Later History of St Peter's Church

19th Century


In the 19th Century there were many changes to the building, the first being the extension of the south aisle eastwards, and the insertion of the south gallery in 1815–1817, to join the north gallery of 1791. A very large oil painting by John James Halls, of “Christ raising the daughter of Jairus” which had won him the premium of two hundred Guineas when exhibited at the British Institution in 1813, was donated to the church by the artist in 1815. It occupied almost the entire width of the chancel and obscured much of the east window. The painting remained in the church until some time during the major refitting of the building in 1895-1901. The present whereabouts of the painting is unknown. In 1832 the south door was sealed up and the west doors opened.

Various properties off North Hill were purchased, one the gift of Revd Samuel Carr, the Vicar of St Peter’s, in 1836, the other bought by Revd W. Marsh in 1823, and the class rooms built on the site later became the church hall.

Drama occurred in 1842 when the Vicarage burned down. It seems that some church documents together with the church plate were destroyed along with the building, which had stood in High Street, and in 1803 could be described as “recently rebuilt”. The site had by 1844 been sold to Messrs. Green, Bawtree, Round and Egerton who built a Corn Exchange on the site. When the Corn Exchange moved in 1884 the building was sold and it became the Albert School of Art. Later still, it became a theatre until the Mercury Theatre was built in 1972. The building is now the Co-Op Bank. To replace the vicarage, a building on North Hill was purchased, probably also in 1842. This served until the present vicarage was constructed.

David Sears of Boston in Massachusets, USA, having had his ancestry traced to St Peter’s parish, attempted in the 1850s to purchase his ancestor’s tomb and transfer it to America. Finding that this was impossible, he had erected in the church two memorials setting out his ancestry as provided by his genealogist. These are transcribed on the memorials pages. He also donated a very large Flagon and Paten to the church in 1852.

The Churchyard was officially closed for burials on 11 December 1854, however an entry in a list of clergy states that the last burial in the churchyard happened on 28 May 1877

A partial restoration was carried out in 1857–1859 at a cost of £1124, and the pews, tiled floor and heating pipes probably date from this time, though a new boiler was proposed for 1871. The organ was “Restored and Enlarged” by Messrs. Godball of Ipswich (at a cost of £457) and rededicated on 7th May 1874, and the churchyard walls, rails and gate piers are also from 1874–5 although the gates have long since been removed. The organ gallery was enlarged in 1878 to provide ten additional sittings. There was some internal redecoration in 1880 and 1883, the bells and clock were repaired in 1893 and the organ restored in 1896.

The clock that projects from the tower on a bracket inscribed “Redeem the Time” is the same as that shown in a photograph of 1890, and the mechanism that drives it is dated July 1865. Records show that from at least 1876 the Corporation of Colchester contributed to the costs of running and illuminating the clock.

The most significant of the changes to the building’s appearance was the work that was undertaken in 1895-6. The appeal leaflet of 1894, stating that the roof had been in a bad way for thirty five years, proposed a design by Messrs. King & Lister of Plymouth costing £5,000 which was more ambitious than the work finally completed. In the first phase, completed in 1896, the roof was completely renewed and the clerestory added, the windows of which provide light to the nave, and compensate for the loss of light from the aisle windows partly obscured by the galleries. Also at this time the chancel arch was built, but the space between it and the old chancel roof was simply filled with boards, this first phase of the work costing nearly £2,000. The organ was restored in the same year. Later the tower roof was repaired.

20th Century


In 1901 a further stage of the rebuilding was carried out, restoring the chancel to match the work already completed, and then the tower was repaired in 1903. However the proposals in the 1894 leaflet to replace the aisle windows with more “Gothic” ones was never carried out and so the building retains the cast iron arched windows of the Georgian period.

Up to the outbreak of World War I, work to enhance the building continued, with the recasting of the bells in 1913. The clock was restored at the same time and a set of “Guidford Chimes” was installed, recorded by a plaque in the porch. The chimes are no longer in place. It is known that during the Great War the congregations filled the building to capacity.

Between the wars there were some minor changes made, involving the panelling to the porch and the stairs to the galleries. A note in the records shows that a special Civic service was held on Sunday 9 May 1937 before the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, after which the coronation was heard in the church by Wireless.

A survey of the church was carried out in 1941, during the Second World War, and the plan and section of the building prepared then hangs in the porch and gives a clear indication of the various phases of construction, as well as showing what the building was like after the considerable works of the late 19th century.

The banners of the Worshipful Company of Farriers were deposited here after their headquarters in London were damaged by wartime bombing.

Work since than has been more modest. The pulpit has been moved from next to the chancel arch one pillar westwards, and so nearer to the congregation. The communion rails and chancel steps have also been modified to give room for more communicants at a time. Electricity was installed, and in 1953 the present organ was added, though the console has been moved slightly since. Two small iron strengthening pillars were placed under the west gallery to take the additional weight.

A new Vicarage was constructed in the garden of the old one, permission was granted on appeal in 1959. The previous Vicarage, number 59 North Hill, bought to replace the Vicarage destroyed in the 1842 fire, was offered for sale by auction on 3rd of May 1961.

Over the years there have been several changes to the boundaries between St Peter’s parish and the neighbouring parishes. Changes took place in 1911, 1953, and 1977 with the most recent approved by the Privy Council on 13 December 2000 when the joint benefice with St Botolph’s was established.

In the early 1970’s several back rows of pews were taken out to allow more room near the doors for people to circulate, and in 1976 the building at last acquired a lavatory. The vestry chimney was demolished in 1979 and in 1980 a gravel-filled trench on the south side was introduced to reduce damp. Sound amplification was introduced in 1981, followed by a loop in 1987. There has been no remodelling of the building since then, but continous repairs have been carried out including some major work with the tower that involved rebuilding the parapets (1985) and both aisles having been repointed and some parapets rebuilt (north aisle 1987-8, south side 1997) and gutters repaired and replaced (1992). Less visible but just as important, the ancient oak bellframe was strengthened in 1997 in order to ensure it can continue to be used for many more years as the bells summon God’s people to worship.

All these more recent repair works have been made possible by means of the gifts from members of the congregation and assistance from English Heritage, the Friends of Essex Churches, the Borough Council and other grant making bodies, and without the need to make any public appeal for funds.

Despite the differences of style, there is a distinct character given to the church and an atmosphere suggestive of life and worship carried on through the changing past to the present day.