by Frank E Earp
It is a sad fact that most archaeology these days is ‘rescue digs’ that are paid for by developers or local government ahead of development or engineering projects like the tram works. Not all archaeological sites and finds prove to be ‘exciting’ but are still worth the effort, as all offer to add to our knowledge of our ancient and not so ancient past. Such is the case for the work at Beeston.
At Beeston the tram line to the terminus at Bardill’s island pass through the heart of the old village and runs around the edge of the parish church of St. John the Baptist. The Domesday Book of 1086 does not record the presence of a church at Beeston, but it is generally believed that there would have been a small ‘timber’ building on the site at this date. The population of the settlement at this time has been estimated at between 70 and 80 persons. Like so many of our parish churches, as the population grew the old wooden structure was replaced by stone. By 1300, records show that St. John’s was under the control of Lenton Priory which appointed its vicar and collected the main tithes.
For a brief time during his war against the French, Edward III, – who wished to restrict the powers of foreign monastic orders, – took-over the living. It was at this time that a great disaster struck Beeston when 40% of its estimated population of 300 to 350 people, died of the plague. Their remains were buried in a ‘plague pit’ on the eastern side of the churchyard. Fortunately the tram works do not disturb this side of the churchyard.
With the end of the French war the living of St. John’s was returned to Lenton Priory where it remained until the Dissolution in 1538. Once again in Crown hands the church was rebuilt by Henry VIII using stones from the 14th century church. Except for the chancel, the church was rebuilt again in 1843 by Sir George Gilbert.
It is evidence of this last phase of building that has been exposed in a utilities trench alongside Chilwell Road. Here was a long section of the foundations or first few courses of the churchyard boundary wall either side of the original entrance. Also exposed on the Beeston side of the gate was a brick lined stone volt or funerary monument, – other grave stones were also recovered bellow what would have been the road surface on the Beeston side.
The line of the wall corresponded to the current edge of the churchyard running alongside of the road, with the apparent gate aligning to the modern path leading to the main church door. The wall was composed of un-mortared ashlar blocks standing to the height of around ½ m. Evidence that the gate may have been an imposing structure was demonstrated by the presence of large blocks of stone forming three sides of a niche or alcove. The wall on the Chilwell side of the gate stretched for around 7 m. whilst that on the Beeston side was slightly shorter with clear evidence that it had been ‘robbed-out’ at an earlier stage. Without dateable finds it is difficult to date stonework accurately. On my first visit, an archaeologist working on the site stated that the wall was possible of late Victorian date, around 1900. However, if this is the case, it may be that it was built along the line of the original boundary from stone recycled from the demolition of the Tudor/medieval church. We must wait for the publication of the full archaeological report for more detailed information.
On a subsequent visit to the site I asked what would happen to the wall after completion of the ‘dig’. There were two options, either it would be removed and displayed in another part of the churchyard, or would be crushed and used as road fill. A visit to the site a couple of days later answered my question. The wall had been removed and the stones crushed. The gravestones will be re-buried within the churchyard and the funerary monument will covered with soil disappearing beneath the re-landscaped churchyard.