|West Mersea Free Church, Mill Road|
Formerly Union Church, (Congregational & Baptist).
It was in the year of the battle of Trafalgar that a local landowner and oyster merchant, Mr Bennett Hawes, gave the site of the place of worship that exists today in Mill Road. The site was part of a field known as Little Pattens in Shelleys Lane, later named by local inhabitants Chapel Road and then later Mill Road. Mr Hawes, according to a note found amongst some old papers, had 'long wished to see the Redeemer's Cause permanently established on this benighted island' and by a Trust Deed dated April 1836 confirmed the gift of the land in 1805 for an Independent Chapel (an early name for many Congregational Churches) - the Trustees being mostly influential tradesmen in Colchester, probably connected with Lion Walk or Stockwell Churches there.
The early church members had been gathering in a nearby barn for worship or journeying to Colchester on the sabbath day - a difficult and tedious trip by horse and cart or carriage over roads not very well paved but water-bound macadam, gritty and rutted, and the Strood was not so straight as it is today nor as well marked. The preachers were supplied from Hoxton Academy until the members of the chapel felt able to support a Minister of their own.
A Mr Cover, one of the first missionaries at Otahitie, became their Pastor and faithfully served them for four years until he went to East Bergholt Chapel. The next Pastor was a Mr Seth Coppin who lived in Colchester and ministered to the hapel until 1820 when he was succeeded by a Mr Churchill until 1834.
Various ministers preached from then onwards, journeying to Mersea to take over the services - on one occasion a horse bolted at Manwood Bridge and overturned the carriage injuring the preacher! In 1841 the Chapel was 're-built' as is evidenced by a stone tablet on the front of the present building, this was during the ministry of a Pastor Haas who, when he left the place, took with him the early records of the Church and refused to hand them over to the members.
In 1844 Mr J.B. Harvey (who was Mayor of Colchester at some time) was serving in the pulpit and became the pastor until 1858. It is recorded that Mr Samuel Cant (junior) or Ivy Farm, East Mersea, beame a member in 1845 and later a Deacon, in which office he served for 51 years until his death on 26 January 1898 in his 90th year. Mr Cant replaced Mr Bennett Hawes as a Deacon on the death of the latter. During the interregnum many noted preachers of the day came to Mersea, including Rev. Craig of Bocking, Rev. Brook, Mr C.H. Spurgeon (the well known Baptist born in Kelvedon), his father and grandfather.
The Schoolroom was built in the middle of the century and at one time served as a day school for some of the local children - two of the original cupboards exist to this day - The Minister's house, The Manse, behind the chapel was built around 1833 but was been modernised in the 20th century, before being demolished in 1995.
On 31 January 1859 the Church invited a Mr Chas. Cook to supply the pulpit for three months and then he was asked to become Pastor; he served in that capacity for 31 years without pay. He died 17 August 1896 aged 86 years. He was born in Tiptree about 1810 and was converted at an open-air meeting either at Tiptree or Totham run by the 'Ranters' - about 1830 and used to walk from Tiptree to Mount Bures where he ministered most Sundays. His father did not appreciate his son's preaching and would not lend him a horse but later relented and bought one for him, he ministered there for some 12 years. He died at Leakeys Hall (now known as Brierley Hall) East Road, West Mersea, having farmed it is thought at Brickhouse Farm. Baptists predominated in the Chapel at this time having been invited to join the Congregationalists.
The succeeding pastor was Thomas Watson who faithfully served the Church for 18 years until his death on 9 January 1914 aged 65.
Mr w.J. Juniper was the next Pastor and is remembered by some of the older residents of Mersea - he was a converted Jesuit priest - serving the church very faithfully during his ministry. He moved to Clacton in 1933. His successor was the Rev. C. Leopold Clarke who served frp, September 1932 until August 1940. He also lectured at Kensit College in London on church history and theology; his wife was a writer of popular short stories in women's magazines; his three daughters were accomplished singers in the chapel whilst at school in Colchester.
During the 1930s a Kitchen had been constructed and toilets installed near the Schoolroom, filling a long felt need for improved facilities for catering and for various functions in the buildings.
The Rev. J. Griffith Lloyd became Pastor in 1943 and became very well known to folk in the district and did much work amongst the patients and staff in the Colchester hospitals as a Chaplain. It was during his term of service that the chapel roof was renovated and re-slated. In July 1950 he ceased his ministry here as he felt called to 'a wider sphere of service' and continued as Chaplain in Colchester but nevertheless standing by to serve the chapel when needed.
The next Minister came in March 1951, the Rev. Roger Hammond, and he was a very faithful pastor to the church for over 9 years when he became the Minister of a church at Winchester which he served until his retirement and is still resident there. The Rev. W.C.R. ( 'Bill' ) Hancock followed, coming in July 1962 and remained until his resignation in June 1969 when he left to go to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Northampton. His ministry was greatly appreciated by all and when he left Northampton he moved to Horsham as Area Superintendent to the South and SE Areas for the Baptist Union. Earl Alexander of Hillsborough ( Wellhouse Farm, West Mersea ) was a member of the Union Church and was instrumental in the introduction of Mr Hancock to the church. As a matter of interest the piano now used in the chapel was the gift of his widow to the church and was the one he played often during his lifetime; some of his music copies are still in the piano stool.
During the next interregnum the Schoolroom accommodation was enlarged by the addition of two extra rooms and refurbishment of the remainder with a new floor and lowered ceiling - mostly accomplished by volunteer labour by members and friends.
The Rev. George Hill came to the Church as Minister (from West Row and Mildenhall) on 6 March 1971 and was well liked by all - his work amongst the children in Holiday Clubs, Beach Club etc. being very popular with them. He left in May 1973 and is now Pastor of Doncaster Evangelical Church, with a bookshop, coffee bar and all facilities in the centre of that place.
Joe Snowdon came to the Church about two years later and was Pastor for approximately two years until he removed to Southampton to take up work there and, following another interregnum of two years in which the chapel received numerous preachers from other churches and was faithfully ministered to by them: Laurie Martin was called to the pastorate from south Woodford. Once again the ministry was Bible based and evangelical and many younger folk were attracted to the church. He resigned and returned to South Woodford after two years here.
During the 1980s more improvements to the premises were carried out - new toilet and kitchen facilities; then the old porch to the chapel was pulled down and a modern foyer erected in its place.
The above history is based on an article by Hardy Weaver published in Mersea Island Society Mistral Magazine in 1986.
For a more up to date view, see the history on the Free Church website -