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Featured Church: St John’s Buckhurst Hill

St John’s was built as a chapel of ease to St Mary the Virgin, Chigwell, in 1837. Buckhurst Hill became a separate ecclesiastical district the following year and the living was declared a rectory in 1867. Buckhurst Hill became a separate civil parish in 1895. Land for the church was given by Caroline and Jonathan Hatch Abdy, and Caroline’s monument in the south aisle (died 1838) records that she ‘contributed largely to the erection of this chapel’.

St John’s Buckhurst Hill

St John’s was designed by Jonathan Savill of Chigwell. It was constructed of concrete blocks and occupied what are now the four eastern bays of the nave (not including the aisles). The use of concrete at this time is noteworthy, and Savill seems to have favoured the material; he specified it in 1836 for a schoolroom to be built in the garden of Chigwell vicarage. There was a small vestry at the north-east corner and a tower at the south-west corner which, like the present south-west tower, served also as the entrance porch. The building was extended on a number of occasions: the north aisle, chancel, north chapel and south choir vestry were added in 1864 (by G. Smith & G. B. Williams), and the south aisle in 1869-70 (by Joseph Tanner). The church was extended westwards in 1878-9 by T. E. C. Streatfeild, including the present tower and spire. The west front was completed in 1892 by the addition of a narthex and baptistery. The chancel was enlarged and clergy vestry added by J. O. Scott in 1896-7, and at the same time further alterations were made to the nave by Milne & Hall, including the addition of a clerestory and new west window. Because of the additions, which completely surround the space occupied by the original church, it is almost certain that no part of the original fabric survives above ground.

FontA notable aspect of the church is its connection with Nathanael Powell (1813-1906), who moved to Buckhurst Hill in 1855 and was churchwarden 1856-94. He was a partner in the famous firm of James Powell & Sons, makers of stained glass and other church fittings, and as a result the church has a number of windows by the firm, including the five-light east window installed in Nathanael’s memory. The font, which was given by Nathanael’s wife in 1865, is a fine piece of stone and marble, with four roundels of opaque glass made by Powell & Sons and designed by Miss Shepherd. There is another glass roundel on the family’s large chest tomb in the churchyard, on the north side of the church.

Burial vault In the course of a major reordering of the church in 2013, that included digging up the floor in order to install under-floor heating, a burial vault was discovered beneath the area of the original nave. It compromises six chambers, three on each side of a passage. Dr Julian Litten, author of The English Way of Death, notes that this layout is rare, but similar to that at St Mary, Wanstead, consecrated in 1790. At the south end of the passage is a flight of steps that seems to lead up to the base of the south wall of the original church. It is not clear how the vault would originally have been accessed. The walls of the vault are built of concrete blocks, presumably the same as the blocks from which the whole of the original church was constructed. The roof is a series of shallow curved brick vaults. At some point, probably about the time of the addition of the south aisle, alterations were made to part of the roof of the vault, particularly the area beneath the central alley of the nave. The roof was lowered and covered with stone slabs, including at least one headstone, the inscription of which is visible (George Withers died 1847).

Only the two southernmost chambers of the vault were used, and there is evidence that they were closed with wooden doors (now completely rotted). The three deposits are presumed to have been in the typical form of triple coffins of wood, lead, and wood, i.e. an inner wooden coffin, a solid lead shell, and an outer wooden case; it was understood that the outer wooden case (with inscription plate) would rot and collapse in time, so the lead shell carried its own inscription. The south-east vault contains a lead shell with inscription recording Robert Nicholson Esq died 19 July 1850 aged 77. Remains of the original outer case are evident and the inscription plate has been removed for safe keeping. The south-west vault contains two deposits that have fallen against each other but not broken open. In one instance the wooden case has rotted away but a plate has been recovered, recording Christopher John Mills died 4 October 1855 aged 72. Much of the wooden case of the other deposit has survived, together with its inscription plate recording Charlotte Mary Mills died 18 January 1871 aged 75.

It was at first thought that the roof of the vault would need to be lowered in order to allow under-floor heating to be installed, which would have involved taking down the brick vaults. In the event this proved to be unnecessary, and a new floor was laid without disturbing the vaults, and the Withers headstone remained in place. The opportunity was taken to improve ventilation.

The reordering also led to the discovery of the headstone of Mrs Elizabeth Maw (died 1846) and her husband John (died 1848) beneath the floor of the south aisle. This was left in place and covered over again. A tablet on the west wall of the south aisle records the names of a number of people whose bodies were removed by faculty in 1870 for the enlargement of the church, including those of George Withers and Elizabeth and John Maw. The Maws’ headstone must have been laid beneath the south aisle at that time, possibly over the location of their original burial. Withers’ headstone was reused for paving and others may well have been reused in the same way.

Other tablets in the south aisle, that must originally have been in the nave, record Robert Nicholson (died 1850), ‘late of Buckhurst Hill’, Christopher John Mills (died 1855) of West Hatch, Chigwell, and his widow Charlotte Mary Mills (died 1871) of Little West Hatch, Chigwell. The tablets to Nicholson and C. J. Mills both state that ‘their remains are deposited in a vault beneath this church’. Intramural burial ceased as a result of the 1854 Burial Act, but was permitted where there was still space in a vault constructed before that date; that, and the fact that her husband was already deposited there, would have allowed for the deposit of Mrs Mills’ remains at this late date.

Nothing seems to be known of Robert Nicholson, other than that he was a gentleman who lived at Buckhurst Hill. His memorial was supplied by T. Gaffin of Regent Street, London, which is a further indication of his relatively high status. C. J. Mills was no doubt a member of the Mills family that married into the family of James Hatch, who had bought the manor of Chigwell in the 18th century.

Johnnie Mann memorial Others commemorated in the church are Edward North Buxton (1840-1924) and his wife Emily (1841-1929), and Johnnie Mann (1921-1925). E. N. Buxton was briefly M.P. for Walthamstow, 1885-6, but is best remembered for his work as a conservationist; he played a major part in saving Epping Forest and Hainault Forest for public use, and he bought Hatfield Forest for the National Trust. Johnnie Mann suffered from osteomyelitis and died aged 4½. He is shown on his memorial leaving behind a toy steam engine and reaching up to taken the hand of Jesus. It was carved by Eric Gill, who was a friend of the family.