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In 1797 Essex was a county that was ripe for rebellion. Shops were open all day on Sundays and there was constant rioting and drunkenness in the streets. There was a national crisis focused on a sandbank in the Thames to the south-east of Southend and troops were stationed there to keep off rebels. It was to Rayleigh, Essex that James Pilkington was sent by the Baptist Association to start a church.
The Association had heard that a large house in the small village of Rayleigh had been licensed for preaching and that someone was urgently needed to spread the gospel.
After much prayer, Mr. Pilkington, aged 28, arrived in Rayleigh on 15th June 1797. He was aware that he could be put in prison but knew that God had a work for him to do. The house stood where Weatherspoon’s stands now.
10 days after arriving in Rayleigh he held his first service and many attended. As time went by it was obvious that a larger place was needed where people could worship. Sympathetic friends secured the use of a cart-lodge which was in front of Dollmartons buildings. (Look up above Steven’s Florist Shop a few doors down the High Street from the Police Station) By enclosing the sides it provided suitable accommodation for up to 200 people.
Mr. Pilkington was a well educated man and opened up his home to teach boys who were sons of gentlemen, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, book-keeping, geography, and use of globes with mapping, Latin, French, drawing and elements of mathematics. Board, washing and education were 25 guineas per boy per year. His wife Mary was responsible for the cooking and household duties.
At the end of the first year’s ministry, four very rich friends, offered him a new chapel and £100 per year if he would baptise infants and renounce adult baptism. No way would he do this so he lost his four rich friends and the use of the cart-lodge.
Mr. Pilkington believed in the real power of prayer. On the evening of 28th August 1798, he called people to come together and pray. In Essex: Its Forest, Fold and Folk-Lore it is stated in regard to the special prayer meeting that ‘in the early morning, one of those who had been at the meeting was crossing a field to go home when he met the owner of the said field who stopped to speak and told him he had come out to look for him as he had been troubled about him all night. ‘Why?’ said the man, ‘we have been praying all night for means to get a Chapel’. ‘I will give you the land’ said the owner. ‘Just step over as much of this field as you want’. On 3rd September 1798, just one week later, it was legally conveyed in trust for ever. The foundations were laid on 25 September. The building measured 40ft x 35ft and was opened on Lady Day, 25th March, 1799 and on the 25th June of that year Rev. James Pilkington was inducted as pastor of Rayleigh Baptist Church. He was pastor for 54 years. He died in 1853, aged 84 years and was buried in the church graveyard alongside his wife who had died 13 years earlier.
In 1863, Mr Samuel Marley, a great philanthropist, donated £25 to build a hall in the grounds of the church. The foundation stone was laid by him and it was opened for use in 1864 when he gave a further £25 gift. The hall was divided into two. It opened as a boy’s school and was used by the Sunday School at weekends. When the older boys moved to the hall at Holy Trinity, the older girls met in the hall at one end and infant boys and girls at the other end.
In 1865 a harmonium was purchased for use in the church. About this time the galleries were added.
1868 saw a complete renovation of the chapel and it was closed for several weeks during which time services were held in the school room. The chapel was re-floored, roof repaired and new lobbies and stairs to the galleries all at a cost of £430. In the old square pews under the galleries sat the farmers and their families. The benches upstairs were for the farmers work people and the centre seats downstairs for the shopkeepers of the town. A new baptistery was used in December 1868. In 1897 a pipe organ was installed, the person in charge of the blower being paid 2/6d. per quarter. 1904 a gospel band was formed and a ladies working party provided hassocks and cushions for the pews.
1910 Windows under the gallery were presented anonymously.
1916 The First World War seriously hampered the work of the church. Troops took over the schoolroom for occupation and the church fell to a very low ebb. With the end of the war in 1918 there began a movement of population from the London suburbs to the outer districts and Rayleigh attracted a number of these new residents.
1931 Road Widening. The church was told that the road would have to be widened. The bend was dangerous. The brick wall and railings of the church were replaced, the church losing some 5ft of ground.
1935 Following the installation of modern sewers in the district the church was called upon by the Local Authority to reconstruct the whole of the drainage system and the opportunity was then taken to remodel the back portion of the schoolroom. Two rear buildings were demolished and in their place an up-to-date building was erected which offered room for the Primary Sunday School and proper facilities for catering.
1925 Women’s Hour (now known as Oasis) started for the women of the church.
1937 An electronically blown pipe organ was secured for use in the church to replace the worn out one.
During the Second World War again the school hall was taken over by the military forces while the blackouts virtually bought all evening meetings to a standstill. The claims of National Service resulted in the dispersal of some of the young people to various points at home and abroad and in many respects it was a case of marking time. In October 1944 the church was seriously damaged by a bomb blast and the roof became unsafe. The chapel was closed until the war damage could be repaired and from the early part of 1945 only the schoolroom was available for services. The opportunity was taken to remodel the accommodation while restoring the interior after the long occupation of the troops. The partition was removed and it became a comfortable room for Sunday worship.
1960 The vestries at the rear of the church were re-arranged and refurbished. Toilet facilities were added. The baptistery retiled and the pulpit was panelled and a new communion table made to match. The aisles were carpeted and new runners made to fit the pews downstairs. Gas radiators were replaced by tubular electric heaters. Bench seats upstairs were replaced with tip-up seats bought from a Southend cinema which was closing. They were a real luxury . Lighting was replaced, new cupboards, interior re-decorated and pews painted cream. November 1965 a new organ was installed paid for by a generous donor.
1968 The upper room was built. The space between the buidings which was covered with graves and tombstones was levelled and turfed providing an attractive area where children could play and families meet on special occasions. Membership was 180 plus.
1975 a survey showed numerous problems with the church building and an application was submitted to demolish the existing church and build a new one. The application was refused.
1980 the long back garden of the house next to the church was purchased which it made it possible for the new lounge to be built. Plans were prepared at this time to extend the church sideways thus building over the original grave yard. Only the galleries over the original front doors of the church and the opposite end where the organ was housed would remain. The rest would be taken down. The organ and pipes would be moved to the long side of the original church and the pulpit would be built in front of them. The baptistery would remain in its original place.
The Home Office approved the exhumation of coffins in the graveyard and reintemment at Hockley Road Cemetery.
1979 Location of graves took place. A new concrete floor was laid which would house the vestibule, new toilets, Pilkington room and part of the new church.
1980/81 new vestries, toilets and boiler room were then built onto the rear of the old church. The Pilkington Room had folding doors so it could easily be divided into two rooms. The main extension brick-work was built with the internal walls and the roof including the three big arches, all while we were still using the church. For four months the morning services were held at the Mill Hall, but on 20th December 1981 the congregation once again met in the new Church, not everything completed, but it was good to be there.
November 2007. Demolished a wall between the church and Pilkington Room and installed acoustic panels which can be slid back to give an extra 80 seats.
As at June 2015 we have over 350 members on the church roll; 200 plus children come through our door weekly. Many organisations within and outside our church use our facilities and we are pleased to share what we have. We are here for the community of Rayleigh. Our new Minister, Rev. Scott Williamson, his wife Anjanette and two children joined us in 2015. We are excited about our future and what God has in store, not only for our church but also for the town of Rayleigh.
Many thanks to Val Byford for researching and writing this article.