A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10, Lexden Hundred (Part) Including Dedham, Earls Colne and Wivenhoe. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2001.
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The ecclesiastical parishes of Great Birch and Little Birch were separate until 1816. The united parish is treated under Great Birch.
GREAT BIRCH. The church of Great Birch existed by 1214, when the advowson of the rect- ory was in the king's hands, as part of the lands of the Normans, presumably having been pre- viously held with Great Birch manor. (fn. 1) The king gave the advowson to Ralph Gernon (d. 1248) who gave it before 1241 to Leighs priory, of which he was probably the founder. The priory appropriated the rectory, retaining the advow- son of a vicarage ordained by Roger Niger, bishop of London, although the bishop reserved to himself and his successors the right to nomi- nate the vicars. The assignment to the vicar of part of the great tithes caused such frequent dis- putes with the priory that in 1488 the bishop of London abolished the vicarage, restoring the living to its former status as a rectory, but ordering the rector to pay a pension of 5 marks (£3 6s. 8d.) a year to the priory. The priory retained the advowson of, and the bishop the right of nomination to, the rectory. (fn. 1) At the Dissolution the pension and advowson were given to Richard Rich and his heirs, who pre- sented at the nomination of the bishop. In 1585 the bishop presented by lapse. Charles Rich, the last earl of Warwick, died in 1673 without issue and the bishop presented in 1678 by lapse, but from 1693 in full right. (fn. 1)
When the rectory was united with that of Little Birch on the first voidance of the living after 1816, the bishop and the Round family shared the patronage, the bishop having two turns in three. The survivor of the existing incumbents was to have the rectory. (fn. 1) In 1909 the united rectory of Great and Little Birch was united with the rectory of Layer Breton, the bishop taking two turns and the Round and Strutt families the third. (fn. 1) That united parish was united with Layer Marney in 1982 and with Layer-de-la-Haye in 1996. (fn. 1) The patronage was shared, the bishop taking the first turn, the Round family the second, and Nicholas Charrington the third. (fn. 1)
In 1254 the estimated value of the vicarage was £5, and c. 1291 it was £5 6s. 8d. In 1535 the rectory was worth £11 a year net. (fn. 1) In 1650 the glebe was worth £30 and the tithes £90. (fn. 1) The net value in 1771 was £155, which included £25 rent from the glebe lands. (fn. 1) The average net income in 1835 of Great Birch and Little Birch was £469. (fn. 1) In 1841 the income from Great Birch rectory was £588, including £14 from the glebe, and from Little Birch was £213 including £3 from the glebe. (fn. 1) In 1887 the tithe and glebe rentals for Great and Little Birch together amounted to £861. (fn. 1)
There was a rectory house in 1241, and in 1610 a small one was recorded in a field later called Kitchen field. It was demolished c. 1800 when the rector built a new house nearby in Gravel Pit field on the north side of Maldon Road c. ½ mile from the church. (fn. 1) It was in good condition in 1841. (fn. 1) A new rectory house, designed by S. S. Teulon, was built in 1859-60 on or near the same site, and was still in excellent condition in 1887. (fn. 1) It was sold c. 1953 and replaced by a new rectory house in Birch Road south of the church. (fn. 1) In 1999 the house was not occupied by the incumbent.
In 1610 Great Birch rectory had 33 a. glebe in several fields near the rectory house. There was more than 47 a. in 1810, and in 1841 the combined glebe of 72 a. comprised 58 a. belong- ing to Great Birch and 14 a. to Little Birch. (fn. 1) About 1847 the rector and the owner of some farmland in Copford altered their shared bound- aries. (fn. 1) The glebe of Great and Little Birch together amounted to 70 a. in 1887. (fn. 1) After the rectory was united with Layer Breton in 1909 there was 72 a. glebe. In 1922 only 9 a. glebe remained. (fn. 1)
The earliest recorded rector was Nicholas, clerk to the bishop of Ostia, who was presented in 1214. (fn. 1) Until the Dissolution incumbents were regularly appointed, and about half of them were pluralists. (fn. 1) Thomas of Bolonia or Boloigne by will proved in 1316 provided a chantry from part of the proceeds of the sale of Cokedon Hall in St. Dunstan's parish (Mdx.). (fn. 1) In 1504 Richard Stoke of Little Birch left 40d. to the altar of Great Birch church, two cows to maintain St. Mary's light, and two cows for the 'use of the apostles Peter and Paul', presumably meaning the church. (fn. 1) Three obits survived until 1548 endowed with land in the parish by John Collin, Robert Birch, and an unknown donor. (fn. 1)
John Kingston, rector 1557-8 and rector of Easthorpe 1528-58, had been one of bishop Bonner's commissaries; by will dated 1557 he left 5s. to the incumbent of Great Birch for a yearly obit, and 10s. for church ornaments. (fn. 1) His successor Simon Cook in 1585 was accused of failing to wear the surplice, replying that it was coarse and torn. (fn. 1) In 1588 Cook was imprisoned in Colchester, accused of adultery, frequenting alehouses, and keeping company with unsuitable people. A Brownist was recorded in 1601-2. (fn. 1) Robert Ram, rector of Copford c. 1588-1638, was curate of Great Birch in 1618 and later rector. He served both parishes alternately with his curate, giving a monthly lecture at each for which he assured bishop Laud of his conformity. (fn. 1) Nevertheless in 1633 the church needed a decent communion table, a book of canons, and a pulpit cloth. (fn. 1) William Collingwood, rector from 1639, was replaced in 1643. John Ludgater who was on the Lexden Classis in 1647, served Birch in the period 1643-53. Collingwood served again from 1660 to 1666. (fn. 1) On Easter Day 1666 only four people received communion. (fn. 1) In 1684 the church needed a carpet for the communion table, a book of homilies, a book of canons, and a table of the degrees of marriage; the churchwardens were to ensure that children were baptized and catechized. (fn. 1)
Marcus Gibbin, resident rector 1723-52, was described as 'an excellent preacher, a pious and tender pastor'. (fn. 1) In 1723 he held two Sunday services and communion three times a year. Later he sometimes held only one service because of poor attendance, and officiated also at neighbouring churches. (fn. 1) In 1766 his non-resident pluralist successor held one Sunday service in Birch and communion four times a year for an average of 20 communicants. (fn. 1) In 1790 the rector lived at Colchester, the cure being served with that of Easthorpe by James Round, curate, who lived at Birch Hall with his father. (fn. 1)
In the 19th century and the 20th rectors were usually resident, and in the 19th century there was often an assistant curate. (fn. 1) Richard Waller, rector 1795-1848, held one Sunday service in 1810. (fn. 1) In 1841 the average number of com- municants was c. 60, and c. 90 of the 152 families in the parish were said to belong to the church. (fn. 1) In 1851 the average attendance was reported to be 450 out of a population of 962. (fn. 1) By 1862 the average number of communicants had increased to 120 at the monthly communions. (fn. 1) W. Harrison, rector 1848-82, held strong views on Sunday observance. (fn. 1) E. P. Luard, rector 1919-46, was honorary secretary of Birch Working Men's Club. (fn. 1) The church was closed in 1990 and thereafter the small congregation attended St. Mary's church, Layer Breton. (fn. 1)
The small medieval church of ST. PETER, Birch Road, stood on an elevated site until 1849 when it was in a dilapidated condition and demolished. (fn. 1) It had nave and lower chancel, undivided internally and with tiled roofs, a south porch, and within the west end of the nave a timber west tower, which was shingled and had a needle spire. The chancel had lancet windows, and other windows in nave and chancel were 14th century. (fn. 1) In 1633 the tower and chancel needed repair and the church needed paving. The tower was repaired in 1713, and the church was apparently extensively repaired in 1713-17, 1725-6, and 1741. (fn. 1) In 1849 two nave windows were rectangular and possibly 18th century. (fn. 1)
A new church, largely financed by C. G. Round, was built on the same site in 1849-50 to restrained designs in Decorated style by S. S. Teulon. The church, flint-faced with Caen stone dressings and a tiled roof, has a chancel with north vestry, aisled nave with south porch, and north-west tower with broach spire. It provided accommodation for 500. (fn. 1) There were two stained glass memorial windows of the 1880s, one in the north and the other in the south side of the nave. (fn. 1) A clock was added to the tower in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's dia- mond jubilee, and in 1919 new furnishings replaced some of the plain originals. (fn. 1) In 1948-9 there was some re-ordering and repair. (fn. 1) Monuments included several to members of the Round family. (fn. 1) The church closed in 1990 because maintenance was too expensive. (fn. 1)
In 1684 there was a small silver chalice and cover. In 1705 a flagon and paten were needed. (fn. 1) A silver paten of 1782 survived in 1926. (fn. 1) At the Reformation two bells and one handbell were sold, leaving one bell. There was one bell in 1684. (fn. 1) The single bell recorded in 1768 was presumably the new one, made in 1737 by Thomas Gardiner of Sudbury, (fn. 1) which survived in 1999. (fn. 1)
LITTLE BIRCH. The church existed by the 11th century. (fn. 1) The patronage descended with Little Birch manor, the lords of the manor pre- senting, except that presentations were made in 1382 by John Boys and others, in 1391 by John Costentyn, in 1469 by the bishop of London by lapse, in 1584 by Queen Elizabeth, in 1608 by Nathaniel Monk (who apparently bought a turn to present a relative), and in 1672 by Charles II by lapse. (fn. 1) In 1752 the bishop collated George Kilby to the rectory of Great Birch with Little Birch, but William Round argued that it was his right to present to the rectory as appendant to his manor of Little Birch. In 1753 Round re- covered his right, but allowed Kilby to keep all the profits of both churches. (fn. 1)
No value was estimated for the church in 1254. (fn. 1) In 1535 the rectory was worth 66s. 8d. (fn. 1) About 1600 the glebe was worth £5 8s. a year and the tithes £15 a year. (fn. 1) In 1664 the living was worth only £12. (fn. 1) In 1610 and 1810 there was c. 12 a. glebe but no parsonage house. Tithes included those due from land in Copford, Easthorpe, and Messing. (fn. 1)
The earliest recorded parson was Michael c. 1194-1238. (fn. 1) Rectors were appointed regu- larly in the Middle Ages, but many were plural- ists. (fn. 1) In 1607 parishioners attended Great Birch church because Little Birch church was ruinous. (fn. 1) Robert Mitchell, rector from 1630, obtained the sequestration of Abberton and lived there. In 1646 he was was accused of neg- lecting Little Birch and the living was seques- tered. Thomas Martin of Layer Breton was appointed lecturer of Little Birch in 1658. Mitchell was restored c. 1662; in 1664 he was old and sick, and most or all of the very few parishioners attended neighbouring churches. The living was vacant in 1669. (fn. 1) In 1684 the rector, who also held Easthorpe, reported that there were no books nor ornaments for the com- munion table, and that the three families in the parish attended Easthorpe church. (fn. 1) In 1705 there was no communion table, and no orna- ments nor utensils, and in the 18th century and early 19th members of the Round family and their tenants attended Great Birch church which served both Great and Little Birch parishes long before the formal union. (fn. 1)
The ruined church of ST. MARY THE VIRGIN, Little Birch, stands just north of the site of Birch Hall. The rubble-built nave, which has Roman brick dressings and pilaster but- tresses at the east angles, may be 11th-century in origin, although the windows are 12th- century and later. (fn. 1) In the 14th century the chancel was rebuilt and the west tower added, the walling being of rubble and the tower arch of brick. About 1400 a brick chancel arch was inserted and a rood loft and stair added. In 1518 a parishioner left 3s. 4d. for repairs, and during the 16th century the upper part of the tower was rebuilt in brick and a brick stair turret added. (fn. 1) At the Reformation there were two bells. (fn. 1)
John Eldred of Stanway, who lived at Little Birch, and Thomasin, widow of Sir John Swinnerton, restored the church about the 1630s. The church became ruinous again and before 1682 Eldred's monument was moved to Earls Colne. (fn. 1) Nevertheless the church was reported to be in good repair in 1684, although by 1736 it was 'in a demolished state'. (fn. 1) In 1768 there was no roof; only the tower, which was quite high, and the walls remained. (fn. 1)