Secret Hornchurch by Carol Cannavan
Carol Cannavan’s visit to St Andrew’s Church, Hornchurch.
It was a bright, but chilly Spring Day when I first met Judith Brooks at St Andrew’s Church, in Hornchurch. She had agreed to show me around and tell me some of the history associated with this lovely old building. It certainly has a long history... it is believed that a Saxon church once stood on the site; that would have been around the year 900. The present church originates from the 13th century. It is now a Grade I listed building.
We walked around the north side of the church and Judith pointed out a number of bottles, positioned base outward, set in the walls. She didn’t know when or why they were added. Over time different parts of the church have been rebuilt and added to, so it would be impossible to say. However, it is believed that there were brewers in Hornchurch in 1583 and 1606, so that could have some bearing on the matter. In later years, John Woodfine established the Hornchurch Brewery in 1789.
As we wandered around the churchyard, Judith showed me various graves of local dignitaries. I have to say, I find graveyards fascinating, but it can be frustrating when the headstones are so old you can no longer read the inscriptions! Two headstones in particular stood out; they were draped with coloured beads and shells, which was shared by four men who belonged to the New Zealand Maori Battalion in the First World War. The men had been stationed at Grey Towers, once the home of Colonel Henry Holmes.
Perched on the eastern gable of the chancel is the carved stone head of a Highland bull with hollow copper horns. It’s unclear whether the church got its name from its architecture that has been described as having ‘horn like gables’, or because of the local leather currying industry, which had either a bull’s or a stag’s head with horns as its guild sign. Leather was at the heart of Hornchurch’s commercial life for hundreds of years from medieval times.
As we stood before tower of St Andrew’s Church, Judith pointed up and asked if I could make out the statue of the seated bishop at the very top. I couldn’t. “Straight up,” she encouraged. I squinted hard but couldn’t see it. I am short-sighted and didn’t have my glassed with me. She tried a different tactic. “Look towards the spire, then left a little…” I squinted even harder, but it was all a bit of a blur. In the end to save my embarrassment I smiled and said, “Ah yes, I see it now.”
After the tour, I rang my friend Doug who is an excellent photographer and asked if he would like to take some photos for me. A few days later we were back, and he brought his extremely big camera. When I saw the photos he took I couldn’t believe how much detail he had captured. The seated bishop is thought to represent William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester – he bought the priory, church and surrounding land in 1390 to endow his New College in Oxford.
I have mention St Andrew’s Church quite a lot in Secret Hornchurch, as it is woven into the fabric of the town. If you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit.
Carol Cannavan's book Secret Hornchurch is available for purchase now.