Benson Church Architecture

Historically, it is important to remember that Bensington was a Royal Manor for over 800-years from the days of Offa the Mercian, who built the 1st Stone Church here, to 1628 when it was sold by Charles 1. Before Offa the Land had belonged to Cynegils, 1st Christian King of Wessex and this Property had extended over a very wide Area including Henley & Littlestoke. The Saxon Church at Bensington therefore became the Mother Church of Henley, Nettlebed & Warborough.

Benson Church from the South-East in 1822, showing the 18thC Tower, early 19thC Porch & Medieval Chancel (rebuilt 1861/2).

Despite its probable pre-Conquest origins, the present Benson Church is of no great size or quality, comprising a West Tower rebuilt in the 18thC, a heavily remodelled Aisled & Clerestoried Nave, and a Chancel and adjoining Vestry rebuilt in 1861/2.  The Nave’s rubble & Flint walling is concealed by Render, and the Chancel is of Flint with Stone Dressings, replacing a Flint predecessor.  The part-classical Tower is Ashlar-faced.


The Plain Tub Font is 12th or 13thC, and in the 1840s the Medieval Chancel retained a 12thC Doorway & side windows.  Otherwise the earliest surviving Fabric (the Chancel’s rebuilt Norman Doorway apart) is a late 12th or early 13thC window reset in the South Aisle’s East Wall c.1861.  The 4-Bayed Nave (truncated internally by insertion of the 18thC Tower) acquired Side Aisles in the 13thC, the date of the existing Arcades with their cylindrical Piers, of which some have stiff-leafed Capitals. The Chancel Arch is of similar date, its Imposts recut later. 14thC re-Fenestration included a Decorated East window and others in the North & South Aisles, of which the surviving South windows (with Ogee Tracery) were restored in 1841/2.  A West Tower existed probably by the 15thC, and in 1553 contained 4-Bells.  The low-pitched Nave Roof, with decorative Trusses resting on carved wooden Corbels, is possibly 16thC, although the North Aisles flimsier Roof (divided into panels by Moulded Rails featuring Carved Bosses and a Tudor Rose) may be later.
In the 1620s the Chancel was ‘ready to fall’, although the Church was in good repair by 1669.  Small Clerestory windows on the South may have been inserted c.1628 when the Roof was re-Leaded, Lighting Galleries or a Pulpit.  Repairs in 1716–17 included Whitewashing of Walls & Painting of the Commandments and images of Moses & Aaron over the Chancel Arch, which still had a Screen between Chancel & Nave. Panelling & a Plaster Ceiling in the Chancel (which in the 1860s cut off the East window) dated probably from around the same Period, along, perhaps, with ‘a choice bit of Blasphemy’ Painted at the Chancel’s East end.  A West Gallery was installed in 1722,  and a new Pulpit, Reading Desk & Pews c.1725.  A small Private Gallery followed in 1787 & Dormers in the North Aisle before 1803

St Helen’s Church Benson

In 1765 the Vestry Voted to rebuild the ‘Ruinous’ Tower and expand the Ring of Bells, the Cost to be met from the Church Estate. Funding difficulties nevertheless delayed the work’s completion until 1781. The new Tower’s Lower 2 Stages (designed probably by John Townesend of Oxford) are framed by massive Corner Buttresses, and feature circular Lunettes & plain, Round-headed Doorways & West window. The taller Upper Stage was added by Townesend’s son Stephen in Classical-Gothic Style, featuring Battlements, Corner Pinnacles, and pointed Bell-openings with Y-Tracery.  A Ring of 8-Bells by Thomas Janaway of Chelsea was installed on the Tower’s completion,  and a Clock by John Thwaites of London in 1795.
An Architect’s report in 1806 found the Church’s Side Walls dangerously decayed, and in 1808/9 the North Aisle was substantially rebuilt by John Philips of Wallingford, and the Galleries were reordered. Funds were Loaned by a Parishioner for reimbursement from the Church Estate.  An Organ was installed in the West Gallery in 1817  & in 1841/2 the South Aisle was renovated and an early 19thC Battlemented Porch replaced.  The Church was re-Pewed, re-Plastered & re-Paved in 1853, and in 1856 (following the Organ’s removal to the North Aisle) the West Gallery was refurbished for Seating, 2 side Galleries having apparently been demolished.  The Chancel remained dilapidated until 1861/2 when, after Christ Church agreed to meet the Cost, it was rebuilt to designs by Charles Buckeridge, partly re-using old materials. The new structure reflected Ecclesiological Principles, with its fine Timber Roof and Choir Stalls, Tiled Steps ascending towards the Altar, and new East window of Triple Lancets. An adjoining North Chancel Aisle (separated by Oak Screens & the Organ) was added as a Vestry, and the West Gallery was removed.  Stained Glass by Clayton & Bell was inserted in the Chancel in 1868, the East window (in memory of Thomas Powell) designed by F R Pickersgill.

Later changes were more cosmetic. Heating was installed in 1884, 2-Bells were re-Cast in 1852 & 1922, and in 1903 the Organ’s replacement involved alteration to Chancel Seating & Screens. The Porch was restored and the South Door replaced c.1923 in Memory of the Vicar J E Field, commemorative stained glass by H A Nicholson was installed in 1936 & 1951 (the latter as a War Memorial), and the 19thC Iron Chandeliers were Electrified. The Interior was reordered in 1971/8, when the Chancel became a Chapel for Weekday Services, and a new Altar was introduced West of the Chancel Arch, standing on a large multi-purpose Platform. Choir Stalls were removed and Pews reordered, the Tower’s Ground Floor (closed off by Glazed Doors) became a Choir Vestry, and the Font was moved from the South Door to the North Aisle’s East End, in front of a new Timber Screen. The Roofs were re-Painted. Major renovations in 1997/9 included an added Parish Room on the North-west (designed by David Birkett), and in 2008/9 the Bells were re-Hung in a new Frame. The 18thC Clock Mechanism was replaced in 1977, and the Clock Face restored in 2012. The Churchyard was extended in 1863/4, and a new Cemetery across the Road opened in 1935, acquiring a Lychgate in 2002 to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee.

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