St Margaret's Church, Downham: the 'Phoenix' Church (1)

The Restoration

On the night of the 28th March 1977, a young boy set light to the altar of St Margaret’s Church Downham. The fire brigade had to use water from a nearby swimming pool until a hose laying fire engine arrived from Chelmsford to pump water from a high pressure main a mile away. They were unable to save the roof, chancel, vestry, altar, some of the nave and a priceless stained glass window. All that remained was the stonework and bells which date from the 13th and 15th century.

The parishioners pulled together to clear the body of the church of rubble and spread a large tarpaulin over the space where the roof had been, and were able to go ahead and have a planned wedding within a month.

It has taken years to restore the building to the beautiful church it is now.


Rev. Pettitt in the burnt out shell of the church
Downham Church Collection
The Tower was hardly touched in the fire
Downham Church Collection
The exterior of the church the day after the fire
Downham Church Collection
The church being prepared for its first wedding after the fire
Downham Church Collection
The original altar, cleaned after the fire
Downham Church Collection
The replacement altar
Downham Church Collection
The original window
Downham Church Collection
The temporary new window
Downham Church Collection
The Millenium Window replaced the temporary one
Downham Church Collection
The back of the church before the fire
Downham Church Collection
The back of the church restored
Downham Church Collection
The Church today with the dovecote and stable
Downham Church Collection

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  • The previous ring of four bells was hung in an old frame and fittings which were in a derelict condition. After WW2, the four bells were recast and two added, cast by Gillett and Johnston, Croydon, 1946. A completely new bellframe and fittings were provided. The new bells are tuned on the 5-tone principle. The old bells were recast as they would have been of poor tone. The bells were recast in memory of three members of the Keddie family who lost their lives during WW2.

    By Nigel Taylor (01/08/2021)
  • In response to Ben Potter: The following from the Chelmsford Chronicle may be of interest:
    “The six bells of Downham Church – four of them originals which have been re-cast and two new ones – are to be dedicated to the three sons of Mr & Mrs F W Keddie of Downham Grange, Billericay, who died in the war. The largest bell bears the names of the young men, and on a nearby tablet is inscribed: None untimely die who die for England”.
    Chelmsford Chronicle 28 November 1947. (Page 6. Col 4.)
    From my notes:
    The Sursum Corda B flat tenor bell as I understand it to be was struck by Gillett and Johnston Ltd of Croydon and so they are likely to have done the recasting of the original bells.
    F W Keddie was a director of G J Keddie trading in Southend High Street. The business later became the well-known Keddies Department Store.
    The sons were: Flt Lt Wallace Arthur Robert Keddie (210 Squadron), Lieutenant Richard George Damyon Keddie (awarded the DSC) who was killed in action when Captain of HMS Cattistock (L35), and Sargent-Pilot John Maitland Keddie (99 Squadron).
    Richard and John are buried at Downham with their parents.

    [See also the entry on The Keddie Brothers]

    By David C Rayment (15/02/2021)
  • Thank you for the wonderful history of St. Margaret’s and the very moving photos of the aftermath.

    I am currently researching the parish churches of Essex and have hit a road block with regards to the original bells of St. Margaret’s church. From what I have learnt thus far, the current six bells date from 1946, but according to: The church bells of Essex : their founders, inscriptions, traditions, and uses by Deedes, Cecil Walters, Henry Beauchamp, published 1909, the original four bells dated from 1621, 1677 and 1723(x2).
    What I’m unable to discover is why between 1909, when this survey of the bells was conducted, and the present day, is why and when the original bells were replaced? I initially thought it would have been due to the fire, but your extremely interesting and detailed account above states the original bells survived the fire. Is anyone able to assist fill in the blanks for me please?

    Many thanks.

    By Ben Potter (13/02/2021)
  • I was married in St Margaret’s on 23rd April 1977, the second wedding to be held there after the fire. A big tarpaulin was used as a roof and as it was a windy day it flapped all through the service making it sound as if we were on a large sailing ship! I will send some of my wedding photos as you can clearly see the damage caused by the fire and the emergency measures taken to ensure that our wedding went ahead as planned. In one taken in the porch there is a notice clearly visible stating that everyone entered at their own risk, we were not allowed to take it down even for the sake of one photograph! Just in case anyone is wondering, although I no longer live in Wickford I am still happily married to the same man I walked down the aisle in that burnt out church with nearly thirty-seven years ago.

    By Nicola Wright (24/10/2013)
  • Last year I was attending a vintage car rally in Bavaria and stopped at a B&B in Belgium. At breakfast there were only two couples, both of us were English. We got talking and the woman said she was from Downham in Essex. She told me she was one of the first girls to get married in the church after the fire. I was hoping she was going to send me some photos but she must have lost the e-mail address. If relatives or friends still live in the area please add any photos you may have.

    By Jo Cullen (21/10/2013)

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