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St Edmund, East Mersea, Mersea Island

East Mersea

East Mersea East Mersea East Mersea

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


From Colchester station I cycled eleven miles and across the Strood causeway onto Mersea Island. I do like the Essex coast, and as I crossed the mudflats at low tide I recalled Betjeman and ...the level wastes of sucking mud, where distant barges high with hay come sailing in upon the flood... but once you are on the island there is little to distinguish it from the rest of agricultural East Anglian north Essex, except for the concentration of caravanners' cars.

A couple of miles off the town is West Mersea, but at the other end of the island alone in the fields (apart from the caravans) is St Edmund, the parish church of East Mersea, most famous for being in the 1870s the church of the great Sabine Baring-Gould. The substantial church with its typical C15 ragstone tower is tightly shoehorned into a pleasant churchyard, the rosebushes either side of the south porch alive with the humming of bees.

I did not know what to expect, and the church was a surprise, a delight. The rugged exterior of ragstone gives way to a beautiful, simple interior, reminiscent of nearby Fingringhoe. Clean white walls, brick floors, modern chairs. The church feels unspoilt, as though it had been untouched by the Victorians, and yet this is precisely not the case at all. The character of the church today is a direct result of his love and care. The only jarring note is the 17th century pulpit with an hourglass stand, now stranded high up by the south wall after the removal of the box pews in the 1920s. The feeling is light, well-kept and devotional.

Three memorials stand out. One is a 1570s brass inscription to Magdelene Awtred, which reads:

Mawdlyn thy name, it did so hite,
Whiles here thou didst remaine.
Thy soul is fled to Heaven right,
Of this I am certaine.
Owtred also, by husband thyne,
Thou hadst likewise to name.
Though thou from hence hast take thy flight,
Yet here remaines thy fame.
Thy bodie now in grave remaines
All covered in clay.
Whiche here sometimes, didst live as we,
Do nowe still at this day.
A thousand and fyve hundred eke
Seaventie and two also :
She left this life for heavenly joy,
As I do truly knowe.
December month when dayes are colde,
She buried was in grave,
The eight thereof right justly tolde
Witnes by booke we have.

Nearby is an unusual 1650s painted wooden board memorial to Edward Bellarmine, a Citizen and Fishmonger of the City of London. It depicts his achievement of arms. Perhaps most memorable of all though is the sober 1900 mural monument to Archer Blackwell Wilson, who after ten years residence in Manila, was murdered by native robbers.

The clear glass of the windows is punctuated by about 20 Continental roundels and panels of the 16th and 17th centuries. Among them are biblical scenes, including the Baptism of Christ, the Adoration of the Shepherds, two Annunciations and also several figures of St John the Baptist. A roundel of the Blessed Virgin features a kneeling donor.Among them are two older pieces of English glass, an archer and the head of a female saint.

East Mersea Baptism of Christ St John the Baptist unto us a child is born
St John the Baptist/angel fragments Annunciation 1554 Annunciation Aaron
blessed virgin and child with donor Archer Saint adoration of the magi

Sabine Baring-Gould is a fascinating character, and his story is worth retelling at length. Clergyman, squire, novelist, hymn-writer, social reformer, antiquarian, folklorist and folk song collector, he was born in 1834 on the family estate at Lew Trenchard in Devon. He spent much of his childhood on the Grand Tour, and consequently could speak five languages fluently, as well as Latin and Ancient Greek. From an early age he was fascinated by the past. At the age of 15 he unearthed the floor of a Roman villa in south-western France, and excavated it himself.

But his father was obsessed with the Great Exhibition of 1851, and thoroughly disapproved of the young Sabine's desire to read Classics. Instead, he made him study mathematics, but as Sabine would observe in later life, "I cannot add two numbers together, and when there is a bill to be accounted I must take it into the kitchens for one of the maids to account it." His father eventually relented, although they never really spoke to one another again, and after studying Classics at Cambridge University Sabine Baring-Gould took Holy Orders.

During this period of estrangement from his father, Sabine Baring-Gould worked in a High Anglican church in the London Docks, where the work of the priests among the desperately poor dregs of society showed him his vocation. He became a curate of a poor industrial parish in Yorkshire, and there, at the age of 30, he fell in love with Grace Taylor, the 16 year old daughter of a millhand. Both families disapproved of the relationship, but Baring-Gould's wise vicar arranged for Grace to be sent to learn middle-class manners for two years before marriage, and in the event theirs was a long and happy marriage, lasting half a century and producing fifteen children.

To support himself and his young wife, Baring-Gould began to write novels, which were an instant success. He was inspired by the gothic horrors of the works of Emily Bronte and William Wilkie Collins, although it must be said he was never as good at building up tension as they were. In 1871 he became vicar here at East Mersea, where he transformed not just the parish church but the lives of the poor fishermen. It was at East Mersea that he wrote his most successful novel, Mehalah, referred to at the time as 'the Wuthering Heights of the Essex salt marshes'.

In 1872 his father died and he inherited the Lew Trenchard estate, but it was not until 1881 that Baring-Gould left East Mersea moved his family down to Devon. This was because he waited until the living of Lew Trenchard church became vacant, and he then installed himself as both Squire and Rector. He spent the next 42 years in Lew Trenchard, working on his threefold project - to nurture the parish into a community based on Christian social justice, to rebuild the houses of the Lew Trenchard estate workers so they were fit to live in, and to restore Lew Trenchard church to the medieval integrity destroyed by his uncle when Rector 40 years previously.

He continued to write and travel widely, becoming interested in antiquarian aspects of Devon and Cornwall. He collected hundreds of folksongs from the Devon farmworkers and fishermen, a precious record of an oral tradition now lost to us, but donated in its entirety by Baring-Gould to Plymouth city library where it can still be explored today. He wrote hymns, most famously Onward Christian Soldiers and Now the Day is Over. The estate was never well off and he relied on income from his books to pursue his projects. At one time, there were more books by Baring-Gould on the British Library catalogue than by any other living author. Meanwhile, Grace managed the household magnificently.

Baring-Gould was an old-style paternalistic reformer, and he never really recovered from the First World War, which killed several of his grandsons and devastated English rural life and tradition. His wife Grace died in April 1916, and he buried her under a stone with the inscription Dimidium Animae, 'half my soul'. He himself died on 2nd January 1923. He was 89 years old, and he was buried beside his wife in Lew Trenchard churchyard.

Here in the lovely churchyard at East Mersea are a number of memorable details. One is the grave of 15 year old Sarah Wrench, who died in 1848. It is covered by a mortsafe to prevent her body being stolen. And by the churchyard gate a simple wooden cross remembers an unknown person.

Simon Knott, May 2020

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


looking east

image niche chancel pulpit hour glass holder
memorial from City of London church Adoration of the Magi and Shepherds Archer Blackwell Wilson
war memorial very kind & charitable to the poor and took great delight in employing them thy soule is fled to heaven right, of this I am certaine

anti-body snatcher cage unknown person


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