Was our church tower once used as a lighthouse for Norman sailors?
The Rector Sam Norton came across a fascinating article by church archaeologist Daniel Secker following an extensive study of West Mersea Parish Church.
From the conclusion: “The west tower of St Peter’s church is perhaps the oldest structure in England to be commissioned by Norman patrons, being potentially as old as c.1042… It is possible the tower functioned as a lighthouse to guide Norman mariners to what was then an unfamiliar place… West Mersea is potentially the oldest standing church in Essex bar Bradwell and one of the earliest in England.” (extract from “The Minster Church of SS Peter and Paul, West Mersea, Essex: Structure, Settlement and Landscape” pub Daniel Secker B.A 2014)
The article also contains the plan shown below which shows the many different periods during which construction of the church took place.
Plan showing the construction periods of West Mersea Parish Church - photo by kind permission Daniel Secker B.A. Church Archaeologist.
The full article can be viewed and downloaded here: The Minster Church of St. Peter & St. Paul
More of Mr Secker's work can be found on his website https://independent.academia.edu/Secker
The Church Clock
It was in the year 1883 that a turret clock was installed in the tower of St. Peter and St. Paul church, West Mersea. Records show that it was installed on 26th April, 1883, as a memorial to Dr. J.S. Norman, surgeon of Mersea and paid for by Hugh Green, his successor (which explains why archives have no record of the cost!).
The clock mechanism bears the name of John Bennett, 65 Cheapside London. Sir John Bennett lived between 1814 and 1897, being the son of John Bennett a leading London retail watchmaker. John Bennett Jnr. was knighted in 1872 and was a London Common Councillor, and Sheriff of London 1871.
Whilst the clock was purchased from, and installed by, Bennetts, it is more probable that the clock mechanism and associated dial work would have been purchased “off the shelf” from the firm of John Smith and Sons, St. John Square, Clerkenwell, London E.C. The firm of John Smith and Sons was featured in an article published by The Illustrated London News dated Saturday September 20th 1851.
At that time it was the practice for individual craftsmen to fashion individual clock pieces in their individual workshops. A clockmaker would then gather all the individual parts from each craftsman and assemble the timepiece. Very frustrating when one craftsman had failed to produce a particular part on time! John Smith & Sons set about manufacturing everything required to produce a timepiece under one roof – from the oak and mahogany planks for the cases; casting the brass for the plates, pillars and hands etc. right through to the finished item. Their catalogues showed mantel clocks, bracket clocks and longcase clocks, with church and turret clocks having their own catalogue.
Bennetts, being the purveyor, would put their own name to timepieces sold by them, as is the practice of some retailers today (H. Samuel eg).
As installed, the clock had two faces; one on the South side of the tower overlooking the river, and the other on the North side overlooking the town.
The only other record of that period relating to the clock may be found in the archive of the West Mersea Strood and Church Lands Charity. The accounts of April 1896 of the Charity feoffees show a payment of £1–15s–00d for cleaning the clock. There then appears to be a gap in the records of nearly 100 years until February 1990, when the firm of Gillett and Johnston – clockmakers of Croydon, Surrey – were engaged to overhaul the mechanism, fit electric winding motors for the ‘going’ and ‘strike’ trains to replace the tedious weekly hand winding of the heavy weights. At the same time the clock face on the South side of the tower was removed and a new fibreglass dial fitted to the North face of the tower to replace the original worn dial. The cost in 1990 was £2012 (+VAT!)
The 2004 overhaul, carried out by S. Michlmayr & Co. Ltd., of Norwich, came about because it had been reported that the dial plate was loose and was seen to ‘flap’ in high winds. The opportunity was taken to give the whole mechanism a thorough overhaul, have the dial plate repainted and the numerals and hands re-gilded. The work was done in September of that year at a cost of £3652 + VAT.
The church was most grateful to the Mersea Town Council, who shared some of this substantial cost. The clock is very much an integral part of the fabric of West Mersea. It is, of course, the only public clock in the town.
Michlmayr’s, were very sure that parts of the mechanism bore all the hallmarks showing it to be a ‘John Smith’ manufacture, even though it carried the name of Bennett.
So we have a very fine 1883 clock, manufactured (most probably) by John Smith & Son of Clerkenwell and installed by John Bennett of Cheapside, London.
S. Michlmayr and Co. Ltd. continue to service the clock on an annual basis. In June 2015 it was clear that the gearing to the main drive section of the ‘going’ part was worn and needed attention. However, the manner in which Smiths constructed their clocks meant that it was possible to unbolt the section housing the worn gears, remove it from the main frame and take it to their workshop in Norwich. Simple!
Having refurbished the gears, the section was duly returned, reset in place and the clock re-started.
The “Captain of the Tower” added a wry note in the Church Notices that during repairs the hour bell would remain silent and the clock timing would be accurate at twelve midday and twelve midnight only.
John Talbot, October 2016.