Rayleigh Tabernacle

In 1998, on the occasion of the centenary of the erection of this church building, former Church Secretary Reg Fletcher wrote ‘Rayleigh Tabernacle 1898-1998’. The whole pamphlet is included below.




October in Rayleigh! 1998. A busy dormitory satellite of Greater London with a regular railway service to that City and with links by motor vehicle to everywhere else but with its High Street still bearing the marks of a long history as a market town.

October in Rayleigh! 1898. The railway station had been part of the town since 1889 but its situation at the bottom of a steep hill meant walking up or down one of the two roads (London Hill and Crown Hill) which ended in the High Street. There was a short cut through the aptly named Love Lane and across the fields but it has no place in this story. The only glimpse of the past which can be found now a days is when early on a Sunday morning when the High Street is clear of all traffic, the shops are closed and people are actually walking to church to the sound of the bells of Holy Trinity Parish Church.

On market day Wednesday 12th October 1898, when the town was busy with towns-people doing their shopping at the many stalls set up in the High Street, farmers were inspecting the various animals penned nearby and much noise was coming from the many inns and taverns, and all was hustle and bustle, a group of men, women and children clothed in their Sunday best made their way past the Tea Rooms run by Mr & Mrs Tweed opposite the Old Crown inn which stood at the corner of Crown Lane and went down the narrow road past some fairly new houses one of which was occupied by the local veterinary surgeon, Mr Edwin Sparrow and continued down the left hand side to a place had been cleared and levelled and where the foundations of a building were taking shape. A certain W H Meads had purchased the site for £148 on the 15th May 1896. The purchase included workshops and engine house recently erected. Mr Edward Watts purchased the property for £120 on the 29th April 1898.

The site was familiar to the group because Crown Lane was the road which led to the Great Eastern Railway Station and the townsfolk were used to the sight of travellers making their way up or down the steep hill and of animals of all descriptions being driven up the road to the market in the High Street. The group joined others and it was not long before the area was filled with people some of whom had arrived by pony and trap or on horse back. At a given signal everyone was invited to come to the front of the building where a gap was being left for the erection of a door and a Mr W J May welcomed everyone and introduced himself as being a Baptist Minister although it was obvious that Mr May was well known. In a speech Mr May said that the building was to be Baptist Tabernacle but as there were many friends of other denominations in the neighbourhood, it would have an open communion table.
A. Mr Ramsey also gave a speech after which six foundation stones were laid, one by the builder of the new Tabernacle, Mr Watts, a black bearded timber merchant from Benfleet who ensured that his stone and all the others were well and truly laid. All present were invited to inspect the stones and note the wording.

Jehovah Jireh - The Lord will provide.
laid by Mr T C Ramsey (Abraham and Isaac)

Jehovah Nissi - The lord has promised.
laid by Mr W J May Pastor (Moses and Joshua)

Jehovah Tsidkenu - The lord is our Righteousness.
laid by Mrs R Houghton

Jehovah Shammar - The lord is there
laid by Mr E Watts Builder J Woodham, Architect, Southend

Inside porch: Mrs Groom on behalf of Sunday School Mrs Abel on behalf of C.E. (Christian Endeavour) Society This stone is dated 13th January 1899.

Reports say that a tea was held afterwards and a public meeting followed in the evening in Mr Loker's room.
Further research shows that Pastor W J May was Minister of Rayleigh Baptist Church. Apparently a marked difference of opinion had manifested itself during in the latter part of his ministry in about 1897 with the result that a number of the friends left and eventually founded Rayleigh Tabernacle under his leadership.

Later newspapers give more details of the building reporting that it is "capable of holding 450 people and cost £1,800 largely owing to the great generosity of Mr E Watts of Benfleet".

In July 1899 it was reported that 'It was a never to be forgotten day when the members and friends at Rayleigh Tabernacle opened their new building. It is situated in a commanding position in the centre of town close to the High Street, and near the station. The building is an ornament to the town being of red brick, interlaced with stone work and ornamental windows. The Rev R G Allen late of South Africa, preached in the afternoon. A tea was afterwards held, followed by a public meeting when G S Bournes Esq. presided and addresses were given by Revs R G Allen, G S Read (one time minister of Brentwood Baptist Church) and W J May. It was, we understand, through the liberality and kindness of Mr Watts, the builder, that the friends at Rayleigh had been enabled so soon to obtain a building worthy of the cause. The collections amounted to nearly £80, and promises were given to bring about the most satisfactory total of £100 raised on that auspicious occasion. From here on we must rely on Press reports mainly from the Southend Standard and Southend Telegraph to give some idea of the activities of the Tabernacle SO we will start with a note about Christian Endeavour since a stone was laid on behalf of that organisation by Mrs Abel Christian Endeavour Protestant Christian Congregational church at Portland, Maine, USA. In 1887 it was introduced to Britain, and took root in many other countries. It is interdenominational and is primarily devotional and evangelical. The C.E Union of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1896.

It was still going strong on 20th February 1909 when junior members of the society held their Annual winter treat when 50 sat down to tea, sang songs and recited.
There are several reports between February 1899 and January 1909 about a regular Pleasant Sunday Afternoon where meetings were presided over by a Mr Redmond and consisting of talks and singing since a Mr G Bolton features in the list of soloists. It seems that this organisation closed during the summer.

One report dated 30th June 1899 is especially interesting. On Sunday flower services were held at the Baptist Tabernacle conducted by Mr W J May (pastor). In the afternoon the Sunday School children gave a dialogue entitled "Flowers and fruits" The girls represented the flowers and the boys the fruit, Contributions of flowers were afterwards sent to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington!!

Other newspaper reports speak of their being a Women's Own and a Sunday School. I have not been able to confirm the means of leading congregational singing but in view of the number of soloists who played a variety of instruments and some excellent singers too we must assume that there was a strong musical tradition in both the old and the new Baptist Churches. In the 50th Anniversary booklet produced in 1960 by the then minister of Rayleigh Congregational Church, the Revd Hubert Smith MA (presently Interim Moderator to Christ Church URC Rayleigh) reference is made to the long service (34 years) of Mr J Bolton -the first organist - and to a 'small american organ' The Bolton family were active in the musical life of Rayleigh Tabernacle so it is possible that the 'small american organ' served until the arrival of the present instrument from Bristol in 1910.

As regards Pastors we know that Mr W J May was the Minister at Rayleigh Baptist Church until about 1897 when he left to form Rayleigh Tabernacle but we do not know when he left. We do know that a Pastor J Edward Johnson resigned the pastorate at the end of 1908 but stayed until 31st January 1909 after a six year ministry., say 1902 - 1908/9. It was later reported (Saturday 25th sept 1909) that he had left Leigh for Dalton, North Devon to take up a pastorate there.

The work continued following the departure of Pastor Johnson and reports became fuller eg. 6th June 1909 - Whitsun Sunshine Day - 3rd Thursday in month when members of the Women's Own when a large number of women laboured for the Sunshine Society, Mr Mcewan presided and also sang 24 June 1909 - Women's Own and Sunday School joined together on Wednesday and took an outing to Canvey Island being transported in horse brakes. Over one hundred enjoyed games and the beach - (and tea).

A long article in the Leigh Magnet and Hadleigh Post of 12th March 1910 shows that the "Young Church", (a reference back to 1898) was having difficulties mainly financial and I include a full copy of the article because it brings the story right up to the time when it is taken over by the two previous celebration booklets published to mark the 25th and 50th anniversaries in 1931 and 1960 respectively.

The young Church from the first was greatly handicapped by the greatness of the debt, and the scarcity of workers. When the Honorary Pastor, Mr Johnson, resigned at the end of 1908, it was determined to carry on the work more on the lines of a mission of an undenominational character, in the hope that better and more aggressive work could be done in reaching those hitherto untouched by the Churches in the neighbourhood. This change did not prove to be a move in the right direction, and the small congregation gradually dwindled, while the increasing financial strain on the few earnest workers, made it difficult to meet the working expenses and the interest as it became due, and quite impossible to in any way diminish the capital debt. Last summer so grave had the situation become, that it was expected the building would be sold by the Mortgagees and the worshippers thus become homeless.

As the darkest hour precedes the dawn, so, when the outlook was most threatening hopes were again raised when it was found that the Rev. J. Westbury Jones MA Chairman of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection had his attention drawn to the work by the Revs. D Ewart James, T Davies and others and had undertaken to rent the building for three months. On July 31st the first service under the new regime was held. Mr Jones called a public meeting of all interested in the formation of a Congregational Church in Rayleigh. A working Committee of twelve were elected, and for three months the pulpit was supplied by ministers of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection and students from Harley College. The congregation increased, and the finances rose accordingly. At the conclusion of Mr Jones agreement it was renewed by the committee, who relieved Mr Jones of personal responsibility. At the executive committee of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection half yearly meeting in October a unanimous vote passed recommending their Trustees to purchase the building for £600, which amount Mr Watts magnanimously agreed to accept rather than allow the place to be sold for secular purposes.

To the surprise of all, and to the indignation of many on the Executive, the Trustees absolutely refused to consider their recommendation, or have anything to do with the work. Their decision came as a great and unexpected blow to the congregation, and made the future more uncertain than ever. The Rev J W Jones was so interested in the growing work, and so untiring in his efforts to save the situation, that he laid all the facts before the Congregational Union of England and Wales, who speedily sent down a select deputation, consisting of the Revs R J Wells, J McDougal Mundle and Geo. Spicer, Esq. The deputation were greatly impressed with the splendid block of buildings and the great need of a Congregational Church in the district, which is so rapidly growing, and more particularly with the actual work being done, which gave so much promise of a strong and vigorous Church being built up. A membership roll has been started, which already numbers 40 juniors and seniors Christian Endeavours Societies, Week-night service and prayer meetings, Girls Guild with 40 members, Sunday School with over 60 scholars, Sewing Society and Sunshine Society with over 100 members; are all in active operation, and testify to the solid work being done at the present time.

After brief negotiations between the Temporary Committee and the Congregational Union, the latter offered to find the amount required , and take over the building on the condition that the church would speedily support a pastor, and pay the current expenses of upkeep, etc. The amount was guaranteed by six members of the church, after a specially convened meeting had been called, when all the terms of the offer were agreed by the Church. So, after a long period of anxiety in the past, the future way seems full of hope. The work of the Temporary Committee, which had culminated so successfully, came to an end last week, and in their place a permanent diaconate was elected by ballot, consisting of Messrs. Richardson, Moon, Searle, McEwan and Roper. During the past few months the Church has received valued and substantial help, not only from the Rev J Westbury Jones, but from the Rev W Stacey. who has frequently come from Clevedon, to preach and lecture, without fee or reward. Others who have materially aided and encouraged the church by the efforts are Revs D Ewart James and Eynon Davies.

The deacons are arranging for a large in augural meeting to celebrate the formation of a new Congregational Church in the County, and are hoping that Dr. Campbell Morgan, with representative of the Congregational Union of England and Wales and of the County Union will be able to take part in the proceedings.

So the work went on. Newspapers reports spoke of us being either the Tabernacle or the New Congregational Church. One dated Saturday 2nd October 1909 contains two items about the Harvest Thanksgiving services.

THE TABERNACLE - Harvest Thanksgiving services were held in the Tabernacle on Sunday. The building was decorated in harmony with the festival by several church workers and there were good congregations at all services. The preacher was the Rev S Butcher.

NEW CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH Sunday and Monday were memorable days at the Tabernacle, when special services to celebrate the gathering in of the harvest were held. Exceptionally large congregations attended the Sunday services and at night the building was packed. The preacher was the Rev S Butcher of Shoreham.

Before the new order took over regular services was still being held and the following is from the Southend Telegraph of Saturday 30th July 1909.


The first service held in the Rayleigh Tabernacle in conjunction with the Countess of Huntingdon's branch of Congregationism took place on Sunday. the preacher morning and evening Mr J Westbury Jones and in referring to the new tabernacle urged the worshippers to work hand in hand, the old members with the new members and vice versa, so that the work would go forward and be successful. There were large congregations and the services were much enjoyed. There are now five denominations in Rayleigh.

Look inside again one last time and see that the Church is plain, lofty and without decoration. There are no brass plaques on the walls, no organ, simple chairs at the Communion Table, no pulpit, no font. We know that there was a baptistery but it is now covered by the organ.

The Church is lit by gas-light (gas came to Rayleigh in 1859) and the heating by coal fired radiators, the coal being stored in the boiler house situated underneath the vestry. The fire had to be lit early if and when the Church was needed for services or other functions. Apart from the adjoining primary Room there are no other buildings on the site. An old undated unsigned painting of the church which was fairly recently discovered in the Old Dutch Cottage Heritage Museum at Canvey and now on loan from them now hangs on the vestry wall and gives a reasonable view of the Church Buildings. It is not known whether the Tabernacle was licensed for marriages.

As a footnote Mr Edward Watts died on 20th August 1913 and a memorial brass in the present Church erected 18th .July 1923 recalls him as "Builder and Deacon of the Church" I wonder whether he made the Pews??

Our story is nearly over!

We must not forget that in its 13 year life the Tabernacle was involved in four major events in our Country's life and the corresponding need for prayer, mourning, concern and celebration: the Boer War between 1899 - 1902 when many of our troops were involved in the affairs of South Africa, the New Year celebrations (or meditations) of 1900, the death of Queen Victoria (1837 -1901) and both the Coronation and death of King Edward VII (1901 -1910) all of which must have affected the lives of the members to say nothing of the personal celebrations and traditions which were part of every day life.

Leaving our Tabernacle to its future, for there was to be a future which continued up to 1998 and within sight of another century in 2010, someone else will I hope record this second celebration (or will this be the fourth?) as Rayleigh Tabernacle lives on as Christ Church United Reformed Church, Crown Hill, Rayleigh.


I have used information gained from the book researched by Ernie Lane (a current church member) and Edward Fitzgerald entitled "Rayleigh A Pictorial History" published by Phillimore & Co Ltd in 1991 and still available in bookshops or at the library as well as extracts from the two previous Church Booklets published in 1932 by the late Revd Hector McDonald and in 1960 by the present Interim Moderator the Revd Hubert Smith MA who was minister of Rayleigh Congregational Church at that time which became the URC in 1972. Also thanks for the use of the micro film records of the Southend Standard and Southend Telegraph which are stored safely at the Central Library in Southend-on-Sea. Thanks are also due to the following for providing valuable back-ground information:- Mr C J W Brown of Rayleigh Baptist Church which itself is celebrating its bi-centennial this year: Mrs Doreen Acton of Brentwood Baptist Church for in formation about the Revd G S Read: our Church secretary, Mr Peter Cleave, for obtaining information about the Trust Deeds of our Church now held by the Eastern Province Trust of the URC. I have not been able to find any more details about the publishers of New Testament Christianity (July 1899) nor about the Leigh Magnet and Hadleigh Post (March 12th 1910) since no copies are held by the British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale London NW9 5HE

October 1998