Friday, June 20, 2008


PECULIARLY ESSEX The novelist, Bernard Cornwell (of Sharpe fame) and the late Doris Phillips had something in common. They were both brought up in a Peculiar People’s family - a strict religious sect that flourished within 40 Essex chapels for more than 100 years. The Peculiar People appointed Bishops and Elders and was founded in Rochford in 1838 by a charismatic working-class man, James Banyard. The word ‘peculiar’ originally meant ‘special’ in the Biblical sense and there are several references in the Old Testament.

Doris remembered: “Being a child in the Peculiar People’s church was normal to us. Life was strict and there were many rules such as not being treated by doctors but Elders using herbs and fervent prayers. Immunisation was forbidden and blood transfusions were not allowed. But there were also lovely memories. Just the mention of Chelmsford brought such excitement. My father had been an Elder of the Peculiar People’s church near Chelmsford, but we often visited other PP chapels around the county, walking for miles with cooked food in the bottom of the family pram alongside the babies. Sunday was a long day with three services and people brought their own food.

“The Chelmsford Harvest Festival held annually at the Corn Exchange in Tindal Square was an important date on our calendar – more so than Christmas. We would dress in our best Sunday clothes, although these were plain, usually black and white, no colours allowed except for a flower on our bonnets. PPs were easily recognised in Chelmsford’s streets as hundreds of our “sisters” with their tight black bonnets and the “brothers” with dark suits, bowler hats, clean-shaven faces and highly polished black boots, converged in the town centre. Chelmsford was besieged by PPs as the county town was felt to be the Essex heartland. Everyone either walked or hired carts and, much later, brakes. Special trains often brought people from Suffolk, Norfolk and London.”

Doris remembered hundreds packing into the old London Road Congregational Church, for morning and afternoon services, followed by a wonderful tea in the Corn Exchange (demolished in 1969), then a massed open-air gathering in Market Square. Eloquent preachers usually attended and the singing – without any musical accompaniment, but with loud clapping and stamping - was inspiring, often attracting converts to the Peculiars.”

The Peculiar People chapels flourished until World War II and the by-then declining membership was absorbed into the Union of Evangelical Churches in 1956. The last proper Peculiar People’s Chapel at Tillingham closed its door in spring 2008 and with it, 170 years of Peculiar worship came to an end