History of Bisley Church

Holy Well

Bisley Church is a Grade 2* Listed Building and its very existence in this isolated location, far removed from the village settlement, is because we also have a Grade 2 Holy Well ― a natural spring that can be found a short distance away.

In Pre-Christian England, springs such as ours (and the one at Dunsfold) were revered by pagans and accredited with all manner of healing properties and magical powers.  The sight of clean drinkable water emerging from the depths of the earth must have seemed quite miraculous to everyone, even more so for never drying up, and being cool in summer and never freezing in the depths of winter.

Early Christians found it difficult to overcome paganism and struggled to dispel pagan legends, beliefs and customs for nearly two centuries.  They soon realised that the myths associated with these shrines were far too entrenched to be overcome by persuasion alone.   So instead of trying to eradicate pagan traditions and practices, they absorbed them into our own religion and dedicated natural springs to a Christian saint.  And the obvious choice for our Holy Well was St. John the Baptist.

The Church

We do know that a little wooden field-church was located here sometime before the year 956 AD.  It was not a parish church in those days but it would have served as a place of worship and later as a shelter for pilgrims and traders travelling between the Benedictine and Cistercian monastic settlements at Chertsey and Farnham.  It may even have been originally a pagan shelter that was later to be adopted by Christian missionaries.  The area that has since become the village of Bisley belonged to St. Peters Abbey at Chertsey which was founded by St. Erkenwald in 666 AD.  The monks would have provided much needed assistance to the handful of folk who lived in Bisley trying to scrape a living off the poor-quality land.  The original church may have been replaced later by a larger and more substantial wooden one, but we really don’t know.

Moving forward to the year 1283, we had a part-time priest-cum-farmer called Thomas who won the right to have a graveyard at Bisley and to keep the burial fees which hitherto had been taken by the Abbot.  Previously, coffins had to be transported to Chertsey for burial.  In return for this right, the village was obliged to supply 3lbs beeswax each year for making best quality candles for the high altar at the abbey.  The fact that this church had previously been without a churchyard further supports the fact that it was just a field-church.


The oldest part of the present-day St. John the Baptist’s Church is the porch which we think dates from the 13th century, possibly the 12th century.  It is built in a style that is typical in the district and very similar to the one at St. Laurence’s Church at Chobham.  The body of the earliest known benefactor (actually a “benefactress”) is that of Isabella Campion who lived at Scotts Farm in Bisley Detached and is said to be buried under the porch.  The brass plaque on the wall states that in 1517 she gave this church an 8-acre field called Broachmead in Pennypot (which is part of the Parish of Chobham).

The walls of the bell tower are constructed almost entirely in sarsen stone and puddingstone blockwork, but here and there are some red tiles which may well be Roman ones that have been recycled, such as those at St. Peter’s Church at Old Woking.

There are some early paintings and sketches of the church by Edward Hassell, all dated 1830.  The paintings of the North and East sides show the old Tudor chancel which was demolished in 1873 because it had deteriorated to such an extent that it had become unsafe to use and was screened off from the main body of the church by a heavy curtain.  One of the sketches shows the former singing gallery, or musicians gallery, at the West end of which only two intermediate supporting posts now remain.  The north aisle was built in 1873 by removing much of the original north wall and constructing two large arches with a central supporting pillar.  The south wall and the remaining part of the north wall may well be 13th century.

The vestry has been added in three stages ― in 1920, 1955 and 1980.  The Cooper Room and adjoining lavatory are the latest additions which were built in 2013.

The East window depicts the Crucifixion with St. John the Baptist on the left and St. John the Evangelist on the right.  This was installed during the reconstruction of the chancel.  The stained glass windows showing Feeding the 5,000, and Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me, were both commissioned in the 1950s by another benefactor to this church.


There are three bells in the tower, the middle bell is the oldest bell in Surrey.  It was almost certainly cast in the field next to the church sometime between 1307 and 1315 by inexperienced villagers under the close supervision of a professional bell founder.  It has an inscription referring to “the fraternity” (or lay brothers) who would have been local men, a body of externs who did work for Chertsey Abbey and received special benefits in return.  The unusual style of lettering and its positioning on the curve of the shoulder indicates that it was the work of Richard de Wymbish who also cast a bell for Westminster Abbey in the early 1300s.

The treble and tenor bells have their dates cast into them - 1710 and 1781.  These must have replaced two earlier bells, of which very little is now known, except they were mentioned in an inventory dated 1533.

40 years ago, three volunteers re-hung all three bells using new headstocks and bearings supplied by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.


The 14th century font originally came from Evesham Abbey and was given to the church by a gentleman who had used it as a bird bath in his garden at Chobham.  In 1965 the church was given the eagle lectern which came from St. Mary’s Mission Church, Send.

In the following year, two framed embroideries were acquired that were salvaged from an altar frontal in St. Anne’s Church, Soho, which had been destroyed by fire during the Blitz.

The pulpit is 400 years old with delicately carved panelling and fretwork, typical of the Jacobean period. 

The church has some valuable communion silverware.  The chalice and lid are hallmarked 1570 and 1569 respectively, and the paten is 1795.


Before the Act of Parliament in 1598 that required all parishes to keep a proper register, details had already been recorded in Bisley from 1561 and were duly copied into the new Registration Book.

On the South wall of the nave there is a list of Rectors going back 7½ centuries but with gaps that were a result of the Black Death.


On the South side of the church are the two oldest headstones in the churchyard marking the graves of John Hone and Elizabeth Hone who died in the early 1700s.  It is recorded that they were buried in a “shirt, shift, sheet or shroud made of wool” in compliance with the Burials in Wool Act of 1678 which was enacted to support the woollen industry.

There used to be an old tithe barn beside the churchyard in the corner of the glebe field, aptly named Church Barn Field.  It was quite large for a small village (48 feet long and 18 feet wide) and it provided additional income for the rector and for the upkeep of the three parish houses for the poor.  It had stood for centuries but by 1880 it had become so dilapidated that it was blown down in a gale.