23rd September 1940

Alarm 3.50am – 5.55am. Went, and saw the dawn break gloriously over the town. Another at 9.05am, while I was seeing the Chairman [Sir W. Gurney Benham] about Horkesley. He agreed that we give the very fullest help. While I was talking to him, the sirens blew “All Clear”. “What’s that?” he asked, after three had sounded in succession. “The ‘All Clear’” I said. “Oh”, he says, “has there been an alarm on?” He told me he had heard a siren in the night, in the early hours of this morning, the first he had ever known to wake him.

This afternoon Laver, Poulter, me and George Farmer all went over to Horkesley.

After visiting the site of the destroyed church, Eric wrote a report for the 'Essex County Standard' newspaper but later said that it was 'used in a very garbled manner' owing to censorship restrictions. His original report, therefore, is now published in full for the first time below:

We must be prepared, from time to time, for the disappearance of ancient buildings by fire or decay, all the more so in time of war, but the destruction of a well-known Essex church last Saturday night was so sudden and so complete as to be almost incredible.

According to the official statement, German planes were over Essex on Saturday evening and a few bombs were dropped, but it might have been expected that this small church, in the heart of the country and far from any objective, would have escaped damage. At half past nine that night the church stood as it had done for centuries, silent under the stars, surrounded by the slumbering churchyard, with a tall avenue of elms leading up from the hall drive. At a quarter to ten there was no semblance of a church left, no piece of wall more than three or four feet high, nothing but a gigantic pile of rubble lit by the flames from nearby farm buildings. The bomb which brought about this destruction, was of such power that, falling through the roof near the chancel arch it blew the entire building to fragments in a fraction of a second.

Sheets of lead hurled through the air for several hundred yards. Some fell in the road, others among horses and cows in a nearby field without touching any of them. Great beams tore across the graveyard mowing down the old tombstones and cutting up the turf. (A black and white marble stone which had disfigured this churchyard for years was quite untouched). Some of the beams were torn to fragments, and long splinters from them stuck into the ground like a giant’s arrows. Others, flying high into the air, came to rest on the topmost branches of the elms, where they remain precariously balanced. Even the bells split into fragments, some of which, together with the ropes, were found near the altar, while others were in the churchyard near the tower. One bell dated from the 15th century but no trace of it has been found. There are parts of two others which were made by the Colchester bell-founder, Miles Gray, in the 17th century.

The destruction was devastating, and when the morn rose an hour or two later it was the first time for at least 800 years that there was no church on which it could shine. In the morning, at first sight it appeared that the priceless wooden effigies and monumental brasses must have perished entirely, but search revealed parts of the effigies (which date from the 13th century) scattered about the churchyard, while excavation on the site of the S. chapel brought to light the great brass of the two brother knights, one of the best in England. It was badly shattered, but with great care it has now been removed to safety. On the other side of the church a smaller brass, showing a woman and her two husbands, was found in a greatly shattered condition, but most of it has already been recovered. On Wednesday the rest of the wooden effigies were found in their original position, although broken and covered by masses of masonry. It would appear that they are all repairable, and no doubt this will be done without delay. There are also other brasses to be discovered, and some, being floor-slabs stand a very good chance of being undamaged.

It will be some time before the site is cleared up and meanwhile some of the parishioners come up to search for the graves of friends of relatives, often to find the tombs smashed to fragments or buried under masses of broken rubble. Here and there one sees remains of hymn-books and a few choir-boys surplices, while a hassock, torn open, reveals as its stuffing fragments of newspapers dating from the last war, on which the words “Earl Haig” “Arras” and “German claims …” appear.

This tiny parish church has suffered a tremendous disaster, but there is much to be thankful for in that there was no loss of life, and that the majority of the priceless monuments have already been saved.

The medieval wooden effigies and monumental brasses that were saved by the museum staff can still be seen in the rebuilt Little Horkesley Church today.

The experience of the salvage operation at Little Horkesley Church led EJR to call on the Museums Association to establish an 'archaeological flying squad' to advise on the salvage of historic buildings and artefacts damaged in air raids. Schemes such as the National Buildings Record and the the development of the Monuments and Fine Arts Division of the British Army were set up as a consequence of the experiences of bomb damage to Britain's cultural heritage in 1940.

1 comment:

Barbara Critchley said...

What an excellent, well written description of the devastation of Little Horkesley Church. Interesting the Essex County Standard would not use the report in full. E.J Rudsdale is so specific, I can almost imagine looking at the ruins with him.