St Marys Church, Prittlewell
Just to the north of Southend on Seas High Street stands a beautiful church, complete with graveyard and tower. The church is St Mary’s and should not be ignored. Aside from it being a picturesque church, St Marys has stood on the spot before the creation of Southend, a church was there before the Priory was formed a church has stood on that site since Roman Britain. The building itself mainly dates from the Norman period but there are some remains of the Anglo Saxon stone structure and even some Roman bricks.
It is believed that the original 7th-century church would have had a similar foundation plan like that of St Peter on the Wall in Bradwell on Sea and may have been founded by St Cedd (the Patron Saint of Essex). It seems the 7th-century church would have been based on a similar design of those which can still be seen at St Peters and St Marys, Lyminge. If this is the case then the archway would have originally led into a small rectangular room known as a disco icon which may have been similar to a vestry and sacristy combined.
The name Prittlewell comes from the brook which runs from Thundersly to Rochford where it joins the River Roach. Early versions of the name are Prytileswielle, meaning a stream or spring of Prytil. Prytil is believed to derive from the word Prut, meaning proud – proud little one. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It stands proudly in the village of Prittlewell, where a small town in the 17th century began to build on the South End of the village – Southend.
Today the Church is still a place of worship and in active use. The tower dates from 1470. Most of the building is built from Kentish ragstone and limestone brought from Lancashire. It is in the Perpendicular style (the final period of English gothic architecture. Known for its dominating vertical lines and panelling.) The church is 150 foot long making it the longest church in Essex and It is the only building in the area proven to be pre-conquest (1066)
In the Domesday survey in 1086 St Marys is listed as being on the land of Prittlewell Manor and was the only church in the area making it the mother church to all the others now in the Southend area. It is one of the only churches in the survey in Essex overall which gives us an indication of its importance. The village of Prittlewell at the time was moderately large and was under the ownership of Sweyne of Essex.
Around 1100 AD, permission was granted for a priory to be built in the area and to be managed by an order of Benedictine Monks (for more information on Prittlewell Priory head over to https://fortheloveofhistory.home.blog/2019/03/25/the-clunic-monks-of-prittlewell-priory/). At this time the area was under the ownership of Robert Fitzsweyne. It is during this time that some improvements and enhancements were made at St Marys including the building of the tower which still stands today. It is believed that the building works were done at the expense of Robert either to impress the new monks or as the church was to be under their protection to make it seem more worthy of them. Either way, the tower was built along with an addition of the south aisle and chapel. The tower has diagonal buttresses with chequered battlements and corner turrets.
Around the same time, the area around St Marys was used as a market place. It was common for manorial estates to request a licence to sell off any excess produce and wares that were not needed for the estate. Hugh de Vere would be the first to obtain a licence to hold a Monday market around 1238. It would have been around the area of where east and west street is today. To further evidence this number 255 Victoria Avenue is a surviving 15th-century house of which the ground floor would most likely had been a shop which would have faced onto the centre of the market place. In 1594 there is a reference by Norden (English cartographer, chorographer and antiquary) to Prittlewell being a ‘sometyme…market towne’
However, the area was continued to be used for a fair every year on 15th – 26th of July where several stalls and crafts were set up. The pubs in the area would open their doors and performers would show off in the area, a pub was built next to the fair which had a dancing bear. The annual fair was abolished in 1872 at the request of Daniel Scratton and many prisoners as they felt it was a cause of immorality and an injury to the people of the town.
Some of the graveyard was used for this fair and overtime what would have been temporary structures were left up to make it easier the following year. Over the centuries these became more permanent structures and would not be removed until the Prittlewell improvement scheme in the early 1900s which claimed back some of the graveyard of St Marys.
During the improvement works some of the old medieval houses which were still standing were demolished. It was during the demolition of one of the structures that a beautifully preserved Tudor fireplace was found and saved. This can be seen on display at Southend Museum. The building that it was taken from is believed to have been possibly the vicarage house of the Jesus guilds Priest.
In 1477, King Edward IV issues a licence to the Jesus guild, formally recognising it. It was first set up around 1467/8. It was set up to ‘found, erect, ordain and establish….the parish church of the blessed mar or Prittlewell in the county of Essex…..[to enable it]….to endure for all future times’. Membership of the guild included both men and women. Their main concerns were those of religious moral and social welfare of the village. The way Church and state were being run were beginning to change and it is believed the guild was needed to help keep the church in good repair and to create finances to do this. They would also become more involved in the secular affairs of the area such as caring for the sick and old and also education of the young. They would form a school which was built against the Southside of the tower. Over time this school evolved into what is now St Marys School in Boston Avenue.
With the creation of the guild came some rebuilding to the church along with the creation of the Jesus guild chapel which still exists today. it is situated to the south aisle of the chancel of the church and measures about 24 feet 10 inches by 19 feet 3 inches. As mentioned above the guild had their priest at St Marys who was also the schoolmaster. With is endowment he was also issued 60 acres of arable land in Shopland called Reynolds (now known as Fox Hall, Shopland) and 12 acres in Palgrave’s, Southchurch. These areas of land were originally given to the Jesus guild in 1469 by John Quky of Prittlewell.
St Mary’s church is known in history for its bell-ringing and today in its tower it houses 10 bells with three dating from 1603. The first mention of bells in the records was in 1550 when there is mention of a bell frame being installed. The bells were gradually added over time with the 5th bell installed with the new clock in 1800 and the sixth bell in 1806. The last two bells were added in 1902 by John Warner of Cripplegate. Although many of these originally bells are now in use elsewhere.
Although the bells were not always liked with some parishioners in the town finding great annoyance with their noise especially when the vicar Frederick Nolan decided that they should be rung at 5 am.
‘disturbance of the human race, your bells are always ringing. I wish the ropes were round your necks, and you upon them swinging. – was written by one parishioner.
He soon agreed with the disgruntled people (it may have had something to do with him living right next door!). However, the bell ringers were not too pleased with this and refused to change their times. On the morning of June 14th, 1840 the vicar had enough and entered the belfry with a carving knife to try and cut the ropes. Soon the police were involved against the bell ringers who in turn responded by throwing bricks at the vicarage. They also attempted to gain access to the belfry after it had been locked up by mounting the roof. Shots were then fired from the vicarage at the bell ringers followed by shouts of murder. No one was injured however heavy fees were issued ad one man was placed in the debtor’s prison at Moulsham for 13 weeks. His release was upon payment of his fees by the other bell ringers. That bonfire night instead of an effigy of Guy Fawkes being burnt on the bonfire it was an effigy of Nolan instead. One thinks he was still not very well thought of in the area, vicar or not.
St Marys would have another bout of buildings works in the 19th century. During this time 23 coats of arms which would have been hung in the windows and brass inscriptions were removed and the church was whitewashed. Such was the popular form of decor in this period.
I cannot resist a hammer-beam roof and there is a lovely one in St Marys. Its hand-painted decoration was done by the hand of Stephen Dykes during the renovations in 1870. Dykes more notable work includes that of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The gilding and colouring which can be seen today dates from 1965.
Looking around the church inside and out one can notice the various developments of the site over time. In the west wall, there is evidence of a blocked doorway, this would have led to a room outside the church which was most likely a schoolroom. Around the church are several stained glass windows. There are also numerous memorial plaques including one remember vicar Nolan. On the wall in the northeast of the church is what looks to be a stone coffin lid. During the relaying of the floor, this was found upside down in use as a flagstone. It dates from the 13th century and is a rare find in Essex hence why it is now on display in the church.
In 1940, bombs fell at Southend and Prittlewell during the blitz in the Second World War. St Marys, fortunately, was not hit. Although many churches at this time stopped holding services for fear of bombings St Marys continued in defiance of the German threat. The vicar at the time Canon Ellis Gowing had the windows blacked out and the 16th century stained glass window removed from the Jesus chapel and buried in the cellar of the old vicarage.
Although if an air raid siren did start to sound the parishioners did not need to travel far for shelter. At St Marys Prittlewell Church of England Primary School, there were tunnels found during some building works a few years ago. These tunnels led to an air raid shelter under the playing field nearby. They were 6ft wide and 9ft deep.
In November 1951 St Marys was granted a Grade I listed building. Today it is still a place of worship and can be visited for churchgoers and lovers alike. There is also a charity to help look after the Bells and keep them in good order. For more information on both of these please visit the links below:
On a final note, on entering the porch at St Mary’s on opposite sides of the wall are the memorial plaques to those who died in both wars. On visiting please stop and look at the names and remember. Outside there is also a memorial cross. I am going to finish this post talking about one such soldier – reverend Arthur Robert Fitch.
Bomber curate saves the town, Yells ’Bale our’, heads for sea: plunges….alone….to his death.
Arthur was a curate at St Mary’s and asked his Archdeacon if he could leave the church and become an RAF pilot to which permission was granted. He said to Archdeacon E. N. Gowing – ‘I am taking this step with my eyes open. I know what it means for an ordained man to join the fighting Forces, but I am only 25 and feel it is my obvious duty.
Training completed Fitch would spend his downtime visit southend and St Marys, speaking to a full church when he did so. He was a successful pilot raising to the rank of captain and being involved in raids on Germany.
It was on his way back from a German raid, not fair from the coast and Southend that his plane was hit. Refusing to land as he was over a town Arthur told his men to bail out of the plane while turning it around back out to the North sea. Unfortunately, Arthur did not have time to bale himself with his plane splitting in two. It is believed he drowned. It was the 21st of September 1941. His burial place is Middelkerke Communal Cemetery, Belgium and his name remember both on the St Marys War memorial and that at Kings College Chapel.
This post is dedicated to Arthur Fitch and all the other men from Prittlewell who fought in both wars, those who returned and those who did not.
With special thanks to Keith Turner, Churchwarden of St Marys, Prittlewell for his time in helping me research this post.
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