ID: PH01_PCR / Elaine Barker

TitleRestoration of St Mary the Virgin, Peldon
AbstractSt Mary the Virgin, Peldon : Restoration

The building of Grade 1 listed St Mary the Virgin in Peldon , like most English country churches, is a mixture of ages and styles. We can only guess at what the original Anglo-Saxon church, recorded in the Domesday book, looked like.

It would appear a Norman church replaced the original on the same site on top of Peldon hill, reusing rubble from the Anglo-Saxon building and incorporating some Roman bricks.

South wall showing Roman bricks and rubble from the previous church

Over the centuries, the Norman nave was added to; the tower was built at the end of the 14th century and the nave buttresses, roof and clerestory added in the early 1500s.

We know that in the early Tudor period there was a rood loft and a rood screen in front of the chancel arch. The door and the staircase to the rood loft still exist in the S E corner of the nave, and are believed to have been built at the same time as the buttresses supporting the nave walls, in the early sixteenth century. Rood screens usually consisted of intricately carved wooden tracery (sometimes of stone) upon which statues of the saints were placed. Lights and tapers were lit to honour and illuminate them so the statues could be seen by the congregation below. It is likely figures of St Mary and John the Baptist flanked the Rood (cross), lit by candles paid for by members of the parish. The loft also provided a high place from where the priest could recite the Gospel.

How long Peldon's rood loft survived following Henry VIII's Reformation is not recorded but the statues of the saints and lights would have been swept away in the attempt to remove all traces of Catholic practices particularly during the reign of Edward VI. Any medieval wall-paintings (none have been recorded at Peldon) would also have been white-washed over and the commandments put up in their place.

Owing to the nature of the clay soil, the Church has required frequent restoration, and old accounts show the constant attention bestowed on it by local builders and Churchwardens.

In a letter from a surveyor, dated 1939, prior to a twentieth century restoration of the Chancel, he comments

The soil is clay, which it is well-known is very treacherous. There is ample evidence of this in the big buttresses which have been built to support the Nave walls. The inclination of, and cracks in the Tower are due to the same cause.

When the Reverend Christopher Robert Harrison (incumbent between 1855 and 1867) began his history of Peldon he related that the old Chancel had been demolished in 1820 (but presumably rebuilt, we know from an entry in White's directory of 1848 a Mrs Griggs had paid for the three lancet windows to be installed in the Chancel). It was thanks to the Rev Harrison's efforts that a major restoration followed in 1858.

Reverend Harrison's description of the church in 1855 paints a very different picture to what the church looks like now.

In 1855, the Church was thus found. High, white painted, double or square pews through the whole church and Chancel. The Belfry (ie the Tower) boarded out from the Church, with a large gallery in front of it, reaching to the Porch Door ... A whitewashed ceiling, much out of repair, on heavy tie beams, and hiding the timber of Roof. The Font (present Bowl and centre shaft) painted and resting on a brick base. The Altar, a painted deal Table, its coverings of corresponding meanness. The whole floor of the Church was on one level, one step only for kneeling at the Altar Rails Some Record of the Parish of Peldon D/P 287/8/3

We do know the gallery was in place in 1739 from the churchwardens' accounts.

August the 1st 1739 for framing the gallorey £1

With thanks to

The picture above is of St Mary's Old Church, West Bergholt. While the church layout is different to that of Peldon Church it gives an idea of what the old galleries would have looked like with supporting pillars and a staircase. Peldon's gallery extended right over to the South door.

It seems that remedial work was urgent since some of the stone in the belfry, with the large gallery in front, threatened to fall.

Some stones of the Belfry Arch so out of place, as threatening at any moment to fall. A large solid piece of masonry detached and pressing on the arch, owing to an old settlement crack in the Tower ... Some Record of the Parish of Peldon D/P 287/8/3

The Reverend Harrison wrote of his efforts to get the Church restored, and of the 6d rate imposed on the parish for this purpose after some ineffectual opposition.

This opposition is recorded in the vestry minutes. In March 1858, notice was given of a proposal for the purpose of making and granting a Rate for re-seating and repairing the Church,

A vote was taken on the proposed 6d rate with those in favour of the rate totalling 30 and those against 29. With the closeness of the vote the meeting was adjourned and the vote re-opened between 10 and 4 the next day. This time the votes were 35 for and 47 against. However, the rector got his way for on 1st July 1858 a motion was passed to proceed with the works

as soon as the necessary amount of Grants and Subscriptions be raised.

We do know, incidentally, from the dates on the architect's drawings that plans had already been drawn up as early as 1857!

The plan of the church in the 18th to 19th century before the 1858/9 restoration shows the pillars that supported the gallery either side of the font. The size of the pews indicates they were box or double pews referred to by Rev Harrison and those marked 'appropriated' were allocated to the wealthier members of the congregation who probably paid pew-rental. The lower plan for the church in 1858/9 shows the use of the base of the tower for seating children on benches; the gallery pillars have gone and many more smaller pews have been fitted, filling all the available space, to accommodate a larger congregation.

Lambeth Palace Archive has a folder of letters and plans for this restoration including the original application form for a grant from the Incorporated Society for Promoting the Enlargement, Building and Repairs of Churches and Chapels, later known as the Incorporated Church Building Society. In Peldon's application, a case was made for the parish being very poor, having no wealthy families able to contribute and its principal landowner, a Dissenter. This is most likely a reference to the Gibson Family who were Quakers.

Wyatt George Gibson (1790 - 1879) of Saffron Walden owned huge areas of land, houses, and marshes in Peldon.

After the Napoleonic Wars there was a decline in farm incomes and either by default of Mortgage or desire to sell, about one third of Peldon came under the ownership of Wyatt George Gibson, Banker and Brewer of Saffron Walden. unpublished history by Pat Moore

He was described as a traditionalist who dressed and spoke as an old-fashioned Quaker

Although a great benefactor in Saffron Walden, it seems neither he nor his family contributed to Peldon's Church of England although £20 was given towards the expansion of the school in 1872 and an annual subscription of 2 guineas. A donation of £5 was also made in 1884 towards the repair of the Village Pump.

For the architect, James Mackenzie Roberts, restoring St Mary the Virgin at Peldon was his first significant commission as a surveyor and architect. His father-in-law, James Mason, a farmer at Pete Hall in Peldon, may possibly have made the recommendation; James Mason was present at several vestry meetings between 1856 and 1859 and St Mary's was doubtless his parish church.

The restoration was to comprise some repairs and an enlargement of the seating to provide sittings for 246 persons, including 110 for the poorer inhabitants (according to the correspondence, although the plaque in the church indicates this was increased to 194 seats for the poor). R Webb (James M Roberts' 2x great grandson)

Plans for the new pews in 1858/59
This is one of the Drawings
referred to in the Agreement
between ourselves and the
rector C Harrison
H Baker
Lee and Baker

The South porch was also to be re-built.

A new south door was proposed, the plan being drawn up by Humphrey Baker of the building company Lee and Baker, he was later to become an architect himself.

Following approval of his plans, the architect, James Mackenzie Roberts, placed an advertisement in the local paper.

Builders wishing to Tender for Re-seating and Repairing the Parish Church of Peldon, Essex, may see the Plans and Specifications (with bills of quantities) at the Essex and Suffolk Gazette Office, Colchester from the 24th to the 31st of July. The lowest or any Tender not necessarily accepted.

James M Roberts, Architect, Heath Cottage, Dedham.

Within weeks the builders Lee and Baker were advertising the wood from the pews, gallery and floor for sale by auction.

Mr Edward Smith
On Tuesday, September 14th, 1858, by orders of Messrs. LEE
and BAKER, the Contractors,
ERIALS, being the entire fittings, floors, galleries, &., &.,
arising from alterations now making at Peldon Church.
The above will be divided into convenient Lots. Further
particulars of the Contractors, at the Church.
Sale to commence at 1 for 2 o'clock precisely

With the removal of the gallery the builders were able to make good the problem with the loose stonework in the tower.

the Belfry Arch[was] entirely taken down to the ground, rebuilt upright, and raised to its present height (4 ½ feet additional) and so brought into better proportions with the present height of nave Some Record of the Parish of Peldon

The Chancel arch was also replaced with an oak one.

It was feared to restore a stone arch, both on the grounds of cost and the nature of the soil. Some Record of the Parish of Peldon

In just over seven months the restoration was completed. As a condition of the funding by the Incorporated Society for Building & Churches, a plaque acknowledging their assistance was hung and still hangs today on the South wall of the nave.

Work appears to have proceeded well, and was completed early in 1859, to the satisfaction of Joseph Clarke, the inspecting architect for the Society. The cost of the work totalled £588, £33 being James's fee [the architect], plus a further £15 architect's commission. R Webb

The Builder magazine gave much more detail as to the nature of the completed works.

Peldon.- The old parish church, which has for some months past been undergoing repair and restoration has been re-opened. The ceiling, gallery at the west end, and huge square and oblong pews have been removed, and the pews are replaced by open seats of stained deal. The old roof of oak timber, which is of the fifteenth century, is now seen, and has been repaired. The belfry arch, of Kentish ragstone, has been raised 4 feet, and through it the lower interior of the tower is opened to the church. The chancel floor has been raised, and a new altar supplied. This improvement made it necessary to shorten the several lights of the triple lancet window at the east end. The chancel is paved with Stafford tiles, the foot-pace being of encaustic tiles. On pulling down the plaster which surmounted the piers of the chancel arch, it was found necessary to construct a new arch, and one has been erected of carved oak. In making these changes several bits of Norman stonework were discovered, which prove that a Norman church once stood in the place of the present Perpendicular structure. The Builder Magazine 19.3.1859

The Church at Peldon was re-opened for Divine service on the 3rd inst, after considerable repairs and restoration ... the work of restoration reflected much credit on the architect, Mr J M Roberts of Dedham, and the contractors, Messrs Lee and Baker of Colchester. Ipswich Journal 12 March 1859

The re-opening was attended by a large gathering of clergy and parishioners, many of whom had subscribed to the work.

PELDON - The church here was re-opened for Divine Service on Thursday last, after considerable repairs and restoration. The flat ceiling and tie-beams have been removed, and the old oak roof laid open and restored. An unsightly gallery has been taken away, and the tower made open to the church, the belfry arch having been reset and increased in height. The whole church has been re-seated uniformly with low open seats. The font, of Norman date, has been restored in Purbeck by Field, of London.
At the morning service there was a large gathering of clergy, including the Revds. Bird, T. Henderson. J.A. Cook (Rural Deans in this diocese); F.H. Murray, F.W. Murray, W. Harrison, B. Lodge, J. Dewhurst, W.R. Browell &c. &c. The congregation was large, including C.G. Round, Esq., and Mrs Round, with many of the laity from the neighbouring parishes. The sermon was preached by the Rector (the Rev. C.R. Harrison), who took as his text Psa. lxxii., 25-  "Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee." The Holy Communion was administered by the Rector, assisted by the Rural Dean and the Rev. F.H. Murray. The evening service was at 7 o'clock. The church was thronged, benches being placed in the aisles. The sermon was preached by the Rev. F.H. Murray, Rector of Chiselhurst, on Psa. ix., 2-"Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." The collections of the day amounted to more than £29; and a large number of those present had before subscribed to the work. The sum was increased on the following Sunday to £31. The work of restoration reflected much credit on the architect, Mr J.M. Roberts, of Dedham, and the contractors, Messrs Lee and Baker of Colchester. Essex Standard 11 March 1859

*     *     *

Who would have dreamed that less than 30 years later, in 1884, Peldon would be at the centre of one of the country's most severe earthquakes ever, following which, St Mary the Virgin was rendered unusable for nine months, requiring considerable repair. It is also clear from the diary of Rev Carter Hall, the rector, that the church chancel had only just been reroofed.

Peldon - Wednesday the 23rd April 1884 Yesterday - April 22nd at 9.13.o'clock (a.m.) there was in this and several of the adjoining Parishes - and in Colchester - a shock of earthquake - such as - it is believed was never before known in any part of the kingdom. The Church was shaken to its centre - Several large stones were thrown down from the old tower - three of the lamps suspended from the roof and one of those placed at the entrance to the chancel - were flung to some distance - the walls of the Church were rent in sundry points - and the Chancel, which had been newly roofed and put into perfect order only a few weeks previously was unroofed and utterly defaced. Rev Carter Hall: Some Record of the Parish of Peldon

This account below from the Essex Chronicle attributed the lean in Peldon's tower to the earthquake.

The village of Peldon is in a bad condition. The stone battlements on top of the church tower were shaken, and hurled some onto the roof of the nave and others into the churchyard. The massive stone tower is also rent literally from top to bottom, and now stands a considerable distance out of the perpendicular.

In fact, we know from an account by Sabine Baring Gould in his novel Mehalah that the tower leaned before the effects of the earthquake. Mehalah was first published in 1880 four years before the earthquake.

She took the road before her, and saw that it led to Peldon, the leaning tower of which stood on a hill that had formed the northern horizon from The Ray. Mehalah: S Baring Gould

In May the Rev Carter Hall reported

May 1884 The Mansion House fund collected for the relief of the sufferers and the repairs of Church and school houses - thrown down as otherwise inferred - has amounted to a sum sufficient for nearly all the purposes for which it has been raised. The cost of restoration on the Church is estimated at £550 and the repairs on the school at £50 and these costs the sub-committee for the disposal of the funds have undertaken to defray. Some Record of the Parish Of Peldon

1886 The works were subsequently commenced - the school house was effectively completed - but the Church took many months - it was re-opened on the first Sunday in January 1885 when collections were made in aid of the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Carter Hall Rector
Some Record of the Parish Of Peldon

In many of the old photographs we have of Peldon Church it is clothed in ivy. In the Churchwardens accounts for 1920 the wardens are warned by a Member of the Ancient Monuments History Commission that unless the ivy on the church were removed, it would certainly destroy the building in course of time.

By 1939, the church was again in urgent need of restoration. The Church still has the surveyor's report on the chancel. The surveyor, Duncan W Clark, judged

It is a rather poor specimen of Victorian Gothic and contrasts unfavourably, both as regards the interior and exterior, with the older Nave.
White brick is used extensively, although a good deal of material from the earlier Chancel was re-used for wall facings.
The roof is tiled and suspended from this is a false ceiling formed with moulded deal ribs enclosing plaster panels. This ceiling is now in a precarious condition for which reason it has been thought desirable to close the Chancel.

      The cause of this trouble is twofold -
(1) Inadequate foundations on a treacherous soil
(2) Weakness in the design of the roof.

He believed the chancel to date to the restoration of 1858/9 but nowhere in the reports of that restoration is there mention of the chancel being rebuilt, just the arch. We know the chancel was demolished in 1820. Is it not likely it was a rebuilding of the chancel then that had proved to have inadequate foundations in 1939?

Duncan Clark gives his assessment of the causes

With regard to the first of these causes. The soil is clay, which it is well known is very treacherous. There is ample evidence of this in the big buttresses which have been built to support the Nave walls. The inclination of, and cracks in the Tower are due to the same cause. Other cracks are also noticeable in the East wall of the Chancel, and particularly in the Vestry [on the North side of the Chancel]. Buildings on such soil require deep and exceptionally strong foundations - unfortunately those to the Chancel are shallow and the concrete is of very poor quality.

The second cause is weakness in the design of the roof - owing to this the rafters have spread, thereby pushing out the side walls and weakening the supports to the ceiling. [Was this due to the re-roofing of the Chancel just before the earthquake in 1884?] This movement has also disturbed the gutters behind the parapet walls so that leaks have developed and decayed some of the timbers. The North wall is now 7" out of upright, and the South wall 4½"
It will be gathered from these remarks that the situation is serious.

The two choices to remedy the problem are given as

1. To attempt to repair the present building
2. To entirely rebuild.

No.1 would imply an extensive scheme of underpinning, an entirely new roof and taking down and rebuilding the greater part of the North & South walls and the whole of the Vestry. I do not think the building would justify such extensive and costly repairs.
I should recommend, therefore, the erection of a new Chancel which would permit of the constructions of proper foundations and the design of a building more in harmony with the present beautiful Nave.

We must not forget that this letter was written two months into the Second World War as Duncan Clark acknowledged.

Such a scheme, however, could not be proceeded with at present and would have to wait for more peaceful times - steps must, however, be taken to prevent a collapse of the present roof. As a first step in this direction the ceiling, which is the most dangerous part, should be taken down, after this has been done the roof timbers will be exposed and I shall be able to advise you better as to any temporary work which may be desirable to arrest any further movement of the roof.

Work was not to be started until after the war and funds were raised. It was the incumbent of the church, The Reverend Roy Gumley Adnett, who served from 1949 to 1955, who was instrumental in building up the funds to pay for the new chancel. In the meantime, the chancel was blocked off as seen in the photograph below and it was not until 1953 that the new, shorter chancel was finished and re-opened, being dedicated on 19th April 1953. The architect was Marshall Sisson (1897 - 1978) of Godmanchester and the work was undertaken by Clifford White of West Mersea. From the architect's archives we learn that the original glass from the Victorian chancel was reused with new leading.

The two pictures following show the church with the longer chancel pre-1953 and a picture of the church as it is today with the 1953 shortened Chancel. In the earlier photograph the doorway into the chancel was a priest's door and a small vestry was opposite (built on in 1866) on the north side of the chancel. Nowadays, the vestry is sited in the base of the church tower.

During the incumbency of the Reverend John Penrose (1958 - 1964) the nave was redecorated and the tower roof renewed.

In the first year of the Reverend Gough's term of office (1964 - 1971) a new electrical heating system was installed. He wrote in his history of the church

... in 1966 the roof was treated for Death-Watch beetle and the whole of the South-east section of the Nave floor renewed. In 1967 the George III Coat of Arms was restored. Later that year the organ was dismantled and restored [installed in 1912], and re-sited at the West End of the Church. St Mary the Virgin Peldon, The Rev A Gough

The Churchwardens' minutes record Rentokil was paid £329 10s for the Death Watch beetle treatment.

Oak choir stalls were installed in the memory of the Rev Seddon (1974 - 1981) who brought music alive in Peldon.

The clerestory windows on the south side were repaired in the late 1970s. In 1977 the two bells were inspected and the Miles Graye bell, which was cracked, was removed and put into the Museums' Service storage. The Thomas Mears bell was rehung and fitted as a stationary bell at the same time. The Miles Graye bell was finally restored and put back in 2012, again as a stationary bell.

Repairs and restoration have continued throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first and, to help finance the work, The Friends of St Mary's was set up in March 2006 at the instigation of Professor Bill Tamblyn, long-time resident of the village, lay preacher and former churchwarden. As a result, the church tower can now be safely opened to the public on special occasions, with lighting, hand holds and the steps repaired. A hundred wooden chairs have now replaced most of the Victorian pews and an extension beyond the North door has provided kitchen and toilet facilities. The restoration of the Miles Graye bell was also paid for by The Friends.

An application for a Heritage Lottery grant is the next fund-raising initiative. Plans are to repair the uneven, broken floor, providing easy wheelchair access and to make the church a community hub, equipped with modern technology, for exhibitions, workshops and lectures on the history of Peldon and St Mary's.

Elaine Barker Peldon History Project

With especial thanks to Rob Webb for the use of his research into the 1858 restoration.

Read More:
St Mary the Virgin Peldon : Rev Anthony Gough
St Mary the Virgin Peldon by Alan Ellis St Mary the Virgin Peldon by Alan Ellis.pdf
Rev C R Harrison 1867 Some Record of the Parish of Peldon. Essex Records Office D/P 287/8/3
Church Seating for the Poor

Friends of St Mary's Peldon

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 Plan showing re-seating &c. of the Parish Church of Peldon, Essex.
 Open Seats - Nave - Adults 176
 Bench - Nave - Adults 6
 Benches - Tower - Children 48
</p><p>James M. Roberts Archt.
 Heath Cottage, Dedham Essex
More information on James Mackensie Roberts: <a href= target=jmr></a>
<p>Image from Lambeth Palace Library, Incorporated Church Building Society Collection, ICBS 5297
 <a href= target=lpl></a>  PH01_CHC_017
ImageID:   PH01_CHC_017
Title: Plan showing re-seating &c. of the Parish Church of Peldon, Essex.
Open Seats - Nave - Adults 176
Bench - Nave - Adults 6
Benches - Tower - Children 48

James M. Roberts Archt.
Heath Cottage, Dedham Essex

More information on James Mackensie Roberts:

Image from Lambeth Palace Library, Incorporated Church Building Society Collection, ICBS 5297

Date:May 1857
Source:Peldon History Project
 St Mary the Virgin Parish Church, Peldon, Essex  PH01_CHC_031
ImageID:   PH01_CHC_031
Title: St Mary the Virgin Parish Church, Peldon, Essex
Date:28 January 2018
Source:Peldon History Project / Elaine Barker
 Peldon Church - South wall showing Roman bricks and rubble from the previous church.  PH01_CHC_033
ImageID:   PH01_CHC_033
Title: Peldon Church - South wall showing Roman bricks and rubble from the previous church.
Date:2 January 2021
Source:Peldon History Project / Elaine Barker
 Peldon Church - South wall showing Roman bricks and rubble from the previous church.  PH01_CHC_035
ImageID:   PH01_CHC_035
Title: Peldon Church - South wall showing Roman bricks and rubble from the previous church.
Date:2 January 2021
Source:Peldon History Project / Elaine Barker
 Peldon Church of St Mary the Virgin. Postcard mailed 16 August 1906.  RG11_403
ImageID:   RG11_403
Title: Peldon Church of St Mary the Virgin. Postcard mailed 16 August 1906.
Date:Before August 1906
Source:Ron Green Collection