The History of Saint Laurence's

Saint Laurence's Church is part of the modern Anglican Parish known as Upton cum Chalvey: a long narrow slice of land taking in most of the southern side of Slough. In the parish there are a number of local churches that are called to serve certain districts. One of these is Saint Mary's Parish Church; a large Victorian building with a district which includes the town centre.

Today Saint Laurence's is a district church within this Anglican Parish. The area it is called to serve is sandwiched between the A4, the M4, Yew Tree Road and a small brook running between the houses.

There has however been a church on this site for many, many years. It is possible that the history of Saint Laurence's dates back over a thousand years…

In the 7th century Pope Vitalian sent relics of the deacon, Saint Laurence, to King Oswiu of Northumbria to help in the conversion of the English. By the Reformation there were 228 churches dedicated to the saint; one of which was the one built to serve the small village of Upton, mentioned in William the Conqueror's Domesday Book. It is not known when the church was built, but there was a wooden Saxon building standing on the site before work began on the present building in the early twelfth century.

The Norman stone church was built out of flint and "pudding stone" sometime between 1100 and 1135 AD. It consisted of the present tower and a nave some nineteen feet shorter than it is now. Part of this Norman building can still be seen in the north wall of the nave and tower. Traces of the original windows and doors are also visible on the wall of the nave, both inside and out.

Sometime around 1160 AD the Manor of Upton was given to the Augustinian Canons of Merton Priory by Payn de Beauchamp, under a Royal Charter of King Henry II. The Monks of Merton added the beautiful chancel with its groined and painted arches. They probably used the church as a chapel, whilst taking responsibility for the provision of worship for ordinary people.

Two important features of the Norman building have survived well from the twelfth century. One of these is the font, in which generations of local people have been baptised. The font has been moved on at least two occasions and now stands in the Victorian South Aisle on the east side of the communion table.

Another important piece of Norman decor is the piscina, a basin with a drain into which water used during communion could be poured. It is currently standing in what may have been its original position, next to communion table in the chancel.

Other features of the Norman building have not survived so well in the course of the centuries, and their fate has been a direct result of twists and turns in the church's history…

It is unknown how well the Monks of Merton discharged their duties in Upton. The medieval church was however prone to abuses that lead to the neglect of ordinary people. Some monasteries grew rich in worldly goods while other orders of monks struggled to survive. Many people agreed that the Church needed to change but there was great disagreement as to how the change should be made. Some leaders attempted to bring change through a movement known as the Protestant Reformation, sparked off by Martin Luther's protest in Germany.

The English Reformation was a time of conflict and crisis. The connection between Upton and Merton Priory was severed when Merton, like many other monasteries, was dissolved. In 1548 King Edward VI ordered that all images of God be removed from the churches, since he believed they had become objects of worship like idols, rather than simple aids to prayer. Saint Laurence's still has the remains of one of these in a recess on the south wall of the tower. It is an Italian sculpture representing the three persons of the Trinity, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It was installed at the end of the thirteenth century, mutilated during the reformation and later pieced back together and put in it's present location.

A rood screen was a common feature of mediaeval churches. It was a carved panel topped with a cross standing between the nave, where the people usually sat, and the chancel where clergy would often say the prayers of the church. Many rood screens were destroyed in the Reformation because some people believed that they marked an inappropriate division between the clergy and the people.

The rood screen at Saint Laurence's was set up over the eastern end of the nave around 1250 AD. It survived the Reformation but fell victim of a more recent period of crisis in the history of the church…

In a small frame on the North Wall a sketch is still preserved which depicts the church as it was in 1815. It is possible to see from the sketch how the church must have looked after the years of reformation and reconstruction had been completed. There was a wooden Jacobean pulpit, box pews and a few surviving features of the mediaeval church including the font and the rood screen. This picture was drawn in a period when the worship of the church was focused around the Word of God, rather than the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Hence the focus of Worship was the pulpit in the centre of the nave, rather than the Communion Table in the Chancel.

The church probably looked like this at the time of William Herschel, the Astronomer Royal who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. Herschel lived in the parish for many years and was a member of the congregation at Saint Laurence's. He built, what was at the time, the world's largest telescope at his home Observatory House in Slough. He was buried beneath the tower in 1822 and there is a monument to his life and work on the north wall close to the grave.

Within only 13 years of Herschel's death a number of factors seemed to indicate that the history of Saint Laurence's Church might be drawing to a close. The town of Slough was growing and was fast expanding to swallow up older villages like Upton. Many people felt that Slough needed its own church that would be able to meet the very different needs of the new town. The old church seemed so small and insignificant in a busy, urban and industrial age. Meanwhile, Saint Laurence's had begun to decay and the tower had been hit by lightening leaving a crumbling and dilapidated building.

The deathblow seemed to come in 1835 when it was decided to build a church much closer to the centre of the new town and to demolish the old Norman building. So a new Neo-Norman church, dedicated to Saint Laurence, was opened in 1837 and the old church of Saint Laurence was stripped. This included the rood screen, which was broken up and used to decorate the new building.

Saint Laurence's was saved from total demolition by a Mr Pocock, who donated £50 on the condition that the church might be left standing. The church was therefore left; ruined, dilapidated and stripped, but still much loved by local people.

Many people believe that the beautiful but abandoned building was one of the churches that inspired the poet Thomas Gray when he wrote his famous poem "Elegy in a Country churchyard". Saint Laurence's certainly had an "ivy-mantled tow'r" which was a well-known landmark. There was also a curfew bell that "tolls the knell of parting day" across the fields in Eton College.

In 1850 Edward Jesse, Surveyor of Her Majesty's Woods and Forests, launched an appeal to raise money for the restoration of the church. Queen Victoria gave £50 to the appeal and eventually enough was raised to enable rebuilding to begin. Meanwhile, over at the new Saint Laurence's, further enlargement was needed and an entirely new Neo-Gothic building was dedicated in 1878. Perhaps in view of work at the old Saint Laurence's this new building was dedicated to Saint Mary. Ordinance Survey maps had, in fact, mistakenly used that name for many years, so the change was an easy one to make.

The original church of Saint Laurence's was re-consecrated on the 2nd of December 1851. A south aisle had been added and the building was reordered to reflect the style of worship and architecture fashionable at the time. The focus of worship became the altar in the chancel and a new stone pulpit was added which faced west towards the congregation who now all faced east in new Victorian pews.

For many years the church continued in this form but by 1980 it had become necessary to conduct further restoration. The Victorian pews and wooden floors were badly decayed and needed attention. It was therefore decided to close the church and begin major renovation. In 1981 the building was reopened with the two aisles converted into a carpeted worship space. The new design of the building has enabled the congregation to experiment with a variety of different styles of worship as the church continues to seek ways of being accessible and relevant to an ever-changing world.

Saint Laurence's has had a colourful history; beginning as a part of the Church's mission to the Saxons, then being served by Roman Catholic Monks, before facing the conflicts of the Reformation, the renovations of the Victorian period, and finally the modernization of the 1980's. It is certain that the future will contain many other changes and challenges. It is the prayer of the church that we will be able to respond to all that God will send us in the future and that the church will continue to serve God in his ever-changing world.