God’s Acre – St Laurence Churchyard

By tradition known as “God’s Acre”, the parish churchyard is the place where generations of parishioners found their final resting place. The churchyard of St Laurence is no exception, with some gravestones and tombs dating back over three hundred years to the eighteenth century while some others date to more recent times.

St Laurence churchyard was originally only the areas to the east of the church, bordering what is now known as Corbets Tey Road, and to the south down to the current boundary with the parish hall.  In 1908 T. L. Wilson wrote that he would not be surprised if “interments of the local deceased have been made here for more than twelve centuries” and that “thousands of our forefathers and their children have here found their earthly resting place”. The Rev Derham reckoned that a total of 1,259 burials took place in the original churchyard in a hundred-year period (presumably through the seventeenth century) and by the time of Wilson’s comments almost 200 years later, when Upminster’s population was much larger, we can easily estimate that there were at least double this number of burials during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not all of these burials were within the churchyard – Wilson found evidence of no fewer than 23 vaults which had been opened up within the church. Nonetheless the number of burials meant that the old churchyard adjoining the church had become seriously overcrowded.

St Laurence church and churchyard 1823 (Image Courtesy: Havering Libraries Ref – IL/ART/151)

Before the seventeenth century it was a common practice for previous graves to be cleared to make way for new burials. It was only after this when better-off parishioners had gravestones erected that this practice ended.  Four old gravestones, including the two oldest, now reside against the north wall of the St Mary’s Chapel, and were presumably relocated there after the 1928-29 church extension disturbed these graves in their original location, most likely to the south of the church, which would have been the oldest part of the graveyard.  The earliest surviving gravestone, dating from 1695, commemorates Joseph Bryan, described in the Upminster burial register as being of Cripplegate (where the modern Barbican development now stands). Bryan was a Citizen and Clothworker of the City of London, whose death by consumption is recorded in the St Giles Cripplegate burial register on 24th June 1695, the same date as his burial at Upminster. His widow Anne (nee Barefoot) was subsequently buried at Upminster in 1717 and when the couple had married in 1688 at Holy Trinity, Minories, just east of Tower Hill, Upminster was shown as Anne’s home parish. Anne is no doubt the Widow Bryan recorded in the Gaynes manorial records in 1704 as jointly owning with Ann Calcott, widow copyhold properties called Motts, Martins and Willotts in the north end of Upminster (opposite the current Strawberry Farm).  Coincidentally, the next oldest gravestone in the churchyard is in memory of Ann “Collcutt” who died in 1710, aged 77.  Joseph Bryan’s will mentions his good friend Mr Thomas Colcott, Citizen and Leatherseller.  Since Widow Bryan and Widow Calcott (however it is spelt) jointly owned those Upminster copyholds they probably had a family relationship.

Gravestone of Joseph Bryan (1695)

Gravestone of Ann Collcutt/Calcott (1710)

A persistent myth still circulates that a pirate is buried in the churchyard. Two of the older surviving stones (including that of Joseph Bryan) seem to be the source of his myth because they have a skull and crossed bones at their top.  In fact, such imagery, known as “memento mori”, or reminders of death or mortality, are commonly shown on gravestones in Christian church yards of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

There are few surviving gravestones from the first half of the eighteenth century at Upminster. However, some substantial marble family monumental tombs erected over brick-lined vaults survive. One such grander memorial remembers James Knapton, an eminent London bookseller, who lived at New Place which was then owned by his in laws, the Rayleys.  When Knapton died at Upminster in 1736, his son John erected a vault in which James’ second wife Dorothy was also buried in 1744. 

Knapton tomb (1736)

Another marble tomb belonged to the Rowe family, which I’ve written about HERE. This tomb dates from 1741 when Edward Rowe was given permission by the Rector Samuel Bradshaw to make a family vault, and to erect a monument to his late brother Samuel; the monument also commemorated eight other family members. A third marble tomb is that of the Bradshaws, commemorating the Reverend Bradshaw himself, who died in 1768, his younger brother Thomas Bradshaw, the patron of the living, who predeceased the Rector in 1760, and Thomas’ wife Frances, who died before both of them in 1744. Sadly, both the Rowe and Bradshaw monuments are now in very poor condition.

Rowe family memorial 1741
Bradshaw memorial 1744

There are a few memorials from the second half of the eighteenth century in the churchyard, most of them to the south of the church opposite the porch, one example being the flat stone on top of the grave of William Braund of Hacton (d.1774). It is perhaps surprising that numbers increase only slightly in the early nineteenth century. Good examples are the six family graves and vaults in a line opposite the porch, namely to: Rev William Penny of Fox Hall (d.1846); Phillip Zachariah Cox of Harwood Hall (d.1858); Maria Beckford Middleton (d. 1846); Thomas Johnson of Gaines Villa (d.1863); Thomas Ager of Park Corner Farm (d.1844); and Thomas Marshall of Bramble Farm (d.1848). Other examples are the well-preserved surviving flat stones to the prominent Hammond and Nokes families close to the entrance of the southern path, and the gravestone of the blacksmith and parish constable John Eldred (d.1840), his wife and daughters, alongside the other path, east of the Knapton tomb.

Line of 19th century tombs

When Wilson listed the graveyard monuments in 1881 five were described as being “railed” (i.e. surrounded by iron railings). These are the Rowe, Knapton and Bradshaw tombs, already mentioned, that of George Stubbs of Harwood Hall (d.1808), and that of the wife the daughters of John Lovewell of Fox Hall which nowadays is the only railed tomb.  The memorial railings were removed in the early years of World War 2, like many wrought iron railings and gates, supposedly so that they could be smelted down into guns and munitions to help the war effort. The reality was different and it’s probable that much iron was unsuitable, or that more iron was collected than could be actually reused and it was quietly disposed of after the end of the war.

The entrance to the Branfill family vault, which is within the church where the family memorials are displayed, can be seen to the north of the church wall. In May 1880 when Benjamin Branfill, the final Branfill member to live at Upminster Hall, was preparing to move to New Zealand he arranged for the entrance to the family vault to be bricked up and for the approach steps to be buried with soil. Wilson later wrote that eleven leaden coffins of the Branfill family were to be found in the vault – lead coffins were typically used to preserve remains deposited in vaults. Just eight years later in August 1888 Benjamin’s son Champion Edward Branfill of Martins Farm ordered the vault to be reopened and when the churchwardens did so they were surprised to find that the vault was so flooded that 4,142 pails of water, probably about 8,000 gallons, were taken out of it. The churchwardens also took the opportunity to clean out the drains. Over a century later, in the late 1990s, the churchwardens had cause to reopen the vault and were surprised to find the coffins were not stacked neatly. Furthermore, the lead on some coffins had been peeled back or cut open, and some skeletons lacked skulls. It was only some months later, during the following winter, that they discovered the cause of the disarray: the vault was flooded just as it was in the 1880s, with the coffins floating in the water.  To overcome the problem and prevent a recurrence of the flooding a pump and sump were fitted.   

Interior of Branfill family vault c.1998 (Image courtesy Richard Moorey)

The churchyard was under three-quarters of an acre in size and, with 800 burials taking place between 1813 and 1857 alone, there was increasingly little space left. The Burial Act of 1853 enabled parish vestries to establish burial boards to provide and manage new burial grounds. But it took until May 1864 for the Upminster Parish Vestry to establish such a Burial Board, whose members were the Rector, Rev Philip Melancthon Holden, the churchwardens George Eve and John Sturridge, and three other prominent parishioners Messrs Henry Joslin senior, David Pinchon and Edward Manning.   

By October 1864, an agreement had been reached with the Rector to buy part of the Rectory kitchen garden, on the north side of the church on the corner of St Mary’s Lane and Corbets Tey Road, 166 feet by 118 feet at its widest. Two Romford surveyors valued the land at £75 plus £10 in compensation for any damage to the Rector’s adjacent land, £85 in total.  The land was conveyed to the Burial Board on Christmas Eve 1864 and by 15th March 1865 the churchyard extension had been levelled, ready for use. On Thursday 18th May 1865 the Bishop of Rochester consecrated the new extension.

First graveyard extension, and St Laurence Church, pictured around 1880 (from T L Wilson 1881)

The two paths through the original churchyard from what is now Corbets Tey Road formed a V-shape, meeting to the south of the church. These paths were fringed with horse chestnut trees, said to have been the gift of the first Champion Branfill, Lord of the Manor of Upminster Hall who died in 1738.  By 1840 eighteen of those chestnuts were said to be “decayed with age” and in November that year the curate Henry Holden replaced them. Eight years later in 1848 the Lady of the Manor, Mrs Branfill replaced almost all the chestnuts with yew trees, more traditionally found in churchyards, which thrive to this day. A few of the chestnuts remained in place close to the church in the early twentieth century.

Convergence of churchyard paths, to south of church c.1910

The 1865 churchyard extension is the resting place of Henry Joslin, the final owner or Gaynes Park, his wife who predeceased him in 1873, and his parents, Henry and Priscilla Joslin. The millers John Arkell Abraham (d.1870) and Thomas Abraham (d.1882) also rest here. It also is home to the grave of Upminster’s historian TL Wilson, although the stone was erected many years after his death in 1919.  Wilson himself, who was an undertaker as well as carpenter, wrote in 1898 that he had carried out 517 funerals, and his father before him had buried 300.

The Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 brought about a significant change in burial practice. Before then, there could be no burials in consecrated ground unless the ceremony was performed by a Church of England clergyman. After the Act burial services could be conducted by ministers of other denominations (apart from Roman Catholics).  The first such non-conformist burial at Upminster was of one year old Jacob Durrant on 29th January 1881. By June 1884 there had been 20 non-conformist burials and over the next 20 years one third of burials in Upminster’s churchyard were non-conformist ceremonies – a far greater proportion than the actual number of non-conformists in Upminster. 

This high proportion of non-conformist burials may reflect the unpopularity of Upminster’s notorious Rector Rev P M Holden, whose dubious actions received national publicity in 1881.  On 8th December that year an article appeared in The Christian World under the heading “Churchyard Extortions” concerning a clergyman of a parish near Romford, who was said to charge exorbitant fees for the cost of a grave and for erecting a memorial. This Rector had recently doubled these fees, presumably to recoup some of the lower income from conducting fewer burials.  A brick grave for a non-parishioner, for instance cost 12 guineas, plus the sexton’s fee, about £14 in total, while in an adjoining parish this cost just £1 3s 4d. 

Further letters described other abuses by the clergyman who was said to be “arbitrary and despotic”. One example was a parishioner’s funeral, arranged for the following Monday which the clergyman said was inconvenient (even today some clergy take Mondays off). Instead of providing a substitute the Rector told the family that while they could choose the day, he would choose the time, which had to be at 6 o’clock in the morning. A letter the following month was from a reader whose father died had suddenly while staying at Upminster in 1879 and the deceased had wished to be buried in Upminster as he had lived there for over 20 years during his early life. Having paid “a large sum” for the grave the family also wanted to erect a head and foot stone but they were unwilling to pay the Rector’s 10 guinea (£10 10s) fee, so had to make do a wood rail for three guineas.  Three years later, in June 1884, a letter in the same in The Christian World specifically referred to their past account “of a clergyman at Upminster” so there is no doubt that this was Upminster’s colourful Rector, Rev P M Holden.

Left: Wooden grave rails (pre-WW2 image) which were once commonly found in the churchyard . Right: In 2022 there is only one surviving wooden grave rail

The condition of the churchyard was a cause for concern by September 1888 when the parish vestry meeting sought a remedy. The older part of the churchyard which was no longer used for burials was “considered to be in a state unworthy of a place so sacred to many of the inhabitants”.  The broken state of the ground made it “impracticable to keep it in the neat state desired” and the parishioners were asked whether they objected to levelling the ground and gravestones. Subscriptions from some parishioners for the upkeep of the churchyard fell short of the sum needed and further contributions were sought from the wider population.

A visit by a Home Office inspector, Dr Hoffman, on 13th April 1891 led to the older portion of the churchyard being formally closed for further burials, except for those in “such vaults and wholly walled graves as now exist”.  The new parish councils, set up under the 1894 Local Government Act, had powers to administer the various Burial Acts.  Upminster Parish Council, not the Rector and Churchwardens nor the Vestry, were now responsible for all disused burial grounds, such as the closed part of the St Laurence’s churchyard.

In 1894 the Rector said that the churchyard extension was almost full and in September 1895 the new Upminster Parish Council drew this to the attention of the District Council, pointing out that they had not yet adopted the powers available under the Burials Act. Five months later in February 1896 the District Council assumed its full powers under the Act.

Progress was slow until 1898 when negotiations began with Henry Joslin of Gaynes Park for the purchase of 2½ acres of land for a new parish burial ground, which was part of London’s Farm, at Corbets Tey. This was bought by the parish in 1900 and the new cemetery, which is now next to the modern crematorium, opened in May 1902.

St Laurence graveyard and church early 1930s

The closed part of St Laurence’s churchyard remained neglected during the remaining years of Rev P M Holden’s incumbency. It was only after his successor Rev Hyla Henry Holden took charge in 1904 that things changed. The following May 1905 it was reported that the new Rector was leading by example by giving “practical assistance” to the workers now engaged in “cutting and clearing the accumulated vegetable growth of many years”. This clearance meant that it was now possible to see “some of the finest of the old altar tombs”, two of which had got into a “deplorable condition” through years of neglect due to trees which had grown through the railed enclosures and displaced the carved marble slabs.

In 1921 part of the old, closed graveyard became the site of Upminster’s parish war memorial on Corbets Tey Road which was unveiled in a public ceremony held before a large crowd on Sunday 8 May 1921 with Brigadier-General C H De Rougemont DSO MVO performing the official duties. The memorial, designed by Mr C Harrap, is of a Celtic cross ornamentation … rising from the massive on a Portland Stone cenotaph base, standing on three York stone steps. 

Unveiling of Upminster War Memorial 8 May 1921

Although the new cemetery certainly took some pressure off the churchyard, many parishioners still wanted to be buried in the centre of the parish, not more than a mile to the south in Corbets Tey. The accelerated growth of Upminster’s population from 1906 made things even more difficult. However, it was only 20 years later that the Rector gave up a further piece of his Rectory garden, closer to the Rectory, as a second extension to the churchyard. This area was cleared and consecrated as burial ground in January 1926.

Many of Upminster’s prominent citizens of the twentieth century are buried in this area including William Garbutt Key (d.1931), who built the Upminster Garden Suburb for W P Griggs and Co, the estate agent, Ernest Rose Bridger Gates (d.1941), the founder of Gates Parish, and Charles Reilly (d.1928), of High House, the architect who designed Upminster Court. 

Nowadays burials in St Laurence’s graveyard are limited to those in a family grave or tomb. Virtually all ceremonies of Upminster people now take place at the Corbets Tey crematorium and graveyard.

Plan of original churchyard and 1865 and 1926 extensions (Courtesy: Andy Grant 2022)

This is the second of three articles concerning St Laurence Church, the first being about the church itself, with a third and final article covering the Rectory and parish Glebe (now Upminster Park).


Many thanks as always to Tony Fox and Andy Grant for their advice and comments on the drafts, and to Richard Moorey for information about the opening of the Branfill vault.

Main Archive Sources:

The National Archives:

Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills: PROB 11/427 Joseph Bryan (1695); PROB 11/680 James Knapton (1736); PROB 11/ 732 Dorothy Knapton (1744); PROB 11/935 Rev Samuel Bradshaw (1768)

Essex Record Office:  

D/CC 16/1 Upminster: addition to churchyard (1864-65)

D/P 117/1/1 Upminster St Laurence Parish Register (1543-1787)

T/P 67/1-5 Thomas Lewis Wilson’s Upminster Scrapbooks (which includes in Volume 5 William Crowest’s record of memorial inscriptions noted in 1835)

T/P 614/3/1-3 Photocopy of manuscript plan of churchyard drawn 1997 by Alfred S Ellis

Printed Sources:

Thomas Lewis Wilson History & Topography of Upminster (1881) pp 90-93

W.R. Powell “Upminster” in A History of the County of Essex: Vol 7 (1978) pp.156-161

David Hey (ed.) The Oxford companion to local and family history (1996)


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1 Response to God’s Acre – St Laurence Churchyard

  1. Janet Brown says:

    Very interesting.

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