St Thomas Upshire sits on the high ground above Waltham Abbey on Horseshoe Hill which is recorded as the road between Epping and the Augustan monastery of Waltham Abbey. However the history of St Thomas’s starts during the latter part of the 19th century when the Buxton Family took up residence in Warlies in 1858. When they arrived there was already a reading room and a school, attended by 70 pupils, and where, divine services for the village were held.
Sir Thomas Buxton and his wife Lady Victoria took a great interest in the life of the village taking an active part in the running of the school and the use and upkeep of the hamlet’s reading room. In 1895 Lady Buxton founded the Mother’s Union in the village in and a few years later Sir Thomas commissioned an architect to draw up plans for a church in the village and in 1901 Lady Victoria laid the foundation stone for the new church.
The church design is a simple arts and craft design with clean lines and clear glass giving the interior, despite the dark wood columns and beams a light, airy feel. The arts and craft theme is continued in the fixtures and fittings.
The Bishop of Victoria and Hong Kong and the Vicar of Waltham Abbey dedicated the finished church St Thomas the Apostle and Martyr in September 1902.
It was given the status of a mission church not a parish church, and placed under the direction of the Vicar of Waltham Abbey. In 1903 the Bishop of St Albans, within whose diocese the church was situated at that time, licenced the Vicar of Waltham Abbey to conduct Divine services in the Mission church.
The Buxton family continued to support the church as is evident by the donations of the baptismal font and copy of Raphael’s 1517 painting The Transfiguration, which still hangs in the church today, along with other items such as the church bell, alms dishes and communion rails in 1910.
From the beginning there was a strong desire amongst the congregation for St Thomas’ to be a fully functioning Parish church, which over the next decades was rigorously opposed by the Vicar of Waltham Abbey. In view of this Lord Buxton retained ownership of the church and land which in turn lead to the establishment of a burial ground at the back of the church.
From the outset the congregation were resolved to fund their own needs. They did this by an annual sale of works, a tradition which continues to this day in the much-loved St Thomas Summer and Christmas Fairs.
Founders of the church Lord and Lady Buxton had both died by the end of the First World War so the task of overseeing St Thomas’s fell to their son, Sir Victor and then his grandson Sir Fowell who decided to hand over the responsibility for the church to a board of trustees after which the church passed into the care of the newly formed Diocese of Chelmsford.
Between the world wars the church continued to thrive adding a Sunday school and choir to its regular activities as well as the village guide and scout troop to be attached to the church. The church Council also continued to press for St Thomas’ to be consecration as a parish.
When the Buxtons moved to Norfolk in the 1920s their former house became a Barnardo’s home and the children from there could be seen each week walking up Horseshoe Hill in crocodile formation to attend church.
During the critical days of 1940-41 when invasion across the channel was a real possibility St Thomas’s held daily services of intersession while members of the congregation who had not been drafted joined the local defence league.
The lynch gate was built in memory of all of those from the village who had died in both world wars and was dedicated in 1950.
Finally in 1956, after 54 years, St Thomas’ was joined with Holy Innocent’s church in High Beech some three miles away and given the status of a parish church.
Today St Thomas’s is part of the Waltham Abbey joint Benefice and shares its incumbent vicar with St Lawrence’s Ninefields.
St Thomas’s congregation is still actively engaged with village life and much-needed fund raising to keep the fabric of this beautiful historic church sound. It is because of hard work and dedication of generations of Upshire village that we are able to still extend the warm welcome to all who walk through our doors as the founders intended.