Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - May 2003
This issue is based on an undated article, by C R Jefferies, in the series "Your Essex" in the County magazine. It concerns Layer Breton and, from a paragraph about the "Hare and Hounds", it seems to have been written just before the Second World War. The author records a chat he had with Mr Joseph Palmer, who had been landlord since 1911, and that he had recently been succeeded by his son after 25 years.
Clearly Mr Jefferies knew the area well and recalled the Church being built on the heath. The Congregational Chapel had been pulled down and the Sunday School was, by then, a garage. Today a further conversion has taken place and it is now a private residence. The Chapel had, at one time, been full of worshippers at weekends when the rector travelled from Islington to stay at his weekend house in the village. The late Mrs Gladys Foakes recalled that the pews had doors "at each end so that we couldn't get out." The chapel finally failed as the trustees could not agree on the financial upkeep. It was demolished around the time St Mary's Church was built in 1923. The chapel worshippers, however, moved to The Friends Meeting House on Layer Breton Hill, erected in 1827.
In the years of agricultural unrest not only was the Heath the site of Union gatherings attended by the Nonconformist Minister and, in 1877, a local preacher took the chair at such a meeting and "joined the Union on the spot". Such actions were sometimes expedient and the comment is made that although meetings were attended to show support Ministers frequently sat silent "lest any remarks of theirs should reach the ears of the more affluent of their congregations".
One of the people Mr Jefferies met was Mr Burmby who recalled the Chapel being built. He had played in the band along with his brothers. Later he became very well known in the area as the village carrier for more than forty years making the journey to Colchester four times a week. He also recollected taking parties round Wigborough, Peldon and Langenhoe, to view the damage caused by the 1884 earthquake. He also recalled that Layer Breton Heath was the site of a bonfire to celebrate Queen Victoria's 1897 Jubilee, and was used by the local cricket club for matches. Fairs were also held on the Heath.
In those days Layer Breton had a post office, just at the top of the hill, run by Mrs French. One postman, Mr Harvey, had a wooden leg but, nevertheless, was said to walk to and from Kelvedon to collect the letters - 14 miles. In the days before mail order catalogues, and masses of circulars, the postman's load was much lighter but the distance walked in all weathers was quite something. Other local tradesmen included a baker, a blacksmith, Mr Charles Taylor a boot repairer, and a thatcher. One of the rectors recalled was the Rev William Blow, described as a first rate violinist and brilliant pianist. The owner of a fine Stradivarius he went on to build one of the most important, privately held, collection of violins in the country. The poor Living of the Parish of Layer Breton, combined with a growing family, meant that an impecunious William was forced to sell some of his collection while in the Parish.
Other activities in the village, in addition to cricket, included The Quoit Club who also played on the Heath with up to 150 spectators. At that time there were quoit leagues in many areas with teams based on local hostelries attracting support in much the same way as minor football clubs do today. Each Whit Monday a Feast was held in connection with the "Hare and Hounds" benefit club, and receipts for payments to the latter took the form of discs entitling the holder to a free pint of beer.
The Friends Meeting House is referred to in "Colchester Quakers" by S H G Fitch, which gives the history of the movement in this area from the seventeenth century on. The first intimation of the need to have Meeting House in Layer Breton occurred in 1821 when the Friends at Copford expressed concern that the distance of the Copford Meeting House was causing problems to those from Layer Breton wishing to attend. By 1826 it was decided to build a Meeting House in Layer Breton and to discontinue meetings at Copford. The abstract of title sets out, very precisely, that an area of one rood and ten perches in Layer Breton, recently fenced off and segregated from the rest of the field known as Greenfield, was to be used. The 1842 Tithe Map gives the area as 1 rood 16 perches and Greenfield had, by then, been split up further. By 1849 it was recorded that "The accommodation for the horses and carriages of Friends attending the Layer Breton Meeting having become insufficient, our representatives are directed to apply to the Monthly Meeting for leave to make the necessary addition". Three years later the alterations were estimated to cost £100. Various attendance census were taken and in 1909 there were 55 at one meeting and 34 at another but when it was first opened the number seems to have been 33. At that time also the Clerks for the area were the Gripper family who were large landowners and farmers in Layer Breton
The Old Rectory, now Shalom Hall, was once the home of the Allingham family. Margery, authoress of the Albert Campion detective books, lived there from 1909 until 1916. The family moved in when she was aged 4 and she went to school in Colchester. Her biographer records that the Old Rectory, owned by Rev Edwin Luard, was Georgian with a separate wing known as The Glebe. Both properties were in a poor state and very spartan but Margery seems to have enjoyed her time there and hoped to return. She never did but moved, later in life, to Tolleshunt D'Arcy. The two parts of the property were either side of a green door with the children in The Glebe part of the house and their parents in the Old Rectory. It is not surprising that under such a system Margery described her childhood as "quiet and lonely". One visitor to the family is said to have walked from Glasgow taking "the best part of a week ... to the door of my host in Layer Breton. I got lost among the narrow side roads, and the local people were not much help. In fact they were no help, for they could not understand why anyone who wanted to go to Layer Breton would not know where it was."
Between 1911 and 1913 Valuation Records, based on the market value of all property, were prepared by the Inland Revenue and the description of some houses is quite revealing. For example the Rectory and Glebe House were two houses joined by a timber passage. Both were of brick and slate and "old and in poor condition" having "no water supply all has to be carted half a mile". The value entered was £650. The Congregational Chapel was closed at that time as was the Sunday School "both in very bad condition". Together with the Burial Ground, also closed, the value was given as £900. The Friend's Meeting House was also in poor condition only worth a third of the Congregational site.
The Manor House was said to be in good order owned and occupied by H Norfolk with a value of £1,000 having been sold in 1906 for £885. Presumably this was part of the sale of Charles Digby Harrod's estate. The Carrier's House on the Heath (identified in the records as Treetops) was valued at £160 and Heath House at £440. The Row, comprising six cottages near the Lodge, were valued at £40 each apart from the first which was worth £5 more as it included the wash house for the whole Row! The Lodge itself, owned and occupied by T Simpson, was then worth £1,060. Bought in 1906 for £1,000 a bathroom had been added since then.
It is not possible to compare valuations across the village as farm houses were valued with the land and outbuildings included and, in many cases, rented cottages were also included with the owner's other property. The overall impression, however, is of a rural area comprising much run down property but some of the detail is interesting. The Hare and Hounds, then owned by the Colchester Brewery, was of "brick and tile or brick and slate, old but moderate with three bedrooms on the first floor and one small room. Ground floor: kitchen, pantry, living room, sitting room, bar, tap, bar parlour and club room, two cellars, a small meadow and garden with several outbuildings", then worth £1,650.
Some things have not changed that much and even in 2003 it is necessary to explain very carefully to visitors how to find the village and some express surprise that the village is separate from Birch and lies between the larger Layer de la Haye, and the better known Layer Marney, famed for the Tudor gatehouse. Try to relate it to the Reservoir and bird watchers are familiar with the name Abberton but only ever drive through Birch to get to it!
(We are grateful to Mrs Lay, and others, for the information forming the basis of this issue.)
On a final, rather special note, 16th and 17th May 2003 sees the 60th anniversary of the bombing raid to destroy the Ruhr Dams in Germany by 617 Squadron of the RAF. The squadron had to fly extremely low all the way to the target and part of their all too short training took place over the Abberton Reservoir. Next time you cross the causeway at night just think what it must have been like to try to keep a Lancaster bomber at just 60 feet above the water - then add to that picture all the other difficulties they faced on the way to, from, and over the target.