Southend and Leigh have had some very quirky clergymen over the decades, the good, the bad and the downright peculiar... here are just a few of them.


In January 1924 Southend saw queues forming for a more unlikely pastime – church.

In unprecedented scenes, heaving queues formed outside St Mary’s Church in Prittlewell on Sunday evenings. So many people were eager to get inside, the church had to hold two services each evening.

People stood five deep in line for the second service before the first was even over and began filing in the front while the congregation was exiting out the back. The reason for the surge in popularity? It was all down to a particularly charismatic vicar who was renowned for making his services bright and entertaining.

Echo: Popular - Rev Canon Ellis GowingPopular - Rev Canon Ellis Gowing (Image: Southend Museums)

He was the Rev Canon Ellis Gowing, the rural dean of Southend who was known for ‘calling a spade a spade’ and on one occasion for leading his congregation in prayer for Southend United to triumph in a cup tie match – a move he received a lot of flack for (they ended up losing anyway).

His down to earth manner got him in trouble on another occasion when he bumped his head while jumping onto a tramcar in Southend, leading him to blurt out the word “damn”.

Two female passengers were not best pleased with a clergyman using the ‘D word’ and made their views known.


In 1905 one of the most famous Catholic Bishops of the Victorian age died a frail man at a Southend nursing home.

Born in London in 1846, The Right Reverend James Bellord, had been an army chaplain for more than 25 years and served in a number of wars until finally retiring as a chaplain of the first-class in 1899.

In the Zulu War of 1879 he was present at the Battle of Ulundi – the last major battle of the Anglo Zulu war. He also served the Boer War of 1881.

In the Egyptian war in 1882, at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, he was severely injured by a bullet, but he made sure he could still administer to the sick and wounded soldiers by insisting to be carried around on a stretcher to comfort the dying.

For this he was awarded the Khedive’s star campaign medal.

Echo: From Army chaplain to bishop - James BellordFrom Army chaplain to bishop - James Bellord (Image: File photo)

In 1899, after his retirement from the army, Rev Bellord was appointed by the Pope himself as ‘Vicar-Apostolic of Gibraltar’ and ‘Bishop of Milevis’. Afterwards he did duty as Bishop of Westminster.

For the last two years of his life he lived at Nazareth House in Southend, which at the time provided care for Catholic children as well as infirm Catholic clergy and other patients.

He died, aged 59, after a long battle with typhoid fever, believed to have been picked up during his foreign service. He was said to have been practically an invalid during his time at Southend and his physical suffering was said to have been “severe”.


Father John Moore was so beloved by the people of Southend that everywhere he went he was swarmed by crowds, just like a celebrity. He was a household name.

Father Moore was an integral figure in the formative years of Southend as a growing resort and he led a truly remarkable life.

The catholic priest came to Southend in the 1860s from his mission in Wapping. He didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes. There was hardly any catholic presence in the town at the time. But he persevered.

He opened the first catholic mission in the town and went on to help fund the building of St Helen’s Catholic Church in Milton Road, Westcliff – of which he became the first parish priest.

The church was opened in October 1869 by the Archbishop of Westminster. Before this Father Moore held Mass for his parishioners from the rooms in his own house in Capel Terrace.

The popular priest also become the catholic Chaplin to the forces based at the Shoebury garrison.

Originally from Ireland, Father Moore had trained at the famed Saint Sulpice Seminary in Paris. He was there when the July Revolution of 1830 broke out.

He was one of 200 young students who were in the seminary when it was raided by a mob of revolutionaries firing bullets from rifles.

The trainee priests were -at one point -about to be sent to the guillotine by the mob, but Father Moore used his Irish wit to persuade the revolutionaries to let them live.


Back in Edwardian Southend, the community was rocked by the death of one of its most-respected citizens – a vicar whose death was so bizarre and mysterious it could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie novel.

Yet there was nothing fictionalised when it comes to to the story of Dr Henry Charles Lang, the vicar of All Saints Church in Southend.

Shortly before Christmas in 1909 the reverend was found dead in his bed at the church vicarage in Lancaster Gardens, Southend. His arm was outstretched and within reach of an uncorked vial of prussic acid sitting on his dresser. The air was filled with the peach blossom odour associated with the deadly poison. The bedroom door was locked from the inside and concerned friends had been forced to break it down after being alerted by the vicar’s wife, Rose.

Dr Lang had clearly swallowed the poison. But why? His death sent shockwaves through the Southend community.

Dr Lang had been incumbent at the church since 1892, taking over from the previous leader, the Reverend Montague Burnett. In his youth and before he entered the priesthood, Dr Lang had studied to become a medical physician and had spent time working at the Central London Sick Asylum.

He was ordained as a priest in 1886. Dr Lang was a popular figure, although he had attracted some criticism during his time in Southend due to his ardent belief in ritualism – an emphasis on the rituals and liturgical ceremonies of the church, in particular of Holy Communion. Commission on church discipline However, his church teachings weren’t his only passion in life.

Dr Lang was a butterfly enthusiast and had amassed a collection of 10,000 butterfly specimens. He would often exhibit them at the Palace Hotel in Southend and had written several books on the subject.

He was also an accomplished amateur actor and had led the service for the laying of the foundation stone for the New Empire Theatre in Southend.

Echo: Exorcism expert - Father Philip GrayExorcism expert - Father Philip Gray (Image: Newsquest)


On October 25, 1822, a new vicar of Prittlewell was introduced – and he was an unusual character to say the least.

Dr Frederick Nolan was a reputed scholar and theologian. He was elected as a Member of the Royal Society of Literature in 1828, became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1832 and an Honorary Member of the Statistical Society of Paris.

On taking up his post at St Mary’s in Prittlewell, Nolan moved into the adjacent vicarage where he installed a printing press.

A prolific writer, at least 20 of his major works were published.

Nolan, however, was described as a man of somewhat eccentric habits.

He had a long dispute with his church’s bell ringers, which began in the spring of 1840 when he clashed with his parishioners as to the hours of ringing.

He thought the bells were rung too early and he found the noise disturbing. He demanded the bells be rung later at 8am daily.

The vicar’s edict , however, was strongly resisted by the ringers who saw no reason to change their timing. By all accounts Nolan was not a popular figure with many of his parishioners.

The mutual animosity intensified and came to a head on the morning of Sunday June 14, 1840, when between nine and ten o’clock, whilst the bells were being rung, Nolan, in an apoplectic rage, entered by the belfry carrying a carving knife and tried to cut the bell ropes.

The dispute escalated. Allegations and counter-allegations sallied back and forth. Dr Nolan tried unsuccessfully to prevent the bell ringers from entering and he installed heavy locks to bar access into the church. Nevertheless, the bell ringers still managed to get in by climbing on the roof and passing through a door which communicated with the belfry.

Hatred of Dr Nolan was so intense that an effigy was burnt of him on Guy Fawkes Night by the angry parishioners. Nolan added “a threatening letter has been sent to me expressing the intention of the writer to set my house on fire”. The dispute dragged on for months, seemingly without resolution.

Nolan remained vicar of St Mary’s until his death aged 85 on September 16, 1864. He was survived by his widow Angelina. You can read the story of Dr Nolan in the book ‘Milton Chalkwell and the Crowstone’ by Marion Peace (


In the 1970s, Leigh clergyman Father Philip Gray was perform exorcisms on a number of people and buildings.

Why? Because there had been a rise in people in the early 1970s dabbling with ouija boards.

Father Gray of St Clement’s Church, gave an interview to the Echo, describing how he’d been to a north Essex school to perform at exorcism after being invited by the headteacher, worried about the rise in children tinkering with ouija boards.

He had also conducted an exorcism on a building in north Essex where he’d been told a ‘black mass’ had taken place. All of this was at least a year before the controversial horror film, The Exorcist, was to come out in cinemas.