The History of our church in Fillongley should be viewed in several parts, its Anglican past, its Methodist roots, and recently, when the two eventually came together in unity.
History – St Mary & All Saints Church, Fillongley
As is often the case, much local history prior to Doomsday is based on little more than folk-lore and myth, and thus we find in searching for the beginnings of Fillongley church we are faced with two opposing opinions both worthy of some credence. One, that there was a very early church at or near Chapel Green, the other that Fillongley’s first church was an early Norman building which stood at the site of the present one.
As to the first of these two views, there are maps in existence which clearly show “Old Fillongley Church” situated at Chapel Green (the earliest map is judged to have been made about 1685 – 1688). The Doomsday survey of 1086 records that a priest resided in the parish and the late Philip Chatwin has suggested that the mention of a priest signifies that there must have been a church. The priest would have almost certainly been a Saxon and his church constructed of wood. Two questions require answers. Could this early church have been sited at Chapel Green and so give rise to the name which has stayed with us down the centuries? And secondly could we expect the remains of a 10th or 11th century wooden building to be identifiable several hundred years later – the time of those early maps? Certain it is that extensive exploration by the late Charles Good prior to the cutting of the M6 motorway across the area revealed no evidence to support the Chapel Green story. Turning to the second possibility, that the first church was in the centre of Fillongley village, substantive evidence for this is equally scanty although fragments of very old masonry, thought to be Saxon or early Norman, can be seen at the base of the tower and in the south east corner of the chancel.
Whatever the date of its origin it seems likely that the siting of the church was largely influenced by the rising importance of Fillongley in Norman times. The main road through the village today doubtless follows the line of the forest track which ran between Tamworth castle, the home of the Marmions, and Warwick castle, the stronghold of the Earls of Warwick in the 12th century. As these two great and powerful families were on opposing sides in the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda, there would be much passing to and fro along this ancient track from which, no doubt, Fillongley would derive considerable benefit.
The Lords of the Manor at that time were the De Hastings family, installed very early after the Conquest and raising their residence on the outskirts of the village. They were known to reside in Fillongley in the reign of Henry I, 1100-1135. In the year 1300 a descendant, John de Hastings, obtained from Edward I a charter establishing a weekly market in his manor of Fillongley and a licence to hold an annual five day fair. The following year John applied for (and presumably obtained) a licence to “crenellate his country house”, from which time, presumably, it took on the designation of a castle. These developments strongly suggest that in those days Fillongley was a place of increasing size and importance.
As their fortunes improved through marriage the De Hastings family moved away from Fillongley, although we have no record of when the castle was finally abandoned. Being by that time one of their smaller residences it would tend to be neglected and fall into decay, only the name being perpetuated in the “Castle Yard” of today. But we still preserve something in our church which reminds us of that centruries-old link with the De Hastings. Dugdale’s “Warwickshire” records that in the year 1260 the income from certain lands was given to the vicar by Sir Thomas De Hastings to maintain a lamp burning in the body of the church in honour of the Blessed Virgin, for the souls of his ancestors. The small field known as “Townpiece Field”, which is still held by the vicar and churchwardens, is probably the land referred to. Not surprisingly, the fate of that ancient lamp is not known to us. There are, however, two very old oil-burning lamps, one in the chancel the other in the Lady Chapel, whose use was discontinued for a time, for we learn that they were reinstated, using a wick floating in oil, when the Lady Chapel was restored in 1910. Both have been replaced by modern sanctuary lamps illuminated by miniature electric bulbs.
The church we see today includes the chancel, the Lady Chapel, the west tower with a small vestry beneath and the recent addition of a meeting room, a choir vestry, toilets and a kitchen. The basic plan (but not the size) of the nave and the chancel has remained substantially unaltered since the early 14th century, although the south door is considered to be a 13th century door, resited to its present position sometime in the 14th or 15th century.
History – Fillongley Methodist Church in Fillongley Parish and Warwickshire
Fillongley is a parish rich in Methodist history, some of which in fictional form can be found in the books of Mary Ann Evans, or George Eliot, who was born on the 2nd November 1819 at South Farm on the Arbury Hall Estate, Nuneaton. She was reared in evangelical religion and although in her adult life she abandoned the orthodox belief she retained a great sympathy for the Methodist cause. The village of Knebley in the novel “Scenes from a clerical life” is thought to be Astley, the neighbouring parish. The revivalism of an open air meeting, which was soon to produce Primitive Methodism and what people thought of it is described in the chapter, “The Preaching” in the novel Adam Bede. At this meeting Dina Morris (who becomes Dina Bede) gives an open air address from a wheelwright’s cart, under a sycamore tree. The descriptions are excellent reading and conjure up the spirit of rural Methodism at that time. It is the subject of a watercolour painting by E.H. Corbould held by Royal Collection Enterprises, Windsor Castle, by Her Majesty the Queen.
The Kinwalsey Tree
Kinwalsey Lane is a lane that borders three parishes of Fillongley, Packington and Meriden. There are the remains of an ancient oak, now replaced by an adjacent sapling, which is said to be the site of one of John Wesley’s 40,000 sermons. Methodists were not always popular and often the preacher or exhorter gave such an address near a small community. If their activities disturbed the residents of one parish they could esily move into the adjacent one.
There is no reason to disbelieve the oral tradition regarding this site. In attending the annual service held there in May each year with the Methodists of the adjacent parish of Meriden we can revert to the words of George Eliot in describing the service where the preacher was Dinah Morris:
“A gathering in an amphitheatre of green hills or the deep shade of broad leafed sycamores a crowd of rough men and weary hearted women drank in a faith which was a rudimentary culture, linking their thoughts with the past and lifting their imagination above the sordid details of their own lives.”
Whether today’s Methodist congregation would describe themselves in this way is another matter.
David Barr who influenced the course of Methodism locally and nationally, was born at The Grove, Wood End, Fillongley in 1831 and became a very successful Birmingham businessman. In his autobiography “Climbing the Ladder”, published in 1910, he describes the beginnings of a Methodist community in the hamlet of Wood End in 1828 when a chapel was opened by Independent Methodists. It is still there but now occupied by a small workshop.
Week night prayer meetings were held, together with Sunday services. The chapel had benches, with men sitting on one side and women on the other. The buildings were lit by tallow candles and hymns were read out a few lines at a time to aid the singing.
The Independent Methodist cause failed and the chapel was sold in 1837 to Barr’s father. It was later let to the Wesleyan Methodists for £3 per annum who had previously met in a carpenter’s shop at Aston Farm, Fillongley. The preachers walked from Coventry for Sunday services and week night meetings.
David Barr was converted to Methodism at the age of twelve. He helped with Sunday School teaching, tract distribution and cottage meetings. In 1843 it is recorded that the Rev Thomas Collins from the Coventry Circuit visited the Wood End chapel and Barr piloted him round the cottages as a class leader. Barr became a local preacher on trial at the age of twenty and preached his first sermon at a house in Corley Ash. He was accredited and put on the Coventry Circuit plan circa 1851.
After David Barr’s elder brother died Wood End chapel was sold again by auction to another Birmingham businessman. He ultimately let it to the local vicar for mission servies and it became known as St Georges. The Methodists were obliged to attend the parish church.
David Barr’s widowed sister, Hannah, wanted to re-establish Methodism in Fillongley. David Barr had the option to buy the Wood End chapel and offered to make a gift of it to the Coventry circuit, if it would supply the preachers. The offer was not accepted. Hannah Barr said, “I have promised God, circuit or no circuit, there shall be a Methodist Chapel in Fillongley. I have saved £60 and with £25 I have bought a site for a new chapel in the village. Begin with the £35 left.”
David asked the Islington Circuit in Birmingham to run the chapel if it could be built and opened free of debt. It was outside that circuit but it was put on that plan. Donations came from local people and from Birmingham and funds grew sufficitently to add a schoolroom, vestry and spire, together with a caretaker’s house. More land was needed than was initially bought and therefore an application was made to Lord Leigh, the owner of the adjoining land in Church Lane, who agreed to give all that was needed.
A total of £1,000 was spent in building the chapel, which was opened in 1893. Lord Leigh laid one of the foundation stones along with Mrs Maria Ketland (formerly Maria Barr) and Mrs George Willis of the Manor Farm, Fillongley.
The preachers from the Islington Circuit, Birmingham came to the chapel by train to Arley/ Fillongley station and they were taken by poney and trap to the chapel. After the morning service they were given hospitality by a local family, returning to Birmingham by train after the evening service.
As David Barr JP, now Vice Chairman of the Wesleyan and General Assurance, he was elected to the committee of the Wesleyan Methodist Local Preachers Mutual Aid Association (later President). He gave a plot of land and an initial sum of money to provide cottages and gardens rent free for retired preachers. The freehold land was in Berryfields, Fillongley and, after further fundraising, enabled seven cottages to be built. The property was vested in a trust of twelve local Methodists, six of whom were Justices of the Peace. The trust deed permitted Local Preachers from any Methodist Church to occupy the homes. Trustees had the power to sell the cottages and devote part of the proceeds to the LPMAA and to use the rest for the furtherance of Methodism in Fillongley. Widows were allowed to remain in occupation. The first seven occupants sent David Barr an illuminated letter of thanks in 1899. These homes were gradually sold off post the Second World War.
After much other work for Methodism, preaching, leading missions, etc., and holding many offices in Church, David Barr died in 1910 and he was buried in Birmingham, although both his parents are buried at Fillongley.
During the Second World War Fillongley Chapel was in the Nuneaton Circuit because of the difficulty in travelling; returning to the Coventry Circuit again in 1946.
In the 1970’s Fillongley Methodists began a closer relationship with the Anglican Church, having joint services at several times of the year. Following a period of courtship the Methodist Chapel and Caretakers House were sold off and an agreement was then signed under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act. The agreement was formalised at a ceremony on the first Sunday in January 1979. The proceeds of the sale, along with a grant from the Arthur Rank Benevolent Fund, provided funds for the present Church Meeting Room and purchasing the Allen organ.
Today Methodism is alive and well as are the principles that it stands for.
(The above information is taken from ‘St Mary and All Saints, Fillongley together with Fillongley Methodist Church – A Brief History’. Compiled originally by Miss E.M. Townsend  and revised by Mr F. Poulton and Mr D. Peare [1994 & 1997])