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A flood, a birth and secret signs - Memories of a village vicar and his family by Andy Smith

Ron Smith moved into the village to take over the Congregational Church (Queen Street) in the spring of 1958 with his pregnant wife Dorothy and two children, Andrew and Jean. His impact on the village was almost instant; he took the children from the Sunday School on a trip to Walton-on-the-Naze on June 28th. The village was plagued by floods on that day and his wife decided that it was also the time for the youngest member of the family to put in an appearance. The midwife, who was called to attend the birth, had to leave her car by the flooded hump back bridge and wade through the flood waters to the Manse. As this was in the days before mobile phones dad had to ring home from a pay phone on Walton front to see if he had become a father for the third time. Craig was born in the downstairs room facing the garden, which he insists on telling the present day occupants, whenever he gets the opportunity.

Dorothy and Ron

As children we were expected to attend chapel every Sunday. The Chapel had a small but loyal congregation and five families had their own pews, the Brown family, from Brown’s shop; the Philp family from the farm in Kirby Hall road; the Rayner family who were also farmers from nearby Sible Hedingham, the Rowe family, also from Sible and Mr Hymas, the de Vere Primary school headteacher, who was to become a lifelong friend of the family.

The Rayner family made room for Jean to join them, where she was often to be found dozing her way through the service. I was put in charge of the youngest member of the family in the very back pew, it was my job to cough discretely if father’s sermons had gone on too long. It must be added that that this was a self-appointed position! There were many signs that we were aware of whilst father was preaching; if he blew his nose it signified that I was to keep the youngest member of the family quiet and if he actually left the pulpit to join the body of the church and walk down the aisle it meant that I had to remove the youngest member of the family. This would more than likely signify a sharp telling off when he arrived home!

When we originally arrived the church was heated by a large boiler that had to be kept constantly fed by coke. It has to be said that it made precious little difference to the temperature of the building. The boiler was later replaced by electric heaters suspended from the ceiling and dad had to go into the Chapel on a Saturday evening to put the heaters on, obviously no worries about bills in those days.

The Primary school played a large part in the life of the Church, as those of us of a certain age remember the Vestry was also the ‘Top Class’ of the school, no excuse for us to be late for school! Dad was also vice Chair and later Chair of the Governing body of the school, many discussions on school life were no doubt often discussed over friendly games of Scrabble between dad, mum and Dick Hymas.

Dad also started a Youth Club, called the Pilots in the Early 60s, originally meeting in the Vestry but later moving to purpose built area of the Church, upstairs and behind the organ. This club was to run for about ten years and I still have the original registers! A highlight of the year for the members of the pilots was the annual trip to Central Hall in Westminster to meet up with other like minded groups from different parts of the country. This club was to run for about 11 years.

The main festivals of Church life were an opportunity for dad to decorate the Church. Easter was perhaps his pride and joy. He was the proud possessor of a wooden cross, standing about two feet high and full of holes. This was to stand bare at the front of the Church on Good Friday and was decorated with small posies of flowers made for each hole on Easter Sunday to depict new life. The small posies were made by the ladies of the Chapel, lead by mum and later, Jean.

Harvest festival was another opportunity, particularly in a farming community, many of the pillars decorated by sheaves of Wheat and Barley and a beautiful Harvest loaf, was it made for the School or the Chapel first, as it certainly served both? The children from the Pilots often helped with the decoration and this often deteriorated into throwing Pampas grass stems at one another. This was finished when one, perfectly aimed stem, almost took my eye out as I was too late to duck behind the pulpit!

Christmas services were often held in the Vestry as many families had other commitments. It also meant that our Christmas didn’t really begin until the afternoon, usually after the Queen’s speech! These services gave dad the opportunity to display his piano playing skills to the congregation, the school were well aware of them by this time, through his playing in school assemblies. He really enjoyed playing the piano and the organ but obviously was unable to play the organ on a Sunday.

Dad loved to organise concerts and meetings at the Chapel and two of them stick in the mind of the family, a visit from the Salvation Army Silver Band, when so many people came that it was the first and only real time we remember people sitting upstairs. The second occasion was when dad asked a Pastor from Wethersfield Air Base to speak at the service. He was black gentleman which caused some excitement in the village at the time!

Dad became very disillusioned over the direction the Congregational Church was going in and he left the Chapel to pursue another career in around 1972, but obviously remaining in the village, which he loved, until his untimely death in 1985.

Written by Andy Smith

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