|Birch - A Village Church In The Eighties by Arthur E. May
From Essex Countryside magazine August 1953 transcribed by Joe Vince
Birch, where the author was born and spent his childhood, is a small village about five miles from Colchester. These recollections of its parish life seventy years ago [1880s] reflect the
importance of the parson and the village church in the life of the country at that time.
"Educate men without religion and you make them but clever devils"
- Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
At the time I was born, the village church was still the centre of village life. The squire and the parson were still the leading figures
in every parish to whom all looked for help and advice except in such cases, fortunately rare, where these were bad eggs. Their
predominance was undoubtedly due chiefly to the fact that they were, as a rule, the best educated people in the village.
In my native parish of Birch, near Colchester, we were lucky in having as the squire Mr. James Round, of Birch Hall, who had the
interests and welfare of all the residents in the parish at heart, and as rector Canon William Harrison, a cleric of much experience who
had been private chaplain to Queen Victoria. He wore a surplice for all the church service except the sermon, which he preached in a
black gown and wearing white gloves: his sermons generally lasted half and hour or more, as was customary in those days.
It may interest some readers to know that, seventy years ago, the wearing of surplices by either clergy or choir and the presence of a
cross on the altar or in any other part of the church were considered by many people to be Romanish, and riots actually occurred in some
parishes when these were introduced Mr.C.E. Benham, in his amusing Essex Ballads, published in 1895, refers to the first use of surplices in the following lines:
" An I don't howd`ith these `ere ways at Church -
A - singin' o' the scripters and that 'ere.
Dressin` theirselves in night - gownds stiff wi' starch,
The Boible never tell `em that, I swear.
Surplices had, of course, been used in Roman Catholic churches for hundreds of years. In olden days churches were not warmed and priests
used to wear a garment made of skins called the "pelice" to keep themselves warm. For celebrating Mass they wore an alb or "super - pelice" over this.
Some of the country churches were very much neglected at this period and the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, who was rector of East Mersea in Essex
from 1871 to 1881 and the author of the well-known novel Mehalah about the Essex marshlands, writing in 1914, said he remembered
that "the condition of most of the churches in country places was deplorable".
The cleavage of opinion between "high" and "low" churchmen was much greater then than now. A good deal of bitterness existed between
members of the Church of England and members of the Free Churches; each would work had for the good of a parish but they would seldom
work jointly. "United" services, such as we see today in many places for special occasions such as Armistice Day or Harvest Thanksgiving,
attended by members of all sects of religion, would not have been tolerated by any of the parties. It is consequently something to be
thankful for that we are at least all broader minded and more tolerant of each other's views.
At Birch the rector's family sat in the chancel; the choir (unsurpliced) occupied the front pews on the south side of the nave: while the
squire and his family were installed in the corresponding front pew on the north side. The squire, when at home, always read the lessons.
The farmers, tradesmen, and other residents of the parish occupied the remaining pews in the front of the nave. The farm labourers sat in
the back pews and never entered the church till the bell had stopped ringing. They were all expected by their employers (and virtually
obliged) to attend all morning services on Sundays. Christmas Day and Good Friday, and were paid their usual wages for attending on the
latter two days. I think the universal attendance on the part of the majority of the people in the parish was a relic of the old days
when attendance at church was legally compulsory; old habits do not die easily even when laws are altered.
Sometimes we attended the church in the adjoining parish of Layer Breton, and this church had totally enclosed high - backed pews with a
door to each. The partitions between the pews were not too high to prevent adults from seeing over the top when seated, but it was
impossible for children to see anything at all, except when standing at all, except when standing, and we found this extremely boring.
The custom of clergy to preach in black gowns, the poor condition of some of our country churches and the old box pews, all previously
referred to, were all stirized by the Rev. William Heygate in his poem "The Old Essex Clerk" written in 1870:
"Our last Vicar - poor - man - made a deal of preaching i`black.
But there warnt no more in his head for that he had on his back.
He was one for the sarmint, and nit so much for the prayer;
He wouldn`t a clent the old place, but left it just as it were.
Our church was holly choked up, and every pew was a box,
And every pew had jacks in it, as many as fleas in a fox,
For all the gals was peeping over the side at the boys,
Like bees in a bottle, the church kept buzzing with their noise".
A few churches had good endowments and, consequently, good livings for the clergy, but many of the latter were extremely poor. In 1894
there were twenty - eight parishes in Essex which had a living of only £150 to £200, twenty - one between £100 and £150, and thirteen
actually under £100. Curates were, of course, paid still less and, unless they had private means, those who were rash enough to marry
before they were appointed to livings had a very hard struggle to support their wives and families, which were as large as most other
people`s in an age when birth restriction had no part in the nation`s social economy.
We had one clergyman in our district who was rather a mystery. He was an exceptionally good amateur actor and frequently acted at
entertainments in the neighbourhood. On Sundays he always took the church services with great vigour and in a most impressive manner, but
we were always rather inclined to suspect the latter, because although in church he appeared to have a faith which would shake mountains,
in private conversation he was apt to be a little cynical.
One Sunday morning, after the church service, one of his parishioners, a farmer, remarked to him how dry the weather was and how much
rain was needed for the crops. The vicar agreed and said, "Yes, one or two people have asked me to read the prayer for rain in church,
but I really don't think it`s much use praying for rain while the wind's in the east, do you?"