Introductory Note: This page contains the text of a history of the churches of Birch and Layer Breton, Essex, written by the late Tom Millatt, sometime Headmaster of Birch School. The original booklet has been out of print for many years. As there appears to be little or no likelihood of it being re-printed in the foreseeable future, it is being made available on the internet for the purposes of private study and research only. It should not be reproduced in any form, either directly or indirectly, for any commercial purpose without permission of the copyright holders.

The text is also available as a download - for details see the Download Page.



The Churches
- Old and New -
of
Birch and Layer Breton

T. B. Millatt


Great and Little Birch

Birch originally consisted of two parishes, Great and Little Birch, each with its own parish church and manor house.

Great Birch Church

The original parish church of Great Birch stood on the site of the present church, close to the site of Birch Castle (fortified by the Gernon family), of which the only remains are part of the moat in the garden of 'The Cottage', the dam of the fish-stew in the valley below the church, and the survival of the name 'Bailey Meadow' where the castle bailey was. Great Birch Church (St Peter and St Paul) consisted of a chancel and nave with wooden bell-turret and shingled spire, and south porch, and probably dated back to Norman times with later additions. There is in existence a sketch of it before demolition in 1849. It depicts a typical Essex village church and shows lancet windows in the north wall of the chancel, apparently of early 13th century date, but the east window is a three light one with flowing tracery of about 1330. The north nave windows appear 13th or 14th century date.

Various pre-Reformation wills give interesting items concerning the old church. John Kyrkby (1491) left ten shillings for an honest priest to celebrate a trental (30 masses for the dead) for his soul, and a cow worth ten shillings to observe his anniversary for ever. William Tey of Leyer-de-la-Haye (1500) bequeathed 13s 4d to the works of the parish church of Bryche. Richard Stoke (1504) bequeaths two cows, price 16s. to the light of St Mary of Birch Magna, and another such two to the use of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Richard Colyn (1508) desired to be buried in the church to which he bequeathed 6s 8d. Richard Duke the elder (1511) left to the high altar of Moche Briche 12d. John Nott (1518) left to the church a cow or 6s 8d to be disposed of for the light where it is most needed. John Elis (1518) left two sheep to the maintaining of the rood light, one pound of wax to the Easter sepulchre light, &c. John Dorant (1518) bequeathed to the church works twenty shillings.

The inventory of goods belonging to the church made by the Commissioners of Edward VI in 1552 gives interesting details of the fittings of the Church before the Reformation spoilation; vestments of white satin, with a cross of red silk, linen altar cloths, a holywater pail, a copper cross, vestments of red velvet, two bells, and handbells, &c. All these were sold and the money spent in glazing the windows with plain glass after the smashing of the mediaeval stained glass, and white washing the walls, no doubt covering mediaeval wall-paintings. The church was allowed to keep one bell, a vestment of crimson velvet, one of orange silk with a green cross, a cope of blue satin, &c. It records that Robert Elmestead the sexton was robbed and a chalice stolen from his house, and this appears to have been the only plate the parish then possessed.

The Archdeacons Court records that in 1587 they want a surplice, a pulpit, and a large Bible, and in 1588 Thomas Fenerell was ordered to repair his part of the Churchyard fence. It was the custom for many years for the various property owners in the parish to be responsible for various sections of the churchyard fence and there are Terriers of 1689, 1770, and 1810 of those responsible.

By the will of Roger March in 1614 a sum of 10s yearly was given to the poor of the parish from the rent of Church Field and Castle Hill, and under the will of Robert Carr in 1622 a sum of 20s yearly from the rent of Cross Field. These old charities are recorded on a board at the back of the present church, and still distributed annually by the Churchwardens.

Holman, the Essex historian, writing c.1720, but quoting from MSS of c.1630 mentions the following shields of arms as being formerly in the east window; Robert Braybroke Bishop of London 1381-1405, the Baynard family, and the Tey family.

In 1633 it is reported to the Archdeacon that they want a decent communion table, a pulpit cloth, and the Book of Canons; and the steeple wants repairing. In 1705 it is reported that they want a flagon, a paten, and a napkin for the use of the Communion table. The 18th century Churchwardens' Accounts record a new pulpit in 1724 a communion table in 1743, and the want of a paten was rectified in 1782 by the purchase of a silver one for £4 3s 0d, and this is now the oldest piece of plate the Church has. The mediaeval bell seems to have become cracked, so in 1721 the bell was recast and rehung by Mott the bellfounder of Colchester for a total of £8 6s 7d. The bell, however seems to have become cracked again, so it had to be recast again, at a total cost of £17 5s 6d., including quite a bit spent on beer and eating. This is the bell which still calls the faithful to worship and is chimed by the clock to mark the passing hours. It is 33 inches in diameter and has the inscription:-

"THO + GARDINER + SUDBURY + FECIT + 1737"

Thomas Gardiner was a well-known bell-founder of Sudbury who has left many good bells in East Anglia.

Philip Morant in his "History of Essex" (1768) says:- "The Church dedicated to St Peter is of one pace with the chancel and nave both tyled. At the west end there is a spire shingled, which contains one bell."

In 1792 a hatchment of the Royal Coat of Arms (George III) was put up, and this after renovation now makes an interesting feature at the back of the Church. It is painted on canvas and framed. There is also a cast-iron one of later date (1816-1837) after the claim to France had been abandoned, and since repainting and gilding this now adds a rich touch of colour over the south doorway.

In 1849 this Church was levelled to the ground, and only the few fittings mentioned were retained. The Church Registers dating back to 1560 remain, including the old parchment one started as a transcript of an earlier one by order of Queen Elizabeth in 1598.

Little Birch Church

The parish church of St Mary, Little Birch is now a roofless ruin in Birch Park near the site of Birch Hall - a distance of only half a mile separating the two churches. This church also consisted of a chancel (13th or 14th century) and nave (12th century) with a west tower, the lower part dating from the 14th century, and the upper part rebuilt in brick in the 16th or 17th century. In the nave one can still see the plain 12th century Norman doorway, and Roman brick is reused in some of the window openings.

"A brown owl, hunting, sails on silent wings
Out through the empty chancel window there:
And in the ruined choir sweetly sings
A nightingale where once the patient prayer
Of some pale watching priest ascended here."

The church seems to have been in regular use till the Reformation during the time of the Tendring and Forster families at Little Birch Hall, as is witnessed by pre-Reformation wills. William Tendring in 1499 left the profits of a tenement called Lucas (Lukes) to the priest who for the time being shall fortune to do service in the church of Our Lady in Little Birch, for 21 years, to have especially in remembrance the souls of William Tendring and his parents. Richard Duke in 1511 left fourpence to the high altar of Little Birch. John Tey by his will of 1534 left ten shillings to the 'making of Little Birch Church.' The inventory of Church goods made by the Commissioners of Edward VI in 1552 mentions two bells in the church, and a chalice of five ounces, as well as vestments. In 1577 Robert Forster (of Little Birch Hall) was 'to be buried in this Church,' willing that a grave stone be bought and layed in the place they used to set the sepulchre, and that it might serve instead of a sepulchre.' This was after the Reformation, but in Queen Mary's reign. The Easter sepulchre was an aperture in the north side of the chancel in which the Blessed Sacrament was placed on Good Friday, and remained there until early on Easter Day. There is now no trace of this tomb or the Easter sepulchre, but on the south side of the chancel are the remains of a 14th century piscina trefoiled head.

During Elizabethan times the church seems to have become disused as various entries referring to Little Birch are to be found in the early registers of Great Birch. One is the Baptism in 1572 of Henry the eldest son of Arthur Golding the famous classical translator, whose work was used by Shakespeare, as the Golding family were at that time at Little Birch Hall.

At the Archdeacon's Court in 1629 the Churchwarden, John Brocke, presented that the Church is out of repair and hath been for a long time, as it has not been used for divine service for forty years at least.

However, about 1640, John Eldred, alderman and bailiff of Colchester, became tenant of Little Birch Hall, and as the memorial to him states:- "He ordered this Church to be restored for the habitation of the flocks of the Lord, the honourable patroness Dame Thomasina Swynnerton (owner of Birch Hall and Stanway Hall) sharing with him the expense incurred in erecting this retreat of the spiritual flock of the Lord."

John Eldred died in 1646, and was buried here, and a monument erected to him. After the Civil War and the Commonwealth the church appears to have been neglected again, and eventually became ruinous so that in 1709 John Eldred's grandson removed the monument to Earls Colne, where it can now be seen in the south chapel of the parish church, together with a small stone recording its removal.

Little Birch Hall was purchased by James Round, Master of the Stationers Company, in 1724, and he and his successors not only rebuilt the Hall, but gradually enlarged the estate by the addition of properties in Great Birch, especially through their marriage into the Creffield family, and so the two parishes became more and more one, and Little Birch Hall becomes known as Birch Hall. Early in the 18th century William Ayerst, the rector of Great Birch, was also appointed rector of Little Birch when a vacancy occurred in 1718, and when he exchanged livings with Mark Gibbin, the latter also held both livings. On Gibbin's death in 1752 the Revd George Kilby was collated to the rectory of Great Birch by the Bishop of London, who appears to have taken it for granted that he would also hold Little Birch. William Round, the patron of Little Birch, appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury against this usurping of his right of presentation by the Bishop, and in the Court of Common Pleas he established his rights as patron, and in 1754 the Revd. John Haggard was legally presented by him as rector of Little Birch and George Kilby reverted to holding Great Birch only. Haggard was inducted as rector by the rector of Stanway, and next day, being Sunday, he duly read openly, publickly, and solemnly the customary Morning and Evening Prayers appointed to be read, and made the necessary declarations within the roofless walls of the ruinous little church, attended by three witnesses. His position as rector was a sinecure, and soon after we find him as rector of Bennington in Hertfordshire.

In 1768 Philip Morant reports that the church is ruinous, the tower which is pretty high and the walls only being standing, but the roof is quite gone. He mentions that there had been several escutcheons of the Swinnertons and Eldreds who made it their burial place.

Great Birch Church was used by both parishes for the normal services, including the burial of members of the Round Family. The problem of the sinecure rectory of Little Birch was dealt with in an agreement in 1814, and in 1816 an Act of Parliament was passed uniting the two parishes and establishing Great Birch Church as the parish church of the united parish, and the ruins of Little Birch Church together with the site became the property of the owners of Birch Hall.

In 1845 Charles Gray Round replaced the attractive 18th century Georgian brick house which his ancestor had built, with a much larger square stone mansion, described by Pevsner as "a large and dignified Italianate villa," and this has now been demolished. In 1847 he built "a neat school of white brick" for the village. In 1849 he decided to rebuild and enlarge the church to serve the united parish, so the former church of Great Birch was demolished, and over and around its site was erected the present church.

Birch Parish Church of St. Peter

This church was built to the plans of S.S. Teulon, who has been described as "The fiercest, ablest, and most temerarious of architect adventurers", but Birch is not one of his provocative works. It consists of a chancel, nave, north and south aisles, south porch, and north-west tower with a spire 110 feet high: also a vestry now used as a boiler house. His plan is in existence in the County Record Office, and also his coloured sketch of the proposed church, now in the School. The nave stands exactly over the site of the nave and chancel of the original church. Typical of much of the architecture of the mid-Victorian period it is in the decorated Gothic style, built in flint with Caen limestone dressings, and tiled roof. As there is no clerestory to the nave, the tower is at the north-west corner to allow a large four-light window on the west front. Pevsner describes the church as "quite a normal aisled interior, and an exterior ambitious, but not showy." Although it has little in its style or materials which is typically Essex, the exterior has mellowed with the surrounding landscape, the west front forming a pleasing feature standing on rising ground above the Memorial Green, and "the village spire whose silent finger points to Heaven" is seen from many points in the district.

The consecration of the Church was by the Lord Bishop of Rochester (Dr Murray) as Birch was at that time in the Diocese of Rochester, and took place on October 25th, 1850, the Bishop being assisted by the Archdeacon of Colchester, and the preacher was the Rector of Birch, the Revd. William Harrison, who had taken a very active part in the whole project. The new church was built by Messrs Baldiston & Son of Ipswich, and cost over £4000 "the whole being the spontaneous and munificent gift of Charles Gray Round of Birch Hall." From this time date the present font of Caen stone (the smaller one from the earlier church is now in Layer Breton Church), the Holditch one manual organ, and most of the church plate, including two large communion cups, one paten, one flagon, one large and two smaller almsdishes - all of base metal silver plated.

The north aisle of the church was built over the vault of the 18th century members of the Round family, and that explains the memorial tablet on the north wall near the organ. There is one small wall tablet from the earlier church, now high up on the north wall, to a former rector, the Revd. J. Talman (died 1791) and his daughter and wife. On the south wall is an interesting memorial to Lieut. Oliver Simpson Bridges, who was treacherously massacred with his brother officers and men at Cawnpore in 1857, in the Indian Mutiny, after being besieged for a month. He was the son of William Bridges of Shemmings.

In 1867 Charles Gray Round died at Birch Hall, and although there are memorials to several members of the Round family in the church, no memorial was erected to this great benefactor to the parish. This, one feels, is appropriate as "Si monumentum requiris circumspice" (in the words of the epitaph to Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul's Cathedral - 'If you require a monument, look about you.') He had given the parish the School and the Church, and had also in 1860 built at his sole expense the large rectory house, which has in more recent and changed times been sold, but the value of it has enabled a worthy smaller house to be built to take its place as the rectory.

Arthur E. May in his recollections of the church in the 'eighties' says "At Birch the rector's family sat in the chancel; the choir (unsurpliced) occupied the front pews on the south side of the nave; while the squire and his family were installed in the corresponding front pew on the north side. The squire, when at home, always read the lessons. The farmers, tradesmen, and other residents of the parish occupied the remaining pews in the front of the nave. The farm labourers sat in the back pews, and never entered church till the bell had stopped ringing. They were all expected by their employers to attend all morning services on Sundays, Christmas Day, and Good Friday, and were paid their usual wages for attending on the latter two days. ... The rector, Canon William Harrison, was a cleric of much experience, who had been private chaplain to Queen Victoria. He wore a surplice for all the church services, except the sermon, when he preached in a black gown, and wearing white gloves; his sermons generally lasting half an hour or more, as was customary in those days."

When the church was built, coloured glass in geometrical patterns of red, blue, and green, was put in the east window of the chancel, and the great west window, the rest of the windows being glazed with clear or slightly tinted glass. In the 'eighties' a stained glass window on the subject of Martha and Mary was put in the south aisle in memory of Charlotte Douglas Hanson, daughter of Charles Round, and aunt to Oliver Bridges mentioned above; and later a similar one in the north aisle to her sister Georgiana Frances Freeland, on the subject "Her children shall rise up and call her blessed."

In 1889 a stained glass window of two lights "The Light of the World" and "The Blessed Virgin Mary" was placed in the south-west window of the chancel in memory of Basil Harrison son of the Revd. William Harrison. There is also a brass tablet erected by his colleagues in the House of Commons where he was a clerk, and above are small tablets to his father and mother. In 1907 on the death of Clara Isabella Sandford Luard, wife of the Revd. Bixby Garnham Luard, rector, her family, parishioners, and friends replaced the glass the east window with a fine stained glass Nativity scene "Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from Heaven."

The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 was permanently commemorated by the parish by placing a clock in the church tower with a face on the west front and a chiming hammer on the bell. This has recently been overhauled and the face gilded.

One of the interesting features of the present church is the fine modern carved oak furniture, which can be divided up into two groups. The first group, given between 1910 and 1920 consists of the clergy stalls and kneelers, the litany desk, and the communion rails. The rector's stall is in memory of Sibylla Joanna, wife of James Round, and the corresponding stall on the north side in memory of their daughter Edith Creffield Round, and the kneeling stools in memory of Eleanor Douglass Round. The richly carved litany desk is to the memory of Frank William Luard, Colonel, Royal Marines "who fell in action July 13, 1915, in Gallipoli, leading his men with the devotion of a British officer." There is also a brass tablet on the north wall of the chancel to his memory, close to one to his father, the Revd. B.G. Luard. The altar rails to the high altar were placed in the church in 1918 to the memory of Douglass Round, Churchwarden 1904-1916, who died on Dec 15th, 1916. They were designed by his architect nephew Douglass Gray Round, and there is a simple brass tablet recording the gift on the north side of the chancel arch. The former communion rails are now incorporated in a table and two fald-stools. Above the Douglass Round tablet is a tablet to the memory of his eldest brother, James Round Esq. P.C., M.P. of Birch Hall, who died only a few days after his brother. As a permanent memorial to this much respected public figure the lovely little church of St Mary the Virgin was built on Layer Breton Heath in 1923. On the south side of the chancel arch is a carved oak memorial to three gallant soldiers - Lieut Auriol Round, Captain Murray Round, M.C., and Captain Harold Round, D.S.O., M.C., nephews of James and Douglass Round, who gave their lives in the First World War.

With the coming of electricity supply to the village in 1933 the opportunity was taken of installing electric lighting in the church in place of oil lamps, and later an electric
blower was fitted to the organ. Just before the Second World War a new central heating system with boiler, pipes, and radiators was installed to solve the difficulty of heating such a large and lofty building. There had been at least two previous systems of heating.

Following the Second World War a big scheme of renovation and redecoration of the church was undertaken in 1949. All the interior walls, begrimed with the dirt of many years, and decorated with texts which had long become illegible, were whitewashed; a block of small pews at the back of the church was removed, a brick floor laid, and the font moved from the central aisle to the south west corner, making a spacious and fitting baptistery. The problem of the narrow chancel being over-crowded with choir and clergy stalls was overcome by moving the main part of the choir seating and the clergy stalls into the nave on a raised floor, and bringing the pulpit and lectern forward into the church. The east end of the south aisle was cleared to make space for a side chapel and a curtained sacristy formed in the north aisle.

The second group of modern carved furniture was started with a fine new pulpit in oak to the memory of Charles James Round, D.L., J.P., Rector's Warden, of Birch Hall, and a carved oak lectern also in memory of Charles J. Round and his son Oliver Charles, Lieutenant Royal Navy, H.M. Submarine 'Regulus', killed in action December, 1940. The pulpit is enriched with coloured and gilded coats of arms of St Peter, St Paul, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Diocese of Chelmsford, and the personal arms and crest of Charles James Round. The lectern is enriched with a roundel of the keys of St Peter and the sword of St Paul, the Round family crest, and the badge of H.M. Submarine 'Regulus', all with appropriate carved surround.

In 1950 the side chapel was furnished with a heavy carved oak altar table with gilded wooden ornaments, and rich dorsal curtains, in memory of Edith Ellen Bruce, and kneeling desks in memory of Sibyl Mary Round, and the scheme was later completed with a credence table in memory of Ralph Willett Bruce. All this fine modern carving of original design and in the true tradition of mediaeval craftsmen, gives a unique quality to a Victorian church lacking historical features.

In 1957 the high altar was remodelled and refurnished to make it worthy of the renovated church. The mensa of the former holy table was lengthened and remounted on new legs and the front incorporated some antique Jacobean panelling which had for a time done duty as a reredos, and which is now seen to advantage during the ferial seasons. Rich dorsal curtains in gold and crimson were hung behind the altar and a cream 'fling-over' type altar cloth, decorated with some valuable embroidery in Tudor rose design from the former frontal, was made to cover the altar for festal occasions.

Heavy altar candlesticks of good design, which had been given in 1926 by the Revd. William Smith in memory of his father, were silver plated, and a beautiful altar cross made to match was donated as a thankoffering. New cushions for the altar book, a blue linen altar cloth for ferial seasons, new book-markers and offertory bags were included at this time, and recently a green altar cloth of similar design to the cream one was made and given for use during Trinitytide. All this valuable and beautiful needlework was made in the parish; as was also the rich looking Mothers Union Banner which hangs in the south aisle.

Other gifts in recent years have enriched the church with a handsome set of service books. The furnishing of the south chapel included an Altar book for the Side Altar. A permanent commemoration of the Coronation of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II took the form of two large Prayer Books for the clergy stalls. A large Holy Bible for the lectern was given in memory of Helen Lucy Round, and an Altar Book for the High Altar in memory of Arthur Robert Green. All these books in rich crimson leather bindings, gilt edges and lettering, are worthy of the valuable furnishings the church now possesses.

For over a century the church had withstood fair weather and foul, and in the process stonework had eroded badly, and an architect's inspection in 1959 revealed many faults needing attention. The work of replacing the decayed stonework, of repair and renovation to the rainwater pipes and gutters, and other needful work was put in hand, and then suddenly on the night of January 19th, 1960 the spire was struck by lightning in a freak storm, causing damage to the electric lighting system, and subjecting the whole building to a considerable shock. Detailed examination after the erection of scaffolding showed serious damage to the upper part of the spire, and revealed that the lightning conductor was faulty. The inspection also revealed considerable erosion and crumbling away of much of the stonework, both inside and outside the spire. The top twelve feet of the spire was removed and completely replaced by a new Portland stone top, and much renewal and repair of the rest of the spire was carried out. A new lightning conductor was fitted and the weather cock, freshly gilded, was replaced on a new bronze rod, and now the spire points a gleaming finger above the parish. The faulty electric wiring was replaced by a more modern system, and the opportunity was taken to re-arrange the system, giving a more effective and pleasing lighting of the church. This was a most generous gift to the church by loving donors in memory of Fred and Ellen Hutton - as was also the asphalting of the path leading to the church. Another generous gift at this time by another donor was the refencing of the churchyard, and the addition of an extra piece of land to enlarge it.

So the present generation accepts its precious heritage from the past, meeting the demands made upon it, to pass the church on, ever more worthy as the House of God. Within its walls the faithful meet Sunday by Sunday for worship; here prayer and praise are offered, the sacraments administered, and God's word preached. Here the babes are brought to be admitted into the fellowship of Christ's flock, and here at the last are brought our mortal remains to be laid to rest in God's acre around His House.

"This is none other but the House of God;
this is the Gate of Heaven."


Vicars and Rectors of Great Birch
VicarsInductedPatrons
Nicholas,
   clerk to Bp. of Ostia
  
Gilbertc.1214 
Peterc.1231 
Richard Hipet or Chipet1361The Priory and Convent
John Wytcherche1369   of Leighs (or Leez)
Thomas Frating1371as above
Simon Prichard1372as above
John Covyn as above
John Greve, B.L.1406as above
John Walton1426as above
John Calsaw1428as above
John Holym1430as above
William Sharnbroke1434as above
John Wakefield1441as above
William Castell1452as above
John Lyster1474as above
Nicholas Palmer, B.D.1484as above
   
Rectors  
Henry Rudston1505as above
William Silverster1510as above
Ralph Hamsterlee, M.A.1512as above
John Redman1518as above
William Prince1518as above
Richard Baldwyre, S.T.B.1544Richard Rich
Robert Mason1546Baron Rich of Leez.
Geoffrey Crispe (M.A.)
   (deprived)

1552

as above
John Lepyngton1555as above
John Kingston, B.L.1557as above
Adam Richardson, B.L.1558as above
Thomas Symond1559as above
Simon Cook, M.A.1585The Bishop of London
Robert Ram, S.T.P., D.D.1598The Bishop of London
William Collingwood, M.A.
   (deprived)

1638

Robert, 2nd Earl of Warwick
John Ludgater1643PURITAN INTRUSION
John Dawes1653PURITAN INTRUSION
William Collingwood, M.A.
   (again)

1660

The Bishop of London
George Ryves1666Charles, 4th Earl of Warwick
Francis de la Motte1678The Bishop of London
John English, M.A.1693as above
William Ayerst, M.A.1716as above
Mark Gibbin, M.A.1722as above
George Kilby, B.A.1752as above
James Talman1778as above
Richard Ormerod, M.A.1791as above
Richard Waller, M.A.1795as above

Great and Little Birch were united by Act of Parliament, 1816.

Rectors of Little Birch
RectorsInductedPatrons
Michaelc.1194 
Richardc.1276 
Adam de Kersey1333Ralph de Tendring
Roger1348 
John1351 
William Cook1355 
Simon de Hodeline  
Roger de Kestevene  
John de Tendring1369Lionel de Bradenham
John de Herthull1370Sir John Stanway
John Petit  
John Smith1381John Boys and others
William Domeswell1391John Costentyn
Richard Aldburgh  
William Northwold1426Sir William Tendring
John Clerke1427 
Clement Wellys1434Elizabeth Tendring
William Estrington1435as above
John Marshall1440as above
William Lutterell1441as above
John Gibbon1443 
John Wyn1469The Bishop of London
Edmund Bonifaunt1469as above
John Martyn1482Sir William Tendring
William Cresswell1489as above
Robert Ancock  
John Wardman1502Sir Robert Tendring
John Richer1502as above
William Hebbe  
Nicholas Rawlings1520Richard Foster Esq.
John Saltmarsh1528Robert Foster Esq.
Thomas Brand1544as above
Ralph Smith, S.T.B.1584H.M. Queen Elizabeth I
William Tayler1591Arthur Golding Esq.
Timothy Muncke, M.A.1608Nathaniel Muncke
Robert Mitchell, M.A.
   (deprived)

1630

Dame Thomasina Swynnerton
Thomas Martin, M.A.
   (lecturer)

1657
 
Robert Mitchell, M.A.
   (restored)

1660
 
Obadiah Paul, M.A.1672King Charles II (lapse)
Francis Dezee1694Sir John Hopwood
William Ayerst, M.A.1718 
Marcus Gibbin, M.A.1722 
George Kilby, B.A.
   (intruded)

1752

(illegal presentation)
John Haggard, M.A.1754William Round Esq.
Edward Henry Green1813Charles Round Esq.

The actual union of the benefices of Great and Little Birch took effect on the death of the Revd. E.H. Green in 1844.

Rectors of Birch
from the union of Great Birch and Little Birch
RectorsInductedPatrons
Richard Waller, M.A.1844The Bishop of London
William Harrison, M.A.
  Canon of St. Albans.

1848

Charles Gray Round Esq.
Frederick John Ross
  Laurence, M.A., R.D.

1882

The Bishop of St. Albans.
Bixby Garnham Luard, M.A.1895The Bishop of St. Albans.
Edwin Percy Luard, M.A.
  Canon of Chelmsford.

1919

Charles James Round Esq.
George Armstrong,
  Hon C.F., F.R.G.S.

1947

The Bishop of Chelmsford.

N.B. By an Order in Council in 1908 Layer Breton was united with Birch, so that from that date the Rectors of Birch have also been Rectors of Layer Breton. The Revd. G. Armstrong also holds the Rectory of Layer Marney in plurality with Birch and Layer Breton.

Registers

Great Birch Registers date back to the 16th century and include the parchment transcript made in 1598 of the registers dating back to 1560. There are gaps during the years of the Commonwealth.

There are no registers for Little Birch.

Layer Breton Registers only date from the middle of the 18th century - baptisms from 1749, marriages from 1755 and burials from 1765. In 1797 they record the burial of a man in wool who had been executed at Chelmsford for housebreaking.

The Patrons of the Living

A unique and interesting feature of the Church of England is its system of patronage - that is the right to appoint to livings and preferments. In Birch as in many parishes the right of presentation is closely allied with the position of lord of the manor.

Great Birch was under the lordship of the Gernon family of Birch Castle in the 13th and 14th centuries. About 1220 Ralph Gernon of Birch founded a Priory at Little Leez (Leighs) near Felstead, and as part of the endowment of it he presented the rectory of Great Birch, leaving the Prior and Convent to appoint vicars to serve the cure. So, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries c.1536 all appointments to Great Birch were made by that body. It does not seem to have been a very satisfactory arrangement as there were frequent changes of vicar, and disputes about the payment of tythes, so in 1487, under a commission set up by Thomas Kemp, Bishop of London, the rectory was restored, and the rector was to receive all the tithes, but pay a pension of 5 marks per annum to the Prior and Convent. In 1536 the property of Leez Priory was acquired by Lord Rich, a successful lawyer and politician, M.P. for Colchester, Lord Chancellor and Privy Councillor, and founder of Felstead School, and on the Priory site he erected an imposing mansion for himself. The patronage of Great Birch went to him, and continued through his family to the 4th Earl of Warwick although there were lapses when the Bishop appointed. On the death of the last Earl of Warwick, the patronage appears to have been transferred to the Bishop of London, in whose hands it remained until the 19th century.

The patronage of Little Birch was in the hands of the Tendring family for nearly two hundred years, who were likewise lords of the manor of Little Birch. From the Tendrings it passed through the marriage of Margaret Tendring to the Forster or Foster family, and from them to the Golding family, so that Arthur Golding, the famous classical translator, presented in 1591. In the 17th century it passed with the manor into the Swinnerton family, and then by purchase in 1724 to the Round family, who held the patronage until Little Birch was joined with Great Birch by the Act of Parliament of 1816.

Under that Act the patronage was to alternate, the Bishop having two turns to the one of the Round family. With the diocesan reorganisation and formation of new sees, it passed from the Bishop of London to the Bishop of Rochester, later to the Bishop of St Albans, and in 1914 to the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Round family still retaining the third turn in patronage.

The patronage of Layer Breton was also in the hands the manorial families - Breton, Walden, Barlee, and Rebow until modern times, and after being in several private hands, it is now joined with Birch under the Order in Council of 1908.

Layer Breton

As in Birch, so in the adjoining and now sister parish of Layer Breton, an old church has been replaced by a new. The manor houses and churches of each of the three Layers were close to the River Layer or Layer Brook, while the village in each case has become centres further inland on higher ground.

Layer Breton Old Church

Old Layer Breton Church (St Mary) stood opposite Layer Breton Hall at the southern end of the parish, and was completely demolished in 1915, so now only its site and churchyard remain. There was apparently a little church there from at least Norman times, and there were regular appointments to the rectory from the beginning of the 14th century. Philip Morant, the Essex historian, in his "History of Essex" (1768) says of this church:- "The church is of one pace with the chancel, both tiled. In a wooden bell turret there is one bell." He also mentions that Alice, wife of Nicholas Breton died 6th May, 1392, and was buried in that church with an epitaph. Other writers also mention this monument as having a Latin inscription, but the effigies missing. All trace of this monument has now been lost. The Breton family were lords of the manor of Layer Breton from Norman times until the 15th century, and it is claimed that the voluminous pamphleteer in verse as well as in prose, Nicholas Breton, c.1542-1626 was a direct descendant from this family.

There are references to the old church in the books of the Colchester Archdeaconry. In 1593 the wardens of Layer Breton were admonished for their negligence in not presenting the want of the Ten Commandments, a carpet, a Bible, and a chest with two locks. In 1633 it is reported "This church wants reboarding, and their steeple wants boarding and repairing. They want Bishop Jewels works, the book of homilies and the book of canons. They want a decent pulpit cloth. They want two locks and keys for their church chest. Their church wants glazing and liming. Their chancel wants boarding and glazing." In the Visitation Book of 1707 it is ordered that the wall of the church be new whited, and the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lords Prayer be renewed.

A valuable link with the old church is found in the church plate. The Communion cup which dates from 1724 has a deep straightsided bowl and stout stem with plain knop, and weighs about eight ounces. It has the inscription of the bowl "Ex X Dono X W.S." and most probably refers to the Revd. William Slinger - rector 1692-1734. He was also rector of East Donyland and Master of Colchester (Grammar) School. Typical of conditions in many country parishes in the 18th century, several of the incumbents were pluralists holding more than one living, sometimes non-resident, and spiritual life was at a very low ebb.

However in 1829 the Revd. R.W. Sutton was firstly licensed to the curacy of Layer Breton, and two years later instituted as rector, and a new chapter of activity commences. The new rector, who was apparently a man of some means, at once embarks on a thorough restoration of the old church, agreeing to do the same without calling for any church rate from the parish for four years. He repaired the church inside, altering the seating, having the pulpit moved forward, and a gallery erected at the east end for the children. The same year he added a school-room to the Glebe Cottage. In 1834 a vestry was built on the north side of the church, and in 1837 a trench was made all round the church and zinc troughing erected to overcome dampness. In 1844 the bell turret was repaired, a west gallery (no doubt for the musicians) was erected; old beams removed and iron ones inserted; pews placed under the west gallery, ventilators added and the whole church painted internally and externally - all at the expense of the rector. He notes in the register that by the date 1791 on the weather vane he presumed there had been previous repairs to the bell turret that year. The pews were evidently the old high box pews commonly found at this time as Arthur E. May in "Essex Countryside", Vol 2, No 5, describes how in the 'eighties' "this church had totally enclosed high back pews with a door to each. The partitions between the pews were not too high to prevent adults from seeing over the top when seated, but it was impossible for children to see anything at all, except when standing, and we found this extremely boring." The Revd. R.W. Sutton was followed in 1855 by the Revd. William Blow who was a distinguished amateur violinist, and was reputed to have possessed the finest private collection of violins in Great Britain. One can imagine that under his inspiration the little village orchestra which led the singing from the west gallery would be one of special quality for such a small parish.

On Tuesday, April 22nd, 1884, north-east Essex was suddenly struck with calamity in the form of an earthquake which did considerable damage to buildings, but caused no personal injury or loss of life. Much damage was done to Layer-de-la-Haye, Great Wigborough, Little Wigborough, Salcott and Virley churches, but reports suggest little damage to Layer Breton. From later developments it seems evident that the old building had received a bad shaking, and within the next few years its condition deteriorates so much that it becomes unsafe to use the building for public worship. This may well have been aided by the fact that the church stood on heavy Essex clay, notorious for being unsatisfactory for building on, and the foundations of many old churches were weakened by digging graves and vaults, not only outside the church, but also inside. There are records of subscriptions in 1902 for fitting up a temporary church, and from this time dates the use of a barn opposite Layer Breton Old Rectory as a church (flippantly known as St. Barnabas). This remained in use until 1923.

There lived for a time at Layer Breton Lodge a keen artist, Thomas Simpson, who painted several water-colours of the district; he was also for a time churchwarden of Layer Breton. One of his works was a painting in 1909 of the old church, and this has now come back to the parish, and hangs in the new church. It gives a vivid and accurate picture of the old church at that time, showing the west end shored up and gaping holes in the roof.

On the death of the Revd. Francis Owston in 1908, the rectory of Layer Breton was united with that of Birch by Order in Council, and the Revd. Bixby G. Luard became rector of Layer Breton with Birch.

Fortunately on October 20th, 1914, Philip G. Laver, a well known Colchester antiquarian visited the old church and made a careful report, including copies of all the tombstone inscriptions in the churchyard; this is now among the MSS in the library of the Essex Archaeological Society. He describes how he found the church in an extremely dilapidated state, and agrees with the picture mentioned above. The west wall of the nave, of 19th century brickwork was badly bulging and strutted up to keep it from falling; in it were two wooden square headed windows, one above the other, the upper one having remains of a hood moulding in brick. The south wall of the nave of rubble with brick patches, had one window of two lights with stone jambs and mullions, but with a flat wooden head, and inserted on the east side of this window were the remains of a hood mould. At the angle next the chancel was a small square buttress of two flights, having a piece of string-course put in upside down; this no doubt belonged to the early building. Above the buttress was a small square wooden window to light the pulpit. In the north wall of the nave the rubble was cracked throughout its height in more than one place, and contained many Roman tiles. In this wall near the chancel end was a small square headed two light window of stone. The chancel was all of late 17th century brick, probably rebuilt later, having a south square headed window made of wood, and a pointed east window, also of wood. The nave walls had been plastered and the external walls all whitewashed. Round the church at ground level were several circular openings for ventilation under the wooden floor of the pews. On the south side was a porch of brick and timber, very dilapidated. The south door was a plain 15th century stone doorway. Inside the white brick floor was much dug about and destroyed, digging for rabbits (sic). He mentions the deal pews, the deal pulpit, and the west gallery. The chancel arch was of stone - late 15th century, and the chancel floor also of brick. The communion table was uprooted and overthrown in quest for rabbits. In the centre of the floor were three stone slabs, one on the south side evidently the matrix of a brass. The vestry on the north side was of 19th century brick, having a cupboard in the thickness of the east wall. The roofs were tiled and broken. The wood and slated bell turret contained one bell. In the nave over the chancel arch were the Royal Arms (Victorian). He mentions one wall tablet to the rector who had done so much to restore the church, with the following inscription:-

"TO THE MEMORY OF THE REVEREND ROBERT WOODING SUTTON, M.A., FOR 25 YEARS THE RESPECTED AND BELOVED RECTOR OF THIS PARISH. HE DIED AT BONCHURCH ISLE OF WIGHT WHERE HIS REMAINS REST 4th JULY 1855 AGED 57."
(Text from Hebrews 13, v.7 & 8.)

The inscriptions from the churchyard include memorials to the Revd. William Blow and the Revd. Francis Owston, also one to William Wheeler (1800-1884) for fifty years churchwarden of this parish.

The following year the old church was completely demolished, and now it is difficult to even trace its site. The parish continued to use the barn as a temporary church for Sunday worship, while weddings from the parish took place at Birch.

Layer Breton New Church

The Rt. Hon James Round had always intended to build a church in Layer Breton in memory of his wife, but the First World War compelled him to defer building, and during that time his own death occurred. His family decided to erect a church to the memory of Mr and Mrs James Round as soon as the war was over and conditions would allow. The then Bishop of Colchester also decided to invite the co-operation of Mr. Round's many friends in the county and diocese. It was not however until 1922 that the project took definite shape. Owing to the distance away from the main part of the parish, and the unsatisfactory state of the site of the old church, it was decided to build the new church at the upper end of the village. Mr. G.F. Beaumont of Coggeshall, the lord of the manor of Layer Breton, generously gave a site at the southern end of the Heath; a plan was prepared by Mr. Raymond Barker and approved, and the tender for building was secured by Messrs. Hutton & Son of Birch. The total cost including fencing and churchyard shed was about £2000, the greater part of which was given from the Round Memorial Fund, including £750 from members of the Round family. After various delays building commenced, and was completed by November, 1923.

The new "Round Memorial Church", dedicated to S. Mary-the-Virgin, was consecrated by the Bishop of Chelmsford on Friday, November 16th 1923, and as space was limited, there were two services; one in the afternoon for the relations and friends of the Rt. Hon James Round and regular worshippers of Layer Breton; and one in the evening open to all. The church, which is quite a landmark on this high point in the district, is built in Essex brick with tiled roof, and with its white wooden bell-turret and simple perpendicular style windows, is in several ways reminiscent of its predecessor, and is approximately the same size. It incorporates the bell from the old church; also the 14th century font from old Birch Church which had stood for seventy years in the garden of Birch rectory, and which now seems to be in a perfect setting in its new position. The interior is of a simple design with a raised sanctuary at the east end, and a curtained vestry and baptistery in the two corners at the west end. Across the roof are heavy beams and above this a panelled plastered ceiling.

Many beautiful gifts were made, including antique oak panelling all round the sanctuary and altar-rails of Jacobean workmanship, the gift of Mr. W.M. De Zoete; also antique chairs and credence table for the sanctuary. There is a simple tablet on the south wall recording the consecration and commemoration of the church.

As a memorial to Mrs. De Zoete who died in 1924 a stained glass east window was presented in 1926 by Mr. De Zoete. The central light contains the figure of the Virgin and Child, and the lights on either side embody antique coats of arms in lovely 14th century glass - the whole work being designed by Messrs. Clayton and Bell. There is also an attractive little cross-shaped window over the font with stained glass representing the dove of the Holy Spirit.

Following the death in 1935 of Mr. W.M. De Zoete, a carved oak roundel in the Italian style, of the Virgin seated and playing with the Child, was offered by his family and underneath it is a tablet to the memory of this beloved churchwarden and generous benefactor.

More recent improvements have been electric lighting and electric heating. As at Birch the Coronation of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II was commemorated by the presentation of a Prayer Book for the prayer desk in rich binding and with suitable inscription.

Recently the interior has been decorated, and the parish now has a charming well appointed church, not only convenient in situation to serve Layer Breton, but also close to the developing southern side of Birch.

"O how amiable are Thy dwellings:
thou Lord of hosts!"


Rectors of Layer Breton
RectorsInductedPatrons
John de la Dalec.1285 
Richard de Ramsholt  
Richard de Sprouton1329William le Breton
Richard de Baldwyn1335as above
William Diere  
Nicholas Hande or Baude1365{ Thomas Sampson
{   (under tenant
{   to the
{   Bretons)
John Annty1368
Thomas Gouther1372
Richard Honey1373
Robert Payne  
Thomas Osteler1395Nicholas Breton
John Cerne1397 
John Serle  
Richard Littliman1431Elizabeth Walden
Robert Smith1432as above
Alexander Franceys1435as above
Reginald Bryd or Byrd  
John Bettys1442Elizabeth Walden
Robert Holmes1465Katharine Barlee
Richard Chapman1467Henry Barlee
John Lord1470as above
John Ward1472William Barlee
Thomas Herst1473as above
Thomas Swathorpe  
Richard Geldan1531John Bennet for Henry Barlee
William Kemp1550 
Cuthbert Hagerston, M.A.1552 
Thomas Eynsworth1554 
Peter Hawkes1568W. Oswald for Joyce Barlee
John Lucas1588J. Baron for Joyce Barlee
Thomas Lucas  
Charles Leventhorpe, M.A.1632Simon Brograve & others
Edward Theedam, M.A.
   (ejected)

1632

William Theedam
John Kympton, M.A. PURITAN INTRUSION
Robert Wicks, M.A. PURITAN INTRUSION
Thomas Martin, M.A. PURITAN INTRUSION
Edward Theedam, M.A.
   (restored)

1660
 
Robert Bond, M.A.1677Isaac Rebow Esq.
Samuel Angier, M.A.1688as above
William Butcher, B.A.1689as above
William Slinger, M.A.1692as above
Robert Macno, M.A.1734Charles C. Rebow Esq.
Stephen Aldrich, B.A.1761Thomas & Mary Adams
Thomas Tringham, M.A.1769as above
John Frederick Benwell1819R. Sutton Esq.
Robert Wooding Sutton, M.A.1831as above
William Blow, M.A.1855The Revd. William Blow
William Earle1887R. Stillman Esq.
Francis Owston, M.A.1892J. Round Esq. & Bishop of St Albans.

In 1908 Layer Breton was united with Birch.


The original booklet was printed by East Anglian Magazine Ltd., Ipswich.

Addendum: On Sunday May 10th 1987, a chalice, paten and wafer-box were presented to Birch Church, and blessed, in memory of James Eve, sometime Churchwarden of St Peter's.

Page updated: 08 JUL 2002