The old churches

The current church is at least the fourth church in the parish. The previous structures were built on a different site to the north, where an old churchyard still exists.

A medieval church was built in 1282 and demolished in 1750, apparently because it had become too expensive and difficult to maintain. Nothing is known about this first church, apart from an observation in the second volume of The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire by Sir Henry Chauncy, published in 1700:- “The church is situated upon a dry Hill, not far from the River Lea and the Mimram; there is a short Spire erected upon the Tower.”

In his book “Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century” (volume 5),  John Nichols quotes from a letter wriiten by George North in 1750 which makes it clear that the new church was built before the old one was demolished. George North was a noted antiquary and at the time was vicar of Codicote.

Extract of a letter from George North to Dr Ducarel dated 2 October 1750

The second church was octagonal with a separate bell tower to the south, commissioned by the Rector at that time, Reverend Ralph Freman and completed in 1751.  This second church was in turn demolished in 1861-62.

The second church at Ayot St Peter, built around 1751 and demolished 1862. The Forsyth tomb is clearly visible.
A watercolour painting of the second church by the St Albans based artist John Henry Buckingham (1800-1881). This painting is the property of Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service and is held at Mill Green Museum, reference WEWHM : 88/1. They have the additional information that the painting was a gift to Mrs Emily Webb from her brother Alfred Cheek.

The third church, the last on the original site, was designed by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-97) and mostly paid for by Rev. Edwin Prodgers junior. It had a tower and spire and incorporated some remnants of the second church. It was opened by the Bishop of Rochester in 1862.

An article in the Hertford Mercury and Reformer of 6 December 1862 reported that the new church had “a nave 15 feet wide and 32 feet long, with side aisles of the same length, and 8 feet 8 inches wide. The chancel is 15 feet wide and 22 feet 6 inches long, with a semi-circular apsidal end. A vestry and organ chamber are provided on the north side of the chancel, and over these a tower .. with a spire, altogether 72 feet high.” The apse contained the inscription “To the memory of Edwin Prodgers, Dec. v., 1861.”

The announcement of the opening of the third church in the Illustrated London News of 6th December 1862

The third church did not last for long. It was struck by lightning on Friday 10 July 1874 and largely destroyed by fire. Only the apsidal end remained, which was converted for use as a mortuary chapel but was finally demolished in 1954. According to the church minutes, the front wall of the old churchyard had become dangerous by 1957 and it was agreed to repace the wall with a fence. There is now little trace of any of the old buildings in the churchyard, but many graves still survive.

A rare photograph of the third church before it was destroyed by fire. This picture therefore dates from between 1862 and 1874. It is just possible to make out a man in a top hat standing in the church doorway, and two or three children in light dresses in front of him.
A rare photograph of the interior of the third church before it was destroyed by fire. This picture therefore dates from between 1862 and 1874. There appear to be illustarted panels behind the alter, possibly made of plaster
The old church after the fire in 1874. This painting dated around 1877.
Interior view of the church of Ayot St Peter, destroyed by lightning – from The Pictorial World of 1st August 1874
The remains of the third church in use as a mortuary chapel. As Jephson’s tomb is not visible in this picture it was presumably taken before 1914.
A view of the old churchyard with the mortuary chapel
Another view of the old church when it was used as a mortuary chapel. This image is from a postcard that was posted in 1909
Two more views of the old church in use as a mortuary chapel. The Forsyth tomb can clearly be seen in the foreground, very close to the old church.

Tomb of the Rev Canon Henry Jephson MA (died 1911), Ayot St Peter old churchyard, with the remains of J.L Pearson’s church (destroyed by lightning in 1874) in the background. The tomb was erected by parishioners and family, 1914.

The churchyard that surrounded the earlier Ayot churches can still be seen along Ayot St Peter Road, to the north of the current church. The approximate postcode is AL6 9BQ.

An index of the names and dates on the various gravestones in the old churchyard can be seen here – Grave index

Detailed research on the families represented by the three large tombs can be seen here – Forsyth, Peacock and Prodgers

There is very limited car parking by the old churchyard – the best plan is to walk along the lane from the existing church.

Wild daffodils in the Old Churchyard March 2018 (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)
New oak gates at the entrance to the Old Churchyard, installed October 2018. Created by Ternex Limited, of Ayot Green.
The gates as they look in January 2020. The steps were refurbished in 2019.

An email newsletter entitled “The Churchyard News” is published four times a year for people with loved ones commemorated in either churchyard or on the war memorial. If you would like to subscribe to this free newsletter please contact us, stating your connection to the parish.

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