History of St John's Church, Charlton

From the Early Days to the 19th Century

The Parish of Donhead St Mary with Charlton lies in the south-west corner of Wiltshire, adjacent to the Wiltshire/Dorset border. The Parish covers a large geographical area and consequently has had two churches for many centuries. The main church – St Mary’s – is situated in the centre of the village of Donhead St Mary and has been in existence since the 12th century.

old church

The second church (a chapel of ease) (pictured above), built in the 14th century, was situated in the centre of the village of Charlton (about 2 miles south of Donhead St Mary). In the early 19th century, the church was becoming too small for its congregation as well as being costly to maintain. At first, proposals were considered to enlarge and update the church to increase its capacity, but in the end, this course of action was abandoned because it was felt that the church would still not be large enough.

Instead, plans were made to be build a new church on a plot of land about ½ mile to the north of the existing church beside the Shaftesbury to Salisbury road (now the A30). As well as providing space for the larger building, the location would make the church more accessible to worshippers in Ludwell and the Coombes, whilst continuing to be close enough for those in Charlton.

Reproduced below is an extract from the application for a grant towards the new building submitted in 1837 by the Rector of Donhead St Mary, the Archdeacon of Sarum, and the Rural Deans of Chalke:

Among the many cases which are daily brought to light manifesting our Church’s wants, and calling forth her sympathies, it is hoped the following one of the Chapelry of Charlton, will meet with that support which its urgency assuredly demands.

The above Chapelry forms a part of the extensive parish of Donhead St. Mary, in the south-west division of the county of Wilts, and consists of the hamlets of Ludwell, Coombe, and Charlton; the population of which amounts to 1200 souls, and is, with few exceptions, exceedingly poor.

Its ancient, small, and dilapidated Chapel, two miles distant from the mother church, and capable of containing scarce more than 200 persons, is low and unhealthy in its site;—its foundations stand, on two sides, in water; and its walls are in parts weak and insecure:—in addition to which, it has no consecrated ground for the interment of the dead; and its position, in reference to some portions of the parish, is by no means convenient.

Many and heavy expenses have been, again and again incurred, in fruitless attempts to remedy the essential defects of the edifice; and any further outlay upon a building so decayed in its fabric, insufficient in its accommodation, and wholly incapable of enlargement, being deemed unadvisable, it is proposed to rebuild the Chapel on a more eligible site—to increase its size in proportion to the number of the inhabitants—and at the same time to relieve the distant burial ground of the mother church, by providing a local cemetery.

Such is the case for which the aid of the Christian public is now sought—a case, which, it may be confidently hoped, will not have been put forth in vain.

Let it only be remembered, that here is a congregation, against a large proportion of which, the doors of their Church are virtually closed—their Christian communion necessarily broken—their spiritual food, in a great measure, denied—and surely an appeal like the present will be responded to as it ought—the necessary means for supplying this portion of the Lord’s vineyard will be cheerfully contributed, and these poor villagers will, in common with their neighbours, be admitted to a full participation of the ordinances of the Established Church.

Once sufficient funds had been raised, the new building was constructed, and it was opened in 1839. The church was dedicated to St John the Baptist, and the old church was demolished.

The new church was designed by the architect William Walker in a Neo-Norman style and consists of a single volume sanctuary and nave. The walls of the church are constructed with local Greenstone ashlar. There is a gallery at the west end of the nave, and a castellated west façade incorporating north and south towers surrounding an arched central door. Seating for a total of 600 worshippers was provided in the nave and gallery. Access to the gallery was by a spiral staircase in the north tower.

The church has one bell in the south tower that was created by re-casting the two bells from the old church. There are rooms in both towers at ground level and gallery level.

In 1850/1851, average congregations of 220 and 300 respectively attended the morning and afternoon services. By 1864, two services on Sundays and some weekday services were being held.

Note: you can view more documents concerning the aborted plans to extend the old church, and the proposals and plans for the new church on the Incorporated Church Building Society (ICBS) collections page of the Lambeth Palace Library website which can be found at this link. Once on the website, enter 'Charlton' in the 'Search' field to find the documents for the church.    


The 20th Century to the Present

The interior of the church as it looked in the early to mid 20th century in shown in the photograph below.

pre 1960s

In the 1960s’, a major re-ordering of the church was carried out. This project included the following work:

  • The organ was moved from the east end of the church were it was originally positioned up on to the gallery.
  • Electricity was provided to the church and electric lighting was installed.
  • The floor in the main body of the church was re-laid using limestone slabs, and underfloor electric heating was installed.
  • The pews at the eastern end in the sanctuary were removed, and a wide raised limestone stone dais area was created on which a new wooden altar was placed.

The church was Listed Grade II in 1966.

In 1988, further alterations were carried out that included the following:

  • A new wooden staircase to the gallery was installed in the nave, and the spiral staircase in the north tower was removed.
  • Kitchen facilities with sink, immersion heater, electric power sockets, and storage cupboards were installed in the room on the first floor in the north tower.

By the early 1990s’, the electric underfloor heating was failing, and so this system was replaced in 1994 by three gas-powered radiant heaters mounted on the roof beams.

In 2008, a WC, wash-hand basin, and baby changing facilities were installed in the ground floor room in the north tower.



The three windows at the east end of the church (shown in the photograph below) are filled with modern stained glass of great quality. The centre one, installed in 1948, is by Geoffrey Webb and commemorates those from the Parish that fell in the Second World War. It depicts St Michael, the Madonna and Child, and St John the Baptist. The stained glass in the windows to the left and right were created in 1977 by Alan Younger in memory of the life of a past parishioner; the one on the left shows St Elizabeth of Hungary, whilst that on the right depicts the Madonna and Child.

 east end stained glass

The other windows are glazed with leaded lights and clear glass. Some of these windows have panes inscribed in memory of past clergy and members of the church.



The plot of land on which the church sits is not very large, and so the churchyard is quite small. Burials used to take place in the past, but the churchyard is now full, and is used only for the interment of cremated remains. Burials following funerals in the church take place in the cemetery next to the churchyard; this cemetery is managed by the local parish council.



Below are some photographs of the church as it looks today.....

West End

External View of the West End Showing the Two Towers


view east end

Interior View looking towards the East End


view west end 

 Interior View looking towards the West End Showing the Gallery