Belfairs Methodist Taming of the Lawless Parish

The woodland men were no smoothies, but they must have looked like Old Etonians alongside some of the other inhabitants.

The stretch of country from Belfairs to Thundersley, was known generally as Daws Heath. It had, since time immemorial, been a lawless haunt of thieves, highwaymen and outlaws.

The heath was also home to one of the largest gipsy populations in Britain. They didn’t do much to boost the area’s genteel credentials. A longstanding member of the Belfairs congregation, Cyril Robinson, recalls a story passed on by his father. “The parish constable would have to come down to old Leigh and gather a crowd of fishermen and ask them to come over to the parish because the gipsies were fighting. The Leigh lads were required to restore law and order.”

Yet where the forces of law hesitated to venture, the Methodists came in force. The church’s founder, John Wesley, preached in south Essex in 1784. He identified Daws Heath as a sort of pagan area, ripe for conversion. A small permanent mission was later set up in the area.

Until the turn of the 20th century, however, there was no place of meeting or worship. Ironically the teetotal Methodists were reduced to meeting in the only space available. That space was the local pub – the Woodcutters Arms.

In 1901, however, they were turned out of the pub. Of course, their eviction had nothing to do with rowdy behaviour from the Sunday School, but simply the fact that the functions room was falling down.

Without a roof over their heads, the congregation was galvanised into raising money for a purpose built place of worship. A temporary corrugated iron structure was put up in 1901. The present building followed in 1911, Even at that time, the population of the Eastwood-Belfairs area remained sparse. The census listed just 709 people, and a mere 151 homes. This was swollen, however, by the floating population of gipsies. Without their presence, the project might never have happened.

Writing in 1971, Hilda Mitchell, a member of the congregation, recalled that “a great number of the people drawn” to the new building “were from a gipsy encampment of caravans, situated in the fields beyond the mission.”

The gipsies mostly evaporated from the area as Belfairs was developed in the 1920s and 30s, but the church congregation grew steadily stronger.

The hundred year story of Belfairs church has been told in a book by Tina Gowers, who has attended the church for 40 years. She has drawn not just on documents but on the memories of many long-standing fellow members.

Incidents recalled the occasion when the congregation gamely met in an air-raid shelter during a bombing raid, and the perilous 1971 wedding of Lynda and Terry Flynn. On tht occasion, the bride-to-be had to negotiate rotten floorboards on her way to the altar, and was in some danger of disappearing through a hole before she could get there.

On another occasion, an ambulance had to be called after a small boy swallowed part of the Sunday coin collection.

For the most part, though, the book is a chronicle of solid if uneventful pursuits, typified by the activities of groups as the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades, and the mothers & toddlers group. The church which started as a pioneering preaching mission had become an established pillar of the community.

Yet the old mission to convert never quite went away. In 1976, an evangelical operation set up by youth members of the congregation and entitled Christian Revival, set out to distribute 500 Bibles to the people of Belfairs.

That, at least was a return to the spirit which brought the first Methodist preachers to the wild wastes of Belfairs.

Full details on Tina Gowers book are available via It can also be downloaded via the Lulu publishing website and is also available on Amazon.

This article can be read in full on the Echo website by clicking here

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