Heritage: Why was there no Bishop of Romford?

With seating for 650 people, St Edwards church wasnt big enough to become a cathedral. Picture: Ke

With seating for 650 people, St Edwards church wasnt big enough to become a cathedral. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Choosing an Anglican cathedral for Essex revealed a lot about how people thought about their county – and a little about clerical politicking as well, says Prof Ged Martin

In 1903, the Anglican Church started planning for Essex to break away from the diocese of St Albans and have its own bishop. The existing diocese was too big for any bishop to manage.

Essex had over a million people, half living in "London-over-the-Border" (LOB), as the capital sprawled towards Leyton and Ilford.

LOB areas like West Ham were poor. Few people went to church. Parishes had enormous populations. The new diocese would tackle these challenges.

Seven communities competed to become the diocesan headquarters.

Only a big church could become a cathedral. With 461 Essex parishes, the cathedral town needed a large conference hall, plus hotels for overnight visitors.

Access was crucial. The main railway lines, from Cambridge, Colchester and Southend, converged on London. Cross-country travel, even where branchlines existed, was a headache.

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These criteria virtually ruled out four of the runners. Thaxted had a glorious church but the village was in the middle of nowhere, with no facilities.

Henry VIII had planned to promote Waltham Abbey's ancient church to cathedral status, but things had moved on. The small town was remote from the rest of Essex.

Woodford's case was frankly snobbish - big church, nice area, lots of money, swanky place for a bishop to live.

Barking's Abbey church was large, and its vicar argued it would be "a magnificent thing" to locate a cathedral in such a poor community. But Barking lacked hotels and conference facilities.

Two Essex towns put in strong bids. The Romans had founded Colchester, but unfortunately stuck it in one corner of Essex, forty miles from crowded LOB.

Chelmsford was smaller but with a large church. Its comfortable inns already catered for lawyers attending the county courts. Anglicans had used its thousand-seat Corn Exchange for an anti-government protest meeting in 1906. Chelmsford also predicted that a new invention, the motorcar, would improve access from rural Essex.

The place to beat was West Ham. If LOB was a key reason for giving Essex its own bishop, surely he should be based in its most challenging district? Essex railways all led to Stratford, where the great Victorian barn of St John's church at Stratford Broadway would make a fine cathedral. The nearby town hall could host conferences.

London had Westminster, with its magnificent Abbey. Visionary Stratfordites dreamed of a new Eastminster.

Clergy were clever operators. West Ham's rivals avoided direct attack. Instead, they argued that the Surrey diocese had made a mistake in choosing Southwark Cathedral.

Southwark was too close to St Paul's and too far from the suburbs. It was a coded message: avoid Stratford.

Why wasn't Romford a candidate? Romford Market linked London and rural Essex. It was on the main line to Colchester, with connections through Upminster and Shenfield to Southend.

Unfortunately, with seating for 650 people, St Edward's church wasn't big enough, and its town centre location made extension impossible. Romford lacked a large public hall. Its inns catered for cattle drovers, not clergymen.

St Andrew's, Hornchurch, had a cathedral-like dignity, but held only 500 worshippers.

The cathedral was chosen by a bizarre one-parish-one-vote system. Tiny villages outvoted large urban parishes.

The Church of the Ascension at Collier Row was still part of Romford parish, Harold Wood's congregation belonged to Hornchurch. They had no vote.

In each parish, the parson and churchwardens were to choose. This excluded women.

Seventy parishes failed to return ballot papers. South Weald, near Brentwood, abstained on principle. The four outsiders polled badly: only Thaxted voted for Thaxted.

Chelmsford, with 191 votes, beat Colchester, with 101. West Ham, with 63, was a distant third. Barely one parish in eight wanted to send its bishop to the raw urban frontiers. Many LOB parishes preferred Chelmsford, because it would give them a nice day out.

The diocese of Chelmsford came into being in 1914. The first bishop solved the problem of travelling around Essex. He hired a chauffeur.