood screen were swept away, the statues broken up and the walls whitewashed. In the 17th century, the north aisle was given a plaster ceiling, the panels over the chapel at the east end being embellished with the arms of the Sampson family. Also in this period, with the emphasis on the sermon and the bible reading, a three-decker pulpit was erected on the south side of the nave, its canopy suspended from a hook in the wall above and a niche for the preacher’s hourglass. Box pews were provided for the congregation and a gallery at the west end for musicians, and later, the organ.
In the 19th century, the altar once again became the focus of worship, but it was not until 1888 that the old pulpit and box pews were removed and the church took on its present appearance internally.
During the latter half of the 20th century the former woodblock floor was replaced and the organ sited at the West end of the North Aisle. The sense of light which is a feature of the church was greatly improved when the Victorian windows containing panes of pastel shaded glass were replaced with plain. At the same time the ferramenta and stone work surrounding the windows were refurbished. Since the turn of the century a new lighting and a sound system have been installed and the central heating system improved. In 2012 the organ was resited at the West end to allow kitchen and toilet facilities to be installed at the West end of the North Aisle. This work was completed in January 2013.
Features of Note
Anne Maltby’s oral history of Kersey, “Kersey Within Living Memory” provides an excellent insight into life in Kersey from the early 20th century to modern times. The book is now on the internet. You can download the whole book chapter by chapter (in pdf format) www.kerseymemories.wordpress.com
Mrs Yvonne Martin is the Local History Recorder for Kersey - Tel 01473 828361