The visitor on first entering the District (formally Parish) Church of St. Alban, Westcliff-on-Sea, is immediately struck by its devotional atmosphere, its homeliness and its matchless beauty. Tucked away almost out of sight through the growth of the town around it since it was built in open fields, it stands far enough away from the clatter and turmoil of the busy street to form a quiet oasis for the Christian wayfarer. Its newness as a Parish Church has long since departed for its walls are now hallowed by the prayers and gifts of four generations of worshippers whose continuous spiritual presence provides that indefinable sense of solemnity and holiness which one associates with our more ancient parochial foundations and cathedrals.
Southend-on-Sea has grown out of four ancient ecclesiastical parishes all mentioned in the Doomsday Book; Leigh, Milton, Prittlewell and Southchurch. Southend began to develop rapidly as a sea-side resort in the closing years of the 19th century, and the church true to its ancient mission, began to cater for an increasing population by establishing mission churches, many of which in course of time became separate parochial foundations. It is in this way that the Parish of St. Alban the Martyr, Westcliff-on-Sea (now a District of the Southend Parish), arose out of the ancient Parish of St. Mary the Virgin Prittlewell.
The story begins on 23rd September 1890, with the formation of the St. Mary’s Prittlewell Church Extension Committee which held its first meeting in St. John’s Parish Hall under the chairmanship of the then Bishop of St. Alban’s. It was a strong committee containing men honoured in the history of Southend. Mr. Frederic Gregson who was to take such an active part in the subsequent development of the Parish of St. Alban was also an original member of this committee and acted throughout as its treasurer. After its inaugural meeting under the Bishop of the Diocese (Chelmsford Diocese had not then been created) Canon T. O. Reay, Vicar of St. Mary’s Prittlewell, was elected as Chairman of this committee. A generous offer of £20 per annum for five years by Canon Heygate for Church Extension in the west end of Southend-on-Sea had provided the chief stimulus for the formation of the committee.
The committee met twice in 1890, eleven times in 1891, and nine times in 1892. Up to the 21st March 1892, that is until St. Alban’s Mission Room was built, the committee usually met at the offices of Messer’s. Gregson in Alexandra Street, although occasionally we find it meeting at the private house or business premises of one or another of its members. From 21st March 1892 the meetings took place in St. Alban’s Mission Room.
The committee’s early meetings were naturally largely concerned with the twin problems of securing a site for a new mission room and church and the raising of the necessary funds. By June 1891 two plots of land had been purchased from Mr. Dowsett and Mr. Scudder for £360. This land now forms the site on which the church and Parish Hall stand together with the churchyard, but did not include the site of the old vicarage (rectory) which was purchases for £150 in 1897. Having secured the site, the committee’s next task was to erect a mission room for temporary use until such time as the permanent church could be built. Accordingly in August 1891 an appeal was launched for £700 to cover the cost of the site and building the mission room. This appeal at the same time gave information about further plans for church extension after the mission room had been built. Messer’s. Humphreys & Co’s contract for £198 for the building of the mission room was accepted in January 1892 and on 30th March of the same year the new building was opened for Divine Worship.
Thus a centre was created to meet the spiritual needs of a growing population at Westcliff, estimated at the time to be 2000 people to whom the mother church at Prittlewell was too inaccessible. The Rev. A. E. Briggs, Curate of Prittlewell who had been elected a member of the committee in May 1891, was the first priest to be put in charge of this new mission centre. The total cost of the site, the mission room with its furnishings and fittings and miscellaneous expenses amounted to just under £700. Of this sum grants amounting to £110 had been received from the Incorporated Church Building Society, the S.P.C.K., and the Additional Curates Society. With Canon Heygate’s gift of £100 this left about £500 to be raised locally.
A regular congregation of worshippers began to gather around the new mission room and various parochial organisations such as Sunday School and Women’s Fellowship began to appear. The need for a permanent church and an independent parochial existence began to assert itself. The Church Extension Committee did not meet between September 1892 and February 1894, during this period subscriptions were steadily coming in to meet the expenses of the site and mission room and by October 1983 all debt had been repaid.
On 26th February 1984 a combined meeting of the Prittlewell Church Extension Committee and the “congregation who usually worship there” was held in St Alban’s Mission Room. The meeting agreed to use every means in its power to provide a permanent church on the site, a Ladies Sub-Committee was set up “to collect funds”. There was one further meeting of the committee in 1984 when it was decided that £1000 should be raised before building started. The committee did not meet again until February 1896, this meeting is interesting as the Rev. E. Kimber was elected to the committee. He was the third priest placed in charge of the mission centre replacing the Rev. B. H. Verdon in 1895, he was destined to become the first Vicar of St. Alban’s. The treasurer reported at this meeting that the amount in the bank towards the fund for the new church was £26. The need for a permanent church was stressed and arrangements were made to approach the inhabitants of the neighbourhood for subscriptions to the building fund. There was only one further meeting in 1896 at which it was reported that subscriptions and promises amounted to £258. A bazaar was held later in the year and produced £70.
The year 1897 was an active one for the committee; it met no less than eleven times. Early in the year the building fund amounted to £600. In July an anonymous donor gave £300 on condition that another £500 was raised within a reasonable period, and that the St. Alban’s Mission District be formed as soon as possible into a separate and distinct ecclesiastical parish and further that the first part of the building to be put in hand be the nave. The conditions were accepted, the Vicar of Prittlewell raising no objections to the demand for separation. By October 1897 the building fund had reached a total of £1,290. Advertisements had appeared in the best building papers inviting architects to submit plans for the building of a church to accommodate 400 people, 500 if possible, at a maximum cost of £3,000. Sir Arthur Bloomfield was invited to undertake the duties of assessor and examined the designs of nine architects who had submitted plans. He advised acceptance of the design of Messrs. Nicholson and Corlette of 2 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, London. Six building firms were invited to submit tenders for the construction of the nave, aisles and transepts of the church. Mr. F. Dupont of Colchester was the successful competitor with a tender of £1,899-10-0.
On 17th June 1898 the foundation stone under the West Window was laid by Bishop Festing of St. Albans amid scenes of great rejoicing. It is difficult in these days with our church situated in a thickly populated built-up area to imagine the conditions that surrounded our predecessors at this ceremony a century ago. We have to imagine a large expanse of land, mainly agricultural, lying between Prittlewell and Leigh, Hamlet Court Road being nothing more than a country lane. The importance of the ceremony lies in the fact that St. Alban’s was the first Parish Church to be built in this empty space between the two ancient parishes.
The committee at the time the building was begun held a balance of £1,803. That part of the building that was then in hand was completed by the end of 1898 and on 5th January 1890 was opened for Divine Worship by the Archdeacon of Essex. The legal act of consecration was postponed until the building was free from debt, this was reached by the first Sunday of 1900 and the act of consecration of the nave and aisles was carried out by the Bishop of the Diocese on 31st July that year. The first portion of the church to be built had, with its fittings, cost the committee approximately £2,500. The committee continued its separate existence until the District of St. Alban’s became a separate Parish early in 1901. Its last tasks as an independent committee were to arrange the delineation of the boundaries of the new Parish, to clear off the debt of the first portion of the Parish Church to be to be erected and to establish an endowment fund, it was then merged into the St. Alban’s Church Committee, a body equivalent to a Standing Committee of the Parochial Church Council.
The Prittlewell Church Extension Committee had had a life of ten years. In that period it had accomplished five important tasks; the acquisition of sites for the permanent Church, mission room and vicarage; the building of a temporary mission room; the completion of the nave and aisles of the permanent church; the establishment of an endowment fund; and finally the constitution of a separate ecclesiastical parish. The constitution of a separate parish was effected by an Order of Council dated 30th January, 1901, and printed in “The London Gazette” dated February 8th 1901.
Copying the details of this account of our beginning over a hundred years ago by L. E. Britnor and G. E. Smith published in 1948 it seems strange that St. Alban’s once again is no longer a Parish but reverted to a District Church this time of the Southend Parish, but as the Hymn says “God is working his purpose out”