Probably the most recognisable name to be associated with St Michael’s long history is the Rev Francis William Rhodes (1807–1878) – father of Cecil Rhodes the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His influence and the part he played in forming the Bishop’s Stortford we know today, is still tangible in the fabric of the town.

The earliest traceable direct ancestor of William Francis Rhodes (according to the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, Oxford University) is James Rhodes (1660) of Snape Green, Whitmore, Staffordshire. His eldest son, William, was baptised in Disley, Cheshire (1664) and his second son, Thomas, is listed as of Bramhall, Stockport.

Thomas’s son William came to London c1720, farming property in the Gray’s Inn and Regents Park areas. He died in 1787. William’s son, Thomas, held freehold land in St Pancras and various London properties. His son, Samuel (1736–1794) of Hoxton, Hackney, realising the extent of London’s outward growth, purchased land containing brick earth, most of which was sold at his death. His estate in Dalston, Hackney, was inherited by his three surviving sons, Thomas (1762–1856), William (1774–1843) and Samuel (1766–1822).

Samuel sold his share of the property to his two brothers in 1802, who continued their brick manufacturing business for a number of years. Thomas then acquired the Tottenham Wood estate, and in 1824 William patented his own brick manufacturing improvements. He was later involved in lengthy litigation over a building lease for land owned by Richard Benyon de Beauvoir, which he lost in 1834, then lived as tenant of Leyton Grange, Essex between 1829 and 1843.

William’s children were born or baptised in Hackney, the eldest son, Francis William, being educated at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge. It was naturally assumed he would follow the family’s traditional line of business but instead he chose to take holy orders, his career starting as curate of a small parish church in Brentwood, Essex (1834–1843) built, it is said, at his own expense.

His first wife Francis Minet (thought to be of Swiss origin) bore him a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1835 but died in childbirth. He later married Louisa Peacock of Lincolnshire. She bore him two daughters while they lived at Brentwood and nine sons after they moved to Bishop’s Stortford in 1849, two of whom died in infancy.

The following year Rev Rhodes joined the committee formed by local Anglican churchmen and Nonconformists to establish a non-sectarian school in the town. But his attention was soon drawn to the old foundations of Bishop’s Stortford’s former Grammar school at the corner of Church Street and High Street – demolished in 1770 – and he conceived the idea of refounding it.

He left the committee immediately, putting all his energies into the Grammar school’s revival, and that same year gave up the sizable vicarage in Church Street to accommodate pupils and a headmaster while a new schoolhouse was being built (See Guide 3 – The Old Grammar School). The family moved to Netteswell House in South Street, returning to the vicarage a few years later. When his wife Louisa died in 1873 she was buried, at her request, in a ‘distant corner’ of St Michael’s churchyard (See Guide 14 – Apton Road).

With the dramatic increase in town population during the middle 1800s, he was responsible for dividing the parish of Bishop’s Stortford into three separate parishes and the building of two other churches: All Saints, Hockerill in 1850, and Holy Trinity, South Street in 1858. He and the Rev John Menet were also instrumental in establishing the Diocesan Training College for Schoolmistresses at Hockerill, built in 1852 (See Guide 10 – Hockerill Anglo-European College).

But in 1877 a dispute arose between Rev Rhodes and the churchwardens over certain changes he wanted to make to the fabric of St Michael’s. It ended in his resignation, and though he later insisted it was infirmity and old age that made him leave and move to Hastings in Sussex, his constant quarrels with churchwardens was common knowledge. He died the following year. Sadly, after 26 years of serving the community of Bishop’s Stortford, the only memorial to commemorate this selfless man is the west window of the church, given in his honour after he left the town.

Of Francis William’s children:

Herbert (1845–1879) was involved with his brother Cecil in prospecting for diamonds in Kimberley, Cape Colony, but was accidentally killed while pioneering in the Lake Nyasa area (See Guide 13 – Cecil Rhodes).

Francis William (1850–1905) joined the 1st Royal Dragoons as 2nd Lieutenant in 1873, rising to the rank of Colonel in 1889. He fought in Egypt, 1884, the Sudan, 1884-1885, 1888, in the Ndebele War, 1896, and the South African War, 1899–1900.

Ernest Frederick (1852–1901) joined the Royal Engineers as Lieutenant in 1872 and retired as Captain in 1884.

Cecil John (1853–1902) founded De Beers Consolidated Mining Company and the British South Africa Company, but is perhaps better remembered as being the founding father of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He also founded a university at Salisbury, Rhodesia, and was a benefactor to Oxford University (See Guide 13 – Cecil Rhodes).

Elmhurst (b 1858) entered the army in 1878 as an Ensign in the 49th Foot, rose to Captain of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and retired as Major in 1903. He fought in Egypt, 1882, the Sudan, 1885–1886, and in the South African War, 1899–1902.

Arthur Montague (1859–1935) fought in the 2nd Ndebele War.

Bernard Maitland (1861–1935) entered the Royal Artillery in 1880 as Lieutenant and retired in 1897 as Captain.

In 1901 Cecil acquired Dalham Hall, Suffolk, but died the following year before taking up residence. After his death, Dalham Hall passed eventually to the eldest son of Cecil’s brother Ernest Frederick. He had four children – Francis William (1898–1938), Cecil John (1904–1936), Georgia Margaret (1891–1978) and Violet (1893–1978). Georgia Margaret and Violet held Hildersham Hall, Cambridgeshire, jointly after their mother’s death. Dalham Hall was sold during this generation.

Our knowledge and understanding of global and national history comes from a wealth of well-documented evidence, all of which gel together to give a fairly accurate picture of the past. For an insight into local history, more especially the finer points of past life, we are indebted to the parish church and its churchwardens, for it was their diligence in supplying the parish audit with detailed accounts of church expenses that unknowingly wrote a history of local life that future generations could learn from. This is not just true of Bishop’s Stortford, all parish churches kept such records and still do to this day.

Churchwardens of the medieval period were usually drawn from the upper echelons of town society. Their property was probably held by burgage tenure and they paid a higher rate of tax than others. Depending on the size of the parish there could be as many as twelve churchwardens attached to the church (as was the case with St Michael’s in 1545) and they appear to have been a close group of people, perhaps connected by ties of kinship and affinity.

Most of us envisage the churchwarden with an abacus in one hand and a quill in the other, writing up his accounts by candle light long into the night. In fact, professional scribes or scriveners were employed and paid to do this part of the work but the churchwardens were ultimately responsible for the accuracy of accounts.

Numeracy and literacy, as well as an understanding of Latin were of prime importance and they also had to manage funds and be conversant in accountancy. Among the many other duties they had to perform were: paying wages and fees; collection of rents from houses, tenements and farms; buying land and planning finances for future church repairs, buildings and acquisitions. Most importantly they had to keep accurate records of all financial transactions for the parish audit. With such responsibility churchwardens had to be men of substance and authority and did, in fact, constitute a source of real and effective power.

St Michael’s accounts were mostly recorded on paper rolls, the accounting year up until 1500 running from Michaelmas to Michaelmas and thereafter from Palm Sunday to Palm Sunday. There were exceptions to this rule, with some accounts covering a period of two or more years. Although it is believed work began on the rebuilding of St Michael’s church in the early 1400s, churchwardens accounts do not begin until 1431 and cover the period up until 1440. These nine consecutive years were recorded on both sides of a parchment sheet four feet (1.35metres) in length and ten inches (30cms) wide.

Most of St Michael’s early accounts are written in a combination of English and Latin, although nine inconsecutive years are written entirely in Latin. The accounts are extensive but by no means complete. There is a gap between 1440 and 1479 and another from 1484 to 1489. Fifteen years are also missing between 1489 and 1558, although it’s possible these accounts were destroyed in the Catholic reign of Queen Mary (1553–58).

The keeping of parish registers became law in 1539 during the reign of Henry VIII, the idea conceived and implemented by his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. His mandate ordered that every parson, vicar or curate should record in a book every wedding, christening and burial, the entries to be made each and every Sunday after service in the presence of one churchwarden. The injunction was repeated by Edward VI in 1547, with fines imposed for failure to keep registers, and even more rigorous terms were sanctioned by Elizabeth I in 1559.

A ruling by the provincial constitution of Canterbury in 1597, approved by Elizabeth the following year, ordered that all entries originally made on paper from 1539 should be copied on parchment in books, more specifically those from the first year of Elizabeth’s reign. It is for this reason that so many registers begin in 1558, the transcriber fully complying with the last part of the injunction and ignoring the first twenty years of the original register. Strangely, though, St Michael’s parish register doesn’t begin until 1561.

In the past, many historians and antiquaries have consulted St Michael’s records, including Henry Chauncy and Nathaniel Salmon for their individual histories of Hertfordshire. A former local historian, J.L. Glasscock, devoted much of his spare time translating early accounts and published Records of St Michael’s Church, Bishop’s Stortford, in 1881. The records remained with the parish authority until 1963 but are now held in the Hertfordshire Record Office.