The history of the church in Milton


All Saint's church - image © 2012 Paul Oldham

Photo courtesy Paul Oldham - full size original and details of how it was taken can be found here


The main source for this page is " A History of the Parish of Milton" written by William Keating Clay, the vicar of the neighbouring village of Waterbeach in 1869. It can be found in the Cambridgeshire Collection at Cambridge Central Library. In 1769 the historian William Cole moved to Milton and his writings contain some interesting comments on the church.

Milton village

It helps to understand the history of All Saints to know that Milton is about 3 miles from the centre of Cambridge and about one mile from the River Cam. Milton means Middle-town; prior to the area being drained it was surrounded by fens. Until the by-pass was built it was on the Cambridge to Ely Road.


No-one knows for certain when the first church was built in Milton. It seems likely there was one by 970 when Brihtonus, the first Saxon abbot of Ely acquired land in Milton. There is known to have been a monastery across the river at Horningsea from the early ninth century & the monks could have reached the site of All Saints by boat at that time.

After the Norman Conquest the land was "acquired" by Picot, the Norman Sheriff of Cambridgeshire. Thomas, the chronicler of Ely Abbey, describes him in strong terms e.g. "impudent dog". However it is known that he built the church of St. Giles in Cambridge and as the chancel arch of Milton church dates from the period, it seems likely he was influential in it's construction.

The Medieval Period

Relatively little is known about this period. We know that the Black Death came to Milton in 1348 and that the Rector died of it the following year. The wording of legacies of the time show that the church was thatched with reeds and that it had a high altar, a rood loft and a sepulchre light. Two guilds met in the church, All Hallows or All Saints and St. Katherine’s. The existing south aisle dates from around 1220 and the chancel was rebuilt after 1530.

In the reign of Henry VIII William Cooke bought the manor of Milton. He later became Lord Chief Justice and is buried to the north of the altar in All Saints.

The Reformation and thereafter

In general Cambridge was highly protestant. The likes of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer plotted the English reformation in the White Horse Inn in Cambridge. On 7th December 1550 a general assembly of clergy and churchwardens was held at Holy Trinity Cambridge following which it was ordered that the altars in all the churches in the Diocese be thrown down by Christmas.

Consequently, it is highly surprising that the Lords of the manor of Milton for approximately a century from around 1570 were Roman Catholics. They suffered such punishments as having 2/3rds of their estate forfeited for recusancy. In 1631 Edward Johnson became Vicar. He had what were then considered to be papist practices, using the cross in baptism and administering communion at the altar rails. Accused in the 1640s of getting drunk with the papists at the manor house, beating his wife and swearing and cursing, he was ejected in 1645. Around this time the altar rails were taken away by order of the House of Commons. .

During repair work in 1845 some apparently medieval images were discovered hidden in a plastered-over niche in the south aisle; unfortunately it is not known what became of them. Their existence does though demonstrate that the Catholic influence in Milton was sufficiently strong for there to be an attempt to evade the protestant rulings of the church authorities.

The Seventeenth Century

One of the best sources of information for the seventeenth century is the record in the Diocesan registry of the visitations (Diocesan inspections) of All Saints. In 1610 a visitation noted that the linen cloth for the communion table was "not a convenient one" and that the churchyard fence was in decay. In the same year a complaint was made that Oliver Frohocke made "unreverent" speeches against the minister, that he was " abusye and contentiouse person and suche a one as settethe his neighbors togither by the eares".

In 1665 the visitation noted that the font needed leading and that the church door needed a lock, and that the church was lacking various essential books. It also instructed that the pulpit was to be put back where it used to be.

It is known that during the 17th century the church received much new woodwork including the nave roof.

The Eighteenth Century

Our knowledge of the church at this time comes largely from Cole who was none too complimentary about it, describing it as " an awkward kind of church, small lowe something dark and not very neate". He records how he sought to persuade the Provost of King’s College to give part of its old altarpiece to "this dirty church of their patronage". The provost then visited the church and said that it was so squalid that the altar part would make it look worse, but did donate part of the old altar rails.

Cole also described the Rector Mr Knight as a " furious madman" and the parish registers as "very often ill kept".

In 1779 a faculty was obtained to pull down the north aisle before it fell down.

The Nineteenth Century

Following the death of Elizabeth Knight, the wife of the Rev. Samuel Knight, in 1800, Flaxman, one of the country’s most famous sculptors, built a memorial to her on the south wall. It shows her spirit being conducted heavenward by an angel. Samuel Knight’s monument in the south aisle includes the words

"Mourn not as void of hope a Christian’s death….

On Christ, My God and saviour I rely"

During this century the church benefited from having a very active Rector. John Chapman was Rector from 1841 until his death aged 91 in 1895. He held 2 services each Sunday with a claimed average attendance of 120 adults in the morning and 170 in the afternoon. He formed a choir, started choral harvest services and held midweek and lent services.

John Chapman was responsible for a major re-construction of the church, at least partly at his own expense. The chancel was entirely rebuilt, with a roof to a design by A.W.N. Pugin, and a vestry and new porch and new north aisle were built. Work was also carried out to remove the box pews and provide 157 seats for the use of the poor "free and unappointed". This was not to everyone’s liking. An anonymous letter published in the Cambridgeshire Chronicle on 4th August 1855 says:

"I am one of those who prefer a comfortable, old-fashioned, high-back pew to the modern low benches which to my eyes present an appearance very similar to pig pens in a cattle-market". He went on to claim that the new pews would cause rheumatism, catarrh, influenza and discomfort to those who sat near the door.

In his address on the completion of the restoration in 1864, the Rector took the opportunity to berate the congregation for failing to kneel during prayers and putting their hats back on after the service before reaching the porch.

William Clay’s book gives considerable detail about the church in 1869. We know that there was a "pigeon-house" in the steeple and that a small barrel-organ was situated in the tower arch, the singing gallery having been recently removed from the tower. In 1848 a clock had been installed in the tower, paid for largely by money received from the Great Eastern Railway as compensation for parish land acquired for the railway line. Written on various parts of the church walls were verses and exhortations such as "Praise the Lord" and "God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth"

Interior view of inside of church circa 1935 (external link)

More recent times

A new organ was dedicated in 1911 replacing the previous barrel organ. Substantial repairs were carried out in around 1959. In the early 1980s a new rectory was built in the old rectory grounds and the old house was converted into a children’s hospice. At around the same time, despite some opposition, a church hall was built. In the 1990s it was further extended.

During the summer of 2001 the inside of the church was reordered, with the removal of the victorian pews, many of which were becoming rotten, and the adding of new stone floor pemments and a raised dias to create a more flexible worship area, more suited to 21st Century worship.

The Clergy

From around 1300 to 1846, the parish had both a Rector and a Vicar serving under him.

Although sometimes the post of Rector was regarded as a sinecure, the fact that Milton had for many years both a rectory and a vicarage suggests that it did at least sometimes actually have two clergy serving the parish.

The books of the manor of Waterbeach cum Denney show that the Vicar of Milton was fined 5 times between 1462 and 1479 for such offences as trespassing with his beasts. This is probably an indication of his poverty.

The right to present to the rectory at Milton became vested in King’s College around 1600. This has resulted in Milton having rather better quality rectors than might have been expected for such a small village, including a professor of divinity, and former headmaster of Eton. The vicars have included a Plumian professor of Astronomy.

Last modified on Saturday, 02 June 2018 13:47
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