The church claims to have descended from a group of Colchestrians who, in the first half of the 17th century, broke away from the Established Church to worship as conscience dictated and became the first Nonconformist Church in the town. The documentary evidence is found in the records of the Old Congregational Church at Great Yarmouth in which this sentence, dated 1642, is found:
“In the meantime Mr. John Ward, being called to Colchester, did there with others gather into church fellowship and there continued.”
John Ward was an Anglican Clergyman who, having fled to Holland from Norwich, returned after seven years of exile to Great Yarmouth. He began his work here six years before the Siege of Colchester, when the inhabitants of the town, including presumably some of the earliest adherents of the Church, were besieged with the Cavaliers and starved into submission by the Roundheads in the Civil War. John Ward’s ministry was a short one, for he died in 1644; the Church has in its possession a photostat copy of his will which he made and signed on the day of his death.
The history of the Church falls into three parts. For nearly fifty years from 1642, meetings were held in private houses until in 1688, the Rev. William Rawlinson bought land in Moor Lane (now Priory Street) and had erected there the first Meeting House. The exact site is not known but here worship was conducted for 80 years. in 1755 four silver communion cups were acquired and today, over 200 years later, still have a place on the Table when Holy Communion is celebrated. The Moor Lane Meeting House was probably of a wooden construction and in 1763 it was decided to move to a more central position and to build a larger place of worship. The site on the which the Church now stands was purchased and in 1767 the Round Meeting House came into use.
The Round Meeting House was, strictly speaking, octagonal in shape and again a wooden building. It had a pulpit built into the wall and a large brass chandelier hanging from the centre. Here the Church worshipped for almost 100 years until, during the ministry of one of its most outstanding ministers, the Rev. T. W. Davids, it was decided to rebuild.
In its place was erected a Victorian Gothic-style edifice, built of Caen stone at a cost of £6,500. Building was commenced in 1862 and aroused a great deal of controversy because of its design. It was dubbed a “Steeple house” and was bitterly criticised by the more conservative of the Church members. Twice before the end of the century, once through earthquake and once through storm, the steeple fell, luckily without loss of life. The Communion Table and chairs ont he dias were made from the roof timbers of the former building. After 20 years the Church Hall was added and the buildings remained substantially unaltered.
In 1942 Tercentenary Celebrations were held and although at the time the pulpit was vacant five former ministers took part, one, the Rev. K. L. Parry, being at that time the Chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales.
During the ministry of the Rev. John Weller (1943-1951), Family Church was introduced and proved a tremendous power in welding the organisations of the Church into a single force. In that decade varied forms of evening worship including musical, film and youth services have been introduced to meet the changing needs of the congregation.
By 1940 the Caen stone had begun to deteriorate. By 1972, the year in which Lion Walk became part of the newly-created United Reformed Church, the painful decision to demolish and rebuild had to be made. It was agreed that Lion Walk must remain a town-centre church. Planning permission for development of the site was made conditional upon the tower and steeple remaining. It has been underpinned and renovated so that more than ever before it lifts the eyes and heart skywards.
The church’s new position above shops means that most of the £1.5 million cost of the new complex has been borne by the developers, but members and friends of the church have worked and given sacrificially to create a worthy place of worship. The fine Willis organ has been enlarged and re-installed.
One of Lion Walk’s most stalwart members was the late Alderman E. A. Blaxill who was a Deacon for over 50 years. Much that is know of the History of the Church is due to the research which he carried out. It is fitting to recall these words of his, printed in a “Short History” which he wrote in 1950. After writing of outstanding personalities he went on “But there have been thousands of other un-named men and women and who, having fought the good fight and finished the course, have been granted ‘safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at last'”. The Church today has ever in mind and debt it owes to the loyal and devoted members reaching back in an unbroken line. Through their witness we worship today and in them we find inspiration to hand on an even better heritage than that which we received.
That tiny stream which began in 1642 and has flowed continuously ever since, now in spate, at times sluggishly, moves forward to the 21st century a deep and wide river to nourish the life of our town.
Ministers (since 1935):
1935-41 – The Revd Leslie J Tizard
1943-51 – The Revd John G Weller
1952-76 – The Revd Kenneth R Sainsbury
1975-82 – The Revd David W Flynn
1983-93 – The Revd Raymond Royston-Bishop
1994-01 – The Revd Joan E Grindrod-Helmn
2003- – The Revd Kenneth M Forbes
A major part of ‘A Short History of Lion Walk Church, 1642-1935‘, written by E. Alec Blaxill and with kind permission of his grandsons, Christopher and Anthony Blaxhill, has been included at the beginning of
‘The Onflowing Stream 1935-1992‘ by Alan Duncan, being the updated History
of the Church Family at Lion Walk, Colchester.
Reference copies of ‘The Onflowing Stream‘ are held in the library within the chapel in Lion Walk Church.