A church has stood on the current site of St Mary's for almost a thousand years. Indeed nobody can be sure when the first church was built here. One certainly existed here in Norman and perhaps pre-Norman times. The first recorded chaplain was Nicholas de Longespee (here between 1277—1280), who later became the Bishop of Salisbury (1292—1297) and was buried in the North Choir Aisle of the Cathedral. There is some difficulty in completing the ‘Chaplains’ of the parish, as the church was transferred to the Bristol Diocese from 1542 – 1866. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.
The chancel and parts of the nave date from 1350 when the church was a much smaller building. It was not until 1831 that the north aisle was added, and two 17th Century Jacobean windows were moved from the south side of the nave to be part of the new outer north wall. These two windows have interesting corbels carved on the outside, one being a hooded lady another the head of a man wearing a ruff, while on a second window are the heads of two hounds, or depending on the writer ‘a dozy looking hound and a fierce fox.’ A third matching but plain window was then added.
Between 1876 and 1878, the church underwent extensive rebuilding. During this time the South Aisle was constructed and the porch, built around 1450, was moved to its present position. Before it had been the entrance to the main body of the church, the nave. A notable feature is its holy water stoup, which can be seen on the right of the main door on entering. The source and history of the photo below is unknown, but appears to show the church prior to 1876. Click to enlarge.
The builders also moved the late-Norman, Purbeck marble font, with its indented panels to a position under the bell tower. The font was moved again in 2010 to its current position in front of the new tower screen. During this move its was renovated and the missing corner pillar recreated. The modern triptych reredos is the work of Martin Travers and is currently in storage. Also moved from the outside was the carving ‘Christ in Majesty’, which can now been seen on the inner wall of the north side of the aisle.
Another point of interest inside the church is the only tomb, at the east end of the south aisle. It is the tomb of the Alie family of Gussage St. Andrew. This tomb was originally in the Sanctuary, to the right of the altar, but was moved sometime in the twentieth century. The stonemason spells the family name differently on different lines of the inscription. Also on the tomb is the family coat of arms, the only arms in the church. Until 1859, music was supplied by a barrel organ. In that year an organ was installed and a blind 17 year old, James Poolman, became the first organist and remained so for 44 years. The current organ underwent a complete restoration in 2006, thanks to an anonymous donation.
Of the three bells there is little known of their early history, but all were recast in 1881. They possibly arrived in the 17th Century, at that time they did not have to travel far, as there was a bell foundry in Bellfounders Lane (near Culver Street) in Salisbury, owned by John Danton. All three are inscribed:-
God be our Guyde 1584
I doe love the Lorde 1636 J.D. (believed to be John Danton as above)
Outside we can see evidence of the Victorian rebuilding. The four original pinnacles of the tower were replaced, while the original gargoyles were left. It is thought that that these represent the Evangelists, a man to represent St. Mathew, who teaches about the human nature of Jesus, a lion for St. Mark, a symbol of Christ’s royal dignity, an ox for St. Luke, who emphasises the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life and death, and for St. John, an eagle, who gazes further into heaven than any other creature.
On the outer south wall of the Chancel towards the vicarage is the priest’s door. This has been blocked up and plastered over on the inside. It does have a point of interest though, as a carved sundial, known as a Mass Dial, can be seen to the right of the wooden door on the lower right edge of the adjacent window.
The church clock has only two faces, one to the south for the village, and a second to the east, said to be there for the sake of the (first) National School, built in 1841. The vicarage now stands on the site of the school. The original foundation stone of the school can be found in the churchyard wall.
The Churchyard is maintained under a strict conservation plan, providing a living habitat for many endemic species. The churchyard has had considerable success in the Living Churchyard Competition organised jointly by the Salisbury Diocese and the Dorset Wildlife Trust. A gravestone against the south-facing wall, to the left of the north gate has an interesting inscription referring to the old smuggling days. It tells of how poached deer, smuggled goods and venison were hidden in a dummy, empty tomb. It has been suggested that the ‘tomb’, was in fact under the floor of the porch after it was moved to its present position. Its dimensions certainly fit.
The parish register dates from 1736, and can be seen in the County Records Office in Dorchester. In these records can be found the marriage record in 1768 of the infamous smuggler, Isaac Gulliver. He controlled the smuggling on the coast from Poole to Lyme Regis. Gulliver married the daughter of the landlord of a public house on the main Blandford/Salisbury road, but did not live in the village of Sixpenny Handley, as many locals like to think. He died having never been brought to justice, a very wealthy man. Despite not living here himself, Gulliver is a common local name, some of them claiming to be his descendents.
In February 2010 work began to make the building a more suitable place for the needs of a 21st century congregation. The font was moved out of the tower and the floor of the tower lowered to provide step free access. The Victorian quarry tiles were replaced with Purbeck stone and a toilet cubicle installed. The tower was closed off by a striking glass screen with double doors. To accommodate the toilet, the clock mechanism was upgraded with the installation of an autowinder so that the weights no longer fell all the way to the floor of the tower. Part of the original stone step for the tower was reused to provide a new step to the door of the tower stairs, now required because of the lowered floor level. Drainage for the toilet was routed around the north side of the church and into the mains drainage for the Vicarage.
By the end of May 2010 the two sets of three pews at the back of the church were removed to create an open area. This involved removing the wooden plinths on which they were fixed and laying a new floor with Purbeck stone to match that used in the tower. Following restoration, the font was relocated in the new open space in front of the glass screen across the tower.