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Hoton and its church

Philip White

To people passing through Hoton, the former St Leonard's church with its medieval tower is a familiar landmark, unchanged except for the frozen clock faces since it closed for worship in 1987. Once, during an overlong sermon there, my thoughts strayed to St Leonard: who was he, how many churches and places bear his name, and when was Hoton church dedicated to him? I also resolved to find out more about the church's history.

Hoton church

Hoton church in 1978. Photograph by Philip White.

A little historical delving revealed that St Leonard of Noblac, whose feast day was 6th November, was probably a 6th century nobleman converted by Remigius. Refusing a bishopric offered by Clovis, King of the Franks, he lived as a hermit in a forest near Limoges. One day, Clovis and his pregnant wife were hunting there when her labour started. It was a difficult birth, but with Leonard's help she produced a healthy child and the grateful Clovis gave to Leonard all the land he could ride around in one day on a donkey. With this Leonard founded the Abbey of Noblac, where he is buried. Clovis also released all the prisoners converted by Leonard to christianity.

St Leonard is the patron saint of women in labour and prisoners of war. There are no liturgical mentions or dedications to him before the eleventh century. He became a popular saint in both France and England due partly to Behomond, the crusading Prince of Antioch who, in 1103, on release from a Moslem prison, visited Noblac, (now St Léonard de Noblac) to make an offering. There are 177 churches in England dedicated to St Leonard and towns of St Leonards in Sussex, Dorset and Bucks, with Chapel St Leonards in Lincolnshire. Most churches and institutions have been built since the 12th century, but some are older and have been renamed, e.g. St Leonard's Hospital in York founded in 936 was originally St Peter's, but in the 12th century it was rededicated to St Leonard.

Like most Leicestershire villages, Hoton predates the Norman Conquest. In the 1225 Matriculus of Hugh Welles, Bishop of Lincoln, Prestwold Church, shown as newly under the patronage of the Priory of Bolyngton, courtesy of Anketin de Prestwold, had chapels at Burton-on-the-Wolds and Cotes, and the free chapel of Hoton. This had a residential chaplain from the Mother Church, full sacramental rights including burial, and paid 12d for synodals. Daphne Evans in her History of Hoton Church, which has been of great help in compiling this article, suggested that when the de Prestwolds were succeeded by their relatives, the Poutrels, in the 13th century, Hoton chapel may have been given to the Priory by Robert Pountrel. It is more likely that he only confirmed the gift, as the advowson (the right to appoint the priest) was the subject of later disputes.

As a donative chapel without institution (chapel of ease), Hoton was not included in the Bishop's Register (the records made by bishops or archdeacons often contain references to the fabric of the church) but it has benefited from many restorations, which may explain its wide variety of building materials. It has always been the focal point of Hoton, and its history can be related to changes in the village over the years.

The existing building is described in the Leicestershire volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England: 'Unbuttressed Perp W tower: probably medieval the N wall of the nave. The rest is puzzling. Nichols shows a small C18 nave and separate square-ended chancel. The present nave S wall is brick with wooden- traceried ''churchwarden'' windows (early C19?). No internal division now between nave and chancel, with a three-sided apse and incongruously faced with red granite. Some of this (e.g. the chancel windows) belongs to a partial rebuilding in 1838. Of the complete pre-Ecclesiological interior, gutted in 1926, only the W gallery and roof remain.'

Hoton church interior pre-1826

Hoton church interior pre-1826

The interior of Hoton church photographed before the 1926 restoration.
Top: View from the chancel towards the nave, west gallery and tower.
Bottom: A poorly-exposed view of the nave, looking towards the chancel.

During the civil wars of the mid-17th century, the church suffered financial crisis due to sequestration of the Royalist Sir Henry Skipwith. By the 1650s, when Parliamentarian Sir Christopher Packe took over Prestwold, it had undergone repairs. It was described at that time as having a low embattled tower, two bells, a nave and a chancel. In 1564, some time after the dissolution of the monasteries when the church reverted to the local landowners, the parish had comprised nine households. The hearth tax list for 1666 shows an increase to 19 households.

A map of 1735 depicts Hoton Common and Hoton Field farmed using the old strip system. This changed with the Hoton Enclosure Act of 1760 when the Packes of Prestwold Hall increased their land holdings in the parish. In 1788, when the number of households had reached seventy, the south wall of the Church was rebuilt in brick, the cost being met partly by the sale of lead, partly by a village rate.

In 1790, as a lay rectory, divine service was held only once a year, on Low Sunday, but in 1810 services were being held every second Sunday. The second Charles James Packe purchased the Manor of Hoton in 1821, and many of the Prestwold villagers were rehoused there. By 1827 the population included a carpenter, tailor, baker, miller, butcher, shoemaker, blacksmith and framework knitters, in addition to farmers and labourers. There were two girls'? boarding schools, two beerhouses, and an inn. Parish records indicate a large congregation.

In 1830, alarm was raised about the validity of marriages solemnised by licence in Hoton chapel. Penalty for default was transportation, and by the following year the church was without a priest and looking for funds. In 1837 Charles William succeeded his father and repaid £36 which had been withheld from Sir Christopher Packe's charity for the poor of Hoton. Between 1837 and 1839 he rebuilt the church, giving a stipend to its minister. The spire was taken down, a granite chancel built, the old bells removed and a newly cast one by Mears of London fitted, together with a clock. The church, previously known as St Anne's, was probably rededicated to St Leonard at this stage, although it may have been later. From my bellwinding days I remember the clock was inscribed 'Presented to Hoton Church by Charles William Packe 1842'.

The author maintaining the Hoton church clock in the late 1970s.

After this time the village grew again. In 1847 there were 460 inhabitants, two public houses, a forge and a windmill, and a small Wesleyan chapel as well as the Church. In Walks Round Loughborough, published 1840, T. R. Potter wrote 'Though situated on a great road there is a prettiness and peacefulness in this village that draws the admiration of travellers'. In coaching times that silence would be broken by the fourteen or fifteen coaches passing through daily. Potter's later Rambles Round Loughborough of 1868 details some of the interesting residents of the Georgian houses on the main road, including Hacker Parkinson, descendant of the regicide Colonel Hacker; Edwin Atherstone the poet; the brother-in-law of the Earl of Buckinghamshire; and Evelyn Falkner, Lord Byron's tutor.

By the turn of the 20th century, the whole village was part of Prestwold estate. In 1926 the church was completely refurbished by Sir Edward Packe, including removal of the box pews and double decker pulpit, installation of electric lights instead of suspended oil lamps, and a new boiler house. It was in regular use for Sunday services.

The headstones were moved to the edge of the graveyard in the 1960s but there have been few other changes.

Hoton working party

Volunteers completing the levelling of Hoton churchyard and planting trees; November 1969.

At the end of World War II there were ten farms in the parish, some with large herds of dairy cattle as those who drove regularly along Wymeswold Road thirty years ago will remember only too well. With the drift from the land, the number of working farms has declined to two, and there are no dairy cows. More and more village properties have passed into private ownership, and farm buildings have been converted. The population, although more prosperous, has fallen to 300, occupying a hundred houses.

This fall in population coincided with deterioration in the church's structural condition. Faced with the financial problems of repairing and keeping open two churches, it was decided, at a public meeting, to close Hoton Church and concentrate worship at Prestwold. St Leonard's treasures were dispersed, some to Prestwold, but the bell to Belton, the fine pipe organ (which used to sit in the balcony and is thought to date from 1785) to Wartnaby, and the pews to Branston.

The church is now a private residence, but its name has been commemorated in nearby Burton where one of the roads has been named St Leonard's Close.

Originally published in WHO Newsletter 2000

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