This month I am exploring local history, what it is and my local history of Southend. I have written a number of posts on sites and events near my home and their histories.
But to begin with what is Local History?
In fairness I think it can be said that all history is local. Everywhere has a history and what makes it local all comes down to what we as historians are studying. The Tudors for example is a large area of English history, however if one wanted to look at why Prince Arthur was sent to Wales to be raised as king in training then we would look closer at Wales and the Welsh marches and the history of that particular area, bringing the focus more on place. For those who live near that area then it would be local.
Local history is ‘history from the bottom’ which has a lesser interest to historians than other areas. However it does contribute to our identity as a people and helps us understand where we come from, our traditions and celebrations. Many historians who have focused on local history usually are natives to the area they write about, making the history more intimately understood.
One such local historian to the Southend area is Phillip Benton who I write more about further in this post.
The Missing Church and Philip Benton
The parish church was once the centre of the town and an important building for all. Today a large number of them seem remote and isolated. One such church I want to talk about is even beyond isolation as it has gone completely. The only evidence of it being in existence is the cemetery which surrounded it and a church shaped footprint in the grass. The church was once The Church of St Mary Magdalene in Shopland, Essex.
Up until its demolition in the 1950’s the church was once the oldest in the Rochford district. It was built during the 12th century. It was further enlarged along with the addition of a bell tower in the 15th.
Although an active church, by the 1920’s the it was in a state of disrepair and had suffered damage from severe storms. Work was undertaken to repair and restore the church privately in 1934. A land mine exploded nearby damaging part of the church in 1940, followed by further damage leading to the final service at the church, a christening, in 1940. In 1957 it was decided to be too dangerous to be left standing and was demolished.
However, the demise of St Mary Magdalene is not all doom and gloom, fortunately parts of it were salvaged and relocated. The porch is now at St Thomas’ parish church in Bradwell. The 11th century font to St Nicholas’ in Canewdon. The bells at St Chads in Vange. The lid of the coffin of the Knight Thomas de Staple is now homed at All Saints in Sutton. Thomas de Staple was a Sergeant at Arms under King Edward II, he fought, and died while in France in 1371. He was once the owner of Shopland Hall, the Manor of Hadleigh and owned a number of other properties and land in the Rochford 100 area. The Brass engraving is one of the earliest dated in existence and 8th oldest to be found in Essex.
The ground on which it stood is still consecrated today and although the tranquil churchyard has partly been reclaimed by nature one can make out a number of the gravestones. One burial of note is that of Phillip Benton.
A local historian, Phillip Benton is remembered today for being the author of The History of Rochford 100 – a detailed description of the histories of the surrounding areas, churches, people and landmarks. It was published in 1876.
Born in 1815 and raised in North Shoebury Hall, a Georgian manor with Elizabethan origins. which today is home to a blue plaque marking Phillips time there. The property itself is listed and valued at 2.25 million. Phillip would marry in 1843 and relocate to nearby Beauchamps in Shopland, another property which still stands today. He and his wife would have 8 children and Philip would usually be found roaming the countryside collecting information about the area and its history for his book. He would marry a second time in 1878 and they would live at Shoebury hall. By 1898, Phillip was a widower once more, nearing the end of his life. He moved to a villa on Whitegate Road, Southend, where he spent the remainder of his days.
Today the churchyard is managed by volunteers who set about restoring the cemetery as a garden of remembrance in 2013 and preserve its history.
Anon (nd) History – Shopland Churchyard. Availible from: https://www.shoplandchurchyard.co.uk/history [Accessed 05/07/2021]
Sipple, M (2013) Phillip Benton – Local Historian. Available from: http://www.rochforddistricthistory.org.uk/page/phillip_benton [Accessed 05/07/21]
Summerfield, M (2015) A brief History – Sutton with Shopland. Available from: http://www.rochforddistricthistory.org.uk/page/sutton_and_shopland [Accessed 05/07/21]
Willis, I (2016) Local History: a view from the bottom. Available from: https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/local-history-a-view-from-the-bottom/ [Accessed 06/07/2021]Rochford district Council (2007) Shopland Churchyard Appraisal. Available from: https://www.rochford.gov.uk/sites/default/files/planning_conservation_shopland_final.pdf [Accessed 05/07/2021]