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FIRE AT ST MARGARET’S CHURCH, DOWNHAM

 

In April 1977, St Margaret’s church at Downham was set alight by a youngster.  This was shortly before the wedding there of Nicola Cox and Ian Wright.

Here is a newspaper report of the fire.

The Recorder April 1st 1977

FIRE DESTROYS ANCIENT VILLAGE CHURCH

Stunned villagers watched helplessly as their picturesque church was completely gutted by fire on Monday night, 28th March.

And, as officials began the grim task of assessing the damage the next morning, the residents of Downham could not believe the blaze had reduced the ancient building of St. Margaret’s Church to a burnt-out shell.

The blaze destroyed the entire chancel, vestry, altar, half the nave and irreplaceable stained-glass windows. All that remains is the stonework, which dates back to the 13th century, and the bells housed in the 15th century brick tower. But it was thought these were unsafe.

Police prevented anyone from entering the blacken shell as forensic experts shifted through the charred remains for clues on how the fire started but a police spokesman confirmed; “We are treating it as arson.”

Devastation

Rector, Mervyn Pettitt, who watched his beloved church reduced to ashes, said: “What can I say? I am very sad.”

But he pledged as he left the scene of devastation to return to his rectory a few hundred yards away: This will not stop us. We’ll come for services on Sunday.” And he was certain of the cause: It must have been arson,” he said angrily, “All the gas and other inflammables are in the tower, and the fire started at the other end of church.”

The fire was discovered in the early evening, but had already got a firm hold.

Firemen and police were on the scene within minutes, but found to their horror that there was no water available. In desperation, firemen pumped 10,000 gallons of water from a nearby swimming pool on to the blazing church.

But it took a special hose-laying lorry, which arrived from Chelmsford, to pump water from a high-pressure main a mile away.

  1. Exploding

At one stage tiles were exploding off the roof as the blaze tore through the rafters and wooden panelling. The church registers and many other records were reduced to ashes – although the really old records are safe in the hands of the county archivist.

A 16-year-old Wickford schoolboy appeared at a special Billericay Court on Tuesday accused of starting the blaze. He was remanded in custody and will appear at Chelmsford Juvenile Court next Tuesday.

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and another report follows

THE church stands desolate and deserted, charred blacken rafters sticking up into the sky.

The sad debris of the fire which ravaged St. Margaret’s, Church, Downham, just a week ago lies all around. This graphic picture was taken from the top of the 15th century tower – virtually the only part of the church to escape serious damage.

Picture by Maurice Edwards

At the far end of the charred nave, beneath the shattered main window, stands all that is left of the altar, where the fire is thought to have started. The flames were so intense at this spot that the solid brass candlesticks have twisted out of all recognition. The ruins to the left of the main church wall are the remnants of the vestry, where many of the church records were lost in the blaze. Halfway down on the left, in front of the ladder, stands the cracked and blacken pulpit where the Rev. Mervyn Pettitt preached every Sunday. Little else is left of what used to be one of the oldest and most picturesque churches in Essex. But the village – now recovering from the numbness of the shock – is determined the church will rise from the ashes. Mr Pettitt confidently predicts that services will restart in the ruins in two weeks’ time.

Extract from The Evening Echo, 5th April 1977

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  1. Extract from The Recorder, April 1st 1977

ALONE IN THE RUINS

  1. The sad end of an era, Reverend Mervyn Pettitt stands in the ruins of the ancient St. Margaret’s Church, Downham, amid the charred timbers. Only part of the building escaped serious damage – the 15th century tower – but at the far end of the charred nave, beneath the shattered leaded light main windows, stand the remains of the altar, where the fire is believed to have started. Scattered on the floor were found solid brass candlesticks melted and twisted by intense heat, Church records in the vestry were totally lost.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

another report follows

By ANGELA BROWN (The Evening Echo)

The spirit of the ravaged church has risen from the ashes.

Young couples have told the rector they want their weddings to go ahead in the charred ruins of picturesque St. Margaret’s Church. Parishioners flocked to a hastily-arranged service in the village’s WI hut yesterday and worshiped before a makeshift altar. And after the Roman Catholic church at nearby Stock donated its collection yesterday to their neighbours’ church re-building fund.

The first couple who told the rector, Rev. Mervyn Pettitt, they wanted their marriage ceremony to go ahead were 21-year-old Kate Fawkes and her fiancé Andrew Aldous. Their hopes nosedived last week when the church was burned out in the blaze. But after planning their wedding for a year they were determined their big day would not be spoiled. Kate, of Castledon Road, Downham, said: “The church has a very special irreplaceable meaning in our village.”

A working party will start cleaning out the shell of the church next Monday and will work throughout the week so the wedding can go ahead as planned on Saturday, April 16. Mr. Pettitt said the response of the young couples and his parishioners “pulled me through” the week.

He told parishioners who crowded into the WI hall that served is a church in the centre of Downham: “The support of my parishioners and support of people far beyond the parish has been a tremendous comfort. “I would like to thank everyone for their help. It has pulled me through. I would also like to thank all those young couples who have come to me to say that they have made up their mind that they will get married as planned in St. Margaret’s”. Mr Pettitt said he was determined regular services should not move out if the parish.

Yesterday he held two services in the hut – early morning communion and a family service at 10.15am. And when more than his usual number of parishioners arrived for the family service he said that he was “delighted and heartened.” Mr Pettitt hopes services will soon be held in the church. But at present, he said, it was too dangerous. He said: “I fell very strongly that the services should be kept at Downham itself. It is marvellous how everyone has rallied round to help. “It is not until something like this happens to a church that people realise what it means to them.

I can’t thank people enough for being such a support to me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nicola Cox and Ian Wright were married there on 23rd April 1977.

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