TitleLayer Breton's Quaker Meeting House and Burial Ground - Centenary Chronicle 38
AbstractLayer Breton's Quaker Meeting House and Burial Ground

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 38.

Published in Parish News - May 2005

We start with a "Trivial Pursuits" type question. Which Essex Parish has a church without a burial ground and yet has four burial grounds without a chapel or church? Local readers will, of course, have the correct answer - Layer Breton.

One burial ground is to be found down a narrow pathway off Layer Breton Hill, tucked in behind new houses. Now rather overgrown it contains stones marking the graves of those who were once prominent villagers and members of the Society of Friends - Quakers. One particular group of stones commemorates Edward Gripper and his family. Edward was instrumental in building the Meeting House which used to stand where the new houses now are. His family played a leading part in the community and maintaining the House for a large part of its 160 year existence.

The Society of Friends had a chequered history in this area with a number of Meeting Houses being built in the 18th century. Originating in meetings held in members' houses which had to be licensed as interest grew, so the need for Meeting Houses to be built grew. Initially, it seems, local Quakers supported meetings at Copford to such an extent that between 1708 and 1723 it became known as the Birch meeting. By 1827, however, Copford declined and the Meeting House was let as a girls' school. Finally it was demolished in 1923 by which time a new Meeting House had been built on part of the old burial ground but this also was closed and sold in 1956 to be converted into a house "Autumn Place".

Turning to Layer Breton, an Abstract of Title, dated 1827, shows that it was built on a part of a field known as Greenfield, belonging to Jonathan Powell at that time. It was described as a "pleasant brick building, the interior fully boarded to the ceiling". Clearly it was well supported in those early days as within 20 years the accommodation for horses and carriages bringing Friends to Meetings was said to be inadequate and an extension was built to enable more carriages etc. to be sheltered. In 1852 the sum of £100 was spent to extend the Meeting House by replacing the old end wall by a shuttered partition with counterweighted sash shutters; the 1827 partition had loose sliding panels which were a surprising feature for that time. Later a porch was added and the original doors and dated frame were refitted.

As with other Meetings popularity fluctuated and although attendance was said to be between 20 and 60 in 1867 it declined so much that in 1894 appeals were made in the area to provide "a conveyance, once a month, [to] be placed at the disposal of any Friends who desire to attend that meeting on First Day". A few years later it was reported that only one resident family attended. Signs of revival were evident by 1909 when the average attendance was said to be 44.

Although numbers declined after the First World War, regular Meetings did not lapse until 1982 and the final Monthly Meeting ceased in 1984. From the 1970s on the declining numbers meant that it was extremely difficult not only to run Meetings but also to maintain the Meeting House. In 1980 it was estimated that £4,650 would be needed to repair the roof, paint woodwork and trim trees and although other groups used the House for a Sunday School and Evangelical meetings it was felt that only the minimum amount of essential work should be financed and that the property should be sold or demolished.

The reason for the decline in numbers was that older members either moved away, or became too old to carry out their former duties, and new recruits were not coming forward. Inevitably the use of the building became a concern for the insurers as well as the local Finance Committee. In 1986 it was decided to seek planning permission, prior to the sale of the property, for one dwelling - the burial ground to remain the property of the Friends. The furnishings and fittings were sold off, mainly to local people, and in September 1988 the property was sold and the Meeting House was demolished. At this time it was confirmed that the House had been built with little in the way of foundations which may explain the movement of the walls and the need for tie bars to be inserted.

The Gripper family who played such a prominent part in building the Meeting House, lived at Layer Breton Hall initially. Edward Gripper was born in Epping in 1785 and moved to Layer Breton about 1830. One of the largest farmers in the area, farming 526 acres in 1851, he employed 19 men and 6 boys. The 1842 Tithe map shows the Meeting House surrounded by land in his ownership some of which was occupied by the Powell family named above. Later two of Edward's surviving daughters moved to Whitehouse Farm where they continued much of the charitable work started by their father and the Quaker brethren. This included assistance for the poor of the parish by way of a clothing club and other help. This tradition of providing help for the needy continued and at the outbreak of the First World War it was reported that the Quakers in Layer Breton were among the first to help by providing food and hot drinks for soldiers in the area.

Mr Taylor who lives opposite the site of the Meeting House, and whose parents both attended Meetings, recalls other groups using the House. In particular there was an Evangelical Group and even earlier the Friends offered accommodation to the Congregationalists when their chapel, on Layer Breton Heath, got beyond repair. The late Mrs Johnson recollected hearing that the people from the Heath Chapel had moved "their cherished organ in a barrow" to the Meeting House.

A Sunday School was started in the 1920s plus afternoon and evening services. One event which attracted a great deal of attention at the time was a Quaker wedding which took place in August 1962 - the first it was said for a century. The bride came from West Mersea and the groom from Birmingham. One gift was a water-colour painting of the Meeting House. The newspaper cutting describing the ceremony notes that 100 guests attended but it is clear that not all could have been present at the actual ceremony.

My only visit to the Meeting House was to the local Parish Meeting about twenty years ago by which time it was in a very poor state. The floor and walls had subsided and rainwater had come in through the roof. By that time it was evident that the cost of repairs would have been considerable and the only option would have been demolition and rebuilding. With the small number of worshippers this was clearly not a practical proposition and so we have lost the last of the Chapels in the parish. In time no doubt the burial ground will go the way of the two on the Heath and that of the former Layer Breton Church overlooking the reservoir.

The sources for this issue have included "Colchester Quakers" by Stanley Fitch; "Quaker Meeting Houses of Britain" by David Butler and a booklet "Friends Meeting House, Layer Breton 1826-1987" by V Graves. Other books and records are to be found in the Library at the University of Essex, the Library, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London and The National Archives, Kew.

Mrs Johnson's recollections along with those of Mary Cowling, Denys Rendell, Carol and Tim Holding, Tony Doncaster were recorded by Valerie Graves. Miss Graves also received a letter from Sylvia Ross a descendant of the Gripper family, when carrying out her research, and this confirmed that the family provided plants for the boundary of the burial ground when the new houses were being built. We are also very grateful to Mr Taylor for his recollections and the loan of various items which have made this issue possible.

Layer Breton Quaker Meeting House from the road. The village sign is on the left

Interior showing the panelling and bench seating

PublishedMay 2005
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath
Related Images:
 Layer Breton Quaker Meeting House. Interior, showing the panelling and bench seating.
 From <a href=mmresdetails.php?col=MM&ba=cke&typ=ID&pid=PBH_CTh_308&rhit=1 ID=1>Centenary Chronicles 38 </a>  PBH_009
ImageID:   PBH_009
Title: Layer Breton Quaker Meeting House. Interior, showing the panelling and bench seating.
From Centenary Chronicles 38
Source:Mersea Museum / Breton Heath
 Layer Breton Quaker Meeting House. Village Sign on the left - it is on the green at the top of Layer Breton Hill.
 From <a href=mmresdetails.php?col=MM&ba=cke&typ=ID&pid=PBH_CTh_038&rhit=1 ID=1>Centenary Chronicles 38 </a>  PBH_011
ImageID:   PBH_011
Title: Layer Breton Quaker Meeting House. Village Sign on the left - it is on the green at the top of Layer Breton Hill.
From Centenary Chronicles 38
Source:Mersea Museum / Breton Heath