TitleLayer Breton Chapel - Centenary Chronicle 50
AbstractLayer Breton Chapel

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 50.

Published in Parish News - May 2008

For centuries the Hare and Hounds has stood as it does today and attracted business but almost alongside it, for about 150 years stood a building dominating, not only the pub itself, but also the Heath.

The Congregational Chapel came into being mainly due to the fervour of a young man from Ardleigh. In the mid 1780s William Merchant, a farmer's son and member of the congregation at the Lion Walk Chapel in Colchester, called on a sick man, possibly in Layer de la Haye, to sing hymns and pray with him. He returned over the next few weeks and found neighbours wished to join with them. The group soon outgrew the house used and it was necessary to look for larger premises.

The Chapel, with the minister's house ('The Manse') on the right and to the left the Sunday School, now Breton House.
From the far left 'Heathcote', the Hare & Hounds and 'Heath House' are visible.

The search was successful and a barn became available. Not long afterwards the congregation outgrew their new premises and the proprietor of the barn was asked either to sell or grant a lease of it. He, however, refused to do either. They then turned to the Lord of the Manor, Mr Gripper, for help and he granted a plot of land on which a Chapel could be built. The congregation were too poor to fund the building entirely on their own and they made application to friends in Colchester and with their assistance, and other help, the Chapel was built.

The Evangelical Magazine reported that on 17th July 1798 "a neat little place of worship was opened on Layer Breton Heath about six miles from Colchester, and nearly at the centre of several villages, where until very lately a praying family was scarcely to be found, and many of the inhabitants openly discovered, both by word and actions, their bitter enmity to real godliness". A Declaration of Faith, dated the 15th February 1799, was submitted by the Minister of Layer Breton, Mr Merchant, to the Lion Walk Minister, "desiring to become an Independent Church". The "Dismission" (transfer) of Mr Merchant from Colchester to Layer Breton was allowed from the 9th June and Mr Merchant was ordained as the first Minister on 30th July 1798.

Within five years it was found necessary to enlarge the Chapel due, almost entirely it seems, to the preaching ability of Mr Merchant which was "of no ordinary character and great grace accompanied his labours". His "indefatigable labours" around the area led to the building of Chapels in Tollesbury and Kelvedon, plus a small one in Layer de la Haye for evening preaching, and he set up a school in Layer Breton.

In the Ecclesiastical Census, taken in 1851, the Chapel had a capacity of 400. The actual attendance on March 30th that year was said to be 240 at the Morning Service and 305 in the afternoon plus a Sunday School of 68 on both occasions. Set against other places of worship in the area - the Friends Meeting House had 22 at the one Meeting, Layer Breton Parish Church had 147 in the morning and 250 in the evening with a Sunday School of 29 and 33 respectively. The small Chapel at Layer de la Haye, built in 1843 had a capacity of 150, but with an average attendance of only 50 at the evening service. One point of interest is that the signatory on the return for the Friends was Mr Gripper, Lord of the Manor. In comparison the Lion Walk Chapel had three services, Morning 470, Afternoon 218 and Evening 325. A special Sunday School attracted 463!

William Merchant died in 1856 and although "Ministers" appear in most of the subsequent census returns it may be that some were absentee officials although resident here, in the Manse, on census night. Names recorded are Walford 1861/71, Waterworth in 1881, Boucher ten years later and Preston in 1901. None had been born in Essex. The late Mrs Eames, who made a detailed study of the Chapel in her "Glimpses in to the History of Three Villages", notes that Merchant's successor was John Fletcher who remained only a short while.

It seems however that the congregation grew considerably soon after Merchant's death as in 1860 the Minister, Mr Walford noted that the Chapel was very much out of repair and inadequate for the "numerous congregation". A new Chapel, "fifty three feet long and forty feet wide which will provide for the accommodation of 600 persons at 18 inches per sitting" was being built. The local people had contributed £300 but as most were agricultural labourers it was not possible to raise more. We know an application for a loan was made but have been unable to trace a reply. Nevertheless the Chapel was built and stood until about 1925 and the school, now a private residence and formerly a garage, still stands. The log book for Birch School has an entry "March 4th 1864 The Dissenting School has just now closed - several applications for admission deferred until the 8th".

According to a Memorandum in the last Marriage Register the "Governing Body of ... the Chapel having ceased to avail themselves of the provisions of the Marriage Act of 1898 ... the Registers are closed by the Registrar General". There are four marriages recorded for 1907/8 and of the eight people married only three are from Layer Breton, two each came from Wivenhoe and Layer de la Haye with one from Aldham.

We believe the Chapel was demolished in the mid 1920s but this has not been confirmed and that Mr Preston was the last Minister. What happened to the building material, was it used locally, or was it so decayed as to be of little or no use at all?

Down the years, from 1798, the Chapel was recorded as a local feature and, for most of that time it was a very popular place of worship. In 1937 Cyril Jeffries, in an article on Layer Breton published in the Eastern Counties Advertiser, recorded recollections of villagers listing members of the band - among those interviewed was Walter Burmby who lived all his life close to the Chapel and who would have been able to fill the gaps in our knowledge, not only about the Chapel, but also of the other changes hereabouts during his lifetime.

Another newspaper cutting, unfortunately from an untitled and undated publication, has it that, at one time, the Chapel was crowded at weekends and served by a Rector who resided in Islington during the week. Mrs Gladys Foakes said that, as a girl, she sat in pews "that had doors at each end so we couldn't get out". She also felt that the Chapel failed because the trustees could not agree on the financial upkeep.

With acknowledgements to Dr Eames and Mr Taylor.

PublishedMay 2008
SourceMersea Museum