Village History

Lying between Wickford and Billericay the small village of Downham is a pleasing mixture of period cottages, farmhouses and newer properties mostly built in keeping with the rural atmosphere.

Clustered together are the village pond, the small roadside garden created to commemorate Queen Elizabeth the Second’s silver jubilee, the old school now converted into a house and the Village Hall. The hall was an old army hut once used to house W.I. by Miss Wenna Brown and has been their meeting place for more than sixty years. In 1987 finding the upkeep of the ageing hall too heavy a burden, the ownership was transferred to the Parish Council, thus ensuring that a village hall would remain on the site in perpetuity.

Approaching the village from Wickford, St. Margaret’s Church dominates the skyline. A church has stood on this site since and possibly before the eleventh century. Various restorations and rebuildings have occurred over the centuries, the last being as recently as 1977 when a sixteen years old boy deliberately set fire to the church by pouring oil on the altar and lighting it. Fortunately the Tudor tower and the outer stone walls were saved, but the roof, interior and beautiful stained glass windows were utterly destroyed.

The church has now been completely restored, the villagers who refused to let their church die raised £25,000 towards the rebuilding costs.

Below the church lies Downham Hall, now smaller than the original 17th century mansion, at one time the home of the De Beauvoir family, descendants of Osmund De Beauvoir who was Rector of Downham for sixty years and whose name is immortalised in the De Beauvoir Arms, the village public house.

An original 17th century Dovecote still stands in the vicinity of Downham Hall and there is evidence of Roman remains around the Hall and the Church, giving rise to the belief that an early Saxon settlement existed there.

Two other interesting older houses in the village are Downham House originally the home of a branch of the well known Gascoyne-Cecil family and the Grange which up until the late 1960s was owned by the Keddie family who tragically lost all three of their sons in World War Two. Two of the bells in the church were recast at their expense and dedicated to the memory of their sons.

The old pump which once supplied the whole village with water still stands on the hill, below the Inn, restored and maintained by the Parish Council.

The Northern boundary takes in part of the attractive South Hanningfield Reservoir, a favourite haunt of bird watchers hoping for a glimpse of rare waterfowl but the deep dark waters have their own secret, for beneath them lies the once grand Manor House of Fremnells and concealed within its murky walls is a mysterious room with a ramp believed to have been a hiding place used by the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin and his family horse, Bonny Black Bess. When the flooding of the land was completed the Water Company built a largish house as a residence for the Manager of the Reservoir and named it Fremnells in memory of its historic predecessor.