Heritage: Havering’s old churches aren’t as everlasting as they appear

St Laurence Church in Upminster

St Laurence Church in Upminster - Credit: Archant

Our ancient local churches were not as solid as they might look, says Professor Ged Martin

Cast iron lamp posts in the grounds of St John the Evangelist church in Havering-atte-Bower

Cast iron lamp posts in the grounds of St John the Evangelist church in Havering-atte-Bower - Credit: Archant

There’s something reassuring about our ancient churches. As they’ve survived for centuries, surely they’ll last for ever? Wrong. Our historic churches have had a rough time.

Romford’s original church was St Andrew’s chapel, near the junction of South Street and Oldchurch Road.

In 1406, the building was described as “frequently damaged and spoiled”, presumably when the river Rom flooded.

Legend claimed it was swallowed by an earthquake, and you could hear the bells ringing underground on St Andrew’s Day, November 30.

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A new church, St Edward’s, was built alongside the Market Place in 1410.

Working mainly with timber, Essex builders didn’t understand that stone buildings needed strong foundations. Damp courses were unknown.

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The south aisle of Wennington church collapsed about 1600. As there were only twelve houses in the parish, the internal arches were bricked up and the few parishioners gathered in the nave.

The fallen aisle wasn’t re-erected until 1886.

Storms caused problems too.

In 1639, lightning dislodged a stone cross from the roof of Upminster’s St Laurence church, almost braining the rector, who was in the churchyard.

Holes in roofs let in rain: in 1683, the beams in St Laurence’s were rotten.

Eighteenth-century population increase meant that more and more graves had to be crammed into already crowded churchyards, sometimes undermining walls.

This probably explains why South Ockendon’s distinctive round tower fell in 1744. Hastily rebuilt, it tumbled again in 1745 during a downpour.

Dagenham had plenty of warning that its church was unsafe.

Around 1770, the tower was propped up and given a cast-iron corset. Cracks were constantly filled in.

One December Sunday morning in 1800, the congregation gathered in the churchyard, waiting for the curate who had the key to let them in. Luckily, he was late.

People were probably stamping their feet to keep warm. Suddenly, the tower fell “with a tremendous crash”, pulverising most of the building. Amazingly, nobody was hurt.

Important people demanded to be buried inside churches, further weakening foundations.

In 1800, workmen digging a grave in Chelmsford’s parish church (now the Anglican cathedral) failed to shore it up when they went home. That evening, the building collapsed like a row of dominos.

At Childerditch, the church was in such a dangerous state that by 1859 the tiny congregation gathered in “the only safe place”, the belfry.

Lord Petre, who owned most of the parish, was a Roman Catholic and refused to help.

The church was eventually entirely rebuilt in 1869.

After four centuries, St Edward’s in Romford was in poor shape. A scheme for a new church on a third site, at Coronation Gardens, ran out of money in 1844.

In 1849-50, St Edward’s was rebuilt on its existing site.

So too were the ancient but tottering churches at South Weald in 1868, Cranham in 1873 and Havering-atte-Bower in 1874-7.

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They all look venerable but they’re really Victorian fakes.

Great Warley’s inconveniently located parish church was abandoned when a successor was erected further north at Warley Street in 1902-4.

Later cut off by the A127, it was left to decay. The last vestige, its tower, was demolished about 1966. A public footpath still crosses the site.

Similarly, at Kelvedon Hatch the remote parish church was replaced in 1895 by one located in the village. An unkind critic likened the new building to a cricket pavilion. The original building, now in ruins, is hidden in woodland.

Victorian churches were sometimes ramshackle: it took half a century to overcome the jerry building in St Thomas’ at Brentwood.

A church built at Theydon Bois in 1843-4 was so poorly constructed that it had to be rebuilt after just six years.

“In the foundation mainly was the flaw / That did the fabric unto ruin draw,” says an inscription in the porch. “Examine well on what foundation stands / The hope of Heaven which in thine heart expands.”

The Victorians were a smug crowd.