ID: GWG_CGC / Elaine Barker

TitleGreat Wigborough Congregational Chapel
AbstractAccording to White's Trade Directory of 1848 in its entry for the village of Great Wigborough, there was an independent chapel sited by the Maldon Road, Great Wigborough. The entry reads

Adjoining the Maldon Road is an Independent Chapel, belonging to a Congregation formed in 1720.

This sparked a fruitless search for the chapel, sited somewhere off the Maldon Road in Great Wigborough.

It was the entry for Great and Little Wigborough in Kelly's trade directory for 1855 which gave another clue as to where the chapel was

there is an independent chapel at Tiptree Heath

So why would a chapel located on Tiptree Heath appear in entries for Great Wigborough?

Research revealed that at that period Great Wigborough's boundaries extended into the massive area of heathland and woods known as Tiptree Heath and had done so since, at least, the time of Henry VIII. The Maldon Road referred to above was across Tiptree Heath and not the Maldon Road passing through the village of Great Wigborough.

We now think of Tiptree Heath as the heathland, managed by Essex Wildlife Trust, with public access from the car park on the road leading out of Tiptree to Great Totham and Maldon. At 60 acres it is a fraction of the thousand or more acres it encompassed when it was first recorded as common land in 1401, stretching from Maldon to Messing.

Still the largest heath in the county, in 1401 it was so huge an area it spread into and was divided between some 14 or 15 parishes. By an order of council made in the reign of Henry VIII it was decreed

that all and everye of the freeholders, copieholders and inhabitants of the townes of Messynge, Lyard Marney, Wygeboroughe, Salcote, Tollyshunte-Knights, Tollyshunte-Darcye, Tollesburye, Goldhanger, Tolleshunt-major, Little Tothame, Much Tothame, Hebredge, Langeforde, Wikehamme, Braxted, Keldon in parte and Inforde, and of Tiptree Heath, shall have and enjoye to them, theire heires and successors, and assignes, common of pasture in Tiptree Heathe Wright's History of Essex

These parishes enjoyed grazing rights for all manner of beastes and catells (except gootes) ... keeping their hogges ringed and the cutting of trees for building houses, the repair of buildings and fences and brushwood for fuel. The strips of heathland belonging to these six villages extended, in some cases, as far as 3 - 8 miles away from their parish churches. This heath area was very sparsely populated and Tiptree as such didn't exist as a town or parish; it wasn't, in fact, a Civil Parish until 1933/4.

It was in the woods of Tiptree Heath belonging to the parish of Great Wigborough that an independent, dissenting congregation first met in the late 17th century. The history of the Great Wigborough Chapel of Protestant Dissenters also known as Goodman's Green Meeting House is in fact that of today's United Reformed Church in Chapel Road, Tiptree.

Tiptree Heath had long been associated with Dissenters who had separated from the Church of England between the 16th and 18th centuries. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity required anyone who wished to hold a post in the Church to sign an oath to comply with regulations imposed by Charles II relating to the worship and practices in the Church of England. Over 2,000 clergymen who refused to conform were ejected from the Church of England, losing their parishes, income and homes.

In 1664 any unauthorised worship for above 5 people who were not in the same household was prohibited, then in 1665, the 'Five Mile Act' was passed prohibiting the ejected ministers from living within five miles of where they had previously preached. It was in this climate that displaced clergymen started to hold services in woods, in supporters' cottages and barns.

According to the book of Tiptree Chapel's deeds and history published in 1910 by A C Wilkin

tradition says that the woods near Tiptree Chapel were the lonely resort of some of the godly clergy who were ejected from their livings by Charles II and that here, beyond the reach of the five-mile Act they quietly preached to a few great-hearts [Essex Records Office D/NC 79/2/4]

Without home or income thenceforward they became wanderers at the mercy of every spy; outlaws, destitute, afflicted, tormented [J R Green A Short History of the English People]

Supporters of these dissenting preachers agreed to found an independent church in 1668 and their meetings had to remain clandestine until 1689 when this organised body of Dissenters, a countrywide movement, put such pressure on the authorities that an act was passed to allow freedom of worship.

The impossibility of crushing such a body as this wrested from English Statesmen the first legal recognition of freedom of worship under the Toleration Act (1689) [J R Green A Short History of the English People]

Where this congregation met between then and the first permanent chapel, built in 1750, is not known.

The Great Wigborough Chapel's baptismal register, according to the National Archives runs from 1748 - 1837 although in fact there are some earlier entries on loose pages, including receipts of money paid and signed by the minister, from 1728. The cover has some illegible words but 'Protestant Dissent' and 'Wigborough' are legible.

Wigborough Protestant Dissenters' Baptismal Register National Archives RG 4/599

The first chapel building, along with a manse, were built in 1750 by a landowner from Tolleshunt Knights, John Goodman, and the chapel became known as Goodman's Green Meeting House. He was not to live many years after the building of the Meeting House and in his will proved in 1757 he leaves an annuity for the

use Maintenance and support of a Minister and a Meeting House for Protestant Dissenters and of a dwelling House for such Minister, which Meeting House and dwelling House have been erected by me in the parish of Great Wigborough

This was on the same site where the Tiptree United Reformed Church stands today. It was enlarged several times and had whitewashed walls, deep galleries supported by large oak posts (which rendered it quite dark) and many square family pews. A band of musicians, including bass viol, trombone and other wind and stringed instruments would accompany the singing in the early days and in 1888 the organ was installed. The present building was built in 1864 as a Congregational Chapel and cost approximately £1,800 funded by subscription.

A history of Tiptree's Chapel was written in 2014 by Peggy Chaplin A Mixture of Memories and in it she lists these early Great Wigborough ministers.

George Burchett   1728
Samuel Stockell 1729 - 1743
Thomas Catmore 1747 - 1750
Joseph Picknett 1762 - 1780
Morgan Jones? - 1810
Charles Lowe 1808 - 1838
Charles Riggs 1840 - 1860
Thomas Sowter 1861 - 1870
Henry Hagell 1871 - 1886
Edmund Lovell 1886 - 1891

In the baptismal register in 1762, the incoming minister, Joseph Picknett outlines the purpose of the book.

to Enter the names of such parents and children who have been or may be hereafter baptized in and about Tiptree, Essex by me Jos Picknett also a few names of persons baptized by Mr Thomas Catmore [1747 - 1750] my predecessor taken from a loose leaf, the Minister Joseph Picknett (1762 - 1780)

Most of the baptisms are for families from Inworth, Tolleshunt Knights, Messing, Tollesbury, and Little Totham and fewer for Birch, Layer de La Haye, Layer Marney, Tolleshunt Major and Great Wigborough. The same family names appear again and again. In some cases the date of birth and the date of baptism are given and occasionally 'Dead' is written by the entry. Some adults are baptized and a few families all baptized together.

Picknett also lists all his wife's children by her first husband, amounting to around eleven children (although not all survived). He also gives an account of my three children's birth now living, the one for his son is particularly detailed

Samuel the son of Joseph Picknett and of Mary his wife was born in White Lion Street in the parish of St Mary's White Chapple London on the 15th of April at 6 o'clock in the Evining baptised May 17 1743 by Mr Saml Stockell

Those family names that appear for Great Wigborough include Mallett, Drane, Spooner, Clark, Cowlen, Wallace, Willsmore, Harris, Hull and Wilkes.

The next minister, Morgan Jones, remembered the poor of his congregation in his will written in 1808

I give to the poor of the Congregation of Protestant dissenters to whom I preach at Tiptree Heath in the said County of Essex the Sum of ten pounds ... and all my wearing apparel to be divided ... amongst the said poor.

By the time he writes the Codicil in 1810 he is described as late of the parish of Great Wigborough but now of the parish of Inworth. His will was proved in February 1811.

Among the documents held at the Essex Records Office for the chapel is the invitation to Charles Lowe of Witham to become the minister in 1809, setting out what sort of man they were looking for.

The minister should be of a Godly life and conversation and be as to Doctrine a Calvinist and as to Discipline a Congregationalist. Tiptree Chapel ERO T/A345/1

Serving his congregation for 30 years, Charles Lowe and his wife Sarah had a large family, 5 boys and 4 girls, who all appear in the registers.

A sad entry for one of his children reveals there was a graveyard at the chapel

John Hughes Lowe born 10th September 1816.
This Child Died at the age of 6 years and an half on March 8 1823 and was buried in the grave of John Hughes in the burial ground of Goodmans Green Meeting House, Great Wigborough and in the front of the Meeting House and place of worship

In Great Wigborough's Parliamentary Return for Non-Conformist Congregations of 1829, Charles Lowe gives the number of the congregation as being between 450 to 500. Parliamentary Returns ERO Q/CR 3/2/125

The 1829 return is a personal letter written by the minister (and includes another chapel he is responsible for at Little Totham). For the 1837 return he is required to fill out a form and answer the commissioner's questions. The form filled out for the Reports from Commissioners Vol 46 in 1837/8 is at the front of the baptismal register.

Lowe names the chapel as Great Wigborough Independent Protestant Dissenters Meeting House declares himself the minister and informs them The Register is in my possession and has been for the last thirty years. He states the register has been in his possession since 1808 and that it has been kept at his house. He confirms the chapel was formed around 1720. One of the signatories, a trustee, is Charles Wilkin a local man, no doubt connected with the Wilkin and Son Jam factory in Tiptree, whose children all appear in the register. The other trustee's name (which is hard to make out) could be John Garden.

In 1829 Charles records a congregation of 450 - 500; in 1846, records show that 300 people were attending prayer meetings, although the church membership amounted to just 48.

Charles Lowe kept the baptismal register from 1808 until the last entry in 1837. At one point he complains

In this Register many births are entered long after the children were born because the congregation when living some miles distant I could not always obtain then the time of their births and many parents seemed indifferent to the matter and as I urged attention and obtained as many as I could with much trouble to myself

In 1844, the Chapel built a schoolroom which is marked on the map below and for about twenty years this was the only day school within 7 miles. During that time its running was taken over by the British School. Upon the opening of St Luke's C of E Church School in Tiptree in 1864 the Chapel Road School closed. The building stayed in use up to 2004 until sold for housing, as a Sunday school and a meeting place for various church activities.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1881.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

In the 1881 Ordnance Survey the land belonging to the parish of Great Wigborough is marked as a detached area of Winstree Hundred (the Independent Chapel can be seen just above Birch's Wood). The area belonging to Wigborough is marked as Det[ache]d No. 2 and is 145.161 acres. The note adds that this area was Included since 1888 in the Civil Parish of Messing. It was in 1933/4 that the land was passed to Tiptree upon the latter becoming a civil parish.

From 1888, the chapel that had started out over 200 years before, as the Great Wigborough Protestant Dissenters Meeting House, became officially Tiptree Congregational Chapel.

In 1972 the United Reformed Church was established. It was a union of the Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Church. Not all Congregational Churches chose to join the new denomination but Tiptree did and it still thrives today.

Elaine Barker

"A Mixture of Memories" - Peggy Chaplin
"History of the English People" - J R Green

Read More
Great Wigborough Schools
Joseph Picknett Dissenting Minister Great Wigborough Congregational Chapel 1762-1780
Map of 1881 Parishes of Great and Little Wigborough

AuthorElaine Barker
PublishedSeptember 2020
SourceMersea Museum