The lorry driver’s face was a study the day he and his load of 8,000 bricks arrived at the site of the new church. For waiting to unload the bricks were a group of eager housewives. “You’re never going to do this yourselves!” gasped the lorry driver. “Why not?” retorted the group proudly. “We’re helping to build the church.”
And since that bitterly cold day the ladies of St. Margaret’s Church, near Colchester, Essex, have never once sat back and let their husbands do all the heavy work for their “do-it-themselves” church. Instead, they’ve put on their jeans and boots, rolled up their sleeves and got cracking with jobs like unloading lorries of bricks and timber, preparing copper strips for the roof, and finishing off all the brickwork which their husbands learnt how to lay at evening classes.
“The men could only work in the evenings and weekends so it would have taken them far longer if we hadn’t helped,” said Violet Radley, an industrious corner-stone of the housewives’ building corps. “It was our Vicar who suggested we unload the lorries because they always delivered during the day when our men weren’t around. Altogether we’ve unloaded over 45,000 bricks, dozens of 24ft. long lengths of timber and eight half-inch glass doors. It took eight of us to lift each one!” “We had to ask that very first lorry driver how to unload his bricks. He told us how to hold three together like a wafer of ice cream. Then we formed a chain to the hut where the materials were being stored and passed them along. I won’t say we didn’t drop any bricks. But at least none landed on our toes!” Violet, a cheery forty-two year old with two teenage children. recalled their first “brickies” experience as we stood on the muddy building site beneath the church’s skeleton frame with the main roof beams soaring into the sky.
In the hut, ten of the housewives were cutting copper strips with an electric saw. Later, in her comfortable home a stone’s throw from the site, Violet showed me photos of the completed model of the church. Its design is futuristic with a special triangular chimney for the light to beam through to the altar area. It will seat two hundred and fifty in a semi-circle.
At present, parishioners use a hall by the building site for both their worship and social events. The idea to build their own church came to Jean Sly, the Vicar’s pretty young wife, in the middle of the night. She woke up her husband who thought the scheme crazy. But next morning, after going into the money aspect of things, he changed his mind. When the church is finished, by the end of next year, the bill should be about £15,000 under half the normal cost.
“When I first heard Mr Sly say we would do it ourselves, I thought: crumbs we’ll never manage,” said Violet. Now she and the other ladies, there’s a hard core of about a dozen, like to think that the men could not have managed without them.
To protect her hands against the rough work, Violet started off wearing rubber gloves. But she got through so many pairs, that she settled for some old leather gardening gloves. And to help her husband, Fred, a forty.four year old electrician, who works nights on the site, to beat the cold during the wintry months, she knitted him a bobble hat and half- mittens without finger covering. The outfit was a huge success and Violet found herself knitting for the other men as well.
Like the other husbands, Fred is justifiably proud of his wife’s achievements. “When I tell him what we’ve been doing on the site, he’ll say, “That’s not women’s work. Then we both laugh and next day all of us housewives carry on as usual,” said Violet, smiling.
Her son. Andrew. helps at the site too, and daughter Linda has made a neat purple and orange embroidered hassock, one of two hundred the ladies are sewing for the church. “All our families have been involved with the project. Even the babies and toddlers, as they’re brought along to the site so that their mums can do some work;” said Violet.
The ladies’ final task, apart from their continuous fund-raising efforts, is to lay glass mosaic on the floor of the altar dais and church entrance. “After it’s all finished we’ll have loads of our own decorating and gardening to do,” said Violet. “We’ve not had a minute to look after our own homes.”