5. The Bartholomew Act

I love to lose myself in a mystery

Sir Thomas Browne

Later Anglican matters

During the centuries of nonconformist struggle we hear little about the fortunes of the parish church or its conformist worshippers, but the church itself does provide negative evidence. After the end of the MackWilliam male line with the death of Henry [iii] in a duel in 1599 no further additions were made to the building. Never again were the lords of the manor to play such a major part in the history of the church. Their successors were either not prosperous or interested enough to undertake such expenditure or even were not Anglicans. The congregations were also shrunk by the enthusiasm of the villagers for the nonconformist alternative.

The one major development that did take place, the recasting of three bells in 1705 & the great tenor bell 1734 is described in Chapter 7. This last is used to strike the hour for the Jubilee clock of 1888.

It was during this period that another illustrious parishioner lived; he was Colonel John Farewell, deputy governor of the Tower of London for twenty years, whose life is commemorated by a memorial slab in the sanctuary. He lived at Robin Hood End where he died in 1710 in the house which he probably built in 1699.

Towards the end of the long incumbency of James Hopkins (1809-1858) the church seems to have become very neglected. This naturally had its effect and by 1873 the then new Rector, Alfred Master, noting in his beautifully kept notebook that the church had fallen into a ‘very dilapidated state’, started a restoration fund with a generous donation of £100, a sum not far from £10,000 today. The gravity of the situation is shown by the fact that the church had to be closed for four months in 1874 to allow the repairs to be made. He replaced all the old pews with sturdy ones of pine but sadly also removed the gallery from the tower. Included in the work was the replastering of the ceiling of the nave which only recently (1988) required to be redone; again, the church was closed for four months.

Another illustration of the inroads made by the nonconformists is that in 1985 the number of communicants on Easter Day was more than double the number noted by Master in his journal a century earlier, despite the twentieth century decline in churchgoing and the fall of the village population by about one half. This was at its peak in Master’s time. From 358 in 1801, the first national census, it rose rapidly to reach a peak of 577 in 1871. Thereafter it declined even faster; a quarter of the population disappeared during the next decade and by 1901 it had reached 320; in 1989 it was 290 and the fall continues to its present level of 255.

The reason for the decline is the familiar one in village histories everywhere: the disastrous harvests of the 1870s forced many of the agricultural labourers to seek work in the towns, particularly in London, now accessible by train from nearby Yeldham. Stambourne was then, and still is, a farming village; there has never been any heavy industry here. Many of the village girls were employed in strawplatting for the hat & bonnet trade in the early XIXc but this source of employment too disappeared about 1870.

The Great War of 1914-1918 took its toll of Stambourne as elsewhere. It is remembered in the two war memorials, one in the Churchyard & the other a plaque over the organ in the Congregational Chapel. Curiously only two of the names appear on both; this is because all but these two who gave their lives came from the adjoining parishes of Birdbrook & Cornish Hall End from which the congregation of the chapel derived much of its suppost. [duplicated in 9.10]

Rector Harold Horn lived with his sister in the rectory for his whole incumbency; on her later death she willed a sum of £2000 to his old church specifying that it was to be spent by the Rector & his wardens suggesting that she was less than happy with the Parochial Church Council of her time.

So we come to the present and even today history is still being made in Stambourne. In June 1985 Lay Reader Margaret Jones, MA MPhil, who shortly afterwards was ordained a Methodist Minister, became the first lady to preach in the church. In this respect the church lagged a long way behind its Congregationalist counterpart which had a fulltime female preacher early in the century.

Benefice changes

The first significant parochial event in this century was the formation of the combined benefice, regrettably styled Toppesfield with Stambourne, on the resignation of Harold E A Horn, it is thought from ill-health. Our lovely Queen Anne Rectory [of the building of which, there appears to be no record but it I deduce to have been for George Bowyer] had much better lands and was in far better condition so after a considerable wrangle the Diocese laid down that it should be the one sold. As a consequence our village lost its resident priest after some nine hundred years and the modern new building was also later built in Toppesfield. This new Rectory was first occupied by W Roy Jessup and the parish suffered a loss of status comparable to that with an absentee rector.

After a short inter-regnum The Revd John Martin Suddards was appointed Rector in 1993 with the brief [for he had abandoned a successful practice as Counsel of Gray’s Inn to become a priest] of melding five adjoining parishes into a single benefice. The plan had been mooted in a draft Pastoral Measure in 1983 and occurred de facto on his appointment: it had to wait until changes were made to Deaneries and the separation of Ovington from Tilbury to achieve recognition de jure. These parishes are geographically adjoining but we had had to fight to avoid being joined to a large parish six miles away. We had learnt our lesson well from the earlier double benefice and we now form part of a compact, convenient and successful grouping of Great & Little Yeldham, Tilbury juxta Clare, Stambourne & Toppesfield named the Upper Colne Parishes.

It is pleasant conceit that these five parishes were previously conjoined in the XIII to XVIcs. Three of them, Stamborn, Toppesfield & Yeldham Parva, actually belonged to Dean and Canons of Stoke College: Tilbury & Yeldham Magna paid tribute to them. This explains the curious mode of presentation to the new benefice which is to follow the sequence:

  • The Crown
  • Lord Chancellor
  • Bishop of Chelmsford
  • The Duchy of Lancaster
  • The executors of Miss W M N Brett
  • The parishes are to retain their distinct identities.

Boundary changes

Prior to this regrouping the parishes were themselves intrinsically modified by the same Pastoral measure which planned also to align their civil & ecclesiastical parish boundaries. Earlier in the century the large area of Ridgewell Norton, which I am convinced is the Nortuna of Little Domesday notwithstanding that the farms of Great & Little Nortons are just over the present Cornish Hall End border, was removed from the parish of St Laurence to become part of our church’s parish. There remained half a dozen fragments of other parishes, mainly also of St Laurence, within our boundaries and two splinters of our lands were in Cornish Hall End. These were transferred on 4 November 1988 and the church & lay jurisdictions now coincide.

A New Rural Deanery of Hinckford

The next move was to realign the Deaneries; for three of the parishes were within that of Halstead & Coggeshall & the other two were joined to the Belchamps. This was finally achieved on 1 December 1995 when a new Deanery was created resurrecting the name Hinckford, which was Domesday name of our Hundred. One might have expected that we should be returned to the Henningham Decanat of the Liber Regis and of Restoration times; but the new, very old, name has not previously enjoyed ecclesiastical usage and so cannot be a source of confusion. Happily the silly change of title to Area Deanery has not yet been forced upon us. We now have the honour that our Rector, J M Sudards, has been created Rural Dean.

The Upper Colne Parishes

The final move [it is to be hoped] was the formal recognition of the benefice of five parishes headed by the Rector who has worked so hard to bring it about. In his Parochial Letter of July 1997 he wrote:

From time to time I have used the word “Benefice” which comes from the latin Beneficium meaning “Reward” to refer to this parish & her sister parishes together and it is the new benefice of the Upper Colne Parishes that has now come into legal existence. It is as if the parishes had been engaged for four years and are now legally married. One of the good things about the scheme is that it ensures that each of the five parishes will remain independent and that cooperation between them will be on the basis of goodwill and agreement. This safeguards Stambourne’s distinctive heritage and identity and underlines that the life of the Benefice is there to serve the parishes.

On Sea Sunday, 13 July 1997, + Bishop Edward Colchester held a Confirmation Service at Toppesfield and formally instituted the new Benefice of the Upper Colne Parishes. Two years previously he had formally confirmed our dedication to St Thomas Becket. His name will long be remembered as one who did much to help in the rationalisation and continuance of worship in Stambourne.