Hard times for the waterman’s church

The Parish of Chatham (St Mary) is described in A Topographic Dictionary of England in 1848 thus:

“The town … comprises 3,960 acres, of which the surface is in general broken, and the soil a thin chalky earth; there are tracts of woodland in different parts, covering 1051 acres. The living is a perpetual curacy; net income, £961; patrons and appropriators, the Dean and Chapter of Rochester.

“The parochial church is a neat plain structure of brick. The original edifice having been destroyed by fire, at the commencement of the 14th century, a new one was built under the sanction of a bull from the Pope, who granted an indulgence of one year and 40 days to all who should contribute to the work.

“In 1635 it was repaired and enlarged, and the steeple was rebuilt by the commissioners of the Royal Navy: in 1788, the body of the church was taken down, and rebuilt of brick upon a larger scale; and the churchyard being found too small, the Board of Ordnance subsequently gave three acres of ground, at a short distance from the church, for a cemetery, which was consecrated in 1828.”

Nobody even wants it for a heritage centre

St Mary’s Church was traditionally the Medway waterman’s place of worship but by the early 1970s, the church in Dock Road had lost its congregation. Very few wanted to worship there any more, so long and complicated plans were made to save it, pioneered by the stalwart Labour councillor Ron Foster.

In December, 1977, an application was made to turn it into a heritage centre. The idea, according to contemporary reports, was to portray the area’s long and intimate association with the river, including 400 years of naval and maritime history, plus the development of industry and organisations connected with the river.

Councillor Foster, a former Mayor of Medway, said: “It is an exciting idea and an ideal way to preserve this beautiful landmark.” He was right. It is beautiful, nestling as it does among tall trees overlooking the river. (I recommend the view from the platform at Rochester station — hurry before the Riverside development hides this vista.)

But 35 years on, it’s no longer a heritage centre. It seems nobody is that interested in this famous naval town’s part in history. The money to turn the church into a heritage centre was raised from the Medway Council lottery, which was, in the words of Gerald Hinks, then editor of the News, “controversial”.

The act of making St Mary’s redundant was taken only after many deliberations. Graham Phillips, the general secretary for the Rochester diocese (nice chap, lived in Priestfields, Rochester; I was at school with his son David — wonder what happened to him?) opened his heart to the Chatham News in 1976.

By this time, St Mary’s had been redundant for two years, and Mr Phillips was worried about what was to happen to it. A new Conservative council had been elected and it wasn’t keen on following the promises of its Labour predecessor.

Mr Phillips wrote: “Much to our regret we now hear that the new council has to take no further action and this means that well over two years … has been wasted and we are left with very little time to find another suitable use for the building. In other dioceses, buildings are being used for educational purposes for storage, for light industrial use, as an orchestral rehearsal hall and as a covered market and restaurant.

“I confess that the position of St Mary’s does not lead me to think that anyone would consider this building convenient for such purposes but if any of your readers have any proposals, I should be grateful if they would write to me.”

More than 30 years on, and after the heritage centre failed, what do you reckon?

Relics of a proud river industry

Mrs Kathleen Trice, of Valley View Road, Rochester, mourns the church’s passing and explains its vital part in Chatham’s history.

Mrs Trice (née Burford) writes: “Seeing the picture of St Mary’s Parish Church and the boats in the foreground brought back fond memories for me. The boats shows belong to the oyster and free fishermen of Rochester. Their charters, going back to time immemorial, have the local fishermen the right to fish the Medway river.

“My ancestors, who held this right, are buried in the churchyard. St Mary’s, being our parish church, was used by pupils of St Mary’s National School, built to accommodate the many children moving into the area and whose fathers worked in the dockyard.

“This school stood behind the town hall and our playground was the large woodland area behind this school. I vaguely remember the year 1937 when Easter had begun, being led by the teachers up Dock Road, crossing the road and entering the large iron gate of the church. Seeing those table tombs impressed me. Were bodies lying inside these concrete oblongs? Entering the church we were led to pews and seated. I can’t remember much about the service but I thought the organist was so clever. So many knobs and keys and foot pedals to manipulate — and did he ever make a mistake?

“The church steeple was a landmark for homecoming fishermen at the end of their voyages. The heritage centre in the church was an enterprising idea by Cllr Foster. But the many local people who would have been interested in this centre had by then moved away from the area. So mostly strangers came to view the many relics collected and placed inside. An early fishing boat on show was ‘torched’ by people who did not understand the history of this once-important town. After all, Nelson was taught the rudiments of sea navigation here.

“Perhaps even my great-great grandfather gave him a hand.”

Turbulent priest horrifies the Puritans

In the 1630s, the church was in the news for a different reason — a recalcitrant priest who caused mischief and mayhem in those puritan times. In short, he was high church at a time when the congregations were very low.

The Rev Thomas Vaughan was a follower of Laudianism, named after Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (1573-1645). The archbishop, a favourite of Charles I, had attempted to bring uniformity of worship and what he called the “beauty of holiness” into the Anglican liturgy. But his attempts precipitated the slide into Civil War.

Vaughan came to St Mary’s in 1636, succeeding John Pyham, a gentle puritan remembered as a “godly pastour”. Vaughan had studied at Corpus Christi, Oxford, which had a reputation for royalism and Laudianism. Some historians believe Vaughan was “parachuted in” to St Mary’s to bring the straying flock back into high church ways.

The flock was not impressed with its new shepherd. Chief among its complaints were the altar rails. Puritans believed the altar should be a simpler communion table and in the main part of the church. Laud insisted they should be surrounded by railings — to protect this holy place, he said, from wandering dogs. In 1641 the parish of St Mary’s signed a petition claiming that Vaughan had “laboured these two yeares and more, to sett the Communion Table altar wise, rayled about”.

Was the congregation being paranoid about Vaughan’s Popish ways? Probably not. Vaughan got a good deal for his annual 1d rent: a parsonage house, barn, yards and 13 acres of glebe [church land]. That would support the “parachuting in” theory. He also started using Latin, the language loved by the high church, loathed by the low. Records show that he initially signs himself as “Thom Vaughan, Vicar” but by 1639 he begins to sign: “Thom Vaughan custos et minis eclisse dei” (custodian and minister of the church of God). By 1641, when the pressure is on “malignant” ministers, he reverts to the safer “Tho Vaughan, minister”.

But the days of Vaughan and the other Laud supporters were numbered. Huge protests were made throughout the county claiming these Popish priests “have deformed our Churches with Popish pictures and suited them with Romish altars, denying the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist to such as have not come up to a new set Rayle before the altar”. Parliament felt it had to act and in 1643-44 set up commissions to investigate “scandalous’ and “malignant” clergy. Vaughan was sacked from Chatham in the late 1640s, having evaded his fate by moving around other parishes where he was vicar and disappeared from Chatham early in 1643.

Vaughan never regained his job, even after the Restoration in 1660, suggesting he was difficult a character even for those he had supported. He died in 1685 and is buried at St Vincent’s Church, Littlebourne.

So much turbulence in our riverside church. And now the church lies empty. Who cares about Chatham’s history now?

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