The Church of St Thomas’, Upshire sits on the high ground above Waltham Abbey on Horseshoe Hill which is recorded as early as 1414 as the main road between Epping and the Augustinian monastery of Waltham Abbey.
The history of St Thomas’s starts during the latter part of the 19th century when in 1858 the Buxton Family took up residence in Warlies House. When they arrived, there was already a Reading Room and a school, attended by 70 pupils, and where church 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 and a few years later Sir Thomas commissioned the architects PBF Freeman and his partner GFM Ogilvy to draw up plans for a church in the village. In December 1901 Lady Victoria laid the foundation stone for the new church.
The church 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 continues 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.
The church 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, licensed the Vicar of Waltham Abbey to conduct church services in the Mission church.
The Buxton family continued to support the church as is evident by the donations of the baptismal font and a 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 among the congregation for St Thomas’ to be a fully functioning Parish church, but this was initially denied. In view of this Lord Buxton retained ownership of the church and surrounding 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 their grandson Sir Fowell Buxton. It was he 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 consecrated 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 English Channel was a real possibility St Thomas’s held daily prayer services while members of the congregation who had not been drafted joined the local Defense League.
The lych 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 given the status of a parish church, albeit in partnership with Holy Innocents Church, High Beach when a new combined parish was formed. On 9th June Rev’d Joseph Crompton was licensed as the first vicar. When Rev’d Crompton retired in 1980 the combined parish was dissolved and St Thomas’ briefly reverted to being a daughter church of Waltham Abbey but in 1985 St Thomas’ was granted parish status in its own right within the newly formed Waltham Holy Cross Team.
Today the Parish of St Thomas’s remains part of the Waltham, Holy Cross Benefice and, once again, shares its incumbent vicar with the Church of the Holy Innocents, High Beach.
The church building has a grade II* listed building status. The citation for its listing states “It is an excellent example of a small country church built under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement. It has many fine fixtures and architectural details.”
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 the hard work and dedication of generations of church members that we are able to still extend the warm welcome to all who walk through our doors that the founders intended.