Although a church at Kippax is mentioned in Domesday Book it is certain that the use of the site for worship and burial extends back to more remote periods. In the 1870’s a Roman coffin was found – possibly re-used – beneath the nave of the church during its restoration by Gough while in c.1875-6 a local antiquarian, Mr Holmes, found two fragments of an Anglian cross-shaft built into the threshold of the high-level doorway in the west wall of the tower. This stone, which is now preserved in the nave, was dated by Collingwood to the period after AD 900.
There is evidence, described below, for believing that the present church – of west tower, aisless nave, and chancel, but excluding the north vestry of 1875 – is of a single build. Bilson dated the blocked and altered door at the west end of the north nave wall to c.1125 at the latest while the pitched slab or herringbone work of which all three elements of the early mediaeval church is largely constructed reinforces the view that the date is earlier in the Norman period rather than later. Moreover certain features – the tall proportions of the nave, the provision of the high-level door in the tower, and the relatively thin walls – are also characteristic of pre-Conquest work and suggest the vigorous survival of an earlier tradition. Some of the fabric may in fact have been re-used from a previous church: having itself been salvaged from the ruinous Roman fort at Castleford. St Mary’s church is known to have belonged to the Cluniac priory of St John at Pontefract by 1090.
Later mediaeval work was limited to window replacement on the south side of the nave and chancel and to the re-roofing of the nave in the C15. In the C17 a south porch was added; in 1709 and 1715 faculties were granted for work on the nave roof and for a west gallery respectively. At about this time the church was sketched by Samuel Buck. The object of Buck’s sketch was in fact the house known as Kippax Park and the west tower of the church appears in the distance, beyond trees: the drawing, which is very faint, does little beyond confirming that the tower had a belfry opening in each elevation and that it may have been in a poor state. No pinnacles are shown.
Little is known of the subsequent history of the tower until 1892-3 when it underwent drastic restoration at the hands of the well-known York architect G H Fowler Jones; although it seems likely that the existing south and west windows to the lower stage and the high-level doorway owe their replacement surrounds to an earlier restoration of the mid 1870’s. Certainly Fowler Jones seems to have concerned himself with the upper stage only. Pevsner states that this upper stage is of the C15 while earlier writers have assumed that the architect merely reproduced what he found there; in fact neither of these interpretations is correct as Lorenzo Padgett, writing in 1904, makes clear:
The whole of the tower was originally of herringbone masonry, but owing to the crumbling of the upper portion, it was restored some ten years ago…
The extent of the repair and rebuilding work carried out by Fowler Jones is recorded in a series of interesting documents preserved in the parish papers at the West Yorkshire Archive Service; they record a dispute which broke out between the contractor, Mr Keswick, of Micklegate, York, and the incumbent, the Revd. A Hoste. Mr Keswick’s tender, which had been an extremely low one, had been based on a misunderstanding of the Schedule of Work which had led him to fail to take into account a number of expensive repairs – most notably the rebuilding of the rear-arches of the belfry openings. In an attempt to recover some of his loss – which was considerable – he appealed to the architect. Fowler Jones’ sympathy was with the builder, who was by then a very sick man. The architect therefore drew up a very informative Statement of Cost in an attempt to persuade the Revd. Hoste to allow some of the expense. In this he was not completely successful.
There is no doubt that the belfry stage was in poor condition:
The additional cost has been caused by the very bad state the walls were found to be in when the outer facing was removed, in some parts nearly the whole thickness of the wall came away or had to be taken out in order to get sufficient bond for the new work…
Fowler Jones to Revd. A Hoste
13th February 1894
The cure was drastic. The facing was taken down completely on all four sides of the tower to varying levels but always to a point below that of the sill of the belfry openings; the rear-arches of all four of the belfry openings were rebuilt and the inner face and corework stabilised with iron ties; and then the outer face was rebuilt using iron cramps to tie the new work, carried out in rock-faced masonry, to the old. The style chosen was that of the C15 and so the tower was also given diagonal buttresses, with weatherings and offsets, to the north-west and south-west quoins; similar buttresses, rising from corbelling, were added to the other two angles. These added only weight to the building but for visual reasons could not be omitted. The work was topped off with a crenellated parapet with crocketed pinnacles. For this work Mr Keswick had submitted a tender of £620; the actual cost was £780 13s 6d.
Later work has been restricted to repointing, apparently from the ground. Where necessary this is described below. The coal store, mentioned by Fowler Jones in his Statement of Cost, was demolished some time after 1894 to leave a shallow-pitched roof scar against the north elevation of the tower.