|" Mehalah" was not only written when Mr. Baring-Gould held the Crown living of East Mersea, but the whole scene of the story is located in the immediate neighbourhood in which the novelist then occasionally resided.
At that time I held the curacy of Kelvedon, a little town on the mainline, and about 14 miles inland, and I then knew him well and frequently heard him preach one of his remarkable sermons, delivered in a manner peculiarly his own, ending generally quite abruptly, with some original remark, very dramatically emphasised. I remember he was often times away for some long period, when the parish of East Mersea was presided over by a curate, and Mr. Baring-Gould was said to be in Germany, busily engaged on "Past and Present". Soon after "Mehalah" was published, a friend with whom I spent a good deal of the Spring and Summer-time, yachting in a 14-ton cutter, brought a copy of the book from London and we sailed from Brightlingsea to take up anchorage in "The Quarters" off Mersea Island, where we read it. I am sure I can honestly say I have never enjoyed a novel more, and the day on which we together visited "Red Hall," the spot selected by Baring-Gould for the home of Elijah Rebow, the most prominent character of the story, is fresh in my memory even now. However, I will not trust to memory, but quote from a description of it, written by me in the boat's log kept by the owner for the guests on both his yachts to record their reminiscences:-
It was on the 13th April, 1883, that we decided to land, if possible, on the sea-wall of Salcot creek, and, walking along it inland, find out the spot on which stood the "Red Hall". We started in our sea boots, and carried others with us to use when once safely on the wall, and a wise and necessary precaution it proved to be, as the mud was one foot in depth between the boat and the base of the wall. However, once on the top, about a mile and a half inland, we could clearly see, standing out against the sky-line, the red walls of old Rebow's home. It was a lovely Spring morning, and countless sea birds were flying around uttering their plaintive cries. Leaving the wall, when nearly opposite the house, across just one meadow, it was reached, and a more extraordinary building I have never seen. It was composed entirely of red brick, and erected I should say late in the 16th century, and tradition says it was either the abode of smugglers or possibly of their partners in the trade, the receivers of the contraband goods. The bottom of each door is fully five feet from the ground, intended doubtless as a precaution against the high tides, which at certain seasons, before the erection of the sea walls, would swamp the marshes. The vaults beneath the rooms of the first floor are very commodious, and have curious circular windows - but there has been about it a great deal of alteration since the days when it was built, and I should not like to hazard an opinion as to the original purpose for which it was erected. A more suitable spot for the residence of such a demon as Elijah Rebow it would be impossible to conceive.
Some years after I had written these notes, I read Mr. Frederick Dolman's account of Baring-Gould and "Mehalah," and what he says about the conception of the story was so new to me I cut out the article, and added the same to my copy of the log. He says: "Mehalah," Mr. Baring-Gould's most successful novel, was written as a result of a sleepless night. One day he went out on a coastguard boat. The party kept near the shore, and ate their lunch at a deserted old house on a dreary marsh since claimed by the sea. The utter loneliness of the place so impressed Mr. Gould, that night he found himself constructing a plot around it, and next morning he commenced work upon the story which brought him fame."
What Mr. Dolman says about "Red Hall" having been claimed by the sea I can correct, and to do this I must refer to my description of the spot written after a visit, made again, from "The Quarters" off Mersea Island. It was written on May 25th, 1890 - about seven years after the first reading of the novel. We again landed on the sea wall, and immediately looked out for the red brick building, with its Elizabethan chimney, which was nowhere to be seen, and the nearer we approached Salcot the more certain we were that as a building it had disappeared, but at length we could discover, with the aid of some field glasses, a heap of red brick, and this we afterwards found, was all that remained of a building which, without any historical record connected with it would always remain as an object of interest to the readers of "Mehalah." My friend sketched that little heap, and the sketch is, I presume, among his vast collection (bequeathed by him to the Society of Antiquaries) at Burlington House. I daresay, long ere now, every brick has gone, and no living person could locate the spot which was the supposed scene of old Rebow's wickedness and Mehalah's troubled life. When the book had become circulated, around where I then resided there was some slight feeling of resentment that the novelist should have chosen the name of Rebow (a well-known Essex name) for such a repugnant character as old Elijah: however, time has long ago obliterated this little scar. The Rebows do not now, I think, reside at Wivenhoe, and we remember but the marvellous delineation of character created in the mind of the novelist, with the almost inconceivable sequel of the story, when the two chief characters, chained together in a boat, are upset into the depths of the sea.
There is just one thing more I would like to mention in this story, which is, to my mind, equal to anything written by Charles Dickens. It is the description of the wedding in the almost ruined church of Virley. My friend and I first visited the church on 3rd May, 1881, when I persuaded him to make a sketch of it. I have not seen the building since 1890, so I know nothing about it today. It was in 1881 closed, and no service had been held therein for some time. Then two churches stood in one churchyard, namely the churches of Salcot and Virley, and, of course, about them tradition had the usual legend of two sisters having quarrelled, and each of them requiring a separate building for worship; however, one meets with this story in several villages, and especially about the Trimleys, near Felixstowe, and it is doubtless without any foundation of fact - but Baring-Gould's description of Virley Church and the scene of the wedding will I think one day be immortalised, as is Dickens's account of Pickwick's visit to the White Horse at Ipswich, or his evening's adventures at the school at Bury St Edmund's.
The pictures illustrating this article have been re-produced, with some difficulty owing to the colouring, from two water colour sketches by the late Mr. Joseph Sim Earle, of London. The top one was sketched on April 13th, 1883, and represents "Red Hall" as it then was. That of Virley Church was sketched on May 3rd, 1881.
The article above was published in East Anglian Daily Times - the cutting does not have a date but is thought to be 1924. Thank you to John Hawes for the images for the cutting.
East Anglian Daily Times January 1924
Ray Island and the legacy of Mehalah