St Margaret's - Parish Church of Downham

St Margaret Downham as viewed from the south west.
St Margaret Downham as viewed from the north east.
St Margaret Downham. The church tower built c1470.

The parish church of Downham sits near the peak of the down some 50 metres or so above sea level. It is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch (289-304) who is the patron saint of child bearers and whose attributes include the slaying of a dragon. It is not known when the church was dedicated to St Margaret, but it may have been in the 13th century, as at that time (1222) the Council of Oxford – which was set up during the reign of Henry II and disbanded during the reign of Henry III – added St Margaret’s name to the list of feast days, thus popularizing her following.

For many years, however, the Rights of Patronage at St Margaret’s was held by the Earls of Oxford who were lords of the Manor of Downham. This entitlement ceased in the second half of the sixteenth century when the 17th Earl, Edward de Vere (1550-1604), sold off much of his income producing estates he had inherited on the death of his father, John de Vere, in 1562.
John’s last directly appointed rector at Downham was Baldwin Norton, a Doctor of Divinity (Sanctae Theologiae Bachelor), who appears to have been ordained in 1542 and who was a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. His position at Downham was from August 25, 1550 to September 30, 1562, although he may not have served the whole period.

The next appointed rector at Downham was Richard Peacock. The patron at that time was the armiger William Ayloffe, who appointed Peacock by permission of a grant of John de Vere. John died in August 1562, the month before Peacock took up his new position. This William is likely to be the same William who was the third husband of Margaret Sulyard (nee Foster), whose sister, Jane, married Thomas Tyrrel. Margaret was the widow of Eustace Sulyard who held Flemyngs in the parish of Runwell. On Eustace’s death (1547) Margaret held the Rights of Patronage to that church until her death in 1586, but William Ayloffe had the right to appoint Henry Wright to Runwell in 1559, shortly after he married Margaret. Margaret made the next appointment after William’s death in 1568. William’s son, also named William and a judge of the court of the Queen’s Bench, knew John de Vere personally. He married Jane Sulyard, one of Eustace’s daughters, and they were the parents of William Ayloffe, first baronet.

When John de Vere died, Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) became his twelve year old son’s legal guardian. Edward de Vere went to stay with Queen Elizabeth’s chief adviser, William Cecil, whose daughter, Anne Cecil (1556-1558), he married in 1571.
Peacock, however, resigned his position on October 20, 1574 at which time William Drywood was appointed to Downham Church by the armiger Edward Atslowe, who was a London Doctor of Medicine. Drywood was a priest at Downham, having been ordained at Dodington on the Isle of Ely in 1575 at the age of 25. He was previously a curate at the parish church of South Ockendon. At the time the lay patron Edward Atslowe had Downham Hall on lease at a cost of £32 per annum and he appears to have acquired this in early 1574 after his marriage to Frances Wingfield in Stoke Newington on November 2, 1573. Frances was a descendent of Elizabeth de Vere, the sister of the 14th earl, thus a distant cousin to Edward de Vere. Astlowe, incidentally, was a supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, but not a catholic. He was twice imprisoned in the Tower of London where he was nearly racked to death, but later released.

Edward de Vere, too, had fallen out of favour with the Queen when it was discovered he had had an affair with her Maid of Honour, Anne Vavasour. She gave birth to his illegitimate son in 1581. Edward and his mistress were sent to the Tower with the child, but they were later freed. Sometime after that Edward was reconciled with the Queen. In 1584 de Vere, a competent jouster, poet, playwright and patron of the arts, sold the Manor of Downham to Astlowe, who bought it for his son, Henry. Four years later Edward’s wife, Anne, with whom he had been reconciled, died of fever. He then married Elizabeth Trenthan, who, like his mistress, was a Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth. Throughout his adult life Edward de Vere had shown erratic behaviour and with his extravagant lifestyle and poor investment decisions, he wasted away the family fortune, including his Downham estate. By the end of 1592 the last of his Essex estates was sold. It was bought by Lord Burghley, Anne Cecil’s father. This was Castle Hedingham, the seat of de Vere’s earldom and his place of birth.

The church at Downham has seen many changes in patrons and rectors since those early days and no doubt the church has also gone through several processes of restoration. In 1871 the church was restored at a cost of £1,700 with the nave and chancel being rebuilt. The restorer was George Edmund Street RA (1824-1881). Street was primarily an ecclesiastical architect but his most famous building is probably the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London, which was completed after his death. St Margaret’s church reopened on 21 October with early communion at 8am. The Bishop of Rochester was in attendance, assisted by the Reverend Edward Charles Evans who arrived at Downham in 1867 having previously served at Eyton, Leominster. On leaving Eyton a testimonial was held in the Leominster Town Hall. Reverend Evans was presented with a silver plate and other items, including £100 contained in a purple velvet purse with gold chord. He was Chairman of the Board of Guardians there for eleven years.

Further, it is reported in the Hereford Journal that in closing the testimonial the Reverend Evans said: “The parishioners of Downham have to thank the good people of this vicinity for a remarkably sweet and effective harmonium. My drawing room is to be adorned with a beautiful clock and candlesticks with a large glass and handsome cabinet. My dining-room will be ornamented with the rich plate now before you. So if when any of my friends come to see me at my new home they find me surrounded by the luxuries and varieties of this world, I shall lay all the iniquity on the shoulders of the some hundreds of subscribers which this vellum sheet displays”. The Reverend Edward Charles Evans died at Beaufort Lodge, Twickenham on March 11, 1881, aged 67. He is buried outside the west side of Downham church with the headstone reading: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, yeah, and forever”. His wife, Frances Mary, is also buried at Downham (1895). Evan’s replacement was the Reverend William Hugo Lukin.

Lukin, who was born on 20 April 1829, was educated at the University of Durham and ordained Priest in 1855. In 1867 he was appointed to St Catherine, Wickford, and stayed there until his removal to Downham. He was replaced at St Catherine by his brother, James. In 1889 he resigned his position at Downham due to ill health, only a few weeks before his demise on October 26. He was buried at St Catherine, Wickford, alongside his first wife. During the same year at Downham he saw his daughter, Dora Pauline Lukin, marry the Reverend Thomas Ainsworth Brode who was for eighteen months his curate. Dora wore a dress of white cashmere trimmed with white satin and a veil with a wreath of orange blossoms.

The next rector was John Birkbeck Evelyn Stansfield. He was previously the rector of Preston near Uppingham in Rutlandshire. In 1895 Stansfield resigned his position at Downham and was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Herbert Alfred Henry Vaughan (1832-1903), the Archbishop of Westminster, at his private chapel. Stansfield died at Chelsea on October 7, 1911. Stansfield’s replacement was Charles Edward Stuart Ratcliffe.

Ratcliffe was no stranger to Downham, for in 1877 he was ordained to the curacy there by Bishop Thomas Legh Claughton (1808-1892) who, during that year, was Bishop of Rochester (from 1867) and then Bishop of St Albans when that diocese was created from the former. The Reverend Ratcliffe was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge where he received his BA (1876) and MA (1879) degrees. He held several positions between leaving Downham and being appointed to Bickenhill, Warwickshire, in 1890 by the Earl of Aylesford. Three years before that appointment, on 30 July 1887, he married Constance Charlotte Rose Ricketts, the daughter of Admiral Sir Cornwallis Rickets and Lady Caroline Augusta Pelham-Clinton, the daughter of the 4th Duke of Newcastle. In 1906 the Reverend Ratcliff had arranged for Thomas Stevens, the suffragan Bishop of Barking, to dedicate a stained glass memorial window in the church at Downham to the memory of Edith Jane Evans (1856-1905) the youngest daughter of the Reverend Charles Evans. She had died at St Jean de Luz in France after an accident. The work of the window was carried out by Lavers and Westlake of London at a total cost of about £40.
Three years later, in 1909, Ratlcliffe enjoyed a three month vacation at Hove. His temporary replacement at Downham was the Reverend Edmond Bennett Brackenbury, chaplain of All Saints, San Remo, Italy. His first wife was Elizabeth Holmes who was the daughter of the Bristol watercolour artist Marcus Henry Holmes (1803-1850). He was the grandfather of his namesake, who exhibited at the Royal Academy – Marcus Henry Holmes (1875-1951).

It was also during 1909 that further alterations were undertaken at Downham. A vestry was built, as was a new organ chamber to house the new organ. Minor alterations were made to the nave and new front desks made of oak were fixed to the stalls. The cost of the alterations was estimated to be £440. Those present at the dedication by the Bishop of St Albans included the Reverend Francis Dormer Pierce, then rector of Southend, and the Reverend David Jones Davies, rector of North Benfleet. The building work was undertaken by John Rayner of Hanningfield. The architect was Sidney Gambier Parry (1859-1948). His half-brother was the English composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, who is probably best known for the writing of the music to William Blake’s Jerusalem. Sidney was a Justice of the Peace and he was the parish warden at Downham , residing at Downham House. He left the parish in 1916. A later occupant of that property was Captain Victor Alexander Gascoyne Cecil (1891-1977), the son of Lord Rupert Ernest William Gascoyne Cecil, Bishop of Exeter, and thus Captain Victor was the grandson of Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne Cecil, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, the three times Prime Minister of this country. The Reverend Ratcliffe retired from Downham in 1927 due to ill health. He was presented with a dining-room clock on his departure. Mrs Offin, the wife of Albert Wallis Offin, the church warden who resided in the parish at Belmont Avenue and who was very much associated with Wickford market, had the honour of doing the presentation. While at Downham the Reverend Ratcliffe had personally cleared a church debt and he had had built a new rectory nearer the church. He also had additions made to the school. On leaving Downham he moved to Hove Park Villas, at Hove, near Brighton. He died in 1928. His funeral was held at St Agnes where he had assisted the vicar during his final months. As the cortege left the church voices could be heard singing Abide with me, his favourite hymn. By his special request he was buried near his old friend Canon Francis Dormer Pierce (died 1923), one time the vicar of St Catherine, Wickford. Both are buried at West Blatchington cemetery. It is perhaps worth mentioning that in 1933 a memorial tablet to the Reverend Ratcliffe was placed inside Downham church by his son, Cornwallis Ratcliffe, whose coming of age ceremony in 1913 was attended by the Chelmsford photographer Frederick Spalding .

Joseph Wilfred Massingham, previously the curate at St Nicholas, Guildford, and who at one time served at St Stephens, Guernsey, was the Reverend Ratcliffe’s replacement. The Reverend Massingham died in service at Downham on January 9, 1937.
Unfortunately the church is not the same as it was in those days for there was a fire in 1977. Much of the restoration work carried out by George Street was destroyed. All that survived of his works was a somewhat blackened reredos. Fortunately, however, the church tower, which was built c1470, sustained very little damage and the church was rebuilt to something of which the Earls of Oxford would have been proud. St Margaret’s church had recovered from the ashes. Resurgam.

Author: David C Rayment.

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