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St Lawrence and All Saints, Steeple


Steeple: the urban context south porch This foundation stone of the Church of St Lawrence and All Saints was laid in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost

  Here we are on the Dengie Peninsula, that wide parcel of land jutting eastwards from Maldon and Woodham Ferrars between the Blackwater and the Crouch, its largely anonymous villages stretched along the busy roads, its little churches mostly 19th Century rebuilds. In centuries past, the peninsula was a stronghold of the Peculiar People, a protestant sect, a few of whose chapels still survive, converted into homes. The largest place on the peninsula is Burnham on Crouch, the most famous building the Saxon chapel of St Peter on the Wall at Bradwell-on Sea.

Steeple is on the northern side of the peninsula, the Blackwater hidden from its main street by a rise of land, though not far off. St Lawrence church sits on the main street, a curious gingerbread church, the 1881 work of Frederic Chancellor, a prolific and often clumsy Essex architect who was responsible for a number of rebuildings on the peninsula. The church it replaced was about a quarter of a mile to the west, and the remains can still be made out as a tree-covered mound in a field. The dedication of St Lawrence was perhaps confusing, as the next village eastwards is called Saint Lawrence, and has its own church with the same dedication, so this probably encouraged the use of the extended dedication in the 19th Century.

Inside, the church is long and narrow, but opening out successfully into the chancel to the east. The view the other way is curious, a single-columned arcade across the west end separating the organ chamber from the old font which was brought here from the previous church. An early 19th Century Mothers Union banner drops the first part of the church dedication.

Stansgate Abbey in this parish is the home of the Benn family, the most famous member of which was the politician Anthony Wedgwood Benn, better known now as Tony Benn, who died in 2014. The House is hidden from the road, but a reminder of it is in the name of Michael Wedgwood Benn, his older brother, on the church war memorial. Tony Benn wrote movingly in his journals of his brother's death near the end of World War Two, and marked the date each year in his diary.

Tony Benn was elected the Labour MP for Bristol South-East in 1950, but his brother's death was the cause of him inheriting the family title when their father died in November 1960, forcing him to leave the Commons and enter the Lords as Viscount Stansgate. Benn fought a by-election on the issue, which he won, but because of his title he was barred from taking up his place as an MP, and his runner-up, a Tory, was allowed to enter parliament instead. From within the Lords he fought for the passing of the Peerage Act of 1963, with the support of a number of Tories in similar situations. The Act became law in July 1963, and Benn immediately renounced his inherited title. Malcolm St Clair, the Tory who had been declared the MP for Bristol South-East instead, stood down, and Benn won the resulting by-election.

Simon Knott, April 2018

looking west looking east font
war memorial from former Batts Road Congregational Chapel All Saints Steeple M U Parish war memorial
Michael Wedgwood Benn

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