Parish History

A.W. Neal's History of our Parish (from the 1980's)

An interim history of the parish of St Joseph & St Etheldreda, Rugeley published in weekly instalments in the church news-sheet from 1980.

Some of the episodes were reprints of articles which appeared in the parish magazine of the early 1960s


Many people look up to St Joseph’s Church, many more than come inside it. Reason is that it is surmounted by a reliable weathervane. The weathercock came down to earth in 1948 when the apex of the spire was being renewed. It was regilded and fitted with new bearings. It caused two surprises. Rumour had held it to be as big as a donkey. On a previous grounding it had been big enough for two boys to sit on its back, according to the old folk. Was this just a ‘fishing’ story or was it replaced by a lighter model, one wonders.

What we do know is that the present weathercock is 32 inches (81cm) from beak to tip of tail.

Second surprise was finding a bullet hole in its underside. Minds went back to 1940 and wondered if the sneak raider who machine-gunned Aelfgar School came low enough to shoot at the cock – from less than 150 feet?

Some suggested the hole had been caused by William Hislop, first council chairman, (the road is named after him), who shot a cormorant as it passed over the spire. The cormorant at least was fact for it remained stuffed in the Harris family’s possession until dilapidation led to its destruction.

(Mr Terry Cowlishaw has subsequently announced that the cock was shot by an army cadet during wartime).


The spire was not added to the church tower until 1868. The tower itself was constructed with the church, which was opened in 1851 and then there was a period to allow for settlement of the building – or for more benefactions? The tower, built of Beaudesert stone like the church, is about 75 feet high and is reached by a circular stairway of 99 steps in the turret on the north-east corner. The turret, which now unfortunately terminates like a chimney, rose to 102 feet and was surmounted by a spirelet with delicate carvings and a stone diadem of St Etheldreda. A tall pinnacle rose from the other three corners of the tower and a smaller one from the centre of each balustrade. The addition of the slender spire, with flying buttresses and vertical windows, brought the total height, with weathervane and cock, to about 160 feet.

About 30 years later, at the close of the century, repairs had to be carried out to the spire – that is when the cock was first brought down, as mentioned last week, while the weathervane was repaired. In the 1930s more repairs were needed and the embellishments were removed for safety. Money was too short to replace them with new stonework.


Further repairs to the tower and spire stonework were carried out in 1948. The whole of the spire was repointed, the top section was rebuilt in new stone and the gun-metal boss supporting the holding-down rod of the weathervane was repaired for it had split. The buttresses and parapet were also restored, involving several new stones. The total cost of this work was £635.

Earlier in the 1930s the whole of the church stonework had been pointed and treated against damp penetration. Then in 1972 the first stage in fresh restoration work began, with treatment to the tower.

It has been explained by the experts that the stone is friable and much of it was laid, for economy reasons, the way of the “grain” and therefore flakes off. The result is the constant need for attention because of the ravages of wind, rain and frost.


Having considered the problems left for future generations by the founders of our beautiful church, let us not decry their efforts. They did a wonderful job in creating the local goodwill necessary for such a church in a small country parish. The early priests were visiting Rugeley from Tixall and it was Dr Green who was really the first parish priest. He bought the land for church, school and presbytery in 1842 from the Marquis of Anglesey (the Waterloo Marquis). It was known as Heron’s Field. Father Grenside, who came in 1846 as the first resident priest, built a school (later called the Guildroom) in 1847, which was used as a church, then built the church 1849 to 1851.

He also built the presbytery.

Charles Francis Hansom (brother of the cab inventor) was engaged as architect. His sponsor from the early 1840s had been Bishop Ullathorne, who no doubt had a hand in his selection for the Rugeley buildings.

The chief founders were Joseph Whitgreave, who had just built Heron Court as his residence across the road, and his sister, who later became a Benedictine nun and took the name Etheldreda. The Marquis, a non-Catholic, gave the stone for the church and when local bigots remonstrated he gave the stone for the presbytery also!


The sonorous tones of our 17cwt. Pre-reformation bell can be heard for miles when encouraged by a strong ringer and for more than a century regularly called the people to Mass and Benediction, and also tolled them to their last resting place. Unfortunately the enforced wartime silence broke the routine of ringing, and for the last quarter century it has been noted more for its silence.

It cannot be pealed – that is, swung full circle on its wheel and then back again in a controlled way – it is simply swung from side to side, technically tolling, not ringing. This method needs a degree of strength plus the knack of pulling the rope at the right moment and letting go before one hits the ceiling! It would be nice to have the bell rung regularly again, for 10 minutes before each Mass – perhaps some men will come forward to have a go and form a rota?

It is a Lady bell, bearing the inscription “Sancta Maria ora pro nobis” and, being cast in 1546 for an unknown church in Gloucestershire , must be one of the last Lady bells before the reformation. It was purchased for £80. Original plans were for a peal of eight but one cannot imagine fitting eight in such a small tower.

When the restoration work of the 1930s was carried out a forgotten small bell was found in the turret and this was installed then in the tower for ringing the Angelus thrice daily.


In the choir gallery over the west porch stands the organ. It is a two-manual instrument with 15 stops, a swell pedal and three other pedals. It was hand-blown until the middle 1950s and generations of blowers carved their initials on the tower wall near their place of labour! It originally cost £280 and was improved in 1886 when the church was being restored internally. Josiah Spode of Hawksyard paid for the addition of fresh stops by Nicholson and Lord of Walsall, who took care of it for many years. It has subsequently been maintained by Walker and Son of Ruislip and was reconditioned in 1959 at a cost of £250.

A storm around 1920 brought rain into the tower and did much damage to the organ, costing £195 to repair. It was restored as a war memorial.

The first organist is believed to have been Miss Sherlock, school head, and she was followed by Miss Kane, another Headmistress. Mrs Agnes Harris then played for a short time, followed by Sister Gabriel. Miss Sylvia Harris took over when she was 17 and, apart from a few years in the 1920s when Miss Winifred Lyons was organist, she has continued ever since. Mr Russell now assists at some Masses.


Though it is seldom used these days, there is room for an adult choir of about 10 round the organ console in the gallery at the west end. It is reached by the spiral staircase from the porch, which goes on up to the tower.

The Church always maintained a mixed choir of varying strengths for the 11 a.m. Mass and Sunday and Wednesday evening Benediction services, but the one existing in the 1960s when the Mass was changed into English, was disbanded. Reason was the initial lack of new music for the English Mass. Although there have been a number of popular Masses available for some years, we never seem to have got round to reforming a choir! There are times when the congregation seem to need the lead that a choir would give.

When Father Walshe was parish priest (1937 to 1945) he developed a fine Sanctuary choir for special occasions when he could conduct – he was a very keen musician. And, in the 1950s there was a strong girls’ choir, in addition to the mixed one.

When the sisters left they bequeathed the Convent chapel organ to the church and it was placed in the Lady Chapel and used to accompany the school children whenever they sang.


Perhaps the most utilitarian part of the whole church structure. At St Joseph’s it contains the operative end of two bell ropes, a holy water stoup, notice boards, a fire extinguisher, two drop leaf tables for the sale of newspapers and collecting of funds.

As the more modern equivalent of a narthex, it has its part to play in the liturgy on occasion. Its door is knocked three times by a Bishop when he makes a formal visitation. It is the place where a coffin is received at a funeral and it is sometimes the setting for the first ceremonies at the Easter Vigil.

It is planned to erect a memorial to Father McSwiney in the porch, in the form of a list of clergy who have served the parish, with brief historical notes.

Please make a point of reading the notice boards regularly to keep abreast of what’s going on and to see if you can help with anything. And, do you buy a Catholic newspaper regularly? It is hard to keep in touch with the Church as a whole and to be a well-informed Catholic without reading one of the papers each week.

Inside the church is a CTS book rack and recently the side porch was converted into a piety shop – a development from the weekly study group.


On entering the Church one’s eyes are drawn immediately to the east window and the High Altar and its reredos beneath it.

The window was the gift of Sir Charles Wolseley, the 9th baronet and it was made by G Hardman and Powell of Birmingham. In the centre light is the Good Shepherd and on the left are St Joseph and St Etheldreda, the church’s patrons. The other two saints depicted in stained glass are St Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of Canon Duckett in whose time the stained glass was installed, and St Charles Borromeo, patron of Sir Charles. The High Altar is of carved stone, formerly richly gilded. The panels represent the Annunciation (left), the Crucifixion (centre) and the Ascension. Between these are narrow panels of St Joseph and St Etheldreda.

The reredos formerly had a pinnacled throne over the tabernacle, occupied by a wooden cross. The monstrance was placed in it during Benediction services and Exposition. In 1938 while the church was being repainted in a simpler style Father Walshe had this throne removed. He felt it a pity that so much of the fine stained glass in the good Shepherd window was obscured by it. A parishioner made a portable throne of wood to take its place and this is still in use.


The Sanctuary was formerly rich with fresco work in the traditional gothic style, done by Hopkins of Abergavenny in 1885. Dominant colour was red and there was a red carpet to match. The change to a simple style of plain walls and all the colour in the ceiling panels was made by Father Walshe in 1939.

The south wall above the sedilia (stone seats in alcove) was covered with eight panels in gold on red within gothic canopies in brown, grey and black. The panels, mainly of instruments of the Passion were, from left: chalice with host; whip and pillar; ladder, spear, sponge, hammer, pincers, seamless garment, crown of thorns, girdle and three nails, monogram ‘ihs’ heart with crown and word ‘caritas’. Available spaces above arches on opposite wall were to match.

Below the panels the wall was in red decorated in gold with SJ and SE monograms and the occasional lilies of St Joseph and crown and crozier of St Etheldreda. The arches were painted cream with ‘ihs’ dotted over in red.

Around the window in gold on red was “Adoremus in aeternum Sanctissimum Sacramentum” but this had deteriorated so much by 1930 that it was repainted with simple monograms.

Lady Chapel

Surely the most beautiful corner of the church is the Lady Chapel, with its Caen stone and alabaster altar, the gift of Miss Gulson, niece of Josiah Spode IV who left Hawksyard to the Dominicans. The carvings represent the Annunciation and the Birth of Our Lord, and above the canopy is a fine marble crucifix. On one side is a statue of St Helen, mother of Constantine, and on the other is St Catherine of Siena, Dominican nun. These two saints were Miss Gulson’s patrons.

The ceiling, reminiscent of barrel vaulting, is a feature of the chapel and it has always been decorated in blue, with stars, as at present. The chapel contains two fine stained glass windows, which will be mentioned later, and a large statue of Our Lady and the Baby Jesus, gift of Mr Edward Wolseley, 100 years ago.

The Lady Chapel was often used for weekday Mass until the Sisters ceased to have their own chaplain in the late 1920s and were given seats in it.

LC Windows

The fine window behind the altar is in a style similar to that behind the High Altar. It portrays Our Lady and Child in the centre, St Catherine of Siena, with her wheel of torture on the left and St Elizabeth of Hungary on the right. She is shown with loaves of bread in her apron which were miraculously turned into roses.

The stained glass window on the north wall is in a different style and is one picture spread over the three lights. It is the memorial window to Joseph Whitgreave, who died in 1885. It portrays the Presentation in the Temple with Simeon receiving the Babe in his arms in front of an altar, with two censors hanging overhead. St Joseph is on the left with St Anna and Our Lady in on the extreme right with a saint whose identity is not known. On the left is a cage with two doves. The small windows at the top have medallions of St Rose of Lima (left), St Joseph and his lilies (centre) and St Etheldreda. At the foot is a representation of Joseph and Etheldreda Whitgreave offering this church to God. Note the porch is shown off the tower instead of the aisle. A scroll weaves round the church bearing in Latin the words “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house” and at the foot is the beginning of the canticle “Now, Lord, your may dismiss your servant in peace.”

Nave & Aisles

The original fresco over the chancel arch was of two angels swinging censers before a representation of God, the dominant background colour being green. This was in a very bad condition by the 1930s and Father Crowley had it repainted light blue with a red and white medallion of a Dove, representing the Holy Spirit, imposed. When Father Walshe had the church repainted in July 1938, he had the blue replaced by cream. During the 1951 painting, in readiness for the centenary, the motif, which proved to be of paper, was removed and the wall painted champagne to match the rest of the church. Originally the aisles were white with nut-brown below, linked with a fleur-de-lys frieze in darker brown and black which went around and over the windows. In 1938 these walls were repainted cream above, light blue below, without a frieze. In 1951 they became champagne and in 1978 were repainted cream, this time with window mullions and arches also painted cream (they had hitherto been unpainted stone). The nave walls high above the pillars included, until 1938, brown monograms of St Joseph with lilies, St Etheldreda with crown and crozier.


Two statues formerly stood in the recesses formed by the chancel arch meeting the eastern-most arches of the nave. That of St Joseph on the right had been given by Mr Edward Wolseley, probably in 1875, and a richly gilt statue of the Sacred Heart stood on the left, erected 10 November 1875. In August 1938 the Sacred Heart was moved to near the sacristy door and St Joseph was moved to the western end of the south aisle. Reason given by Father Walshe for the moves was so that attention was not distracted from what was going on at the High Altar. These two statues have now been removed from view.

The statue of Our Lady and Child has been moved several times. Sometimes it has been just inside the Lady Chapel, sometimes just outside, in the north aisle, probably because of the need for more seating for the sisters at the time. It is at present on the ledge of the second chapel window, the pedestal having been dispensed with.

After the death of Miss M.E. Harris, sacristan for many years, three votive candlestands were provided as a memorial to her and these stood before the statues. They were removed about eight years ago.

The small statue of St Anthony, now near the sacristy door, originally stood on the pedestal near the Lady Chapel. That site was appropriate because the sisters used the chapel and the Convent was named after St Anthony.

Memorial Brasses

Near the entrance to the Lady Chapel is a fine memorial brass set in lead, with the coat of arms of the first Marquis of Anglesey of Beaudesert. He it was who lost a leg at Wellington’s side at the end of Waterloo. A non-Catholic, he was sympathetic and an advocate of Emancipation. He was also popular as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The inscription is “William Henry first Marquis of Anglesey gave without limit or restriction the Stone with which this Church and Presbytery are built, AD 1848-1851. This tablet was erected by the Rev. J.S. Grenside to record a kind and noble act. Incidentally, the stone was actually carted by the Lees family of Hill Ridware. There is also a memorial brass beneath the Whitgreave window in the Lady Chapel denoting that the window was provided by Rosina, widow of Joseph Whitgreave.


The present Stations, carved by a Tyrolean woodcarver, Ferdinando Stuflesser of Ortisei, Bolzano, Italy were canonically erected at the evening service on Sunday 2 September 1951, by a visiting Franciscan, Father Bernard. This was the actual Centenary Weekend. The Church’s consecration had been in June, the centenary date not having been discovered in time to make the celebrations coincide. The stations were actually paid for by several families in memory of deceased relatives. Details can be seen on the wall near the Lady Chapel.


The seating originally consisted of mahogany-stained upright benches with Tudor-style rosette openings. Kneelers were loose, of bare wood, though some parishioners had provided their own padded cushions or kneelers. They could do that because worshippers always sat in the same seat, paying a quarterly ‘rent’ to have it reserved. This rent was really a means of income for the priest but it was bad in that it meant seats were unoccupied if the family were not at a particular Mass. Unless someone not paying, or a visitor, had the temerity to enter a seat and risk black looks from neighbours! All the kneelers were covered in rubber in 1938 and this made for a much tidier appearance. So many seats were unoccupied much of the time, however, that in 1938 Father Walshe decided to sacrifice the small income from the rents to get more people having a view of the altar. His method was not to abolish the rents – and the privilege – but to increase them heavily to four shillings (20p) per quarter. The present light-stained open benches were introduced in the 1950s.


A pulpit was provided around 1930, by means of a subscription list as a war memorial. It was made by local craftsmen of Moores, joiners cabinet makers of Sandy Lane. At first it was placed on the left-hand side, seats being moved back slightly, but it was said to interfere with the Wolseley family seat and so was moved to the opposite side where the front seat was shortened to accommodate it. In this position it interfered less with the views of the altar from the sides. It was sold in December 1960. Mr Clement Harris gave a carved chair which was usually kept aside for the use of the Archbishop and other special visitors. Now with the new Mass calling for a presiding minister it is placed in the sanctuary facing the people. The free-standing wooden altar was made by Mr Martin Rogers and the reading desk was also made locally, these conforming with the new liturgy.


Our Church in 1981 was to have the tower and spire restored to something like its original state so far as can be ascertained from small photographs. A fund was opened to raise £15,000 as quickly as possible to prevent the stones from further deterioration.

The architect of the church was Charles Francis Hansom, brother of the cab designer and St Joseph’s is considered one of his chief works. His sponsor from the early 1840s was Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham who is no doubt the head carved near the sacristy door in the sanctuary, along with Pope Pius IX.