Layer Breton - of The Manor and the many Forms of Worship

Published in Parish News - mid-September 2011

On 3rd November 1954 a most unusual event took place at the Bonnington Hotel in London. Over 50 Manors were offered for sale, known as the Beaumont Collection, following the death of George Beaumont, a solicitor. He and his father Joseph had, over many years, bought them. They were in the main Manors in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, including, nearest to us, Layer Breton, East Donyland, Crepping Hall (Wakes Colne), Great Tey, Coggeshall Hall and Much Fordham & Fordham Frith.

J Wentworth Day, in a foreword to the Sale Catalogue, summed up the Lordship concept as follows:
"In short, the Lordship of a Manor is a last gesture of gracious history in an age of rootlessness and cynical impermanence - the age of sardine-tin flats and bungalosis. It is about the only thing you cannot buy on the Never-Never. True, it costs money but you cannot borrow money on it. Yet it is conceivable that if any man had the temerity to inscribe it on a visiting card the reaction among sommeliers and hoteliers in the less sophisticated Continental resorts might be terrific!" I imagine many people had visiting cards in 1954, before the arrival of plastic and PINs.

The manorial system existed in Saxon times, but reliable records started with the Domesday Book around 1086. For example Wivenhoe was also known as Wienhou, Wyneho, Uvenha and Wivenhoo. It is known that 'hoo' meant a hill in Saxon times, (as with Sutton Hoo), and perhaps Wiffa was the name of an owner. Layer Breton is charmingly described in the sale particulars as 'otherwise Layer Barley'. It is thought that the three Layer villages got their name from the river or brook running through them, Breton and Barley names of early owners, Lewis Brito and John Barlee.

Before 1066, the Saxon Bishop Ailmar owned Layer Breton along with much other property in East Anglia, but William the Conqueror was swift to get rid of him and after 1066 the Manor was given to Ralph Piperell, as recorded in Domesday. A subsequent owner was Isaac Rebow, knighted in 1693; a well-known Colchester name.

Nearer to today, in 1789 we find John & Elizabeth Gripper owning the Lordship. It gets of wider interest here, as they were Quakers. A Manorial Court was held for John Gripper in 1804, in Layer Breton Hall. John's son, Edward Gripper inherited the Manor and Courts were held in 1828 at the Hall, and in 1839 at the house of Jonathan Powell. Jonathan Powell was on the jury, and being a Quaker he would not be sworn in, but 'affirmed', that being as far as the Quakers (or Society of Friends) would allow.

Stepping back from the Manor for a moment, it is interesting to note that there were Friends in Layer Breton at that time, and clearly people of some wealth and influence. Both Gripper and Powell are listed in the Friends records of that time, and also Robert Levitt and Charles Barritt. The Friends record that things were fairly quiet; no significant wrongdoings, the worst apparently being 'some appearance of drowsiness' at Sunday morning services! Their afternoon and weekday services were not so well attended, and their largely unsuccessful efforts to recruit more members made them feel disappointed. They also record that 'Friends appear to be clear of defrauding the Queen (Victoria) of her customs, duties & excise and of using or dealing in goods suspected to be run.' A reference to the smuggling that was widespread in our coastal areas, with all the isolated creeks. They looked out for the poor, and in 1842 there was a report that 'we have none of their offspring requiring our care for education' - this at a time when schooling was hard to come by. Further, 'Care is taken early to admonish such as appear inclined to marry in a manner contrary to the rules of our society when such cases occur.' It is not clear quite what this referred to, but perhaps what we now call a 'partnership.' The Friends also re-stated their pacifist belief, minuting 'It does not appear but that Friends are faithful in our testimony against bearing arms, being in any manner concerned in the militia, in privateers or armed vessels or dealing in prize goods.' This was a key belief, and clearly not only would they not join in a war, but they were against any handling of goods or profiteering therefrom. Taking it a step further, into the field of taxation, we read 'Friends appear to be faithful in bearing our Christian testimony against tithes, priests demands and those called church rates. No-one is entitled to receive tithes.'

Around the same time there was also a non-conformist movement in Layer Breton, based on a large chapel built to the north of the heath. The attendance statistics in the Ecclesiastical Census of 1851 show the Chapel as having a capacity of 400 (later rebuilt to hold 600), with 240 attending Sunday morning service, and 305 in the afternoon, plus a Sunday school of 68. The Friends Meeting House had 22, and Layer Breton (Church of England) Church claimed 147 in the morning, 250 in the evening and Sunday School of around 30.

Clearly a large number of people attended various forms of worship on Sundays in Layer Breton. The 1851 Population Census records about 300 inhabitants in Layer Breton, so where did the 500 souls come from? Presumably from the surrounding areas, and there were many more people involved in farming then than is the case today. Did people attend more than one place of worship on a Sunday? Bearing in mind that there was no transport, no other forms of entertainment and this was the one day when people could meet up with friends and families, it is possible.

Returning to the Manor, we read that when Edward Gripper died, around 1867, it was bought by a local farmer, John Tiffin. It seems doubtful as to whether John Tiffin was a Friend, for he held his first Court at the Hare & Hounds, in 1867. Earlier records from the Friends include 'We know not but that Friends avoid vain sports & places of diversion, gaming, the unnecessary frequenting of taverns & other public houses, excess in drinking& other intemperance.' So evidently there was no outright ban on pubs and on drinking.

The next Lord was a Charles Digby Harrod. (the Sale notes erroneously have him as 'Garrod'!) He was the son of the founder of Harrods the London department store and when he died in 1905, George Beaumont bought the Manor. Beaumont held his only Court in 1907, and that is believed to be the last meeting. The links with the Hare & Hounds continued however, as the Sale notes record that in 1954 the licencee, Mr Bert Osborne, was appointed Bailiff of the Manor of Layer Breton.

Finally, the Sale Particulars state: "There are many interesting entries in the records.....viz Stamps & Crows, Trowers & Wrights, Farthing Garden, Downings, Washings, Mary Lay's Plot, The Bushes, Golding's Garden, Bigwoods & Littlemans, Hocklays, and Ladylands." Apart from those in italics, which are well known today, who can tell us more of those locations?


Footnote: local farmer Phil Gladwin has since written:
Washings is now just a field name but it used to be an entire farm (all in that field). This field is the first after Shalom Hall, heading towards the reservoir. There is still one almost derelict building left. I have broken my plough on some foundations there too and there is a lot of early 20th Century roof tile about too.

Ladylands was another field. This one used to go with Garr House Farm in the days before the Guisnes Court (on the back road to Tollesbury) sold most of its land in 1921 or so. As far as I am aware, this estate owned nearly all the land you can see from the junction of the Birch road and the B1026 at what is variously called Middle-field Hill or Middiford Hill. The Ladylands field went right through the reservoir, roughly halfway between the two causeways, and has disappeared as the fields were realigned when the reservoir was built in the 1930s. There may be something else called Ladylands but a field of that name certainly appeared on our old deeds.


Page created: 08 OCT 2011