Reprinted from the Viral Times a daily publication mainly sent out by email during Lockdown in April/May 2020 by the Church team from The Church of England in Tenterden
A HISTORY OF OUR CHURCHES
St Mildred’s Church, Tenterden
The history of Tenterden itself is lost in time, as is the origin of St. Mildred’s Church. Perhaps all that can be said with any confidence is that the story of the town and the story of St. Mildred’s are bound together with each other, with the story of pre-conquest Kent, with the story of Christianity in Kent and with the story of an ancient Kentish royal house.
Tenet-wara-den (the den of the Thanet folk) was the Wealden area used by the abbey of Minster-in-Thanet for autumn pig-forage (acorns and beech mast to fatten the pigs for winter). That abbey was founded by Domne Aefa (“the lady Aebba”?) of the Kentish royal family, and either she herself or her daughter, St. Mildred, was the first abbess. This is within the first century after the arrival in Canterbury of St. Augustine’s mission from Rome. Mildred’s holy reputation was an international one, and there can be no doubt that a church in her name was here from some point in the eighth to tenth centuries.
The reign of Canute is the latest possible period and it was almost certainly much earlier. However, we have no record of any incumbent before 1180, and the oldest perceptible fabric of the church is of about that time too. When we stand in the middle of St. Mildred’s, we see a large building reflecting the prosperity of the town in the later middle ages. The north arcade of the chancel is probably around 1200, but most of the chancel, nave, and aisles is work of the 13th to 15th centuries. The fine wagon-vault ceiling of the nave has been variously stated to be 14th or 15th century (with some Victorian additions). The tower of the church, a prominent Kentish landmark, was probably built by architect Thomas Stanley. This major building work was undertaken in the middle of the 15th century, at the height of Tenterden’s prosperity, it being no coincidence that the town gained a charter and Cinque Port status in support of Rye, at about the same time. The town’s prosperity was reflected also in the presence of important shipbuilding yards at both Reading Street and Smallhythe, both on the tidal River Rother at that time.
By the middle of the 19th century, the population was growing fast, and attitudes to worship were changing too. St. Mildred’s lost its box pews, and had the organ moved to its present position.
A brief comment on the other churches of the town.
There was always a Roman Catholic presence here, but after the Reformation, there was no church building until the Catholic priest in Tenterden, Canon Currie began, in the 1930s, a determined attempt to put that right, culminating in the building of St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church in Ashford Road. The history of ‘non-conformity’ in Tenterden is a major and extensive one. Within a few decades of the development around the 1370s, by John Wyclife at Oxford, of the doctrines later known as ‘Lollardy’, there were significant numbers of people in Tenterden who ascribed to doctrines regarded as unorthodox. Moreover, following the Reformation of the 1540s to 1560s, there were many who rejected not only Roman ways, but were unhappy with the English church.
We know that Tenterden families joined the 17th century exodus to the New World (notably to Massachusetts), and Tenterden acquired its first ‘non-conformist’ chapel around 1700, that building now being the Unitarian church in Ashford Road, and one of Tenterden’s most interesting ancient relics. The nineteenth century saw the building of the Methodist church at West Cross, and two of the three Baptist churches – Zion in the High Street, and the Strict Baptist Jireh Chapel at St. Michael’s. Trinity Baptist in Ashford Road was built in 1928.
Courtesy of Nick Hudd.
A HISTORY OF OUR CHURCHES
St Michaels Church
St Michael’s has now become the northern sprawl of Tenterden. Unusually the village – previously known as Boresisle or Bird’s Isle – changed its ‘name by an Act of Parliament and took the name of the church which was built in the early 1860’s.
At about that time the hamlet of Boresisle consisted of about one hundred and sixty weather-boarded cottages mostly scattered haphazardly and standing at all sorts of angles. Bagshaw in his Tenterden ‘directory’ published in 1847 lists a dozen tradesmen who supplied the needs of the little farming community of six hundred or so people. There were two blacksmiths, two wheelwrights, carpenter and timber merchant, bricklayer, a grocer, three ‘general’ shops and a baker – sadly the last to go a few years ago. In addition, the Crown public house (the present building dates from the middle of the 19th century) provided a social centre for the hamlet.
This, then, was the community that one of Tenterden’s curates, The Reverend Seaman Curteis Tress Beale, found when he began taking Sunday services in the wheelwright’s shop which stood at the east end of The Pavement. It was not long, however, before things began to change quite dramatically. In 1862 Mr. Beale’s father – Mr. Seaman Beale who lived at Finchden Manor – bought some land in the Ashford Road arid built a school. Known as the Boresisle National School and described at the time as a ‘neat little structure’ – it lost a chimney in the Great Storm of 1987 – it still serves the village well. Mr. Beale next turned his attention to building a church and, although funds were raised locally, he met most of the expense himself – the land and building (minus the spire which came a few years later) amounted to £9,000. The architect was Gordon M. Hills who is better known for his work in restoration – and St. Michael’s is the only church we can find in Kent, at any rate, that Hills built. The builder was Bournes of Woodchurch.
On August 1, 1863, the building of Kentish ragstone and Bath stone was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Langley, and the new church was dedicated to St. Michael and All Angels. Boresisle the hamlet, became St. Michael’s the village – the church had given an old community a new name. A few years after the church was consecrated a spire was added to become a conspicuous landmark, and in 1884 a clock was installed by Gillett and Johnson. The cost of this was £195, and although funds were raised locally the village was indebted to Admiral Gordon whose name should be added to Beale as the two great benefactors of the new St. Michael’s.
Surviving the vicissitudes of war and weather – the chancel arch bears the lasting marks of a German cannon shell – the church remains the same as it has for one hundred and fifty years. Since the early years of the 19th century an ‘omnibus’ had served Boresisle on its way between Ashford and Tenterden. At long last the railway arrived in 1905 and St. Michael’s Halt was opened – evidence of the level crossing in Grange Road is no more, but a tunnel thirty yards long, still runs beneath Shoreham Lane at its highest point. The railway was abandoned in 1954 and once again the road took the load.
Church, school and Crown survive from the new St. Michael’s and so do an abundance of pleasing buildings – the old vicarage or the terrace cottages in Grange Road are random examples. Nor should we forget the Jireh Chapel (1869) which came in the great building boom. An earlier Non-Conformist building – the Ebenezer Chapel – had been built in 1839 and was demolished as recently as the 1970’s.
A HISTORY OF OUR CHURCHES
St John, Smallhythe
In Roman times the whole of what is now Romney Marsh was a shallow sea with the coastline running from Appledore through to Hythe. Later in the Middle Ages, Smallhythe was located in Dunborne, which was one of the six Boroughs of the ancient Tenterden Hundred. It lay on the banks of the tidal river Rother, which was then navigable from Romney along the course of the Rhee Wall, through Appledore and Reading (now Reading Street) as far as Newenden. In the 13th Century a series of storms of extreme violence blocked the channel to Romney and the river was diverted from Appledore past Ebony and Stone to the sea at Rye. This was, in fact, the second time the course of the river had changed and in earlier times it had found its way to the sea at Lympne. A port and shipbuilding industry had existed in Smallhythe from early times and a church or chapel for the inhabitants and seamen had also existed. The earliest written reference to the church is in 1401, which records the gift of three shillings and fourpence from the Chamberlain’s Accounts of Romney to the chapel of St. John the Baptist, as a thank offering, to mark the successful launch of the Entwhistle, a sea-going barge built in the haven at Smallhythe.
In 1449, Tenterden, together with its port at Smallhythe and shipbuilding community at Reading was incorporated as one of the Cinque Ports as a ‘limb of Rye’. Following a petition from the inhabitants in 1505, and on account of the distance from Tenterden and difficulties attending the Parish Church, Archbishop Warham issued a Faculty permitting the holding of divine service in the chapel and for the inhabitants to have a priest of their own. This was followed in 1509 by a further order allowing the inhabitants to elect their own priests subject only to his approval. This privilege, which was unique in the whole kingdom, was to last for more then 400 years! In 1514 most of the hamlet was burnt down and the chapel suffered either partial or total destruction, and the present church building dates from then. Of the very few ancient buildings remaining, that next to the church is known as the “Priest’s House”; and that which is now the Ellen Terry museum, now owned by the National Trust, was the harbour master’s house. A former house for the priest, on the other side of the road, was destroyed in the fire of 1514. By the end of the 16th century the river had so silted up that there remained only a “creek of salt water” frequented by lighters and small vessels. Now there remains only a drainage ditch known as the Reading Sewer which flows in the opposite direction. More recently the Benefices of St. Mildred, Tenterden and St. John the Baptist, Smallhythe were permanently united to form the one Benefice in 1928 but with the two parishes continuing distinct in all respects.
The present church was built in 1516-17 during the reign of Henry VIII to replace the chapel which stood on the same site and was destroyed by fire in 1514. It is an example of a Tudor church and is unusual in its use of red brick for its construction. It is thought that bricks may have been imported from the Low Countries in exchange for timber from the Weald of Kent. The stepped gables of the West front indicate a Dutch influence, and the beautiful Tudor brickwork is well worth studying. The porch was added in 1866. The oldest features in the church are the mediaeval oak screen and the wainscot panelling. The panelling is mentioned in the records of the local history society as the oldest oak panelling known to exist anywhere. The pews in the nave are made of pitch pine and replaced oak family boxes in 1900. The pulpit and lectern were gifts from St. Mildred’s Church, Tenterden. The West window contains the only original Tudor tracery, but all the glass is modern. The window over the altar, which shows Christ victorious with a Paschal lamb and a mediaeval ship, was installed by the War Damage Commission in 1952, after the original window had been destroyed by a V1 Rocket in 1944. The roof is a perfect example of a rectangular Tudor roof with two interesting repairs in evidence. The roof over the chancel was repaired in 1747 by the addition of oak side purlins fixed at right angles to the rafters. The roof over the West end was repaired in 1982 by steel brackets and stainless steel straps on top of the beams. These are fixed to wall plates set in concrete spreader beams on top of the walls, almost invisible, and so preserving the antiquity of the building. The cost of this last repair, still in recent memory, was £24,000. It is worth recording that this huge sum of money was raised by the small parish and the repairs carried out in under two years. During this time the church was closed and services were held at St. Mildred’s in Tenterden. The eventful story of how this was achieved will live on in the annals of the church and might almost be described as a miracle!