In his latest column on the lives of remarkable Colchester residents, arts aficionado Dorian Kelly reflects on the eventful life of the Rev John Irvine.

A COUPLE of years ago, we went on holiday to a place called Flom, in Norway.

We had a lovely room in a nice waterfront hotel with an incredible view of the tranquil Fjord and the mountains beyond. We went to sleep with the sound of the water lapping and the full moon shining in. Perfect.

So you can imagine that when we woke in the morning to the sight of a 12-storey office block in the shape of a cruise ship parked in front of our window, looming over us and blocking out the light and view, I felt an immediate sympathy with the Reverend John Irvine.

He used to be the rector at Colchester's St Mary-at-the-walls, now the Arts Centre, and his rector was built right on top of a row of Roman houses.

This particular prelate was not a happy man.

He had just woken up to the realisation he really ought to have read the notices posted on his own church door, because he had just discovered a new water tower was about to be erected a mere 20 feet from his rectory.

This very outspoken and energetic man liked a good argument.

In fact, when he prefaced his remarks with a "pardon me, but" you knew you were in for a hard time.

And he was a doer, as well as a talker.

He has been credited for example with creating a new hole in the town wall so he could the more conveniently take his dog for a walk. That's the sort of man he was. What sort of dog he had is not recorded.

He had been camping out in the church which was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a dog's breakfast, patched up several times after it was partly demolished in the Civil War - and he wanted a new one.

He "pardon me'd" the bishop and the local great and good of the parish until they gave in and he got enough cash to rebuild everything except the patched up tower.

When the new footings were dug in the churchyard and the bones of the long dead started to come up ready for seemly reburial, the trouble started. There was a stink. Literally and metaphorically. And people started dying of dysentery in the houses just the other side of the wall.

Then rumours started. Folk memories of the plague rose and the whole Victorian belief in disease being carried by a miasma of smells came to the fore.

Disinfectant was applied liberally, but still people died.

The inhabitants of Balkerne Hill, St Mary's Cottage and, indeed, the rector himself were advised to flee.

Downing Street was informed - yes, they thought it was that serious - and an inspector was dispatched.

After a certain amount of poking about the inspector pronounced that the graves smelled fine, the workers were not affected and it was probably the stinking middens and privies out the back of the houses and probably the water supply was contaminated with faeces.

A new water supply was definitely needed! Even the Rev. knew that. Which is why when he found out about a massive water tower blotting out the sky at a height of 135 feet above his home, he was in a quandary.

Still, as usual, unenlightened self-interest won. He was ready to launch the ninth crusade to put a stop to the water tower.

Irvine wrote a scathing letter to the Essex County Standard newspaper, decrying the plans, "this tower, this monstrosity, this Jumbo".

The reference was apt, Jumbo was a huge and very popular elephant at the London Zoo, and it had been recently sold, over great public outcry, to American showman and circus entrepreneur PT Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey's Circus).

Well, the good priest's efforts were not entirely in vain, because he did get them to relocate it 60 feet away.

The nickname stuck and when the tower was finally complete, the local council stuck a gilded weathervane in the shape of an elephant on top.