We exist to enhance the amazing legacy of Essex and East London church buildings. The grants we award transform the church buildings of the past into places of worship our communities want to use today and tomorrow. This is thanks to the generous support of our volunteers, members and donors for which we are grateful.
The Friends of Essex Churches was established in 1951, under the chairmanship of the Rt Revd Dudley Narborough, Bishop of Colchester, and was first registered as a charity in 1965. We were one of the earliest in the country, second only to Kent, which started in 1949. A number of other counties followed suit over the next few years.
In the 1950s many of our churches would have seemed in poor condition compared to how they generally are today. Very little had been spent on their upkeep since 1939, and many had suffered war damage of one sort or another, even in Essex. Navestock and Coggeshall churches, for example, were badly damaged, and Little Horkesley was completely destroyed. Many more had their glass blown out. Moreover the Diocese of Chelmsford, which is the area covered by the Friends of Essex Churches, included then as it does now the East End of London, parts of which were very badly hit.
There was therefore a great need for a new source of funding, and this remains the principal purpose of the Friends: to make grants for repairs to places of worship of all Christian denominations in Essex and the five London boroughs that were part of Essex until 1965 (Barking & Dagenham, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, and Waltham Forest). The first grants we gave were for £25; they are now mostly in the range of £1,000–£15,000. The budget for grants in 2021 is £220,000, and since 1997 we have given away nearly £3.6m.
Since 2015 grants have also been given for improvements as well as repairs. This recognises the importance of updating churches by introducing modern facilities and equipment, thereby increasing their suitability for wider community use and helping to ensure their long-term survival. In the first six years of the new system 31 grants totalling £250,250 were offered for improvements, as opposed to 106 grants totalling £697,700 for repairs. Unlike some county trusts we do not have any criteria based on age or historic importance, but make grants to all churches in need of them.
The Trust has no endowment, and all the money that is given in grants has to be raised. The Events Committee is extremely busy in this respect, and organises one or two social events each year in addition to the annual Gift Fair. The Committee also organises the Trust’s Christmas card, which is usually based on a stained glass window or painting from one of our churches.
Our single biggest fund-raising event, however, is the annual sponsored bike ride (Ride+Stride), started by the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust and now an important annual event in most English counties. Since 1984 this has raised about £2.7m in Essex and East London, half of which is given out in grants and half returned to the parishes nominated by individual riders.
We are also fortunate to have received many generous donations and bequests over the years.
In spite of the importance of our grants, the first object of the Friends according to our constitution is ‘to promote the education and interest of the public in the history of Christian churches and places of worship’. Over the years this has been achieved in a number of ways. Twice-yearly Study Days were initiated in 1989 by Canon John Fitch, which soon settled into a routine of a group of four or five churches being visited on the first Wednesday in May and the first Saturday in October.
Out of this grew A Select Guide to Essex Churches and Chapels, written by members of the Friends and edited by John Fitch, and published by Paul Watkins on behalf of the Friends in 1996. It remains a valuable guide to over 330 churches in Essex and East London, from Stratford in the west to Harwich in the east, from Pentlow in the north to Grays in the south, and ranging in date from St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea (654) to Brentwood Cathedral (1991).
Dr James Bettley took over the Study Days in 1999, and passed the baton to Dr Christopher Starr in 2008. They are now are now led by a small team of different speakers.
Another aspect of the Trust’s educational role is the Gepp Lecture, sponsored by Gepp Solicitors in honour of Tom Gepp, chairman of the Friends from 1989 to 1995. This annual lecture, held at the AGM, was inaugurated in 2013 by Simon Heffer. Subsequent speakers have included Dr Rowan Williams, Sir Barney White-Spunner, Dr John Goodall, and Lord Petre.
In 1984 the Friends of Essex Churches amalgamated with the Essex Churches Support Trust, a body formed in 1977 to offer advice and encouragement to local communities and help them preserve their own churches. A revised constitution, adopted on 13 May 2015, changed our name to the Friends of Essex Churches Trust.
Martin Stuchfield, M.B.E., J.P., D.L., F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S.
Martin is a trustee of numerous registered charities concerned with heritage, history and archaeology.
Martin was elected Hon. Secretary in 2015 and also served as Vice-Chairman from 2017 to 2021 when he became Chairman of the Trust.
He is President and Conservation Officer of the Monumental Brass Society. He is also a consultant on monumental brasses to the Chelmsford, Norwich and St. Edmundsbury & Ipswich Diocesan Advisory Committees (‘D.A.C.’).
He is a Trustee and Director of the Rural Community Council of Essex and a Vice-President of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. He is also a former Trustee of the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome and the Victoria County History of Essex Trust.
He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to Heritage, Charity and the Community in Essex. He is also a Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Essex and a member of the Court of the University of Essex.
Martin is Churchwarden of the small Essex church dedicated to St. Gregory and St. George at Pentlow.
Vice-Chairman and Ride+Stride Organiser
Rachel has been a member of the Events Committee for many years, firstly organising the annual Gift Fair and then becoming its chair and joining the Executive Committee.
Rachel has taken over the responsibility for the annual Ride+Stride, which takes place on the second Saturday of September. In addition to being a significant fund-raiser, this event provides an excellent opportunity each year for Essex churches to open their doors to visitors, and for Riders+Striders to appreciate how fortunate the county is to have such a remarkable wealth of fascinating buildings.
She grew up in a small rural village, with a beautiful parish church at its centre, and is passionately committed to raising funds to sustain these wonderful buildings for future generations to use and enjoy.
She is married with three children and has lived in Essex for over three decades.
John has lived in Saffron Walden since 2012 and has a longstanding interest in East Anglian churches. A Cambridge graduate, he worked in the City with investment banks, including, most recently, HSBC. Following his late father-in-law, Thomas Gepp, he became involved with the Friends of Essex Churches Trust in 2014 and was elected Hon. Secretary at the 2021 AGM.
Jo was appointed Hon. Treasurer in 2022. She has been a member of the Events Committee since 2015 and served as Chairman from 2020 to 2022. Jo also follows in her mother’s footsteps in actively supporting the work of the Friends of Essex Churches Trust.
Jo and her husband James have two children and live on their family farm in Henham. Jo is a keen bell ringer and has been a member of the Essex Association of Change Ringers since 2008. She can regularly be found in her local parish church ringing bells for weekly services, weddings and touring the county ringing in other churches great and small.
Chairman of the Grants Committee
James Bettley is an architectural historian, whose publications include the 2007 edition of the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Essex. He was first elected to the Executive Committee of the FECT in 1999 and served as chairman from 2012 to 2017. He is a member (and past chairman) of the Chelmsford Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches, and Chairman of the Chelmsford Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee. He is chairman of the Rural Community Council of Essex and a trustee of the Essex Heritage Trust.