A Study of St Peter’s Church Tower



Construction of the tower

Why was the tower built?

Visual impact

Observation tower

Fortified tower

Smuggler’s lookout

Signalling tower

Time keeping



There is little doubt that the bell tower on St-Peter's Church is a prominent and significant feature of the village, however very little information about its origins and history has been discovered.

On page-21 of Goldhanger – an estuary village, published in 1977, Maura Benham wrote:

Considerable rebuilding and additional work must have been carried out at St. Peter's church in the latter part of the 14th century. ...The south aisle and door were either built or rebuilt at about the same time. Some 100 years later the tower was added, a massive structure in relation to the church and constructed a few feet away from the west wall which was then demolished and the building extended to join the tower's east face. This alteration can also be seen in the stonework of the exterior wall, in this case on the south-west corner...

alterations on the north wall

alterations on the south wall

Although we know a great deal about the History of the bells it is necessary to turn to other sources of information on the history of Church towers generally to learn more about the tower structure, and how and why it was built. There is an extremely useful thesis written in 2011 by Dominic John Summers for The University of East Anglia and entitled: Norfolk Church Towers of the Later Middle Ages which is available online. It has extensive historical material on church towers which is equally application to East Anglia and Essex. Recommended reading includes:

Chapter 2. An overview of the history - England (Pages 46-61)

Chapter 3.  Style (pages 62-68)

General tower form: Dimensions, Buttresses, String Courses and Parapets (pages 69-86)

Tower Openings: Doors, Windows,Belfry Openings and Sound Holes (pages 86- 106)

Some ideas from the thesis have been incorporated in this study.

Substantial Church towers have always been expensive to build as they needing not only expertise but also a significant labour force, so one can only wonder who locally might funded such an undertaking. The prime candidates are the wealthy Higham family who resided at Higham Manor between 1400 and the 1545. Maura Benham tells us that the family were responsible for building the Lady Chapel in the south east corner of the Church and monumental brasses on their tombs were dated 1427, 1429, 1460 and 1531.

Many similar Church towers were built around the same time, including several in the immediate vicinity, all of a substantial stone construction with crenulated parapets.

These towers can be seen in... www.essexviews.uk/photos/Essex Churches and at...

Construction of the Tower

Building such a large church tower would have been the greatest undertaking ever attempted by the parish at that time and is undoubtedly the largest project ever accomplished in the village still. Much more stone was needed for the tower than for other parts of a church and only one type of stone has been used. This contrasts with the nave and south isle structure which is built with a mixture of reused Roman clay tiles, flintstone and septaria.

If one studies the ground plan the churches with large towers built during that period, the different thickness of the walls in the tower to the rest of the church is very evident. Transportation of the stone from the nearest quarry greatly inflated the cost. It  is said that in East Anglia a journey of only 10 miles by sea and land in 1469 more than tripled the cost of the stone at the quarry and there are very few stone quarries in East Anglia.

The nearest stone quarry to Goldhanger is at Maidstone in Kent, which is a distance of about 60 miles by river and sea, and produces “Kentish Ragstone”. The next nearest quarry is at Stamford in Lincolnshire which produces Stamford limestone and is about 150 miles away by river and sea. It is therefore most likely that the Goldhanger tower is constructed with Kentish Ragstone. This is supported by the knowledge that several other towers of very similar appearance in the immediate vicinity (and identified above) are known to be built with Kentish Ragstone.

The name Ragstone has its origins with the early stonemasons who observed that the Kent stone produced a particularly ragged surface when split with a chisel, unlike many other UK limestones.

The predominance of the buttresses, with large areas of blank walls broken only with horizontal string courses and the crenulations on the tower parapet that resemble military defensive architecture all helps to create an impression of solidarity, durability and permanence.



The methods and tools used by stone masons in the Middle Ages undoubtedly didn’t change for hundreds of years. The tools consisted only of hammers and chisels, ropes and pulleys, and a plumb line. Scaffolding did not exist at that time and a combination of temporary and permanent wooden floors inside the structure was used as the tower progressed in height. It could well have taken many years to complete the structure an accidents, serious injuries and fatalities must have occurred.

There is a chequered pattern high up on the west side of the tower that has assumed to have some connection with the Chequers Inn next door. However, a study of other similar towers in Essex and East Anglia reveals that this is a common decorative feature of Church towers known as chequered flint flushwork. Purleigh Church is a good local example.

This door half way up the tower is said to be the oldest woodwork in the church and could well date from the time the tower was built.

There is also a stonemason’s mark on the inside of the wall on the ground floor in the ringing chamber.

To date, and compared with several other local towers, Goldhanger has proven to be remarkably durable. There is a history of church towers collapsing in the past, including St Andrews at Heybridge and St Mary’s in Maldon. Peldon and Langenhoe churches were severely damages by the 1887 earthquake. Other local churches can no longer swing the bells for full circle ringing due to cracks in the structure.

Why was the tower built?

One can only speculate what the original reasons were for undertaking such a large project in a small village. Today it is easy to assume that the primary purpose was to build a tower to contain bells, which has been its main purpose for at least two hundred years. However we know that over a much longer period towers elsewhere were built for a variety of other reasons...

Visual impact – The appearance of the tower at the time it was built was clearly important to both the Church authorities and their patrons at the time. The Church would have had already leading position in village life and the addition of an imposing tower would have been a demonstration the important position in the community that the Church had then. For the patrons it would have been a demonstration of their wealth and may have brought them closer to their maker.

It is difficult to imagine the Church today without the tower, but this sketch may help to convey how it would have appeared when it was first built and now without it...

One of the effects of building a large tower that dominate both the church and the local community was to give the church not only a grand western façade but also provide a majestic entrance and exit for ceremonial occasions from the west straight down the aisle, even if the normal entrance remained the door on the south of the nave.

An observation tower – St Peter’s Church is located on the highest point in the area with views over the Blackwater Estuary from Maldon in the west going out into the North Sea in the east...

a panoramic view from the tower roof - looking towards the Estuary, the Creek, Osea Island and out to the North Sea

(select to enlarge)

The village has also always been at a crossroads of two important routes: east to west from Maldon to Mersea Island and north to south from Tiptree to Osea Island (see Local highways and byways from the past), so the tower could well have had an important defensive role in times of possible overseas invasion and internal strife. There were many battles that may have raised local concerns about potential invasions. Whether the locals know about battles that took place in the centuries before St Peter’s tower was planned and built is uncertain, but the rectors at that time who would have benefited from a Cambridge University education for a degree in divinity so could well have known about at least two battles...

the Battle of Maldon in 991 which took place in the Blackwater Estuary

the Battle of Ashingdon south of the estuary in 1016 led by King Canute

at the time the tower was built several conflicts were taking place:

Battle of Billericay in 1381 (part of the Peasants' Revolt with Goldhanger men involved)

Hundred Years War with France from 1337 to 1453

and the Battle of Agincourt/Azincourt in 1415 (Azincourt is 50Km from Calais)

Wars of the Roses 1421 to 1487

the First battle of St. Albans in 1455

the Second battle of St. Albans in 1461

the Battle of Barnet, North London in 1471

well after St Peter’s tower had been built  these conflicts took place:

English Civil War 1642 to 1651 

and the Siege of Colchester in 1648

French Napoleonic wars 2nd half of 1700s early 1800s

Anglo-Dutch wars covering four periods: between the 1650s and 1780s

During these periods of a high risk of invasion and conflict the tower could well have been used as a look out for invaders coming up the estuary or other armed forces approaching by land and planned to give early warnings to villagers and the surrounding areas.

In both WW-1 and WW-2 the church and others like it were not used by military observers, probably because it would have created too high a risk of the churches being bombed and there would have been no easy escape route for the observers. Also in both of these wars the observers were primarily looking and listening for enemy aircraft, for which a high position was not needed.

A fortified tower - Should any threatening situation arisen then the villagers could well have felt very safe in the overtly defensive and fortified tower. The crenelated battlements on the top of the tower, the small windows and heavy doors all help to create an impression of fortification not unlike medieval castle keeps, turrets and parapets. It is also said that trefoils in heavy wooden windows were often inserted during troubled times in exposed positions such as near the coast and could be used for musketry...

The Church itself at times of a high risk of an invasion would also have been a safe haven for a large number, if not all of the villagers. The large stained glass windows that exist today, including the one in the tower, probably weren’t there in that early period, the only windows being the thin Norman style ones that remain on the north wall. The thick wooden doors would have also provided adequate protection against potential invaders who were armed with only swords, lances, crossbows and muskets.

A smuggler’s lookout - smuggling took place around the estuary and village for centuries and although the tower was unlikely to have been built with this purpose in mind, ever since it was built it could well have been used by smugglers for the purpose of looking out for coastguards and riding officers to see if the coast was clear. Because of the many controversies surrounding the uses the taxation raised by the Crown were put to, churches and their clergy often sided with the smugglers.

A signalling tower– long before telephone and radio communications were available, the tower would have been the only means to send and receive messges to and from nearby villages and towns.  As well as sounding a bell, flags would have been used during daylight hours and beacons at night. Seven local church towers can be seen from the roof of the tower on a clear day and all of these would be able to receive and pass on signals from Goldhanger. They are:


Tolleshunt Major


Tolleshunt D'Arcy




St Lawrence

For time keeping purposes- from Saxon times to the Renaissance most churches had a sundial. It was usually situated on the south face of the tower. The purpose was to ensure that a bell was rung at the correct time for church services. In many villages for hundreds of years, a sundial was the only reliable timepiece available as most could not afford a clock and watches did not exist.  There are no obvious signs of a sundial on St Peter’s tower today, however several other local churches still signs of them, and many towers had a very simple wrought iron pointer called the style or gnomon, combined with lines scratched in the stone around it...


examples of simple stone sundials on churches elsewhere

On the south face of St Peters tower there are signs of a small round fill-in that could perhaps once been a have contained one of these simple stone sundials...

The problem with sundials was they were of no use on cloudy days and they were eventually supplemented or replaced with simple clocks that took advantage of height of the tower to utilise a long pendulum and a winding weight.

Church tower clocks first appear in the late 1400s and were made in the village blacksmith's forge and the of the carpenters workshops. Surviving tower clocks from before the 1700s are rare and most are non-working exhibits in churches and museums. Some of the early clock had no dials, their purpose being only to indicate when it was time to sound the bell. These clocks benefited from the height of the tower and could have long heavy pendulums and weights to power the clocks. They tended to be not good time keepers and were unreliable.

There are two indications on the north wall of St Peter’s tower that there was once a clock in the tower: When the sun it at the optimum angle there is a distinct circular ring just below the north orifice, and one side of the orifice above it has been bricked up on the inside in the bell chamber...

For one hundred years before 1980 the nearest building in the direction shielded acoustic in-fill was the village school. As bell ringing only normally takes place at weekends and on practice evenings and hardly ever during school hours, a posible explanation is that it could an indication that when the school was built in 1875 there was a striking clock in the Church tower that disturbed the children.

No signs of brackets or spindle holes, etc. have been found inside the tower, although some out of place redbrick patching up can be seen. The bell frame and the floor beneath it were replaced in 1951 and the walls in the upper parts of the tower were patched up and whitewashed, so these actions could well have destroyed any remaining evidence of a clock mechanism inside the tower.

There are also clear signs that all of the outside of the tower has been re-pointed at some time in the past and this could well have have destroyed any other signs of dials on the other three sides.

Finally as a bell tower – when the tower was first built it had no more than four bells and maybe only had one. Peldon Church has a very similar looking 14th century bell tower but still has just one bell. The earliest Goldhanger record is from the time of the Reformation in 1549 when an inventory of Church Goods identified...

iiij greate bells hanginge in the stepyll with lettell sauncfcus bell

this can be translated as: “four great bells hanging in the steeple with a little sanctuary (or alter) bell”

In the 1600s the tower still contained just four bells, but by the early 1900s there were six. This meant that for hundreds of years there would have been a majestic entrance and exit available for ceremonial occasions such as weddings through the bell tower with the bells ringing. Today sadly, with eight bells, there is insufficient space for this to safely happen.

more about... The bells of St Peters


open view of the bell tower

(select to enlarge & zoom)


top                                   St Peter’s Church                          home