We are West Mersea Free Church
Serving Mersea Island since its construction in 1805, the church was originally known as the ‘Independent Chapel’, before being called the ‘Congregation and Baptist Union Church’, then later the ‘Union Church’, and now ‘West Mersea Free Church‘, but still fondly known to older locals as the ‘Top Chapel’.
Starting a new Church
Until 1805, apart from the Parish Church at West Mersea, there was no other place of worship, and Non-conformists, such as Congregationalists and Baptists, met in barns for regular services. There was a Strict Baptist Chapel in East Mersea (Meeting Lane), and of course the East Mersea Parish Church.
In 1805 (the year of the battle of Trafalgar) a local Oyster Merchant, Mr Bennett Hawes, who according to a note found amongst old papers, “had long wished to see the Redeemer’s Cause permanently established on this benighted island”, gave a portion of land in the field then known as Little Pattens to the Independents (the Congregationalists) for the site of a new Chapel building.
This was situated in Shelleys Lane, known locally later as Chapel Road and even later by its current name, Mill Road. This gift of land was then confirmed by a Trust Deed dated April 1836 and naming as Trustees various influential Tradesman in Colchester, probably connected with Lion Walk or Stockwell Congregational Churches.
Building the Church
The building erected on the site was opened for worship on Tuesday, October 1st 1805 with a special service.
Mr Bennet Hawes was a deacon of the chapel for 35 years before passing away aged 82 in 1846. He was buried in a vault at Lion Walk Church, Colchester.
In 1841 the Chapel was rebuilt by George Lufkin of Colchester – a stone tablet on the front of our present building records that fact – this was during the ministry of a Pastor Haas who, when he left in March 1844 took many of the records of the church and ‘would not surrender them to the members at that time’.
Numerous Pastors, honorary and paid, faithfully preached the Gospel but it was decided in the 1840’s to ask the Baptists, who were still worshipping in a nearby barn to join with the independents to maintain the cause.
The Schoolroom (our second hall) was probably built about 1841 on the site at the rear of the Chapel, and the Manse had been erected probably in the 1830’s. When the Manse was demolished in 1995, the date 1833 was found stamped in one of the bricks that had been used to build it.
The schoolroom served for some years as a day school, administered by a School Board of Trustees and some local gentry. A fee would have been charged daily to attend at the time.
Pastoring the Church
In 1844 a Mr John Bawtree Harvey, became the pastor, he was at one time Mayor of Colchester, and served until 1858. He faithfully recorded many facts and details of the church as there did not seem to have been a Church Secretary or Treasurer at that time.
During the interregnum, a number of well-known preachers came to minister, including Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a famous Baptist who was born in Kelvedon and converted in a chapel in Colchester which now bears his name.
In January 1859 a Mr Chas Cock was invited to minister to the Church for three months. He then became Pastor, an office he held for 31 years without pay. He was a local farmer he died in 1896 aged 86 years. His call to ministry came to him as he was ploughing.
A Mr Samuel Cant (jnr) of Ivy Farm, East Mersea was another long-server, 1845 to 1898, he became a member and later served 51 years as a deacon.
The chapel was re-slated in 1949 – the lath and plaster ceiling replaced with plasterboard (after a ceiling portion collapsed). Electric lighting and heating were installed when they became available.
In later years the Schoolroom was enlarged and improved, with new windows, plumbing, heating, the insertion of a damp-proof course, electricity, mains water and drainage, all of which were lacking in the old building. In the 1930’s a kitchen and basic toilets were constructed near the schoolroom – these being further updated in more recent years.
In 1970 the wooden floor of the Schoolroom was replaced with a new concrete floor – the wartime use by troops as a canteen run by the ladies of the Church had helped wear out the old one. By the end of the war some 30,000 meals and 75,000 cups of tea had been served. Also at the same time it was enlarged again by building additional rooms at the rear and having the ceiling lowered in the old building.
A baptistry was constructed in the Church in 1966 with the aid of a £200 bequest in the will of the late Earl Alexander of Hillsborough, a member of the Church in his later years.
In 1974 additional land was purchased beside the Schoolroom to allow for extra parking. In 1980 the old kitchen was converted into ladies toilets and the men’s toilets were modernised whilst a new kitchen was built on the front of the Schoolroom. The church front porch was found to be cracked and a new larger foyer was constructed in its place, providing space for a crèche and bookstall.
In 1986 it was resolved that the chapel floor needed replacement so it was decided to modernise the building. Volunteer labour was used and with some professional help and the assistance of the then Pastor Tom Carter, who had building experience, the work was started. The old pews were replaced by upholstered chairs, a kitchen and toilet constructed under the gallery, and the new solid floor carpeted. The plaster was stripped off and replaced, along with new lighting and heating. The work took 3 months and was completed in April 1987 – the church met in the hall during this time. It was financed by the members and friends with the help of a short term loan from the Essex Baptist Association.
Becoming the West Mersea Free Church
The church was renamed ‘West Mersea Free Church’ and a booklet of the new constitution and rules produced in May 1985. In the summer of 1989 the old manse behind the church was upgraded, including gas central heating and decoration throughout. Pastor Peter Gibson joined us in September 1989.
The manse had suffered problems with subsidence over the years and the church decided to buy a new manse off site in 1995. The Lord led us to a bigger house in Whittaker Way which was bought with gifts from members and friends.
Pastoring the Church
Shortly after the purchase of a new Manse, the old building on the church site was demolished.
With plans to develop the church site in the future, the Lord at last gave us the opportunity to purchase the house next door to the church, 34 Mill Road, as to square off our church site.
In October 1999 we completed the purchase of the house, again with gifts from members and friends. We spent five months working on the house and at a cost of several thousand pounds it was insulated, had central heating installed, new bath room fittings, a new back roof, new fitted kitchen and was decorated throughout. Extra ground gained from taking some of the garden also expanded our car parking.
Chris & Rachael Upton worked as part time Youth leaders for 4 years in the late 90’s before Chris became the minister at West Lane Baptist Church near Leeds in June 2000.
In September 2000 we welcomed an Assistant Pastor with youth responsibilities, Carl Morehouse, who was a Spurgeon’s student working with us part time for four years.
He and his family lived in 34 Mill Road on the church site, and when he graduated he went to Pastor King’s Church Mildenhall.
Joe Haward joined us as an Evangelist in 2004, and he also trained at Spurgeon’s college. On completion of his training he was called to set up a new church in Newton Abbott.
Rev. Peter Gibson was called to pastor a church in Bury St. Edmunds in February 2009, and so left the church after 20 years of leading the ministry. He has since retired and returned to the local area.
Our present pastor, Rev. Dr. Rob Hughes joined us in August 2011. Rob’s wife, Jen Hughes is also our Minister in Training for Families, having been called to the ministry in 2014/15.
So, whoever the Pastor, whatever the name of the church, whatever the size of the grounds, the state of the buildings or the number of people worshipping here, the church has continued to faithfully proclaim a bible based Gospel message as originally envisaged all those years ago.
Last Updated: 13/09/2018