WHEN a US tourist visited Suckley searching for information about his ancestors, he opened up an important chapter of the village's history.

Floyd Rigby travelled from Utah in 2003, hoping to find out more about Ann Jewell Rowley, one of hundreds of South Herefordshire people who left for America in the 19th Century after being converted to Mormonism.

With the help of Suckley Local History Society, he discovered that Ann, his great, great grandmother, had lived in Old Byeways in the village.

Ann became a Mormon, or Latter-day Saint as they are also known, in 1840, after hearing the teachings of US missionary Wilford Woodruff, at the house of convert John Benbow, in Castle Frome. In 1856, she left Suckley, taking her family on a perilous journey across the Atlantic to Utah, the home of the Mormon faith.

The interest generated by Ann's story prompted the history society to organise a talk on the 19th Century South Herefordshire Mormons. Malvern's Paul Titley, who has been researching the subject for some years, presented his findings to a packed Suckley Village Hall on Thursday, January 20.

Mr Titley has lived in the area for 37 years and is a former deputy head of Dyson Perrins High School. He has been researching the history of Mormonism in South Herefordshire for some time.

Mormon missionaries first came to England from America in 1837 and by 1840, South Herefordshire was home to about a fifth of the 2,500 people that had taken up the faith. It is even the location of the world's first Mormon chapel, Gadfield Elm Chapel in Eldersfield.

Built in 1836 by fundamentalist Christians the United Brethren, it was given to the Mormons in 1840, when the United Brethren converted to the faith en masse.

"It's used by Mormons to this day," said Mr Titley. "People come from America to go to this chapel."

Many Mormons were baptised in Benbow Pond, near Castle Frome, which today bears a plaque detailing its history. They also held meetings at several Suckley homes, including Dunne's Close, and were very prominent in Dymock where, in 1840, Wilfred Woodruff and Brigham Young were credited with a cure after a laying on of hands enabled disabled Mary Pitt to walk.

Her brother was so amazed, he converted to the faith and later moved to Salt Lake City.

But Mormonism was not popular with all and the then Vicar of Dymock was said to have encouraged parishioners to beat up followers, unhappy about the faith's encouragement of polygamy.

"It was claimed that polygamy was necessary as there was an abundance of single women," said Mr Titley.

But the practice was outlawed in 1890 and only fundamentalists continued to adhere to it.

Why the faith was taken up so enthusiastically in South Herefordshire particularly is not known, nor the number of local people that left for Utah after being converted. But members of Suckley Local History Society agree it is one of many fascinating aspects of the village's past.

Richard Harward, chairman of the 46-strong group, said it was putting together a booklet on the history of the village, including the important role of the Mormons.

"None of us were born or brought up in Suckley, so it's interesting to try and find out how things were," he said.

"People are terribly interested in local history - we don't even need a speaker really, people just talk and talk."

Member Margaret Davies said: "It's the only thriving club in Suckley.

"Once you start it's like a drug, you just want to find out more."

To join the group contact secretary Sue Anderson on 01886 884357.