“ Address: St Mary's Parish Church, Handsworth Road, Handsworth, SHEFFIELD S13 9BZ / Tel: 0114 269 2403. „
I would hazard a guess that St Mary's is probably the most common church name in England. Where I live in Sheffield there is a large parish church on the fringe of the city centre called St Mary's and within a 5 mile radius of my house there are at least two other churches that bear that same name. About a decade ago I lived in a 16th century cottage under the shadow of another St Mary's in Chesterfield which is more commonly known as The Crooked Spire, but the St Mary's Church that I now see from my window is the one at Hansdworth. If you mention St Mary's Church round here it can certainly be confusing exactly which church you are actually talking about.
Historically Handsworth was a small hamlet, which is mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1089 although nowadays it has been absorbed into the sprawling suburbs of the city of Sheffield. It lies about 5 miles to the south of the city centre with a rich history that its residents are fiercely proud of, in fact many of the locals do not accept that it is a part of Sheffield and refuse to add the city name to their address.
Dating from either the latter part of the 12th century or the early 13th century this is one of the oldest churches in the city. It stands on the top of a hill and its tall steeple can be seen from many miles around. Of the original church only the lower part of the tower and part of the chancel are original as there have been several renovations over the centuries and the church has been struck by lightening twice.
The first written record of St Mary's Church at Handsworth dates from 1225 when Maud de Lovetot donated a sum of money for a chapel to built in memory of her husband Gerald de Furnival and her son, Thomas both of whom had died on crusades in the Holy Land. With the money given by Maud a small chapel dedicated to St Katherine of Alexandria was built later that same year. This chapel was used as a chantry where mourners could attend masses for the souls of her loved ones.
During the Middle Ages Handsworth (or Hannesworth) would have been within the Diocese of York and a record that is held there dating from 1492 states that " Hannesworth Church is ruinous, it is now, however being rebuilt". This coincides with the findings of historians who have confirmed that much of the present church dates from around this period.
In 1698 the church was struck by lightening and the upper part of the tower was destroyed. A new steeple was constructed, which was small and fat and this came to be known locally as "The Handsworth Stump" but this was replaced in the 1820's with a new steeple, which was again struck by lightning in 1978. They say lightening never strikes twice but it did here. In more recent times part of the church was restored in 2002 with the help of National Lottery funding.
There are a couple of interesting facts about St Mary's, one of which relates to the Quaker movement, which I will come to in a moment whilst the other involves the church house.
The church house was built around 1250 and stands directly in front of the church. Today the original building has been extended but it is now the Cross keys public house and a part of the former graveyard is now its beer garden. Much of the original building has been retained and there are low ceilings and miniature doors that would indicate that no one grew taller than 5 feet all those years ago. The interior walls of the pub feature some artist impressions of the church through the ages so visitors to St Mary's might also want to make an excuse to visit the Cross Keys pub too.
The Quaker connection refers to a man called Maylon Stayce who was baptised at the church on the 1st July 1638. His baptism document is displayed within a case inside the entrance. The Stayce family was a prominent family in the area, and had been for the past 300 years. They lived at Ballifield Hall in the parish. After the English Civil War the Stayce family joined one of the new religious sects which had surfaced following the war and Maylon was the driving force behind this movement whose followers became known as Quakers. Persecuted and treated with suspicion within the local community a disillusioned Maylon Stayce emigrated to New Jersey in 1670 and founded the American Quaker movement. He built a large settlement on the banks of the River Delaware which was to grow into Trenton, the present day capital of New Jersey State, but his legacy also lives on in the name of his large stately home that he built in Trenton which still stands today and is called Ballifield, after the place where he was born in Handsworth.
Visitors to St Mary's are always welcome and I have been inside the church many times. It is still used for services and is usually kept open during daylight hours. Admission is free and the churchwardens will be happy to answer any questions that you might have. It's not the sort of place that you would travel a long way to visit but if you are in the area it is certainly worth a visit.