It is far from the Somerset norm; there is nothing else in Somerset like this church with a striking S porch tower and short octagonal spire. Given the clergyman who inspired it, that is no surprise. Joseph Woolf (1795-1862) was the son of a Bavarian rabbi. He decided to become embrace the Christian faith at the age of 7, and became a Catholic in Rome in 1812. Moving on, he reached England and came under the influence of men like Charles Simeon and Edward Irving, joining the Church of England at the age of 25 and being ordained in 1838. Undertaking missionary journeys through much of the world, his most famous expedition was in 1843 when he set out to Bokhara to seek the release of two Army officers, Lt. Col. Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Connolly, who had been taken captive (and already executed) by the evil Emir of Bokhara, Nasrullah Khan. Woolf did not travel light, for the last 150 miles to Bokhara wearing full canonicals, including his red doctor’s hat, a sight which reduced the Emir to uncontrolled laughter. Somehow Woolf managed his own release after three months’ incarceration (the whole story is in Fitzroy Maclean’s book A Person from England and Hugh Evans Hopkins’ Sublime Vagabond). When he came here as Vicar in 1845, Woolf found that there was neither school nor clergy house, so built a vicarage (1847) and school room (1852). The small church comprised a plain Perpendicular west tower, a nave with a south porch and chancel. Sir Stephen Glynne (1807-1874) was an ecclesiologist before the ecclesiologists; in his lifetime he visited over 5000 churches, over 250 of these in Somerset. He visited Ile Brewers on February 13th 1857, on the same day that he recorded the wonders of Ile Abbots (ND Feb. 2006). He described the old building as ‘A mean, small church, neglected and uninteresting’, whose ‘interior is poorly pewed and much needs improvement’; the ‘churchyard is close to the river, damp and muddy’. So last of all Woolf rebuilt the church on a new site in 1861, the year before his death. Living by faith in God and by charity, every Christmas Woolf and his devoted wife Georgiana fed over thirty poor local families out of their own pockets. Joseph Woolf became an eccentric country vicar in a great and ancient English tradition.


Map Reference:  ST 369210

Simon Cotton