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History, Objects & Curiosities

The church of St. Peter & St. Paul at Mersea has lots of fascinating history.

Click the picture to learn more about each item.


Church Tower used as Lighthouse


Painting of St. Helena


The Church Clock

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Memorial Altar Rails

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The Church Bells


Painting of St. Christopher


Relief of Christ taken down from the Cross


Relief of the Annunciation


Medieval Style Chair

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16th Century Parish Church

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


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.

Church Bells

In 1717 the firm of Thomas Gardiner of Sudbury cast and hung a peal of five bells in the church tower.

The bells bore the inscription Thos Gardiner Sudbury Fecit (made) 1717.

However in 1935 it was deemed that the tower structure could no longer sustain the stresses and strains of heavy bells swinging on their axles, so the bells were re-hung in permanent headstocks and set to be chimed. This has the benefit that one person can now sound the bells against five people having to man the five ropes (and in towers where the tenor is very heavy it takes two people to control the ring!) By ‘chiming’ the bells, hymn tunes and carols etc are able to be sounded in addition to standard ‘peals’. Bell peals are many and varied eg. Grandsire (pronounced Grandser) Doubles, Steadman Caters, Bastow Little, Double Oxford and many others.

In 1967 the largest (tenor) bell of the set was re-cast by Messrs. Mears & Stainbank of Whitechapel, London, and rehung in a new headstock. In 1987 the Whitechapel Bell Foundry undertook to re-cast the treble bell of the old set and cast a new treble bell to make a ring of six bells. At the same time the original oak frame of 1717 was restored and the five smallest bells rehung on new headstocks.

The bells are tuned to the scale of B flat major and their weights, dimensions and dates are:-

Tenor 5cwt 3qtr 27lb 33½ in. diam. Bflat 1717 recast 1967
Fifth 5¼cwt 30in. C 1717
Fourth 4¼cwt 28in. D 1717
Third 3¾cwt 27in. Eflat 1717
Second 3cwt 1qtr 24lb 25in. F 1717 recast 1987
Treble 3cwt 0qtr 15lb 23in. G 1987 New

The bells may be heard most Sundays before Service and on Wednesday mornings before the 10 o’clock service, but sometimes because of other duties the bells have to remain silent. When requested, however, at weddings the Bride is ‘Rung in’ and Bride and Groom are ‘Rung Out’ after the ceremony. Also, when requested at funerals, the Tenor bell may be tolled as the funeral party enter the church.

John Talbot, October, 2009


Painting of St. Helena

St Helena is the Patron Saint of Colchester. She was the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. She was said to have travelled in the Holy Land and discovered part of the true cross, hence the living branches included in the Colchester Coat of Arms. She is also the figure depicted at the top of Colchester Town Hall. This picture and three others were once on the old pulpit, which was replaced in the 70’s along with the choir stalls. The four pictures were kept and placed in their present position, on the west wall of the church.

Picture and words from West Mersea Parish Magazine courtesy of Pat Kirby, Mersea Museum


Memorial Rails

The Memorial Rails which are placed between the chancel and the nave commemorate the fallen of the First World War. They are made from former altar rails from Semer workhouse in Suffolk.

The rails were refurbished in 2014  by church member James Taylor who generously donated his labour free-of-charge. The work involved re-making the damaged letters in lead, removing and replacing old varnish and shellac and repairing some of the fluting. The Friends paid for the cost of materials used.


Painting of St. Christopher

The painting of St. Christopher fills the blocked-up window in the south west corner of the church, by the children’s corner. No one seems to know exactly when this window was filled in, but it was possibly in the 19th century during one of the many vestry rebuilds.

The sign under the painting says:


Words from article by Pat Kirby, Mersea Museum


Relief of The Annunciation


It may be a surprise to learn that the depiction of The Annunciation, which adorns the South wall of the church has only been there since 1954.


Previously it belonged to Dr Willett Cunningham. As a child, his daughter, Susan Luckham (whose husband with Stanley Hills was instrumental in building both our surgery and museum) remembers it in their home in Finchley. Later, when her parents retired to Mersea, it hung over the fireplace in the hallway of ‘The Nothe’ at the very end of Coast Road.


Prompted by the high tide entering their home during the East Coast floods in 1953, the family moved to higher ground. It was then that Susan’s father felt that ‘The Annunciation’ should have a permanent home in the Church.

The Annunciation relief in its previous home above the fireplace in the home of Dr Willett Cunningham, ‘The Nothe’, at the very end of  Coast Road.

Pictures and words from West Mersea Parish Magazine courtesy of Pat Kirby, Mersea Museum


Medieval Style Chair


Dagobert Chair

This picture is of a rather attractive medieval style chair in the Lady Chapel.


This type of chair, with its X form at the centre is named after King Dagobert I, a Frankish King who reigned from 603-639AD. A Dagobert chair is modelled on “The Throne of Dagobert”, which is in the Louvre, in Paris.




The version in the church has a fascinating loose bracelet of wood trapped on the arm. It cannot be removed and must have been carved when the chair was being made

It is thought the chair dates from some time in the nineteenth century, but its date is uncertain and nobody seems to know when it arrived in the church.

Picture and words from West Mersea Parish Magazine courtesy of Pat Kirby, Mersea Museum

The carved head on the back of the chair.

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16th Century Parish Chest

When Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England he decreed that priests should record all baptisms, marriages and burials in their parish, and keep these in a securely locked wooden chest. 


The West Mersea Parish Chest has the three traditional locks for security.  One key went to the Priest and the other two were for each of the Church Wardens.

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