The Hidden Gem of Southchurch – Southchurch Hall

There is a beautiful timber framed building located in the heart of Southchurch within Southchurch Hall Park. Today it is museum, open to the public and managed by Southend Museums and Libraries. It is unfortunately infrequently visited with many not knowing of its existence. Nevertheless, Southchurch Hall and the park itself have over 700 years of history to be explored. In fact, Southchurch is the oldest surviving secular building in all of Southend today with parts dating back to 1321. This week’s post is about this place which I absolutely adore and which I insist everyone visit when they can.

Photo Laura Adkins

Although parts of the current building date back to the 12th century there was a previous hall or house which pre-dates the current one, dating back to 824 AD when a Saxon thegn named Leofstan gave the manor of Southchurch and some land to the Monks of Canterbury. Southchurch was known at that time as Sudcera. It has the following entry in the Domesday Book:

Manor of Southchurch:


Sudecrca was held by Holy Trinity and has 4 hides. Then as now 14 villeins and 5 bordars. Then 2 serfs; now 1. Then as now 2 ploughs on the demesne and 6 ploughs belonging to the manor. (there is) pasture for 200 sheep, wood (land) for 40 swine and 2 fisheries. And (there are) 4 rounceys, and 8 beasts and 13 swine, and 150 sheep, and 16 goats. It was then worth 100/; now £7.00

At the time of the survey, Southchurch Manor covered an area of approximately 480- acres.

Southchurch hall is classed as a moated medieval manor house. Today you can see the remains of what once functioned as the moat if you look at the pond and follow its course around the manor itself which sits atop of a mound.

One of the Ponds which used to be the Moat. Photo Laura Adkins
The mounds were once part of the defenses at the Manor. Photo Laura Adkins

Today there are around 6000 moated sites in England with the greatest concentration being in central and eastern England. The moated manor house was at its peak between the years 1250-1350. A manor as well as being the home of a wealthy lord and aristocrats was also an administrative area with the manor house itself being the focus. Like what can be seen at Southchurch the manor or hall would usually be built on top of a mound or on a raised area usually for defence purposes and sometimes surrounded by a moat.

A number of other buildings, which would help the manor to function and to support those who lived there, would usually accompany the manor/hall. There would be a separate kitchen, a dairy, stables and most importantly a chapel. We know that Southchurch also had a brewery, a gatehouse and an external garderobe. All of these buildings would have been situated within Southchurch’s moat. Outside the moat, Southchurch also had stables, barns and farmland. It is believed these were most likely situated where Southend adult community college sits today. Many other buildings of the time would also have had a similar layout and buildings on the land.

An interpretation panel in the museum

I have mentioned that the moat would most likely have been for defence purposes but by the time the current Southchurch Hall was built the time of needed to defend ones home in that way was past and the moat was more used as a sign of status rather than defence. It was and is still supplied by a spring on the North West side.

Parts of the moat would also act as fishponds, which would provide the manor, and those who lived there, with food. These were known as stews and along with Southchurch there are still these in existence at Prittlewell Priory today (see my article on the Clunic monks of Prittlewell and after for more information on the Priory) Other signs to show the Manor was a place of wealth and status can be seen in the main hall. This would be the centre of all manor houses and where entertainment would be done but also where any administrative work such as collecting taxes was carried out. The Lord of the Manor would be seated on the top table, which would also be on a raised dais. This can be seen in the layout of Southchurch today and can give one an idea on how business was carried out.

Photo Laura Adkins

In the grounds of Southchurch Hall Park today little remains of the many other buildings which I have listed above. However, the remains of a stone bridge and possible the gatehouse can still be seen near where a wooden bridge sits today. The current bridge dates back to the 1980′s and replaces a number of previous bridges from the Halls hundreds of years of being in existence. Evidence of some of the foundations of these bridges are still in existence in the mud around the current bridge. Excavations have uncovered stone supports either side of the ditch that indicates the features of either a turning bridge or drawbridge. Unfortunately, nothing else can be seen of the other buildings but in the museum itself, you can see some archaeological remains of what has been dug up on various excavations within the park.

Photo Laura Adkins
Photo Laura Adkins

 The manor of Southchurch would stay in the hands of the Monks until the Dissolution but they did not live there or use it for monastic use. The monks leased Southchurch out to a wealthy family who would take the name of De Southchurch. They would live in Southchurch for many years and were tenants to the Monks in the Feudal sense, which meant that the tenants had a heredity right to occupy the hall in return for a monetary payment rather than by payment services alone.

Richard de Southchurch became the first recorded family member to live at Southchurch.  He and his descendants would live at the hall until 1354 when the male line died out. The de Southchurch’s have an interesting history. Richard is recorded in 1191 as disputing the ownership of the manor, insisting that he and his family were the outright owners, not the Monks of Canterbury. A jury of 12 members decided that he was actually just the tenant. He also held the titles of Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and was the Kings Steward. On his death, the manor of Southchurch passed to his son William and his heirs for a payment of £20 a year. It then passed to another Richard and then his son who was also a Richard.

However, this Richard was too young to take control of Southchurch just yet. His wardship was given to his mother Joan and then on her death to his uncle Walter (her brother) in 1241. Richard would also be the most famous or some could say notorious member of the de Southchurch family, he was even known as the Extortioner and due to his certain rule breaking added considerably to the families possessions during his time at Southchurch. He was accused of attempting to profit from his official positions by arresting and extorting money from innocent people, demanding excessive fines, seizing livestock and food extortion all in the name of the King but it all went to Richards own use. ‘In 1279 an order was issued to the sheriff to take into the Kings hands certain lands in the Manor of Eastwood, which Richard had entered without licence, and 10 years later a fine of £1000 was inflicted on him for this trespass’ (Anon, 1924 pg3)

But it seems that Richard was not all bad. Locally he was known to give to the poor. In 1275, he set aside the profit of 5 acres, called clarrwesland, to provide an annual dole of bread to be distributed to the poor on St. Katherine’s day from the chapel at Southchurch. By the time of his death in 1294, he held the tenancy is of Southchurch, north Thorpe, Prittlewell, Leigh, Shopland, North Shoebury, Sutton and Rayleigh. His estate at Southchurch consisted of 1 messuage, 640 acres of arable, 5 acres of meadow, 2 marshes, 30 acres of wood and a windmill. 

After Richards’s death, Southchurch passes into the hands of his son Peter, who would be the last direct male descendant of the De Southchurch family. The records show that he had made an agreement with a mason called Master Roger of Prittlewell for the building of a new chapel at Southchurch where his father Richard wished to be buried. It was to be 50 foot in length, 20 foot in breadth and 20 foot in height. There is no evidence that this chapel was ever built, but it is believed that his tomb was somewhere within the cemetery at Southchurch.

Sir Peter would have an illegitimate son who, like his grandfather, has a colourful history. He is known as Henry the Monk and actually was a monk at Prittlewell Priory for 8 years. He eventually discarded his monk robes and became a secular vagrant for 26 years and it is said he was involved in a number of dodgy financial transitions.  His nephew, John de Newyntone, who had inherited Southchurch from his grandfather, Sir Peter, actually placed a charge against Henry for taking possession of 600 acres of land in Southchurch and a mill by forging a will. The law placed Henry under a sentence of outlawry for failing to surrender to the law as a vagrant monk and the lands were held until the trial. Henry, however, would die without being convicted and the lands were restored back to John who held Southchurch for a time.

In the museum at Southchurch there is a large painting supposedly depicting Southchurch during the time of the peasant’s revolt in 1381. It shows large numbers of peasants attacking the hall and burning parts of it. We know that many records were carried away during this time and burnt. The Peasants revolt had a lot of support for people in Essex including men from Shoebury, Prittlewell and Rochford. Whether the hall was completely ransacked, we are not sure. It is most likely that the records were handed over.

Illustration by Alan Sorrell

In 1391, an inventory was made of Southchurch Manor and at this time, we can get a good picture of what was present at the site. Buildings listed include a central hall, solar, parlour, servant sleeping rooms, a chapel, kitchen, larder, brew house, bake house, dairy, wool stool with out rooms including a cowshed, stables, a poultry shed, sheep and a pig house. The gatehouse was located on the inside of the moat near the bridge at the north side of the hall. There is also some archaeological evidence of the existence of formal gardens and an orchard although these are not listed on this inventory.

Today electric lighting lights the hall but back during the time of the de Southchurch light would enter the hall through a large window called an orial along with a central hearth, which would also provide warmth. There would have been an opening in the roof to allow the smoke to leave. Unfortunately, no evidence remains of where this was today. The fireplaces were added around 1660 along with the kitchen. The Solar rooms would be used for the lord and his family to retire to away from the servants. At the opposite end of the hall where the kitchen sits today would have been the service end where the stores were kept.  There would have been two rooms at this end of the hall – a buttery for wet products and pantry for dry food.

All photos Laura Adkins

Southchurch also has a garderobe on its land and was located to the north side of the moat so all waste could be carried away out to the estuary by using the circulating water. This was done so the dirty water did not come into contact with the water, which provided the stews. Later a waste pipe was laid down to carry waste away from the site and it is still in use today.

Times were changing in England during the 1530’s when Henry VIII brought about the break with Rome and the Dissolution began. As a result of this Henry took Southchurch Manor off of the Monks of Canterbury and it was brought up by politician and businessman Richard Rich, who already owned a number of estates in this area of Essex, such as Prittlewell Priory and Rochford Hall. Rich would not live in Southchurch, he actually leases it out to a number of tenants as would his descendants until his line died out in 1657 when it passed into the hands of the Earls of Nottingham who were relations to the Rich family. Again, they would lease out Southchurch to various tenants across the next century, tenants would include a George Asser in the early 1700’s, a butcher called John White, Mrs Shory and a wealthy farming family Thomas Kilworth and then his son Edward. It is from their time that the bedroom upstairs  is set up.

Photo Laura Adkins

In 1922, Southchurch Hall and the surrounding land came under threat with the extension of York road. J W Burrows, a local politician and member of the Southend on sea antique and history society actively sort to preserve the building and earthwork. Acquired by H. A. Dowsett, who was also concerend about the future of Southchurch, he had the chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments to give his opinion. The report established the importance of the standing structure and the nesecisity of preserving its relationship and surrounding earth works. A few years later, Dowsett’s son would offer  the Hall to the Southend Corporation (Southend Council today) on the condition that they maintain it (his father had neglected the house) and opened it to the public. The corporation accepted his offer and Southchurch Hall came under new ownership and entered a new chapter in its life.

Major restoration works began in 1930 and Southchurch Hall was opened in 1931 as a library. In  1974, Southchurch hall was transformed into a museum which it is to this day, currently managed by Southend Libraries and Museums. The hall is set up, as it would have been during the time of the De Southchurch with some original exhibits and some replicas, including a raised table. It retains its late 13th century beam roof and the current bedrooms are currently set up, as they would have been during the Victorian era when the Kilworths lived there. The earlier bedroom on the site would have sat a little lower than the one today. Evidence of this can be seen by a rectangular hole behind the doors and underneath in the kitchen showing where a ceiling joist would have sat.  There is other evidence to show that rooms have been changed, added and removed by looking around the hall today. There is evidence of filled in doorways both upstairs and in the polar. What else can you see when you look around?

The current flooring of Southchurch hall dates from the 1930’s when it was adapted to be a library for the residents of the area. The floorboards are worn from the staff members who would stand on duty the whole day. The current floor level is also lower than the original floor of the manor and this can be seen if you look at the position of the main doorway in the hall.

The hall itself is a grade 1 listed building. The park and land which the hall sits on are a designated ancient monument and were given that status in February 1976. The hall is open to visitors today and also available to hire as a wedding venue. It is free to enter with a free room guide if required. There is also a small gift shop and coffee machine for refreshments. It is open Wednesday – Sunday from 10-5pm in the summer months and weekends only in the winter from 10-2pm. Sometimes it can close early for lunch cover and for weddings and special events. Please check their website http://www.southendmuseums.co.uk/ or call 01702 467671 to avoid any disappointment.

Special thanks to the Museum Officers at Southend Museums for their assistance on writing this article.

Sources:

ANON (1924) Southchurch 824-1924: the parish and the church Essex

ANON (1975) Southchurch hall – an illustrated guide. Museum publishing number 6 revised edition 1975 Thames mouth printing company ltd; Southend on sea.

Brown, N R (????) A medieval moated manor by the Thames estuary; excavations at Southchurch Hall, Essex. East Anglican Archaeology 115. Essex County Council; Essex

Pollitt, W (1949) Southchurch and its past Museum Handbooks no 11. Public library and museum committee of the corporation; Southend on sea.

Alfred P Goodale. 2015. Southchurch – a short history. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ferndalechurches.org.uk/resources/detail/southchurch_a_short_history/. [Accessed 15 August 2018].

C N Trueman. 2015. Medieval Moated Manor Houses. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval-england/medieval-manor-houses/. [Accessed 17 August 2018].

Historic England. 2018. Soutchchurch Hall. [ONLINE] Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1306880. [Accessed 17 August 2018].

Historic England. 2018. Soutchchurch Hall Moated Site. [ONLINE] Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017385. [Accessed 17 August 2018].

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