|Abstract||Little Birch Church
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - August 1999
In previous issues of this Newsletter the Editor has made mention of the number of places of worship which have existed at some time or other in the area and this month we concentrate on Little Birch Church. Now a ruin it is nevertheless a Listed Building described, in the details held in the Planning Department of Colchester BC, as "Church of St Mary (Ruin) north of Birch Hall". The ruin is hidden in trees off the road from Heckford Bridge to Layer de la Haye and is on private property and, as the description implies, in a dangerous state and, therefore, not open to visitors.
In a booklet, written by the late Mr Millatt, it is described as once having a 13th or 14th century chancel and a 12th century nave with a west tower built in the 14th century but having an upper part added more than 200 years later. The nave has a plain Norman doorway and Roman brick was used in some of the widow openings. The Church was in use prior to the Reformation as it is mentioned in various Wills. For example William Tendring, in 1499, left the profits of a tenement called Lucas (Lukes) to the priest for the time being to do service in the church of Our Lady in Little Birch, for 21 years, especially in remembrance of the souls of William and his family. Other similar bequests and requests were made including the provision of ten shillings by John Tey in 1534 to the "making of Little Birch Church".
In an inventory of Church goods made by the Commissioners of Edward VI in 1552 it is noted that the church had two bells and a chalice of five ounces as well as vestments. In 1577 Robert Forster of Little Birch Hall was "to be buried in this Church" and he willed that a grave stone be bought and laid in the place they used to set the sepulchre, and that it might serve instead of a sepulchre. There is no trace of this tomb or the Easter sepulchre, but on the south side of the chancel are the remains of a 14th century piscina trefoiled head.
The church seems to have become disused during Elizabethan times as various entries about Little Birch are found in the early registers of Great Birch. These include the baptism in 1572 of Henry the eldest son of Arthur Golding, a famous classical translator, whose work was used by Shakespeare, and who lived at that time in Little Birch Hall. Golding inherited estates in Essex, including land in Easthorpe from his brother n 1576 and lived at Birch Hall off and on for some years despite being beset by money problems. By 1629 the Churchwarden, John Brocke, told the Archdeacon's Court that "the Church is out of repair and hath been for a long time, not used for divine service for forty years at least".
Despite this, however, John Eldred, alderman and bailiff of Colchester, who became tenant of Little Birch Hall about 1640 has a memorial which states: "He ordered this Church to be restored for the habitation of the flocks of the Lord, the honourable patroness Dame Thomasina Swynnerton (owner of Birch Hall and Stanway Hall) sharing with him the expense incurred in erecting this retreat of the spiritual flock of the Lord". Eldred died in 1646 and was buried here and a monument erected to him. After the Civil War the Church seems to have been neglected again and John Eldred's grandson removed the monument to Earls Colne where it can still be seen in the south chapel of that church together with a small stone recording the removal.
Early in the 18th century the then rector of Great Birch, William Ayerst, was also appointed rector of Little Birch a position continued by his successor. When, however, the Bishop of London attempted to maintain the dual position in 1752, William Round, then patron of Little Birch appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury against the Bishop usurping his rights and so in 1754 the two positions were split - the Revd. George Kilby for Great Birch and the Revd. John Haggard for Little Birch also being the Rector of Stanway. Haggard "duly read openly, publickly, and solemnly the customary Morning and Evening Prayers appointed to be read, and made the necessary declarations" within the roofless walls of the ruinous little church, attended by three witnesses. His position was a sinecure as he was also Rector of Bennington, Hertfordshire soon after.
In 1768 Philip Morant, the Essex historian, reported that "the church was ruinous and tower standing high but the roof quite gone". Great Birch Church became the church for both parishes and the problem of the sinecure rectory of Little Birch was settled by an agreement in 1814 and an Act of Parliament in 1816 which united the two parishes. The Act also established Great Birch Church as the parish church for the united parish and the ruins of Little Birch Church together with the site became the property of the owners of Birch Hall.
(Colchester Borough Council Listed Buildings detail 42 places in Birch; 16 in Layer Breton and 18 in Layer Marney. In addition to the ruins of St Mary's Church the list for Birch includes several barns, a wall, Birch School and Schoolmaster's House, a cart lodge and the Angel Public House "originally two houses - 17th century to the south and 18th century to the north" and the Church of St Peter and St Paul, plus a number of farmhouses and cottages. In Layer Breton the places listed are all residential and include the "Hare and Hounds" - 17th century. Apart from one stable block all the premises in Layer Marney are residential. The range of dates covered run from the 15th to the 19th century, the oldest buildings in the area apparently being a barn at Walnut Tree Farm, Churchgate Farmhouse, Shemmings, parts of Wishing Well Cottage and Whitehouse Farm, all in Birch. Bushes, also 15th century, seems to be the oldest in Layer Breton with Parkgate Farm and parts of Wick Farmhouse, both of a similar age, in Layer Marney.)
The ruins of Little Birch Church c1980
A history of the Churches Old and New of Birch and Layer Breton by T.B. Millatt 1963