Heritage: From Rangoon to Havering-atte-Bower - rows over rebuilding the church?

St John's Church, Havering Atte Bower. Picture: John Hercock

St John's Church, Havering Atte Bower. Picture: John Hercock - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin suspects there were mighty disagreements among Havering’s prominent residents when they rebuilt their church in the 1870s

St John’s Church at Havering-atte-Bower was rebuilt between 1874 and 1878. Half a century later, local historian the Reverend Harold Smith wrote about the project. A lifelong resident, Harold Smith belonged to one of the important families who ran the village. His father served on the planning committee.

Reading between the lines, it seems clear there were some mighty rows over the scheme.

Wealthy inhabitants had wanted a larger church, but were blocked by their vicar. Although barely four feet tall, the Reverend Richard Faulkner was a determined personality. Soon after his death in 1873, the leading residents started formed a committee to plan their new church.

The village was dominated by two Big Houses, now demolished, owned by Mr McIntosh and Mrs Pemberton-Barnes.

In addition, Mr Hope lived nearby at Havering Grange, now a school. In 1873, a new resident, General Albert Fytche, arrived at the Broxhill Road property, Pyrgo, another mansion that no longer exists. He was invited to join the committee.

They initially planned to extend the existing church, but an architect’s report was discouraging. There was dry rot and the walls were fragile (in fact they proved tough to demolish!).

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In March 1875, it was decided to spend £3,000 building a new church on the old site. Then the problems began.

The crumbling building was topped by a funny little spirelet. The architect condemned its “rude and very inferior workmanship”, but humble villagers liked this symbol of Havering’s cosy insignificance.

However, there had been a royal palace at Havering-atte-Bower in the Middle Ages. The committee wanted a medieval-style church. Now they decided to add a battlemented tower.

Negotiations began with Mr Hammond, a Romford builder. He could construct the church for just over £3,000 – but the tower would cost £1,000 extra.

It took until March 1876 to agree a contract with Hammond. At that point, General Fytche “withdrew” from the committee.

A cousin of the poet Tennyson, Fytche had spent his adult life in India. After Britain annexed the Irrawaddy delta in 1852, he led expeditions to eradicate dacoits (bandits), destroying villages and sometimes exercising powers of life and death over captives.

The British laid out a new city around the fishing village of Rangoon, centring on a public park called Fytche Square. (The city’s now called Yangon, with a population of 7 million, and Fytche Square is Maha Bandoola.)

The British Empire was not run by committees, and General Fytche probably found working with his new neighbours frustrating.

Although he had little experience in agriculture, he was trying to get into farming, and at a time when cheap grain imports from the USA and Canada were hitting the industry. By the 1880s, he was heavily mortgaged, and he sold up in 1887.

He probably objected to the cost of the new church, although he did subscribe £250.

The committee insisted that all promises be paid up by 31 March 1876, so that “when differences arose among members of the Committee”, nobody could block the project by withdrawing financial support.

There were other problems about re-creating a church from the Middle Ages. Medieval England had been a Catholic country, where people venerated saints. Protestant Havering didn’t want any of that. The architect was instructed that any external niches “should be so made as to be impossible to have figures placed in them.”

Result: the niches are either shallow or narrow!

Mrs Pemberton-Barnes had recruited a semi-retired clergyman, the Reverend William Cope, to succeed the Reverend Faulkner. Nearly sixty when he arrived in 1874, he came from an industrial parish near Birmingham.

Comfortably off, the Reverend Cope moved to Wandsworth Common in December 1877 – just three months before the new church was consecrated. (He didn’t attend the ceremony.) Had he also quarrelled Havering-atte-Bower’s bossy gentlefolk?

Today, St John’s church is a haven of calm – but I suspect there were massive rows during its construction.