The History of St. Nicholas Church
History of Our Church
The exact date of construction of the present St. Nicholas Church is not known but it is believed to have been built during the 13th Century.
St. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of children, as well as merchants, sailors, pawnbrokers, apothecaries and perfumers.
Almost 400 churches in England are dedicated to St. Nicholas, many near the coast, an indication of his associations with the sea and seamen.
The Church Building
The exact date of construction of the present St. Nicholas Church is not known but it is believed to have been built during the 13th Century. It is possible that there may have previously been a church on the site, probably a wooden building but as yet, there is no evidence to support this.
The present church, or at least, the nave, must have been standing by 1254, when the first recorded rector, Richard de List, is known to have been at St. Nicholas, although nothing else is known of him.
During its first century of existence, St. Nicholas appears to have consisted simply of what is now the nave. However, during the 1330’s, the chancel and chapel were added. The chapel, at least, was financed by Thomas de Berdefield and it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Thomas a Becket. Inside the chapel, at the foot of the south wall, there is a curious, arched recess which may have been the tomb of de Berdefield, although past excavations have not been able to substantiate this.
Little is known of the history of St. Nicholas before the Reformation, neither do we know much about the rectors and parish priests. However, one of whom we know a little was Richard Hagis, whose will of 1494 still exists. The larger of the two brasses in the chancel is believed to be of him, although it could possibly be an earlier rector, John Kekilpenny.
During the 15th Century, the South Porch and the Bell Turret were added to the church. The Bell Turret is a highly complex structure which consists of two turrets, one inside the other, thereby allowing the timber frame to support the weight of the five bells Two of the bells date from the 15th Century and are inscribed in Latin. The Tenor bell dates from 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. The date of the bell probably explains the popular stories about timber beams in the church coming from ships of the Armada. However, the beams were in place long before the Armada sailed.
The late 16th and early 17th Centuries are perhaps the best documented period in the history of St. Nicholas Church until modern times. This is largely due to a succession of rectors of national repute during the Reformation in Tudor times.
The first of these rectors was John Hodgkin, a member of Edward VI’s ruling council.
One of the first married clergy (officially, in any case!), he signed the House of Lord’s rejection of the claims of Mary to the throne in 1553. When Mary did become Queen, he lost his living at St. Nicholas. Whether the Catholic Mary took exception to the fact that he was a Protestant or the fact that he was married, is not known! He is believed to have divorced in order to gain a living at another church sometime during her reign. During the English Civil War, Essex was staunchly Parliamentarian and had a strong Puritan tradition, in which the town of Billericay was a major centre. The Rector of St. Nicholas at the start of the Civil War was William Heywood, a Royalist. Later, he was replaced by more Puritan ministers, including James Moore, who was described in 1650 as being ‘an able and laborious preacher’. Heywood regained the living at St. Nicholas when Charles II became King.
The three storied, wooden annex at the western end of the church was built during the late Tudor or Early Stuart times and was probably intended to be the priest’s house or at least the home of the curate. It contains a bread oven, which is thought to be one of only several in existence – or possibly even unique. In later years, the priest’s house was used as a school, housing the school master and his family and often pupils as well. The last school master at St. Nicholas was James Hornsby, after whom, a local senior school is named. Mr Hornsby kept six weekly boarders in the tiny attic, which at the time was illuminated only by one glass tile.
A notable rector of Laindon, Dr John Pell (March 1st 1611 – December 12th 1685), had been a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Amsterdam before taking Holy Orders. He was fluent in nine foreign languages but is remembered today as the man who proposed the division sign for mathematics, which we use today. The parish of Laindon, although large, did not provide much income. Neither did Pell’s living at nearby Fobbing and his chaplaincy to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pell is reported to have died penniless in London.
Following Pell, there were no more rectors of national repute and tracing the history of the church is difficult, as records are poor. We know most about Dr Pell because he is the subject of a chapter in John Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’ written in the 17th Century. There appear to have been few additions, if any, to the building itself and the church appears today, with the exception of minor maintenance works, as it probably did at the beginning of the 18th Century. It was that century which saw the commencement of the keeping of church registers with any consistency and burials as long ago as the 1739’s may be seen in the registers.
With the exception of the installation of the organ, St Nicholas has seen little structural alteration during the 20th Century. However, extensive repair work has been carried out during the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the mid 90s,it was upgraded to Grade 1, from being simply ‘listed’.
St Nicholas is in the Deanery of Basildon, Diocese of Chelmsford, of the Church
Dunton is now part of the Parish of St Nicholas. The Team Parish of Basildon (comprising of St Nicholas, Laindon, Holy Cross, St Peter’s, Nevendon, and the New Town centre church of St Martin) was created circa 1974 to cater for the rapidly growing population. On Nov.30,1990 the Team Parish was dissolved and the districts of Laindon and Dunton were formed into the new parish of Laindon with Dunton.
The Dunton Register, which is written in Latin is kept in the Record Office in Chelmsford, as are the St Nicholas Parish Records.
Information taken from ‘The Scurvey Parsonage’ A History of St, Nicholas Church, Laindon, by C.D. Alderman M.A. (Oxon.)
On the west end of St. Nicholas Church is a small building, which was originally the Priest House and which then became the school house. It was the first school in the Basildon area.
In his will, dated 16th May 1617, John Puckle, left all his land in trust to pay for a school master. James Hornsby, who was the last school master, worked at the school for 48 years and received a sum of £20 per annum, paid in two installments of £10.
In November 1874, there were 41 children attending the school, 20 of whom were on the Puckle Foundation. In that year, the eldest child was twelve years old and the youngest, Thomas Spooner, was five.