Until the 19th century Sydenham Church, a Vicarage in Aston Deanery, was, like Tetsworth and Towersey (Bucks), a Chapel of the Prebendal Church of Thame and therefore in the peculiar Jurisdiction of Thame. From at least the mid-13th-century and probably before it had the Ecclesiastical Privileges of an Independent Parish. The Church is mentioned in a Charter of 1185–6, but its early history is as obscure as the early history of Sydenham itself. The Township, unlike Tetsworth, was never as far as is known part of the Bishop of Lincoln’s Thame Manor. The Church was a Chapel of Thame in the mid-13th-century and may have been so from the beginning, or it may have been given at an early date to Lincoln Cathedral and later annexed to Thame Prebend.
In 1841, along with Tetsworth and Towersey, it was separated from Thame and made into a separate Vicarage. Richard Slater of High Wycombe (Bucks), who had bought the Advowson of Thame, vested the Advowson of Thame’s 3 Chapels in Trustees, known as the Peache Trustees. The relationship between Thame and its Chapelries was 1st defined by the Ordination of Thame Vicarage, made in or before the time of Bishop Grosseteste (1235–53). The arrangement for Sydenham was nearly the same as that for Tetsworth, the revenue of the Parish being divided between the Prebendary of Thame, the Vicar of Thame, and the Chaplain of Sydenham. During the Middle Ages, therefore, the Prebendary collected the Greater Tithes and those of Wool, but not those of Hay. However, since the Cistercians did not pay Tithes on lands which they cultivated, at least a part of Thame Abbey’s Sydenham Grange was Tithe free.
After the Dissolution of the Prebend in 1547 the Tithes of Sydenham became separated from those of Thame; in the 2nd half of the 16th century and in the early 17th century they were held by the Wenmans, who were Lords of Sydenham Manor. In 1609 Sir Richard Wenman was called the ‘Parson‘ (i.e. the Lay Rector) and in 1613 he refused to pay a Church-rate for the repair of Sydenham Church, presumably on the grounds that he was already responsible for the upkeep of the Chancel. By the late 18th century the Sydenham part of the Prebend had again become United with the Thame part, which in 1825 was sold to Miss Wykeham. In 1826 she received 161 acres in Commutation of the Great Tithes of Sydenham.
OS Map of Area 1881 Albury, Crowell, Emmington, Kingston Stert, Moreton, North Weston, Stoke Talmage, Sydenham, Tetsworth, Thame, Towersey
The Vicar of Thame, who was responsible for nominating the Chaplain of Sydenham, or, as was later the case, for serving the Church himself, received the rest of the Tithes and a mark (13s 4d) for the Tithe of Hay. The mark was still being paid in the 1580‘s, for it is recorded that the Curate had received 13s 4d a year from the Inhabitants for 8 years, but that not knowing its purpose he had used it towards the Church Services until he was sued for it by the Vicar of Thame. At the Inclosure Award, the Vicarial Tithes were Commuted for 68 acres. This land, with the ½-acre of Glebe, probably the equivalent of the ½-acre mentioned in the late 12th century, was the Principal Endowment of the new Living formed in 1841 and was known as Glebe Farm. It was sold in 1920. In 1843 and 1844 the Vicarage was augmented by £400 from Queen Anne’s Bounty and £455 from James Prosser, the Vicar of Thame.
The Medieval Chaplain of Sydenham, who received the offerings of his Altar and had the House and Land belonging to his Church, was supposed to have a Clerk to live with him and help him serve the Church. The names of only a few of the Medieval Parish Priests, usually those who acted as Witnesses or as Feoffees in local Land Transactions, have been found. One of these, William Grendon (c.1363–74), was Outlawed for Debt, and another, William Skyle (1389–95), is known to have had a Chaplain called Simon.
Sydenham Church for reasons unknown was in Ruins in 1293 and the people of Sydenham erected in its place a Wooden Chapel, but this could not be used before the Prebendary of Thame had inspected it to see if it was suitable for Divine Service.
After the Reformation (completed 1537) it is likely that the parish usually had a Resident Minister: when in the late 16th century the Wenmans were holding the Tithes, they, rather than the Vicar of Thame, named him and he received the small Tithes. Not much is known about these Ministers of Sydenham, but one, William Yorke, who was serving the Church in the late 16th century, was ‘unlearned‘. A 17th-century successor Robert Coney, who had a house in Sydenham, was at odds with his Churchwardens, perhaps for Doctrinal reasons. They accused him in 1609, among other things, of giving the Communion to Strangers. He in his turn presented Robert Sule, the Sidesman, for his abusive language, ‘which he doth use in all times and places‘, and for his common contempt; and also Sule’s younger brother John, aged about 17, who refused to attend the Catechism classes and was known to keep ‘evil rule‘ instead, singing bawdy songs in the Village Street or outside the Parsonage at 11 or 12 o’clock in the Night. The Churchwardens refused to sign the presentment because one of them, being the Town Miller, could not afford to make enemies, and both were accused of taking Sule’s part. Coney was more than once summoned to the Peculiar Court and by 1611 had been replaced. At about the same time the Lay Rector was Presented for failing to supply Quarterly Sermons. There was also trouble in 1612 over the Church Lands. The revenue from a ½-acre, intended for the upkeep of the Church, had been misappropriated for the past 10 years. In 1661 the Church received a further bequest when Robert Munday, a prominent Yeoman, founded his Kingston Blount Charity.
During the Commonwealth Period, the Minister, Francis Herne appears to have been an anti-Puritan. In 1656 the Council refused him permission to Preach, but he seems to have been already ousted from the Living by Francis Bailey. At the Restoration Bailey and his wife ‘ran away‘, taking with them the Church Register; Herne on his return started a new one beginning in 1663.
William Stevenson, who was Curate at a Stipend of only £20 a year from at least 1677, was non-Resident, living at Bledlow (Bucks), where he was Vicar. He appears to have seriously neglected the Parish and a change of Minister was evidently being considered when in January 1711 the Churchwardens sent word to the Official of Thame Peculiar not to License anyone to the Curacy without 1st consulting the Parishioners. In May 19 Parishioners, among whom were the names of several well-known Yeoman families, signed a Petition asking that Alfred Carpenter should be made their Curate on the grounds that he would live in the Parish and constantly serve the Church. Some years ago, they said, there had always been 2 Services on Sundays, but ‘of late years‘ only one Service had been given, sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon, either by the non-Resident Curate or ‘by some neighbouring Clergyman, when he could be absent from his own Cure‘. Consequently, the young people had been given too much liberty and there was danger of ‘division and fanaticism‘ in the Church, in a Parish ‘where there has been no Separatist‘ for over 40 years.
Carpenter, who in 1710 had been given permission by the Official to Preach in Churches throughout the Peculiar, was apparently living in Sydenham and had preached ‘diverse Lecture Sermons‘ in the Church there. He was, however, not liked by all the Parishioners, and one Martha Taylor, the wife of a Sydenham Yeoman, ‘on the occasion of his standing to be Curate‘, charged him with immorality and he sued her subsequently in the Peculiar Court for Defamation. Edward Sewell, a Sydenham Victualler and one of those who had signed the Petition to have Carpenter made Curate, and his wife, in whose house the statement had been made, testified on Carpenter’s behalf, believing him to be ‘a person of honest life and conversation‘, and Carpenter won his case. But at about the same time William Clerke, the Vicar of Thame, perhaps encouraged by some Sydenham people, brought a Suit against Carpenter. He accused him of Preaching without a proper Licence (for to obtain a Licence the Bishop had to be given a Testimonial of ‘sober life‘ for the past 3 years), and of being a heavy drinker, a ‘common railer and sower of discord‘, especially among Thomas Smith, Gentleman, and his Tenants and neighbours. This was perhaps an indication that Class-feeling was involved. Carpenter was found Guilty on all Charges and his Permission to Preach was Revoked. Evidently, much feeling had been aroused in the Parish, and in September 1711, probably when the Case was finished, the Churchwardens presented the non-Resident Stevenson for Omitting or Imperfectly Performing Sunday Services. They reported that there had been no Catechism for 10 years and no Confirmation for 7. Nevertheless, Stevenson remained as Curate for another 10 years.
After 1761 the Parish ceased having its own Minister and was Served by the Vicar of Thame or his Curate. This arrangement is unlikely to have been very satisfactory and in the 1st half of the 19th century certainly the young people of Sydenham were ‘in almost a perfectly wild state‘. This was attributed to the lack of a Resident Minister. In 1841 Sydenham was made into an Independent Living and its 1st Vicar was William D Littlejohn (1844–79), formerly an Officer in the Indian Army. In 1846 he built a ‘neat and commodious‘ Stone Vicarage, suitable in size and dignity to his position; he helped to found the National School, and finally in 1877, with the help of Lady Wenman, who had paid for the restoration, he restored the Church. He held frequent and regular Services; had a large Sunday School and an Evening School; and saw an increase in his Congregation and the number of Communicants and a corresponding decrease in the number of Dissenters. A later Vicar, Conway Joyce (1884–94), continued Littlejohn’s good work by building a Reading Room.
In the 1950s, because the Living was so Poor, it was found impossible to fill it, and the Church was served by the Rector of Chinnor and Emmington. Usually, only Evening Services were held.
The Church of St Mary, dedicated as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a small Building of Flint and Stone, dating mainly from the 13th century, although considerably restored in the 19th century. It comprises a Chancel, Nave, North Transept, South Porch, and Wooden Central Tower with a short, cedar shingle clad Spire.
The Chancel and Nave retain most of their 13th-century Lancet windows: 2 single Lancets in each of the North and South walls of the Chancel and 2 on each side of the Nave. Before the North Transept was made there was probably a 3ird Lancet in the North Wall to correspond with that in the South Wall. Before the Tower Arches were rebuilt in the 19th century they were said to be plain 13th-century Arches with Masonry Responds and moulded abaci. The Piscina with fluted bowl and Trefoil Arch in the South wall and the plain tub Font also date from the 13th century of slightly tapered limestone located near the S doorway. Stepped slightly from the base are 3 convex mouldings that seem to be integral. A lead lining is present, reaching over the rim. The greater part of all the 13th-century work presumably belongs to the year 1293 or just after, for in that year the Church was ‘in ruins‘, and work on its restoration had begun.
In the 14th century the Chancel was lightened by the insertion of a 3-light window at the East end, and in the next Century, the church was beautified with a Rood-screen and Loft that survived until 1840.
There appear to have been no major Alterations to the Fabric until the 19th century, but minor repairs and improvements were no doubt carried out from time to time. It was reported in 1607 that the floor was out of repair and in 1608 that the Communion Table was broken. The Table now in the Vestry may be the new one that the Wardens were ordered to provide. The Steeple was said to be in need of repair in 1620, and an inscription with the names of John North, Jr, and Richard Web(b), Churchwardens, 1662, recorded by Rawlinson, but which has since disappeared, may have commemorated some repairs in the latter year. In 1700 the chancel needed repair, but no records have survived of any work done to the Church in the 18th century. The West Gallery, however, ‘a shocking unsightly thing‘ according to a 19th-century Vicar, was probably erected towards the end of it. When Parker visited the Church in the early 19th century he found the Rood-screen and Loft disfigured by Whitewash.
In 1877 a badly needed restoration was undertaken. The chief Structural alterations were the lengthening of the Nave by 7ft at the West end, the lengthening of the Chancel and the rebuilding of the Tower Arches, the erection of an entirely new Tower and shingled Spire of Oak, and the Building of a North Transept and Vestry. The walls of the extended Nave were Buttressed on both sides. Roland Lee’s drawings of the Church before and after the restoration show how the Chancel was lengthened and how the Central Tower and its supporting Arches were moved some way to the West. When the work of restoration was being considered, it was proposed to ‘raise the ceiling‘ and ‘remodel‘ the Seats. The Vicar said that the Seats in the Chancel were useless ‘by reason of the Tower Ceiling and Beams‘ and that under the new arrangement these Seats would be made available. The Chancel Ceiling, which is now coved and plastered, was presumably intended. The Nave has a Hammerbeam Roof, and although much of its Timberwork has been renewed, the Main Beams are Ancient. During the restoration, the South doorway, which retained ‘good‘ Iron Work, was replaced and the South Porch was rebuilt. An early window of 3-lights in the South wall of the Nave was replaced by Double Lancets, which were later filled with painted glass by Bell & Sons of Bristol in memory of the Rev W D Littlejohn (d.1891). A window in the ‘Decorated style‘ was inserted in the West wall of the Nave and the new north transept was given ‘Lancet’ windows. The Gallery and the Screen were taken down. The Architect was John Billing of Reading and the builder Giles Holland of Thame. The estimated cost of restoration was £647.
In the 20th century a clock was set in the Tower in Memory of William Morris, Vicar 1904–19. Electric light replaced in 1936 an earlier system of lighting that was installed in 1913 in Memory of Margaret Mary Morris, wife of the Vicar. In 1958 the North Transept was used as a Vestry and had been cut off from the Church by a Wooden Partition.
A 17th-century Memorial to Mary Day (d.1698) has disappeared. There are 2 18th-century Memorials, one to Abigail (d.1705), wife of Robert Seywell, Jr. and daughter of Edward Phillips of Thame, Draper, and the other to John Quartermain (d.1780). The 1st is now in the North Transept. A Tablet on the North wall of the Nave Commemorates the Parishioners who died in the WW1.
At the time of the Edwardian Inventory, there was one Silver Chalice. In 1958 the Church possessed one dating from between 1660 and 1684, which was probably presented about that Period. There were 4 Bells in 1958 as there were in 1552. The Treble is probably a Medieval Casting and the Tenor is dated 1625. The Sanctus Bell, dated 1650, now hangs in the Ringing Chamber.
The Register of Baptisms and Burials dates from 1705, that of Marriages from 1754, but there are some earlier Transcripts.
No record of Roman Catholicism has been found. At the beginning of the 19th century, if not earlier, encouraged by the absence of a Resident Vicar, Protestant Nonconformists established themselves in the Village. Private houses were Licensed for Worship for unknown Denominations in 1804 and 1821. In 1825 one was licensed for Baptists, who in the same year built a Chapel. Dissensions evidently arose among them, as in 1844 another rival Baptist Chapel was built. These 2 Chapels, known as the Old Baptist and the New Baptist Chapels, continued in use until about 1855. Congregations fluctuated in size, and one of the Chapels closed about 1855, partly because the number of Dissenters had declined owing to the efforts of the energetic Vicar, William Littlejohn. The Chapel which remained open belonged to the Particular Baptists in 1864. In that year its 11 Trustees included 2 Sydenham Labourers and a Shepherd, all members of one Family, a Schoolmaster, and 2 Chair-turners from Chinnor, and 2 persons from Thame. It evidently prospered, for it was rebuilt in 1881 and named Ebenezer Chapel, and a Sunday School was added in 1883. This Chapel was Registered for Marriages and it was still in use in 1920 but had closed by 1932. In 1936 it was sold to a private owner, who in 1949 leased the Chapel to a Methodist Congregation and in 1957 sold it to the Methodist Trustees. In 1958 it was one of the Chapels on the Methodist Thame & Watlington Circuit but it has since closed and is now a Private House. A Primitive Methodist Chapel had also come into existence by 1866 which was still in use in 1910, but no later record of it has been found.