Volunteer spirit revives site of haunted Jackfield church

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The old ‘Red Church’ at Jackfield as seen in a painting from around 1874. Photo courtesy of Margaret Beddow.

But now a group of volunteers are working to beautify the site of one of Shropshire’s most unusual churches and tell some of the fascinating stories associated with it and the people still buried there, including victims of an epidemic of cholera in the 19th century.

Jackfield’s Red Church was a place of worship under which the ground really shifted, becoming so unstable that it had to be abandoned and eventually demolished.

The church abandoned in May 1939.

The 18th century St Mary’s Church was built on a hill near Broseley and got its name from the reddish hue of its brickwork.

There was folklore attached to it, including that of a ghost that kept knocking it down during construction until its alignment was changed. Left unused for many decades, the building was demolished in the early 1960s.

A similar vision today.

Nonetheless, it remains a historic site and the final resting place of hundreds of people, and its deteriorated appearance has led locals to decide to take action.

Graham Hollox, from Jackfield, said: “Basically a group of us – all volunteers – felt disgusted that the old graveyard had been allowed to enter in a very disrespectful, overgrown state, so we decided to come together as a properly constituted group, Friends of the Red Church, to see if we can improve the situation.

Graham, who is secretary to Friends, added: “We have started to clean up the site with small grants from Broseley Town Council and Gorge Parish Council and with help from Caring for God’s Acre.

“We are developing stories about the history of the church and the people buried there, and the first collection is in a booklet called Tales from The Red Church.

“This tiny graveyard, which measures 50m by 25m, is clearly of historic significance. The 1,200 or more graves include people from all walks of life – such as boatmen trading along the River Severn and those in the plethora coal, iron, clay mining and manufacturing industries at the start of the Industrial Revolution, some of which were of national importance.

“Nearby is the aftermath of the cholera pandemic of 1832-1834 where more than 40 people are buried in a mass grave. The stories are attracting growing interest not only locally in Shropshire but far and wide from Queensland descendants, the New Zealand and California.

“The cemetery is along an old footpath between Broseley and Jackfield, so we think it could be of interest to visitors to the area.

“There is much more to do. Within the appropriate legal restrictions and conditions while the site remains consecrated, we are dependent on permission from the Diocese of Hereford to remove diseased trees, clean up damaged memorials, mark out the foundations of the church with a small wall, etc.

“We await the completion of this painfully slow approval process, the necessity of which we find very surprising as the site has been ignored by its owners for over 60 years. carry out our planned renovations.”

Part of the site following tidying up by Friends volunteers.

Graham said Bridgnorth District Council was previously responsible for upkeep of the cemetery, but was transferred to Shropshire Council when this new unitary authority was created.

“It’s hard to understand how the council managed to ignore the upkeep of the site.”

Despite a meeting with a council leader agreeing to action in September, nothing had been done, Graham said.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to get answers from the board. There seems to be a culture of complacency – ignoring communications and not responding to emails in a timely manner.”

However, on this front it looks like things are set to improve, as in response to Graham’s criticism a spokesman for Shropshire Council said: “Work will be undertaken to improve the area as some trees are dangerous and must be removed.

“We have confirmed with Mr. Hollox that we will undertake this work and are currently finalizing the details before commencing.”

Details sought by Friends show that the church was completed in 1767, but subsidence from earlier mining meant continual repairs were needed. In 1862 it was partially closed due to lack of structural security, and a new St Mary’s Church (known as the Blue Church) was built closer to the river at Jackfield.

The old ‘Red Church’ at Jackfield as seen in a painting from around 1874. Photo courtesy of Margaret Beddow.

In 1885 the cemetery, where more than 1,200 people had been buried, was closed, but remains consecrated, and in the 1930s the last service was held. There followed abandonment and vandalism and a final demolition, which the Friends give the date of July 1961.

With its creepy reputation, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the Red Church was the scene of a failed hoax that made headlines in October 1949.

The pranksters were revealed several years later as local guys Doug and Max Jones when their sister Iris let the cat out of the bag in 2001.

The Jones family lived near the church, at Wynde Cottage, Jackfield, and the couple decided to prank some folks from Birmingham who were having a ghost wake.

“Doug and Max were teenagers, about 20 years old,” recalled Iris, then 72.

“Doug, the eldest, had just come home from the Navy. They had heard about all these people coming up to church to sit and wait for the ghost. It was always a big joke with us.

“They thought they were going to give them a thrill, so they bought one of my mum’s old dresses. It was a dark color – mum didn’t have a light one – so they took something to make the white dress. I can imagine them now stirring that bucket of bleach trying to make the dress light. My mother called them silly monkeys.

“They attached a string or a wire to the tower and went down into the field. There are houses now. They were going to pull him along the string at midnight. But those Broseley boys climbed the tower and found it just before they could pull it.

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