“Among all the impressive objects that happy England can show, none are more interesting and elevating than her village churches”, wrote Upminster’s historian Thomas Lewis Wilson in 1856. Those comments certainly apply to Upminster’s St Laurence Church which, although much altered throughout its history, merits Grade 1 listing due to its ancient and important tower.
The origins of Upminster’s parish church date to well before the Norman Conquest. St Cedd, a Celtic priest, was sent into Essex in the middle of the seventh century as the first Bishop of the East Saxons and along with a companion priest set about converting the population to Christianity. Five mission churches were founded in Essex about this time and “minsters” were the base or mother churches from which the process of making converts of the Saxons across a wide local area. It is possible that Upminster was one of these five minsters. First, the location of the church at a cross roads is ideal for missionary work and secondly, the church does not adjoin a manor house, as is common elsewhere in Essex. Thirdly, the mostly concave shape of Upminster’s boundaries may indicate that neighbouring parishes (e.g. Cranham, Aveley, etc) were created out of the original “mother” Upminster parish served by the minster.
The uncommon dedication to St Laurence also suggests an early origin, although it was only first recorded in Upminster in 1204. St Laurence was a Christian martyr of the third century who by legend died by roasting on a grid-iron over a slow fire – his gory demise is the origin of the church’s grid-iron symbol and the naming of nearby Gridiron Close.
The name Laurence derived from the Latin “Laurentius” but this spelling was not consistently used for Upminster’s parish church until the early twentieth century when the Rev Hyla Henry Holden was Rector. Indeed, the spelling “Lawrence” was more often used in the Victorian period – T.L. Wilson used this spelling in his 1856 history – but it’s unclear why this spelling was used in the naming of St Lawrence Road when the Upminster Garden Suburb was developed from 1906.
Due to the absence of local building stone, Upminster’s first church would doubtless have been built from materials such as mud, timbers, wattle and thatch. The surviving log-church at Greensted may give us a rough idea of its small scale.
The tower at Upminster is the oldest unaltered part of the church standing today. It stands 90 feet (28m) tall and is part of the stone church which replaced the timber and thatch original. The two lower stages of the tower were described by Buckler in 1852 as “a pure specimen of the original work” which he thought dated from early in King John’s reign (1100-1216). Pevsner also opted for the thirteenth century and the existence of a reused thirteenth century hinge fixed to the panelled door to the tower’s staircase (itself probably of the fifteenth or sixteenth century) may confirm this.
Tower & spire, exterior and interior: (Pics: Richard Moorey)
The top (third) stage of the stone tower may be a little later, and added to accommodate the bell chamber and support the timber spire. This spire has been called “an early Essex example” and is also supported by a huge timber framework within the tower, reaching to the ground. This, again, was described by Pevsner as a fine piece of thirteenth century construction. Cecil Hewett, the authority on Essex church carpentry, dated the spire to c.1220, based upon its carpentry, and in particular the presence of secret notched lap joints. Taking all of this together, the lower stages of masonry must be somewhat earlier than the carpentry. It has been suggested to me that the crude, round-headed arches visible in the rubble walls outside may even indicate that the masonry is substantially earlier than the timber.
The timber frames for the bells are older than the bells themselves. The oldest surviving bell was cast by the London bell-maker John Kebyll between 1460 and 1480. This bell is inscribed “Sancte Gabriele Ora Pro Nobis” (“St Gabriel pray for us”) and is the only survivor of the four bells mentioned in the church inventory of 1552. The second oldest bell is dated 1583 and is by another London bell-maker Robert Mot. It was probably cast in Whitechapel, after Mot moved there from Danbury and is one of more than 80 surviving bells by Mot, including two at Westminster Abbey. The third bell is the largest and was cast by Richard Holdfield of Cambridge in 1602, the same year that he recast three bells at Prittlewell. This bell is inscribed “’God save our Nobel Queene Elizabeth, 1602, R.H.”. The fourth bell is also from the Whitechapel Bell foundry but much more modern, dating from 1973. It was given by the family of Amelia Bowman and it replaced a bell that was cracked and sold for scrap by the churchwardens in around 1820.
Bells: Top left: John Kebyll’s 15th C; Top centre: Robert Mot 1583; Top right: Richard Holdfield 1602 Bottom: Timber frames for bells. (Pics: Richard Moorey)
The rest of St Laurence church was completed in stone by the mid- to late thirteenth century. The nave was still largely unaltered in 1852 when it was described as “a specimen of very early pointed architecture, familiarly distinguished as the ‘Transition style’, with somewhat of a Norman character in its details.” An aisle was added on the north side of the nave in the early fourteenth century and its three-bay arcade still stands inside the church.
The Lord of the Manor of Gaynes owned St Laurence’s advowson (the right to present the Rector) by the late thirteenth century. At that time chapels could be privately owned. Sir John Engayne (1232-1297) added a chapel, known as the Gaynes Chapel, on the north side of the chancel, which T.L. Wilson surmised to have been an elegant structure. It became the burial place for the Engayne family and where masses were said for their souls, and also for successive owners of Gaynes.
The chapel was later known as St Mary’s or the Lady Chapel with the first recorded link to the Virgin Mary dating from 1431 and by Tudor times the term seems to have been commonly used. This part of the church was nearest the main highway to the north which presumably led to this road later being called St Mary’s Lane, which was certainly in use by the early eighteenth century.
The “fair tomb” of another Lord of Gaynes, Roger Deyncourt (d.1455) and his wife was said to be under the arch which then divided the Gaynes chapel from the chancel. Another lost memorial was the tomb of Ralph Latham (d. 1557) which was a brick pedestal covered by a marble stone and was said to have included the figure of a man in armour and a woman, their seven sons and five daughters. It’s unclear whether this was one of the memorials and “numerous effigies, coats of arms, and inscriptions … upon the floor” which Wilson said survived until the early decades of the nineteenth century before they were removed by the “pilferings of collectors”.
St Laurence has been described as having “one of the better collections” of surviving brasses in Greater London. Originally there were far more adorning tombs in the chapel, as recorded by Weever in 1631 and Holman in 1719. Now only eight brasses remain, all of which are linked to the manor of Gaynes, and which can now be seen mounted on the south wall. These brasses commemorate:
I. Elizabeth, daughter of Henry de la Felde, and wife of Roger Deyncourt (d.1455);
II. an unidentified civilian (c.1540);
III. Nicholas Wayte (d.1542) in civil dress, and his wife Ellyn nee Deyncourt;
IV. a lady holding a book (possibly Elizabeth, wife of Ralph Latham c.1553);
V. Geerardt D’Ewes (d.1591);
VI. Grace, daughter of William Latham, (1626);
VII. an inscription to John and Ann Stanley (1628); and
VIII. an inscription to Hamlet Clarke (1636)
Left: III. Nicholas Wayte & his wife Ellyn. Centre: IV. Lady holding book; Right: V. Geerardt D’Ewes; Brass rubbings: ©The Monumental Brasses of Essex by William Lack, H. Martin Stuchfield and Philip Whittemore (2003).
The brasses of the unidentified civilian (II) and that of Nicholas Wayte (III) are “palimpsests” – i.e. the remains of older brasses can be seen on the backs. In both cases the older images are of an abbot or bishop, suggesting that they were reused after being removed from a religious house during the Dissolution in the late 1530s.
The church baptismal font is another ancient survival, dating to the fifteenth century. This was a gift in the eighteenth century from the Branfill family, and was formerly from the chapel at Upminster Hall, and has been covered in another article (HERE).
In 1630 the above-named Hamlet Clarke, a London merchant who owned New Place, repaired and “beautified” the Gaynes chapel. Clarke was both father-in-law and stepfather to Ralph Latham (d.1643), the Lord of the Manor of Gaynes and the Common Serjeant of London. Clarke had married Ralph’s mother, Alice nee Dewes, the widow of William Latham (d.1614); Clarke’s daughter from his first marriage, Mary had married this Ralph Latham in 1613.
Clarke’s 1630 rebuilding included adding painted and dated armorial glass to the window at the east end of the chapel which already included the arms of John Engayne. The surviving window now incorporates the arms of Engayne, Deyncourt and Latham and is also made up of elements from various periods, in addition to the 1630 glazing. This includes other fragments such as possible fifteenth century quarries (small pieces) from the medieval glazing of the church and fragments probably from a domestic house; further fragments were inserted during the nineteenth century when restorations were carried out. The images of two musketeers at the top of the window, which are contemporary with Clarke’s additions, are extremely rare and are said to be the only known examples in the south of England.
A selection of images from the 1630 stained glass window. Copyright: Chris Parkinson
In December 1638 a violent thunderstorm and a lightning strike caused significant damage to the church and tower. The steeple was burnt down but the bells avoided damage, as they had been taken down. It was said that the cross above the chancel fell down into the churchyard, brushing the minister, who was fortunately unharmed.
In 1685 a visitation by the Archdeacon of Essex found that the “Chancell and the North Side of the church, called St Mary’s Chappell … is much out of repair, the beams rotten”. However, major repairs only seem to have occurred in 1771 when Sir James Esdaile pulled down the ruinous remains of the St Mary chapel and rearranged that part of the church. He added a new vault below the rebuilt chapel for the burials of his family and his memorial and those of his descendants can be seen on the walls.
During the excavation of the vault the coffin of Grace Latham was discovered and her body was said to have been “free from decay”, some 145 years after her burial. It was during this 1771 rebuilding of the chapel that Clarke’s stained-glass window was relocated to the north wall, where it still remains. At the same time the north aisle was repaired by encasing it with stock bricks, and the original roof timbers were hidden beneath a lath and plaster ceiling.
When the Esdailes sold the Gaynes estate and the Lordship of the Manor in 1819 the rights to the chapel were not included in the sale, despite the long-term link between the Manor of Gaynes and the Chapel. However, when New Place was auctioned in 1839 by Sir James’ grandson, James Esdaile (1780-1864), the sale included “all the Rights of the Vendor in St Mary’s Chapel, in the Parish Church, which contains a large family pew and six others, subject to the purchaser keeping the same in repair”. It seems that the Esdailes retained the rights to the chapel until 1839, which passed to the later owners of New Place.
In 1780 Charles Hornby, the owner of Foxhall, bequeathed £200 to erect a singing gallery, with this sum to be raised by the sale of his plate and jewels. This mahogany gallery with elaborate Gothic carving was built in 1782 between the tower entrance and the nave, reducing the usable space. It was replaced in 1845 by a lower and larger gallery, which itself was removed during the next rebuilding.
In March 1861 a public meeting was held at the National School to consider the Rector Rev John Rose Holden’s offer to give £1,000 towards rebuilding the church and to propose measures to carry this out. A committee was set up and William Gibbs Bartleet (1829-1906), a Warwickshire-born architect and surveyor who had settled in Brentwood after his recent marriage, was invited to submit plans to repair the church and to add extra places, and a new vestry. The cheapest quote to carry out the work to Bartleet’s designs came from a Norwich builder named Burrell who underbid the other tenders by over £300 with his £1362 bid, which had increased from £1278 to completely rebuild the south wall. The shortfall over the Rev Holden’s donation was raised by local subscription.
The nave and chancel of the church were completely rebuilt on a slightly larger footprint, mostly on the old foundations except that it was two feet longer and six feet wider on the north side than before. Kentish ragstone with Portland dressings was imported as the main building material. A new vestry was added on the north side of the unaltered tower, and the sixteenth century south porch was rebuilt. The arch separating the Gaynes Chapel from the chancel was replaced with two pointed arches but the fourteenth century arcade into the north aisle was left in place.
Before the restoration the St Mary’s chapel was separated from the north aisle by “a magnificent carved open screen of oak … of the age of Henry VI … most delicately executed and finished in colours and gold, which are still brilliant”. The screen was topped by a frieze and cornice of the Elizabethan era, and a shield containing the arms of the Latham family, said to be “gaudily painted” which did not match “the refined taste and character of the more ancient screen”. The ancient screen was pulled down and damaged as part of the initial work and left in a ditch outside the church. Fortunately, it was rescued, repaired and reinstated in the newly rebuilt church, but without the Latham shield and other elements. According to Wilson the church fittings, including old pews dating back to the Elizabethan period, were sold to “some promiscuous man” for £3.
Throughout the rebuilding, church services were held in the Rectory Barn. Work started in June 1861 and despite the winter months the building work was completed by late February 1862. Sadly, the Rector, Rev John Rose Holden, who had initiated the project, did not live to see it finished: he passed away on the 28 January 1862 in his 90th year. His successor, the Rev Philip Melancthon Holden, was inducted into the living in March 1862, and it is his initials which are engraved on the west tower. The rebuilt church was formally opened by the Bishop of Rochester who performed Divine Service on 2nd March 1862.
An extraordinary situation arose later that year. In November 1862 the Rev Richard Battiscombe, the owner of Hacton House, who was the Rector of Southmere, Norfolk and Curate of Wennington, challenged the churchwarden George Eve in the Consistory Court at Rochester about the pew that he had been allocated in the rebuilt church, as Mr Eve had claimed the seat originally allocated and prevented the Rev Battiscombe from occupying it. The case which was heard by the Court in January 1863 revealed that, although the Bishop had sanctioned the rebuilding of the church, a faculty (the formal approval route) had not been obtained. The Chancellor of the Consistory Court ruled that, without consecration and dedication by the Bishop, the rebuilt St Laurence could not be considered to be a parish church and therefore the claim by the churchwarden fell outside the Court’s jurisdiction. The effect of this decision was that marriages carried out in the church since it was reopened were null and void. Clearly, this was resolved quickly as marriages seem to have been carried out from April 1863 – burials were not affected as the churchyard was consecrated ground, nor were baptisms as these were permitted elsewhere, as long an ordained clergyman performed them.
Little was done to the church during the Rev P M Holden’s 42-year incumbency and it was only after his death in 1904 that improvements were progressively made to the somewhat neglected church after the new Rector Rev Henry Hyla Holden took over. The first changes came in 1906 with a rebuilt vestry, the removal of the ivy from the ancient rubble tower, which then needed patch repairs, and the spire was re-shingled. The new Rector’s approach saw a greater focus on music and new choir stalls were installed in the chancel in 1909, replacing those in the St Mary’s chapel, with a new organ provided in 1911. Repairs to the steeple, which had become rotten, were needed after storm damage in March 1911. Gas lighting was added in 1912, making the church a more welcoming place for worship and evening services could now be held all year round.
Left: South porch & Church tower during removal of ivy 1906 Top right: Exterior c1916 Bottom right: Interior c.1907
With the growth of the Upminster Garden Suburb and the increasing local population, there was a need to add more space to accommodate the congregation. By 1924 plans had been progressed and a leading ecclesiastical architect Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949) – who had designed the Hornchurch War Memorial in 1921 – was engaged to draw up plans. In June 1927 the Parochial Church Council formally applied to the Diocese of Chelmsford for a faculty to add a new chancel and sanctuary, a new aisle on the south side of the nave, a new lady chapel and a new stained-glass window at the extended east end. The estimated cost was said to be £5,500, of which £3,600 had been promised and the balance of £1,900 raised by subscription. On 2 May 1928 the Diocese approved the proposed extension and less than three months later, on Friday 20 July the foundation stone of the extension was laid in a masonic ceremony. The Bishop of Chelmsford presided and prominent Essex freemasons dressed in full regalia taking part, with the Architect Sir Charles Nicholson also present.
Church building extension 1928-9 – images taken by the late George Greenland via Richard Moorey
This extension almost doubled the footprint of the church. The St Mary’s Chapel, with the memorials to the Esdaile family and Clarke’s 1630 stained glass window, became an extension of the north aisle, and a new Lady Chapel was added to the east. A stone coffin lid, which was discovered when the foundations were being dug for the new Chapel, can now be seen there. The former chancel became part of the nave, with a larger new chancel added to the east. The south aisle now ran into a new St George’s Chapel, at its east end.
The screen was relocated to separate the newly built chapel from the extended north aisle, and a screen which had been added to separate the chancel and the nave in the early 1920s, was moved to the entrance to the St George’s Chapel.
The works were completed by October 1929, when the Bishop of Chelmsford officiated at a service of dedication for the extension before a crowded congregation. Nicholson’s plans provided for a single-storey choir vestry and sacristy (an area for clergy and servers to be robed and for the storage of items needed for worship) to be added as a later stage of the development, which was eventually carried out in 1937.
An easily overlooked feature of the church are the oak pews made by the Yorkshire furniture designer Robert “Mouseman” Thompson (1876-1955) found in the ante-chapel and St George’s Chapel. Thompson’s characteristic carved mouse motifs can be found on the top of the pew ends as 3D carvings while others are pictures carved into the side of ends. These are believed to have been acquired during the 1940s/1950s and have delighted children visiting the church in the decades since. The new Rectors’ board in the tower was bought from the company in 2019.
In recent years the 1937 built extension has shown signs of subsidence and dilapidation, and the changing needs of the church require more space for its current activities. Plans were launched in 2017 to add new facilities involving a larger sacristy and storage, and a new community room and choir vestry to replace the 1937 extension, and fundraising for this project is underway.
Many thanks to Tony Fox for his helpful comments on the draft text and also to Andy Grant for providing a copy of Buckler’s hard to find 1852 publication, and other information. Chris Parkinson (stained glass), Martin Stuchfield (monumental brasses) and Richard Moorey (bells) have also generously provided images and given permission for me to use them.
Main Archive Sources:
The National Archives
Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills: PROB 11/39: Rauff Lathum (1557); PROB 11/123: William Lathum (1614); PROB 11/199: Hamlett Clerke (1646); PROB 11/1065 Charles Hornby (1780).
Essex Record Office:
D/CF 67/77: Upminster St Laurence Faculty (1928)
T/P 195/2/7 Holman’s MS History of Upminster (1719)
Main Printed Sources:
Thomas Lewis Wilson Sketches of Upminster (1856) pp 41-62
Thomas Lewis Wilson History & Topography of Upminster (1881) pp 63-93
The Upminster Local History Group The Story of Upminster: Book 4 People of the Middle Ages (1958)
The Upminster Local History Group The Story of Upminster: Book 8 Church and Rectors (1959)
W.R. Powell “Upminster” in A History of the County of Essex: Vol 7 (1978) pp.156-161
George Buckler The Churches of Essex – No.10 Upminster (written 1852, published 1856)
George Greenland “Upminster parish church rebuilding 1862” in Havering History Review, 14 (1993) pp 14-16;
A. Ellis “St Laurence Church Upminster” in Havering History Review, 14 (1993) pp 17-19;
Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien & Nikolaus Pevsner The Buildings of England London 5: East (2005) pp 208-209
Nikolaus Pevsner The Buildings of England Essex (1965 ed.) pp 397-398
R. H. Roberts The Parish Church of St Laurence, Upminster: a brief history and guide (1930 – revised 1965 & subsequently)
The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England An Inventory of Historical Monuments in Essex Volume 4 South east (1923) pp 160-162
Cecil Hewett Church Carpentry (1982) pp 62-64
Janet Cooper The Church Dedications and Saints’ Cults of Medieval Essex (2011)
William Lack, H. Martin Stuchfield & Philip Whittemore The Monumental Brasses of Essex (2003) pp 736-743
Christopher Parkinson with Penny Hegbin-Barnes The 17th Century Glass at Upminster (in “Vidimus” On-line magazine Issue 107 February 2017 – also available as a leaflet in St Laurence Church)
Alfred Suckling Memorials of the Antiquities and Architecture, Family History and Hearaldry of the County of Essex (1845) pp 54-60
John Weever Ancient Funerall Monuments within the united monarchie of Great Britaine, Ireland and the ilands adjacent (1631) pp 650-654
Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi (CVMA) Medieval Stained glass in England Upminster: St Laurence
Website of Bob Speel Church Monuments London/Former Essex: St Laurence Upminster