A Village Churchyard

Published in Parish News - mid-September 2013

"I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."
 W.B.Yeats

One of the earliest records of Birch Church is in 1214, when the vicar was Nicholas, clerk to the Bishop of Ostia.

The first official records of churchyard burials date back to 1560, when a new law decreed that records should be kept by each parish. In those days memorials and headstones were rare. They were extremely turbulent times, with Henry VIII having declared independence from Rome, the Abbot of Colchester executed in 1539, Queen Mary reverting to Rome in 1554, and then Queen Elizabeth coming to the throne in 1588 and restoring the Protestant church in 1589. Early burial records are incomplete, not always easy to read, and there are clearly gaps especially in the Civil War and commonwealth period of 1649-1660. However, the burial ground forms a unique record of village people and families for over 400 years, you can visit it and feel the history, stretching back perhaps 800 years, a continuous process of the creation of our village story through its people; in the past 50 years alone, some 350 local people have been laid to rest and commemorated here, covering the villages of Birch and Layer Breton, whose population together is in the region of 1,200.

There are many strands to our history, and of those buried here two families stand out; the Rounds and the Luards, landowners and rectors respectively. They are well documented, so let us look at some of the other families who have helped to form our villages. There are the Hutleys; Thomas Hutley, married in 1797, had six sons, all of whom became blacksmiths, owning smithies in Birch (at Heckfordbridge), Layer Breton, Layer Marney, Feering and Easthorpe. The Heckfordbridge forge was bought from the daughter of an earlier village blacksmith, Isaac Munson. In 1896, Frederick Hutley was one of those elected to Birch Parish Council, together with Arthur Church, Douglass Round, Charles Wadley, John Sach, William Smith and Charles William Polley.

The Royce family were millers, with a windmill in Mill Lane, and another family, the Digbys, had a mill between the school and Post Office Cottages. One of the Digby descendants married Charles Harrod, a miller in Clacton, who moved to London to found the famous store.

Thomas Goody, married to Mary Ann, ran the Angel pub at Heckfordbridge and died in 1893; the family held the licence there for over 50 years, and relatives were landlords at The Alma, and the Maypole.

Other names occur: the Tiffins were butchers and cattle dealers, Mr Bell was the baker, and there were many farmers, including the Royces, Norfolks, Fishers, Ely and Smiths. Huttons were the builders, and a Lay founded the Colchester wine merchants.

Frank Wilsmore with horseThere are some very touching memorials; young Frank Wilsmore, pictured here, was only 7 and died of an accident; his parents Walter and Ellen are buried here too, and a relative, Mary, ran the post office at Layer Breton for over 60 years until she died aged 80. And there are some wonderfully evocative names too, that make you wonder who they were, and how they came by that name.

Closer to the present day, the War Memorial at Birch commemorates those who died in the First World War (and also in WWII). Those men are less likely to be buried here, but their family names are on the graves and in the records, as are their wartime comrades who survived. Not only do they link to past generations, but gradually they begin to link to our parents and grandparents and to our generations. 'We Will Remember Them'.

It does not seem appropriate to go into details and names; there are so many families of long standing in our villages that inevitably some would be left out, mistakes made and hurt caused, but everyone here, past, present and future, is an individual, with talents and skills, relatives and loved ones. Together we make up the amazing tapestry that is our village history.

You only have to go and visit the churchyard to sense the passage of time, the togetherness, the quietness and the peace. This is not necessarily a matter of religious belief, although that should not be dismissed lightly. It is more like a joining together, a meeting place of past, present and future. It is one of the reasons that people visit graves. It conserves the living, be they people, animals or vegetation, long after stonework, memorials and buildings have crumbled away.

Just pause for a moment and consider how you would feel if you lost all memory of your past; what happened yesterday, the good and bad times you have been through with friends, neighbours and families, the weddings, the village fetes and the family gatherings. Very gradually, a lot of the detail just slips away from your conscious mind, but there will be some big events, and some very minor and unimportant happenings which still stay in your memory; they are part of you, part of your family, part of our village society.

Opposite our burial ground is our school, where new generations set out on their journey.

"What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from."
 T.S. Eliot

Geoff Russell Grant

Page created: 23 SEP 2013