An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 3, North East. Originally published by His Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1922.
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96. WEST MERSEA. (D.e.)
(O.S. 6 in. (a)xlvi. N.E. (b)xlvi. S.E. (c)xlvii. N.W.)
West Mersea is a village and parish including the W. half of Mersea Island. The Romano-British barrow and the Roman circular building are both important monuments, and the church has features of interest.
c(1). Mersea Mount.—This barrow stands ½ m. S.E. of the Strood crossing, and about the same distance due S. of an old ford, and adjoining the highway to E. Mersea, about 1½ m. N.E. of W. Mersea church. It stands at an elevation of 60 ft. above sea-level, and, though now much worn, is about 110 ft. in diameter and 22½ ft. high, and the top is flat over a space of 16 ft. Excavations carried out by the Morant Club in 1912 showed that in the centre a chamber 18 in. square by 21½ in. in height was sunk so that the floor was 15 in. below the original surface. The floor consisted of two roof tiles, laid on two courses of septaria; the walls were made of seven courses, of flanged roof-tiles and the roof was composed of a single bonding tile, 21½ in. square. Over the chamber was a dome of seven courses of tile set in mortar. On the original surface soil beneath the barrow was a thin red stratum, 2 in. or less in thickness, made of crushed tile and yellow ochre. Above this for 12 ft. was a core of grey earthy quartz sand, very compact, with repetitions of the red stratum for the first 18 in., and the rest of the barrow consisted of looser sand and gravel. Mixed with these were a few fragments of Samian, Belgic and Upchurch pottery, a few flints, and a little briquetage.
In the chamber was a leaden casket, 12½ in. square and 13 in. deep, covered with two pieces of board and containing a glass bowl, 11½ in. high, and nearly 13 in. in diameter, with a small mouth and a broad, flat rim. The glass was pale green and transparent. The vessel contained the cremated remains of an adult. It would seem to date from the latter half of the first century, and to have belonged to a Romano-Briton of good position. (Essex Arch. Soc. Trans. (N.S.), XIII, 116. F. Haverfield, Roman Britain in 1913 (Brit. Acad. Suppl. Papers, II, p. 42. See also Sectional Preface, p. xxvii.)
b(2). Round Building.—About 200 yards E. of W. Mersea church, and 150 yards E. of the Hall Farm, foundations were met with in December, 1896, in the course of digging a saw-pit. They were about 9 in. below the surface in undisturbed soil, and were those of a circular building, with walls 3 ft. in thickness, and having twelve buttresses or bases for columns, projecting 4 ft. beyond the main wall. Alternate buttresses were continued on the inner side to the angles of a central hexagon. The hexagon was about 5 ft. across, and the entire building was 65 ft. in diameter. The walls were composed of brick and mortar laid in concrete, with an offset 6 in. wide of a course or two of tiles and rubble foundations; the bricks measured on an average 17 in. by 11 in. by 1½ in. No indications of doors or floors were observed. The debris included many roof-tiles with red mortar. There were three pieces of stone, each a yard long and 7 in. in width, flat on one edge, convex at the other, and not moulded. There were signs of fire, but no coins or pottery were noted which could give a date to the edifice. (Proc. Soc. Ant., XVI, 425, with plan. Essex Arch. Soc. Trans. (N.S.), VI, 173, 284.) The foundations were still exposed in 1922.
It is well known that the Romans employed towers as lighthouses, block-houses, watch-towers, and for purposes of harbour defence, but this building does not conform to any common type, and the foundation cannot have supported a very lofty structure, unless it were of wood. A pair of somewhat similar buildings exhibiting the same plan exist at old Cairo ("Babylon of Egypt"), but as these appear to have guarded the entrance to the Red Sea Canal, which, according to Ptolemy, IV, 5, 24, flowed through "Babylon," they can afford but a superficial analogy to the Mersea structure. (A. J. Butler, Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, 1884, Chap. IV. A. J. Butler, Arab Conquest of Egypt, 238, 249. Strabo., XVI, 21. See also Sectional Preface, p. xxvii.) Perhaps a better suggestion is that the buttress-like projections are really platforms to carry columns, the whole thus forming a circular peristyle monument of well-known classical type. (See L. Canina, Via Appia, for examples.)
b(3). Dwelling House.—The church and churchyard at West Mersea cover the site of one or more houses of Roman date. The remains are not completely recorded and from the nature of the site it is impossible to reconstruct any ground-plan. The principal finds have been:—
(a) About 1730, pavements were discovered over an area of 100 ft. by 50 ft. in the churchyard just N.E. of the church, 10 ft. from the stile and also in the hall-yard, W. of the gravel path from the village. In the churchyard it lay 4 ft. below the surface; outside, 1 ft. only. The chief pavement, 21 ft. by 18½ ft., was of geometrical pattern with ivy-leaves and roses, with guilloche ornament on the outside and a white border. White, black, blue, red and yellow colours were employed. (Salmon, Hist. of Essex (1743), pp. 434–5, and Lysons quoting Mortimer in Arch., XVI, 149; also plan in Gough's copy of Salmon in the Bodleian, and a drawing of the pavement in a red portfolio at the Society of Antiquaries.)
(b) In 1740 a red tessellated floor was found under the chancel and to the S.E. of the church red tiles 14 in. square. (Salmon.)
(c) Gough saw remains of floors W. of the church in 1764, and within recent years the foot-way of the road by the churchyard wall had red tessellation actually exposed. (Gough's Tours in Bodl. Library, MS. Top. Gen., e. 18, fol. 215.)
(d) Further W. in 1920 a similar pavement was met with in fixing a telegraph-pole 40 ft. S. of Yewtree House, in the corner of the garden at the angle of the road about 180 ft. S.W. of (3). (Information from the occupier of Yewtree House.)
The small finds included coins of which the dates are not given, and also (from the orchard of the Hall) bronze buckles, styles, etc. The fabric of the church and tower is largely composed of rubble, thought to have come from Roman buildings.
b(4). Parish Church of SS. Peter and Paul stands in the village. The walls are of ragstone, septaria, Roman bricks and later bricks. The dressings are of limestone, brick and Roman bricks. The roofs are tiled. The West Tower was built late in the 11th century. Probably in the 14th century the Chancel and Nave were rebuilt and the South Aisle was added. The North Porch was added in the 15th century. Early in the 16th century the upper part of the chancel was rebuilt and the roof added. Late in the 18th century the walls of the Nave were heightened, the existing ceilings inserted and the South Vestry added.
The W. tower is a good example of early masonry.
Architectural Description—The Chancel (25½ ft. by 21¾ ft.) has 14th-century walls of coursed and squared ragstone to a height of about 9 ft.; above, the walling is of later rebuilt ragstone and bricks. The E. window is modern. In the N. wall are two early 16th-century windows of three lights with four-centred main heads and labels of brick and modern mullions; the jambs and heads of lights are of stone. Between the windows is a doorway with an early 16th-century head of brick and earlier jambs of stone. There is no structural division between the chancel and nave.
The Nave (42¼ ft. by 21½ ft.) has in the N. wall two windows both with modern frames, but set in partly blocked larger openings; the eastern has a four-centred moulded label with one head-stop of late 14th-century date, and is partly destroyed by the N. porch; the western, also partly hidden by the porch, has a badly decayed moulded label; between the windows is the late 14th-century N. doorway with moulded and shafted jambs, two-centred arch and label with defaced stops and triangular rear-arch; E. of the eastern window is a recess with a segmental head, possibly in connection with a former nave altar. The S. arcade is of four bays, partly overlapping the chancel, with two-centred arches of three chamfered orders; they are possibly of the 14th century but the piers, responds and arches are covered with 18th-century plaster.
The South Aisle (12 ft. wide) has in the E. wall an early 16th-century window of three four-centred lights under a square-head in a four-centred outer order with a moulded label. In the S. wall are two windows of the 17th or 18th century with reused material probably in earlier openings; the western has a reused 14th-century mullion; each is of three lights; further W. is an 18th-century doorway. In the W. wall, which is built chiefly of reused septaria and Roman bricks, is a mid 14th-century window of two plain pointed lights in a two-centred head with a moulded label.
The West Tower (14¼ ft. by 13½ ft.) is of late 11th-century date and of three stages, with an embattled parapet; the quoins are of Roman bricks and the rubble is of coursed ragstone and septaria mostly set herring-bone-wise. The plain semi-circular tower-arch has plain jambs and imposts formed of three oversailing courses. In both the N. and S. walls are late 11th-century windows with round heads and narrow splays. In the W. wall is a 15th-century window of two lights (formerly cinquefoiled), with reset vertical tracery in a four-centred head with a moulded label. The second stage has a small circular opening in the W. wall. The bell-chamber has in each wall a late 14th-century window of two cinquefoiled and transomed lights and a quatrefoiled head with a moulded label.
The North Porch has a 15th-century outer archway with a moulded two-centred arch and moulded label with head-stops, the moulded and shafted responds have moulded capitals and bases. The E. and W. walls have each a two-light window with original jambs and modern heads and mullions.
The Roof of the chancel is of two bays with early 16th-century arched and moulded trusses, wallplates and plain trussed rafters and collar-beams. The N. Porch has two stone corbels, for the former roof-truss, with carved half-figures of angels, one holding a book, the other a heart.
Fittings—Chests: In tower—(1) iron-bound with large lock-plates and two staples, probably 16th-century; (2) covered with leather, three locks with pierced ornamental hasp-plates, drop-handles, probably 17th-century. Coffin-lid: In chancel— tapering slab with hollow-chamfered edge and raised foliated cross, 13th-century; lower part of slab gone. Consecration crosses: On E. wall of chancel, two, circular, painted red, 14th-century or earlier. Font: octagonal bowl of Purbeck marble, each face with two shallow panels with pointed heads; also Purbeck marble base, early 13th-century. Niche: On N. porch over outer archway with moulded jambs and cinquefoiled head, 14th-century, probably reset. Painting: On E. wall of chancel, lower part, remains of geometrical and foliage pattern in red, probably early 16th-century. In nave, on W. wall, pattern with repeats of sacred monogram in black and rosettes in red, probably 15th-century. Miscellanea: In S. aisle— on S. wall, lunette in glazed Della Robbia ware of the dead Christ with angels, Italian, possibly early 16th-century. In S. aisle loose on E. window ledge, several square tiles with remains of glazing, mediaeval.
c(5). Garden Farm, house ½ m. N.E. of the church, is of two storeys, timber-framed and plastered; the roofs are tiled. It was built probably early in the 16th century, with cross-wings at the E. and W. ends. The upper storey projects at the N. end of the E. wing. Inside the building some of the ceiling-beams are exposed and the W. wing has original cambered tie-beams.
a(6). House at Mersea Lane, 1,100 yards N.W. of the church, is of two storeys, timber-framed and weather-boarded; the roofs are tiled. It was built probably in the 17th century.
c(7). Red Hill, on line of sea-wall behind Strood House. There are several others in the parish.