Church History



In the year 1672, Christopher Wragg, former vicar of Great Baddow, took out a licence for “Foxtons”, his house in Little Waltham, to be a Presbyterian Meeting House. After his death, the property was left to a Dr. Yardley of Bishop’s Stortford, who had married either a daughter or a sister of Christopher Wragg.

It is not known whether the meetings continued at “Foxtons” while the Yardleys were there or not, but a year or so after Yardley’s death, a Joseph Clark requested permission for his house in Little Waltham to be used as a place of religious worship. It seems that the thread of Presbyterianism or Nonconformity faded away, for when the Revd. Douglas began to preach in the village about 1790, several souls were converted whom “had till then been totally destitute of divine grace”.

By the year 1801, this group of people was thinking seriously about building their own place of worship. As a start, they rented a house in the village, which they fitted up as a Meeting House, and Ministers attended on a regular basis. They started to collect money to build a church seating 400 people. The following local families gave donations: Emberson, Dowsett, Marlton, Hasler, Kirkham, Luckin, Devonish, Boltwood, Joslin, Bentall, Hagger, Beardwell, Skinner, Wiffen, Linnett, Monk, Fitch and Albon. Large gifts came from three members of the Watkinson family of Cressing, Felstead, and Lt. Waltham, and also from Abraham Legerton of Great Leighs. There were contributions from other churches at Chelmsford, Bocking, Braintree, Witham, Hedingham, London, and Billericay.

The Building, costing £800, was started in the summer of 1803. It must have been a good summer that year, because the church was finished and ready for the official opening on 15th September. The Revd. Stevenson of Castle Hedingham preached on the text from Acts 11, verses 23 and 24. Several other ministers assisted at this opening service. For several months afterwards the church was supplied with preachers from the Academy at Hoxton in London. A visiting preacher, William Podmore, was then invited to take pastoral charge of the congregation, and, after a trial period was made the first pastor at a service held on 5th June 1804.

Extracts from the records of those early days tell us that the members and pastor were referred to as “brothers” and “sisters”. Brother Podmore, Brother Emberson, Sister Evered, etc., also that the congregation took part fully in the Sabbath and evening services. For instance — “Thursday evening, 16 present, Brother Monk prayed and an address was given. Mrs Mead was proposed for Church Communion and Brothers Emberson and Hasler departed to converse with her. Also two brethren were sent to enquire why Mary Emberson had been absent.”

The Congregational Church was always in the care of trustees, many from some distance away. In 1859, for example, out of 20 trustees, only James Campen was from Little Waltham. Six were from Great Waltham, three farmers, one grocer, and two “gents”. The remainder included three millers, three brewers, an auctioneer, a grocer, a fishmonger, a draper, a printer, and two more farmers. Since March 1909 the trustees have been the Congregational Union of England and Wales.

There was evidently a problem with drink in the village, and in quite early years the decision to use unfermented wine for the Communion met with the full approval of the congregation. Several brothers were suspended from attendance at the Lord’s Table until they had been convinced of the impropriety of their conduct after overmuch elbow lifting at the White Hart or the Bell. Later it seems that a group of these men become Total Abstainers, and there is reference to the Independent Order of Rechabites meeting in the schoolroom. This Friendly Society of Total Abstainers was founded in 1835.

Mr Podmore remained as Pastor until 1820 when he resigned. He was followed by Mr. Carlisle who was in the village until 1827, then Thomas Fish until 1840 when he resigned through ill health. And so, Pastor after Pastor has cared for the flock through the years right up to the present day. There was Mr. Fowler, who ran the school for boys at Albion House which is situated at the top of the hill on the Braintree road, opposite where the old manse stands next to the allotments, and Mr. Beck, the ailing pastor, who died at the turn of the century – his daughter had many memories of the great kindness shown to the family during the years they were in the village. John Neville was here from 1900-1919. He spent a lot of time and energy trying to get a smallholding scheme going in the village, but although well thought of, in the end his scheme failed through lack of support.

After Mr. Neville retired, Mr. Singer took his place, and he retired in 1927. The state of the church must have been pretty low at the time, it was barely recognised by the Union, and it became necessary for the new pastor to have college training. The congregation were asked to raise the annual stipend by £30. This they said they could not do, but would request a grant from the Union. They did, however, undertake to raise £10 to pay for books, and to help towards the college course.

The church had its own burial ground, which was used into the 1900s. The graves were levelled after many years to make the present car park. In olden days when people arrived for services on horseback or by carriage, the carriages were left in the road, and the horses tied up in the long shed on the west of the building, which later became the bike shed when bicycles came into general use. In 19O4, it was proposed that the Lord’s Supper be administered before or on the full moon, for the convenience of those coming from afar.

There was a Sunday school in quite early days. Three members of a family called Hitchcock, from Powers Farm, taught in the Sunday school. Years later descendants of the family donated £10 for books for the church library, in memory of these teachers. There must have been quite a large library, as in 1870 it contained 300 books, and had 40 subscribers. More books were added in 1895.

In 1896, The Dorcas Society was formed. The members made and distributed 19 articles of clothing to women and children in the first year, and when the needles were really flying in the second year, they made 74 articles. This Society superseded the old clothing club, which had been in the care of Mrs. Mallet from the mill.

In 1865, a preaching room was opened in a house in Chatham Green, where Sabbath and weeknight meetings were held, and also classes for reading and writing. On 10th October 1872, a branch chapel was opened there. It still stands today, and is sound and dry, in spite of having had an incendiary bomb through the roof during the last war. It went out of use in the 1930s and is now used for other purposes, but still houses a tiny memorial to the fallen of the First World War.

In 1895, the church was closed for repairs, and Mr. Sorrell loaned his barn for service for two weeks. In summer time, services were sometimes held in the open air. A Harmonium was purchased for £5 for use in the Sunday School, and may also have been carried outside to be played at the outdoor meetings. Mr Gannon was organist and choirmaster at this time, and Miss Lightfoot played for the Sunday school.

The Men’s Own Brotherhood met on Sunday afternoons, and had their own music; about 10 or 12 of them played in the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Orchestra. In 1909 the old church organ either needed a great deal of repair, or a new one was required. The P.S.A. men collected for a new one, and wanted to buy an American organ for £50 tuned to a very high concert pitch to tune with the band instruments of that day, not the British Standard Pitch we know today which is lower. They were persuaded that this would not be suitable for the choir and congregation, and another one was chosen and installed. In 1934, a new pipe organ was given to the church, the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wakeling.

Congregational numbers did not always remain high. In 1841, for example, Jonathan Hicks held a meeting with the 20 members present, to decide what steps should be taken to “continue worship in this church”. In 1875, some members left to join the Plymouth Brethren.

But by the early 1900s there were 103 members in the congregation. A women s Bible Class was held weekly, 28 being the average attendance. The men’s Bible Class had 42 members, and the young people’s Band of Hope, 20 members. This activity was still operating in the church up to 1956, working with young people in the Temperance Movement.

At various times the church had to be repaired or altered. In 1861, a debt was incurred by putting a new front on the “chapel”. Although this was the Congregational Church, it was usually referred to in the village as “the chapel”, to distinguish it from St. Martin’s Parish Church.