by Larry Grinnell, GFA Secretary and Webmaster
When I decided to spend Christmas 2005 in London, I planned a day trip to visit the site of the earliest documented evidence of the American branch of the Grinnell family. I found the website for St. Leonard’s Church in Lexden, England, and made contact with a representative of the church, who agreed to meet me and show me the church as well as St. Botolph’s Church in Colchester.
To recap, here’s what we know about Matthew and Rose Greenell in Lexden (more about Colchester later). The Lexden Parish Registers for Essex County had the following entries:
Matthew Greenell & Rose French were married August ye 27 
Rose Grinnell daughter of Mathew Greenel was baptised May 21 
Mathew Greenell ye son of Matthew Grenell was baptised July 18 1619
Matthew Greenell was buryed May 26. 1620.
I arrived at the Colchester station on a bitterly-cold (at least for a Floridian!) day, after an hour’s train ride from the Liverpool Station in London. The southeastern shores of England had just gone through several days of snow, winds, and really rotten weather (probably business as usual around there...). I was met by Colin Hetherington, a Church Warden of St. Leonard’s Church in Lexden, who drove me out to the church. The sidewalks were quite treacherous, due to all the snow and ice which had not yet been cleared. At one point, we crossed the street to drier footpaths.
St. Leonard, by the way, was the patron saint of prisoners, and is most often depicted in monk’s garb, wearing chains.
Lexden as an independent entity no longer exists, having been swallowed up by the adjacent town of Colchester. St. Leonard’s, as it now stands, was consecrated in 1821, replacing the original structure which was weathered and in very sad shape. The original structure, which probably dated to the 13th or 14th century, is where Matthew and Rose were married, and where children Matthew, Mary, and Rose were baptized in the early 1600s. The original church is pictured below in a painting found at in church's office/sacristy.
Painting of the original Lexden Church, which was torn down and replaced by the current building in 1821
The church continues to be a very active part of the community. Christmas Eve services brought a standing room only crowd of over 200. Current plans are to build a small addition to provide for more meeting space and for a proper choir dressing area, not to mention finally bringing indoor plumbing to the church. The plans are currently being reviewed by local officials. Several 19th century graves will have to be relocated, which was the only major issue to still be resolved. An interesting historical note is that one of the 18th century church members was the son of Stamford Raffles, the British official who founded the Crown Colony of Singapore. It was also interesting that the church’s treasures, such as a lovely 18th century silver chalice, are normally kept in a local bank vault, as they are far too valuable to be kept in the church safe.
Today’s St. Leonard’s Church. Photo by Ian Rose (1999)
Inside St. Leonard's Church
Kneeling pad as you approach the altar of St. Leonard's Church
One of St. Leonard's many stained glass windows
After lunch at a local pub, we drove into Colchester to visit St. Botolph’s Church, where the last of the British-born children of Matthew and Rose, Thomas, was baptized.
Our host and tourguide, Colin Hetherington, of St. Leonard's Church, Lexden, England
Colchester is the oldest recorded town in England, first being mentioned in writings by scribe Pliny the Elder in 77 AD, two years before he died in Pompeii during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Much of the original Roman wall from somewhere around 50 AD still stands--a pub was built into one gap many years ago--it is aptly named “The Hole in the Wall”. A magnificent old castle sits nearby. The shopping area is delightful with many old Tudor-era buildings still standing.
Part of the Roman wall that formerly surrounded Colchester
Another shot of the Roman Wall, Colchester, England
The "Hole in the Wall" pub, built into the Roman wall, Colchester, England
Again, we refer to parish records, this time from St. Botolph’s Church in Colchester.
Tho: Son of Mathew Greenell & Rose was baptised the xxxth of Jan’y [1630/31]
The present St. Botolph’s Church was built about the same time as St. Leonard’s, dedicated in 1837, but located on the church property are the ruins of the original 11th century priory (built on the foundations of an even older Saxon church). Thomas Greenell was most probably baptized in the priory, which was the church in those days (the monks were thrown out when Henry VIII took over the Catholic properties and made them over as Anglican churches).
The old Priory at St. Botolph's Church, Colchester, England
Another view of the Priory. The present (1837) St. Botolph's Church can be viewed through the Priory
The priory was destroyed during the Civil War of the mid-1600s and stands in the condition in which it was left after that war. The parish met and worshipped at another nearby church for almost 200 years before building the current church in the 1820s.
St. Botolph's Church, Colchester, England (photo by Ian Hunter)
A look inside St. Botolph's Church, Colchester, England
The church records are minimal--most have been handed over to the local authorities for their protection and preservation. I have some forms for researchers from the Essex County hall of records, if anyone is interested.
Several years ago, a parishoner did a complete survey of the churchyard at St. Leonard’s, and the earliest marked grave only goes back to the early 1800s. No Grinnells--I checked the survey.
All in all, it was an amazing visit to the earliest known place our British ancestors were known to have been.
St. Leonard’s Church has a website: http://www.stleonardslexden.org.uk/
As does St. Botolph’s Church: http://www.stbotolphs.org/
Special thanks to Colin Hetherington of St. Leonard’s, and Mrs. Janet Abbott, secretary of St. Botolph’s Parochial Church Council for taking time from their busy schedules to show me their architectural and historical treasures.
Photos by Larry Grinnell unless otherwise credited