St Mary Magdalen

The Church in the High Street

A Short History of a Church - by the late Brian D. Gennings

For anyone who happened to be walking through Billericay High Street on the afternoon of Trinity Sunday, 14th June, 1992, they would have witnessed an historic event. At 3.00 p.m. the congregation of St. Mary Magdalen, Billericay exited the church enmasse, led by the Area Bishop in full regalia, the vicar, curate and church wardens. Then, like the twelve tribes of Israel in their flight from Egypt, they proceeded up Billericay High Street. No, this was not an enactment of the ancient custom of 'Posting the Parish Boundary', but the congregation of St. Mary Magdalen walking to take possession of what was to them the 'Promised Land'. After some fourteen years of investigation, prayer and sacrificial giving the new church, Emmanuel, part of the vision for a  whole church and hall complex, had been completed and was ready for occupation. This event was but part of the ongoing story of the Anglican Church in Billericay that started centuries ago.

Origins of Billericay

Originally, the site now known as Billericay was inhabited by a tribe of ancient Britons known as Trinovites. Being hunters they were very jealous of the territory they claimed, so the high ground was admirable for their purpose as it overlooked the surrounding woodlands which held ample stocks of wildlife. The Roman occupation under Claudius in A.D. 43 established a garrison on the same high ground, since they too thought it eminently suitable for defence and the policing of the surrounding areas. With the recall of the Roman Legions in A.D. 410, Essex was left open to the marauding Saxons, and by the end of the fifth century the whole of Essex was under Saxon rule. Being an essentially farming community, the Saxons preferred to settle in the more fertile area a mile and a quarter to the south of the Roman camp. The translation of the Anglo Saxon name for this settlement is 'The Farmstead Near to the Stronghold'. We know it today as Great Burstead. Great Burstead became the seat of the Lord of the Manor, and, with the advent of Christianity, it also became the centre of the parish. For two and a half centuries following the Norman conquest, Billericay continued to be just an outlying district, the church at Great Burstead remained the only place of Christian worship in the area.

Place of worship

The need for a local place of worship became desirable as Billericay grew in size and  importance, it also became a stopping place for pilgrims from the north on their way to St. Thomas a Becket's tomb at Canterbury. There was another reason. Frequently during winter, the road between Billericay and Great Burstead became a quagmire and impassable, the alternative church at Mountnessing also became impossible to get to due to the road being flooded by the River Wid. Despite some conflicting information regarding the actual date when the family of Sulyard took ownership of the land, it is generally accepted that in or about 1342, Sulyard of Runwell gave over a parcel of land to provide a living for a priest. A chantry chapel was erected on the site for the administration of the sacraments. No trace of this original structure remains; it is thought to have consisted of an oak timber framework covered on the outside with wattle and daub. Apparently there was also some sort of a turret, because a bell with the inscription 'Galfridus: De: Hedemtun: Me: Fecit' (Geoffrey of Edmonton made me) was saved and re-hung when a new tower was built in 1490, having been recast in 1890, it survives to this day in the church tower.

Rebuilt in brick

The original 1342 structure, it is believed, lasted until 1490, when the chantry as a whole was completely rebuilt in brick in the current fashion of that period, which we call the Perpendicular Gothic Style. At that time there were no architects as we would accept the term today, but bands of master craftsmen in various trades skilled in the building of churches travelled the country. It is likely that such a band was employed to build the church in Billericay. The only remaining part of this building is the tower, it bears similar features to towers of the churches in Fryerning and Layer Marney which would lead to the conclusion that the same bricklayers were employed. No plans of the 1490 structure can be located, but it is thought to have consisted of the Tower, a nave, a short chancel and perhaps north and south aisle. An entry in the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments Inventory, Essex, Vol iv MCMXXIII has this to say about St. Mary Magdalen

'The west tower is of late 15th century, the rest of the church being rebuilt during the 18th century. The tower is 8 feet by 8.112 feet, the two staircases flanking the tower being modern additions. The tower itself comprises of a two storey crow stepped parapet projecting on trefoil corbelling with an 18th century archway inserted.'


A grant was made to Walter Farre and Ralph Standyshe, gentlement, dated at Brandyshe on 17th August 1551, 'Of all that the late chapel or chantry of Billerica in our county of Essex, now dissolved, by whatsoever other name the same late free chapel may be called or named and sundry lands' (from a document discovered by JA. Sparvel and quoted in 'Billericay and It's High Street, by Harry Richmond). A direct result of the suppression of the chantry during the reign of Edward IV. However, shortly after this it became the property of a member of the Tyrell family, well known in Essex. The family kept the lands and sold the chapel to the inhabitants of Billericay who appointed trustees to maintain the structure and provide at least one service each Sunday. Although able to appoint their own chaplain, the chapel remained under the jurisdiction of the Vicar of Great Burstead as a 'Chapel of Ease'.

St. John’s chapel

There is no evidence proving to which saint the original Chantry Chapel was dedicated. This is a record of a will of someone Ring, and of J. Tanner who made a bequest to the 'pryste of Sent John's Chappll in Bylleryca, Sir John Stacy, pryste of the Chepylle' in 1524. It is therefore reasonable to assume that up to the time of the suppression it was St. John's. Having faithfully carried out their commission for a number of years, the trustees decided in 1693 to relinquish their responsibility to the Bishop of London. Doubts were expressed at this time regarding the proper consecration of the building. In order to set the record straight, the Bishop of London on the 8th October 1693 duly consecrated the building to St. Mary Magdalen, still reserving all rights to the mother church at Great Burstead.

In the brief, 14 Geo Ill, published in 1784/85 the chapel was described:

'As a very ancient building greatly decayed and too small if repaired to provide adequately for parishioners and inhabitants to attend divine service. That the said chapel was separate from the mother church and therefore no tax could be levied upon the mother church to pay for its  upkeep.'

This same brief also contained the following authority:

'That a collection be made throughout England, our town of Berwick upon Tweed our counties of Flint, Denbigh and Radnor in Wales and from house to house in the counties of Essex, Middlesex, Herts and Suffolk, etc., to enable them (the inhabitants) to rebuild the chapel.' It further states, That the inhabitants of Billericay besides paying great tythes to the Lay Improprietor (namely Tyrell) and small tythes to the vicar of Great  Burstead have constantly and do still by voluntary subscription pay a minister for officiating at the said chapel'.

How times change!  Now there is considerable resistance each year in every Deanery regarding the Family Purse, the majority of which is for provision of Clergy stipends and pensions.

In the Book of Chantries, the entry for this period states:

Yt ys no Parish but the incumbent celebrateth in the said chapel of Much Burstead.

It goes on to record that the yearly value was thirty-eight shillings and four pence, that two messuages and certain lands belong copyhold to Lord Rich Lord Chancellor of his Manor of Burgstead doth amount to the sum of £9.10.6, whereof in rent resolute to divers Lords by the year £1.6s.3d. and the Lord Rich for the copyhold 8s.8d. The value of the goods, jewels, etc., one small bell praised at Is, one hutch Is. (1 wonder what that was for,) two vestments, one surplas, other small implements 2s.6d. One also wonders what the small implements could have been.

A permanent endowment

In 1844 application was made to the then Bishop of London to use his influence to obtain a permanent endowment from the Ecclesiastical Commission for maintenance of the Chapel Chaplain and assignment of a district to be under his charge. Because the chapel was under private patronage at that time, according to the constitution of the commission no such endowment could be given. In view of this the owners surrendered the patronage to the Bishop of London with the proviso that (i) the application be granted and (ii) they retain through their wardens, control of finances and services. We surrender, but not completely, would seem to have been  the order of the day. Possibly they were also aware of the abuse of privilege some clergy had committed in the past regarding finance and church property.

Resulting from this application, on September 3rd, 1844 by Order in Council, authority was given for marriages, baptisms, churchings and burials, all fees being assigned to the minister. The Parish Registers for Billericay commence as from that  date. Prior to this, all records were at Great Burstead. St. Mary  Magdalen was first styled as such by Order in Council dated April 26th, 1854, the first incumbent being the then chaplain Revd. J.K. Bailey.

Pew rents and grants

It is interesting to note from existing records during that same year, the Revd. J.K. Bailey applied to The Incorporated Church Building Society of Westminster for a grant towards repairing and adding to the seating  accommodation. In 1841 the declared population of Billericay is given as 1,284, the stated seating of the church was 386 pew rents, e.g., approximately 30% of the stated population. J.K. Bailey proposed to increase this seating by adding 186 free seats for adults and 70 for children, to bring the total to 486. It is also interesting to note the distinction between adult seats and children's. The picture springs to mind of a compound where the children can be penned in, whilst the  adults attend divine service. The cost of this alteration was - seats £209, repairs £230 and architects fees £20. A grant of £100 was received from the Church Building Society of Westminster, the balance of £359 being raised by subscription, quite a substantial sum for those days. On 29th January 1846, nine months after the original application, the  completion certificate was signed Revd. John K. Bailey, John Burrel and Ffinch Wood, chapel wardens. It was during these repairs and addition that the altar was moved from the North Apse to the East Apse.


The Revd. J.K. Bailey was succeeded by 1859 by Revd. E.L. Cutts, who was also secretary to the Essex Archaeological Society and a writer of some distinction. Among his title is 'Colchester' one of the Historic Towns series. In 1875 Edward George Darby came first as Curate in Charge and from 1877 Vicar, a post he held until 1918. From records and documents held by Basildon District Council and the Essex Record Office, it would appear that the Revd. Darby was head of a rather large family and the Old  Vicarage in Chapel Street was insufficient for their needs. In 1879 he purchased a large house in the High Street, called 'Foxcroft', where he brought up his large family, many of whose names can be found on the brass plates around the chancel steps. There is also recorded in a copy of a local paper an interesting comment about the Revd. Darby by those who knew him.

'He was remembered as a well liked personage who, however, was prone to preaching rather long sermons, these being none the better cause, having no roof to his mouth, he was rather difficult to understand.'

One wonders whether in today's world, such a disability would prevent someone seeking Holy Orders from getting the required Advisory Board on Ministry, when emphasis is on whether or not there is an ability to communicate.

Elephant procession

In 1928 the Revd. W.S. Smith was installed as incumbent and he remained until 1952. Those who knew him state that he was a kindly man with a sense of humour. He was also a person who delighted in the unconventional, judging by the account of an unusual Christening which took place in March 1938.

'On this occasion, two elephants proceeded along Billericay High Street from the direction of the London Road. (presumably from the fair ground at Sun Corner, a field situated at the junction of the High Street and London Road). Each elephant was gently pushing a pram before it with its trunk, on one pram was Cecily Leonie Zametta Shufflebottom and in the other, Denise Elaine Rosaire. The parents of Cicely had been married the previous year at St. Mary Magdalen by Revd. W. S. Smith and they, together with the parents of Denise, rode behind on the elephants.

From other records, it would appear that the Rosaires had made their winter quarters for many years at Cox's Farm, Billericay and indeed, considered it their place of permanent residence. A Reredos in a free classical style with a plain oak background with painted and gilded pilasters, entablature and riddle posts is mounted in the North Apse, in tribute to W.S. Smith.

World War II

During the 1939/45 war the church suffered some damage. Serious cracks appeared in the ceiling and the walls were badly stained and discoloured. The lighting was by gas mantles and the paintwork was a dark chocolate brown, giving a dark, depressing atmosphere. In 1950 a major improvement scheme was commenced, repair and strengthening of the ceiling, the organ was moved to the west gallery, the choir stalls widened, fluorescent lighting was installed. Pastel shades of green and ivory for the walls with blue and pink on the ceiling was adopted, making an altogether more pleasing appearance. A plaque situated to the right on the entrance to the main body of the church states:

'St. Mary Magdalen. After restoration the church was rededicated to the Glory of God by the Ven. E.N. Gowing, Archdeacon of Southend, on the 19th October 1950. Revd. W.S. Smith Vicar, R.G. Warren, T.G. Boughtwood Wardens. Keeble and Sons Builders, G.S. Amos A.I.A.A. Architect.’

From 1952 until 1962 the Vicar of Billericay was Revd. S. Powley. It was during his time as vicar that further extensions were added to the church of St. Mary Magdalen. This comprised the purchase of the property next door to the church, 'Church House', the idea being to provide living accommodation for a curate and to enlarge the Vestry and build proper toilet facilities. Enlarged vestries and toilet facilities were built on ground adjoining the rear of the church, but 'Church House' was never used as accommodation for a curate. The ground floor has been rented out for various uses, lastly as a solicitor's office. Regrettably, plans to use St. Mary Magdalen and Church House as an ecumenical centre have fallen through. Church House being a Grade 11 listed building, the cost of restoration into a habitable state is beyond the ability of the parish to finance, consequently the property was sold. St. Mary Magdalen itself is still being used for Parish mid-week Communion Services.

1960s -

In 1963 the Revd. David Greaves came as Rector and remained until 1979. It was during his ministry that Christ Church was built, formerly the congregation met in a small hut. It was also during this period that the Instrument creating the Billericay and Little Burstead Team Ministry was enacted. This team consists of Christ Church, St. Mary the Virgin, Little  Burstead, a village to the east of Billericay, St. Mary Magdalen and just recently St. John the Divine at Outwood Common has been added. It is a compliment to David Greaves skill that the transition was carried  out without difficulty, the then ministers remaining in post until the Team Ministry was established. David Greaves trained at the London  College of Divinity, now St. John's College, Nottingham and was ordained Deacon in 1949. He was a kindly man with a depth of experience, much of which was gained during his time as a prisoner of war. It was his experiences during his captivity first in North Africa, subsequently in Italy and Czechoslovakia, eloquently described in his book 'Inside Story', published in 1989 by Capella Publications, that convinced him of his calling to the ministry. As he writes in the epilogue, 'When the  war ended and 1 finally returned home 1 knew that Prediger 1 had been, and Prediger 1 had to continue to be'.

After a short interregnum, in April 1980 the Revd. Canon Peter Ashton was installed as Team Rector. He trained at St. John's College Nottingham and was ordained deacon in 1962. After serving as curate in Walthamstow, and vicar in Bradford, he returned to St. John's college, Nottingham in 1973 as Director of Pastoral Studies. It was during his time as Team Rector that the church of St. Mary Magdalen was redecorated and new, more efficient lighting installed. The pulpit was removed, together with the choir stalls, and the sanctuary enlarged so that the communion table could be moved forward away from the east wall, allowing the president, during communion, to face the congregation.

Thus we come full circle. After much prayer and investigation it was decided to build a new church to cater for the growing needs of the community of Billericay. St. Mary Magdalen, despite many changes over the years, was proving too small and did not cater adequately for ministry to adults, young people or the community. At the moment it is still a place of worship, but how long  it will remain as such is debatable. Rising maintenance costs and the fact that it is no longer the Parish Church places some questions over its future.


Billericay and its High Street Compiled by Harry Richmond Printed by Wickford Press.

St. Mary Magdalen Billericay by G.S. Amos.

Janet Smith, Assistant County Archivist, Essex Record Office for her assistance in searching out and providing records of faculties, etc.

Planning Department, Basildon District Council

Vol 4. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments Inventory, Essex, MCMXXIII

The Staff of the Billericay Branch of Essex Library, for their help in finding old copies of the Billericay Observer and answering my many questions

Copyright © Brian D. Gennings 1997, 2001, 2004