Ford and Its Church

The most detailed work on the history of Ford church is the seminal work undertaken by Philip Mainwaring Johnston in 1899, and published by The Sussex Archaeological Society in Sussex Archaeological Collections Volume XLIII (1900).



Ford is a small, triangular-shaped parish on the western bank of the Arun, about three miles south-south-west of Arundel and within three miles of the sea. It is bounded on the north by Binsted, on the east by Tortington (from which a small brook, taking its rise in Binsted, separates it) and Lyminster on the opposite side of the Arun; to the southward lies what must be regarded as the mother-parish of Clymping, while to the westward is the populous parish of Yapton, now for some years ecclesiastically united to Ford.

In spite of its nearness to the important railway junction of the same name, Ford remains a very quiet little place, consisting of a few scattered cottages and three large old farm houses — one only, Ford House, of any architectural pretensions.

The name of the place explains itself. Probably there has been a ford, or ferry, across the Arun at this particular point (traces of the ancient causeway leading up from the ford exist in a field near to the church), and a settlement of some sort "at the Ford," from time immemorial. For the ford commanded the ancient coast road that passed inland westward through the fertile alluvial plain (always open and treeless in comparison with the neighbourhood and county generally) between the great South Downs and the sea — a part which affords abundant evidence of very early settlement.

To go no further back than the time of the Roman occupation, it seems very probable that Ford, as the point where the river was crossed on the route between the chain of camps near Pulborough and other minor fortifications on the Arun, and the flourishing city of Regnum (Chichester), may have been marked by a small camp or settlement of some sort. But no certain evidence of this has come to light, so far as I am aware. The irregularities in the ground, the remains of moats and the traces of foundations of walls beneath the surface in the meadows east and west of the church are hardly referable to a date so early as this. It is more probable that they are, partly or wholly, of medieval origin, and, it has been suggested, mark the site of monastic buildings or of a manor house. "Near the church," says Dallaway, "are very visible remains of the inclosure, or site, many yards square, upon which stood a baronial mansion, formerly inhabited by the Bohuns and their immediate successors. It was fortified by a moat, which was filled by the influx of the tide. When it was demolished we have no positive account, but there is evidence of its having been inhabited, as it had a private chapel, or oratory, within its walls. There was anciently a park." "When the navigable canal from the River Arun to Portsmouth harbour was begun in 1818, near the site of the ancient manor-place, the foundations of considerable buildings were discovered."

In the course of the works recently carried out at the church a singular interment was discovered on the north side of the building. Six skeletons placed in a circle, the heads innermost and radiating from a centre, were found at about five feet below the present level of the churchyard. No pottery or other remains to give a clue to the age of the interment were found with them; but the obvious presumption is that those buried were not Christians and therefore either Celts or heathen Saxons — probably slain in battle while defending or attempting to take the ford of the river.

The parish is not mentioned by name in Domesday, but is possibly included under Clymping, or Clepinges, with which it has always continued to be closely associated. The account in Domesday is as follows; it is curious that the manors are duplicated in every respect:

"The Abbey of Almanesches holds CLEPINGES of the Earl [Roger de Montgomery] in alms. Earl Godwine held it. Then, and now, it vouched for 11 hides. There is land for 9 ploughs, and 26 villeins and 24 cottars with 7 ploughs. There is a church and 12 acres of meadow. Wood for 20 hogs. In the time of King Edward it was worth £20, and afterwards, and now, £15. In the same manor S. Martin of Sais holds 11 hides of the Earl in alms, and they vouched for so much in the time of King Edward, and now. Earl Godwine held them. There is land for 9 ploughs. In demesne are 2 ploughs, and 26 villeins and 24 cottars with 7 ploughs. There is a church and 12 acres of meadow and wood for 20 hogs. In the time of King Edward they were worth £20, and afterwards, and now, £15."

From this account it would seem that in the manor of Clymping in 1085-6 there were two churches, one the predecessor of the present large and beautiful church of that parish, and the other the still existing much humbler edifice we are considering — the Church of St. Andrew-at-the-Ford.

I think it only right, however, to state that the Editors of our "Collections," Mr. H. Michell Whitley and the Rev. W. Hudson, F.S.A., have favoured me with an opinion adverse to this conclusion. They consider that the exact correspondence in the details of the two holdings of the Abbey of Almanesches and S. Martin of Sais points to some error of the Domesday compilers. They would therefore "hesitate to assume that there were two churches." The question must at any rate be considered as an open one.

Earl Roger was the leader of the central division of the Conqueror’s army at Hastings, and he, or his son Roger, gave the land and church, or churches — part of his share of the spoils — to the Nunnery of Almanesches and the Abbey of Seez in his Norman fatherland. Indirectly, Ford Church and Manor appear to have passed into the possession of the Nunnery of Leominster, or Lyminster, two miles distant on the other side of the Arun. This, as we learn from Dallaway (History of Sussex, Vol. II., p.49) was originally a Saxon foundation of some antiquity, mentioned as Lullingminster in King Alfred’s will, and by him bequeathed to his nephew Osferd. Earl Roger, or his son, refounded this establishment and gave it to the Nunnery of Almanesches, of which it thus became a cell and through its connection with which it was endowed with the churches of Leominster and Rustington and the churches and manors of Clympmg, Ford and Poling — all within a radius of four miles of the Leominster Nunnery In 1248 Ford was still reckoned as among the possessions of that cell (although the advowson had been in 1240 conceded by the Abbess of Almanesches to Ralph Neville, Bishop of Chichester), and so it continued until, in common with all the English estates of alien priories, it was seized by the Crown on the breaking out of the French war in 1415. It appears then, or soon afterwards, to have passed to the Bohuns, Lords of Midhurst, into the hands of which family, however, Ford, or more probably the manor and part of the lands therein, seems to have come as early as the reign of Henry I. Doubtless both the monastic body and the Bohuns shared the land in the parish for a long period; but the church until the fifteenth century must have been attached to Almanesches through its connection with Leominster.

From the Bohuns the church and manor passed by grant, marriage, or purchase to a long succession of owners. A moiety of Ford was claimed by Anthony de Beck, the famous Bishop of Durham, as part of the Sussex possessions granted to him by John de Bohun and Johanna his wife in 1283. For how long this moiety continued in the Bishop’s hands is uncertain; probably it reverted, on the Bishop’s death in 1311, to the grandson of the original grantor, another John de Bohun, in the hands of whom, and of his heirs, the church and manor were vested until the death of Sir John de Bohun in 1499, when they passed by marriage with his heiress, together with the rest of the Sussex estate, to Sir David Owen. Curiously, however, there is no mention of the Ford property in the very long and interesting will of the Knight.

His son Henry sold Ford, together with the Midhurst property, to Sir William Fitzwilliam, the rebuilder of Cowdray; and in 1575 it came into the possession of the Crown, then into that of the Earl of Nottingham, and in 1605 it was held by Lord Cecil.

William Garway, a London merchant, of Herefordshire descent, purchased Ford some time in the last decades of the seventeenth century. According to M.A. Lower (History of Sussex Vol.I., p.186) he was "M.P. for Arundel from 1678 to 1690, and a frequent speaker in the House. Being the last of his family he bequeathed his property here and in Clymping to Christ’s Hospital in London, and it is still enjoyed by that establishment. He died in 1701." His tomb stands within railings to the east of the church.

Ford House, a fine old brick mansion, half a mile westward of the church, was perhaps built by Garway, probably on the site of a much older house, and still remains a very interesting example of the country squire’s residence of the latter half of the seventeenth century. It was originally larger than at present, and the front has been a good deal altered. Its fine brick and black flint walls, its chimney-stack, staircase and ancient doors, and especially the panelling and chimney-pieces of the principal rooms, are noteworthy. A room on the upper floor is panelled entirely in cedar, and presents one of the best examples of the use of that wood to be seen anywhere. The outbuildings, barns, and high lichen-covered garden walls are charming specimens of the care and finish bestowed by our ancestors on these humble adjuncts; their mellow beauty contrasts forcibly with some peculiarly ugly cottages erected hard by. The village lanes, with their peeps of farmyards, straggling brick and flint walls and lofty elm hedge rows, are very old-world and picturesque. In some cases the ground on either side is raised five or six feet above the road.

There is at present no parsonage house in the parish, but one was in existence till the middle of the seventeenth century, and probably for a century later. We learn from the Parliamentary Survey of 1649, preserved among the MSS at Lambeth, that there was then "A House, and barn and one stable, an half acre of glebe pasture in the midst of a parcel of grounds, called River Gardens, at the east end of Parsonage Gates: likewise part of a little plot called the Tripott, on the south side of the dwelling house, and next to the churchyard. The Gates (to fodder cattle) are immediately joining on the east side of a close called Court Gardens, and on the north side of the garden plot doth border on the east end of the parsonage house and partly on the north side of the same."

A copy, made in 1816, of "A true and perfect terryer of all the tythes buildings gleabe lande gates and gardens belonging to the Parsonage of Forde" is preserved among the papers belonging to the church, extracted from the original in the Bishop’s Registry at Chichester. It is substantially identical with the 1649 survey above quoted, but purports to have been made in 1635, no doubt in pursuance of Archbishop Laud’s Injunctions. At what date this parsonage disappeared we have no record; possibly it fell into decay during the troublous times of the Great Rebellion, and was not repaired at the Restoration of Charles II. However that may be, I am assured by a resident that he recollects about forty years ago the remains of ancient and massive flint walls as still standing above ground to the east and north of the churchyard, where, as it would appear from the above-quoted survey, the old parsonage house stood. Indeed, it would seem from this gentleman’s recollections, and from the general aspect of these now deserted fields between the church and the river, that a number of buildings have at one time or another stood near the church, of which at the present time no trace, except in the unevenness of the ground, remains. These facts make it plain that Ford must have been a place of much greater population and importance in the Middle Ages than to-day.

Moreover, the sexton states that in digging a grave in the churchyard some years ago at a distance of about thirty feet to the south of the church, and in a line with its western wall, he came upon the angle of two walls running north and east. They were about two feet thick and very solidly built of flints, presumably with a stone quoin. The existing churchyard wall, which is evidently in part of great antiquity, is about 15 feet to the south of the spot where this ancient wall lies, and while it is possible that at some date long since the churchyard has been extended and another boundary wall built, I think it more likely that the old foundations were those of some small monastic cell attached, or in close proximity, to the church.

It is, therefore, a vastly different picture that we conjure up from the past to that which meets the eye to-day. Instead of the ancient church, standing solitary in the open fields, we must imagine as existing early in the fifteenth century an imposing group of buildings: the baronial mansion of the Bohuns, probably built of Caen stone amid black flints (of which those in Garway’s house and certain walls in the village may be the remains), semi-fortified and surrounded by a moat; the church, larger by a south aisle than now, and perhaps a small monastic building adjoining it; while beyond these stood the homely parsonage, its barn and stable and the dwellings of the fisher folk and retainers of the manor. Perhaps no other village church in Sussex has seen such changes in its surroundings, and remained itself so little altered.

The approach to the church from the village is across one of the picturesque brick bridges that at intervals span the disused canal before mentioned — now dry and grass-grown and in parts almost obliterated — itself become an item in local archaeology. From this a footpath leads across a stretch of open meadow land, on our left the canal, cutting obliquely across the site of the manor house of the Bohuns, the moat of which mention has been made being thus half obliterated.

The churchyard on its northern and western sides is surrounded by a hedge and dyke; on the south and east it is bounded by a wall, in part of some antiquity. As is usually the case in an old burial ground, there have been very few interments on the north side of the church. Several practical reasons no doubt decided the partiality for the south side so commonly found, but something must also be allowed for the ancient belief that the north is the region of evil spirits. In this peaceful God’s acre rest many generations of the Boniface family, for long connected with Ford and West Sussex; indeed, two-thirds of the tombstones bear that name.

The registers, which do not go back further than 1627 — an earlier one having been destroyed among the papers of a deceased churchwarden many years ago — contain no entries of special interest, nor do they throw any light upon the history of the church. There is, however, abundant evidence in the building itself that it has been partially destroyed by fire once at least, and that it has remained for a long period a roofless ruin. If there be any value in local proverbs and traditions, this latter fact is witnessed to in the saying, still current among the natives, that "Ford Church was lost among the stinging-nettles."

Besides the repair and partial reconstruction consequent upon this fire or fires there was a seventeenth century restoration. Dallaway records this, but does not give his authority: "In 1637, in pursuance of Archbishop Laud’s injunction, [the church] was completely repaired and modernized, as to the appearance of its architecture." To this repair we may safely attribute the handsome brick porch, or, rather, its front.

Nothing beyond mere tinkering seems to have been attempted after this until somewhere about 1865, when the then incumbent renovated the interior of the nave and porch. The work was done ruthlessly enough, ancient seating and doors being swept away, and the font thrown out of the church (to give place to a basin on a wooden stand!); other damage was wrought, but fortunately little was done to the walls and roof beyond whitewashing the former and plastering over the latter. The old floor, principally of brick, was replaced by the present ugly tile paving. Unhappily, also a unique feature, in the shape of a pigeon-house ladder to the belfry, disappeared at this time. Mr. J.L. André, to whom our "Collections" owe so much, remembers seeing this, and has most kindly placed at my disposal his late father’s sketch of the interior of the church in 1854 in which this quaint ladder and other destroyed fittings may be seen.

This interesting little drawing is the only piece of evidence I have been fortunate enough to meet with as to the internal aspect of the building before it was restored. By a hard fate, Ford Church is not included among either Lambert and Grimms’ drawings, or Nibbs’s more recent etchings of Sussex Churches. The only written record of any value that I have seen is the note on the church in Hussey’s Churches of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. This describes it before the 1865 repair, and makes mention of a Norman capital projecting from the interior wall, close to the south door, the font, "square and rude," and several oak benches remaining in a mutilated condition — the two last of which items appear in Mr. André’s sketch; the former I have not discovered any trace of.

In 1879 the then Vicar, the Rev. Geo. Jackson, took in hand the repair of the chancel; in a detailed account of what was done, with which he has kindly favoured me, he disclaims "that blessed word" "restoration," in the name of which so much irreparable mischief has been done. The chancel walls were then re-plastered — the old plaster was rotten and thickly whitewashed — and the stonework of the two windows in the south wall was partially renewed.

My own interest in the little building dates back to several years before this repair of 1879; but that interest exchanged the sentimental for the practical on my being invited to superintend a further repair or restoration on archaeological lines, in the course of 1899. This work, which included the addition of a vestry and heating-chamber on the north side of the nave, was brought to a final conclusion in January of the present year. Its inception and carrying out are mainly due to the energy and liberality of various members of the Boniface family and their relatives and friends, aided by public subscriptions. The church was appropriately re-opened on the festival of its dedication — St. Andrew’s Day, November 30th, 1899.

Philip Mainwaring Johnston


Mainwaring Johnston then goes on to describe in detail the architectural features of the church and his investigation of the wall paintings. You are urged to read his full report in SAC 43 for his in depth narrative.

Sussex Archaeological Collections. Vol. XLIII, pg. 105-157. Pub. Sussex Archaeological Society, 1900.

This volume is now very rare but copies are available in many West Sussex Public Libraries and the library of Chichester Cathedral.

The Sussex Archaelogical Society through the Sussex Archaeological Collections is the primary reference site for scholarly research into our past and you are urged to support their work by donation or by becoming a member of that society.

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