St. Nicholas Church, AbbotsburyDorsett

The appeal in the February 2003 Messenger for paris hioner; came at a time when several questions are being asked about the picture of St. Nicholas church, Abbotsbury appearing at the start of the time line; in the parish hall. This church was the English structure that was the inspiration for the present St. Stephen’s church in Schenectady. This area of Dorset is a delightful part of the countryside and would be an interesting venue for St. Stephen’s parishioners vacationing in England.

The coastal village of Abbotsbury is about 8 miles west of Weymouth just inshore from Chesil beach. This small English village was the site of a 12th century Benedictine Abbey whose ruins may still be seen today. The village is noted for its swannery created by the Abbey monks 600 years ago and still flourishing.

The present parish church dedicated to St. NicholasDorsett was rebuilt in the early part of the 16th century and is Perpendicular in style but portions of an older building are incorporated. It has an oblong footprint with the exception of the decorated north porch and, at its western end, a fine embattled tower containing 6 bells (6, 9-3-1 in F#). The chapel doorway has the date 1636 and it is tempting to explain the strange round arches of the windows (with the Perpendicular tracery below them) by considering the whole wall to be circa 1636.

The clerestory windows are typically Henry VIII, and the font is octagonal in Perpendicular style with arched panels. There is no structural division between the nave and the chancel, but, in 1638, Sir John Strangeways (1584-1666), descendent of Sir Giles who bought the Abbey estate in 1543 put a plaster barrel ceiling over the two east bays. It has six family shields one of which records the Strangeways marriages and the center panels contain figures of angels. Preserved over the west tower doorway is a curious figure emblematic of the Trinity. It is that of an old man in a sitting gesture with a crucifix between his knees, and a dove at the right ear. This interesting sculpture is very ancient, but its date is unknown. Against the churchyard wall opposite the north porch are two stone coffins and in the porch itself is a Purbeck marble grave-slab, carved with the figure of one of the early abbots of the monastery dating circa 1200. This discovered on the site of the former Abbey Church in 1788, and placed in its present position at the restoration of the parish church in 1885.

An interesting feature of the interior is the pulpit: a fine piece Dorsettof Jacobean workmanship with two tiers of blank arches. It still preserves its sounding board. In what became known as the battle of the pulpit. Cavaliers sniped at the Roundheads from the church tower in 1644, during the (British) civil war. The shot marks left by Cromwell’s men are still to be seen in the pulpit, and, during a roof restoration in 1930, two lead bullets were found in a beam. Abbotsbury resounded to gunfire again during WWII when, off its shores, Spitfire and Hurricane aircrew fired onto the ranges, and the late Sir Barnes Wallis tested his bouncing bomb concept off Chesil beach.

The 18th century altarpiece was given by Mrs. Strangeways Horner in 1751. It is a fine classical piece with Corinthian columns, a vine frieze and a pediment. A brass candelabrum of the usual Baroque shape in the nave dates from the same period. There is also some 15th century painted glass with the upper portion of the Blessed Virgin from a crucifixion scene.

The London Journal in 1752 reported that "all the people of Abbotsbury, including the Vicar, are thieves, smugglers and plunderers of wrecks". Let us hope that the facsimile of the building was all that St. Stephens inherited from its English antecedents!


Thanks to J. Keith Nelson for this article and the photographs. Keith is a member of St. Stephen's Church and retired Professor of Electrical Engineering at RPI.