St Margaret’s Church
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The origins of St Margaret’s are fairly obscure. The list of vicars begins in 1272 with William Telefus, but a church is known to have existed here before then, the earliest record of it being in a charter of Bishop Gundulph in about 1108. Canon Wheatley (Vicar of St Margaret’s 1915– 1947) suggested that it might have started life as a Chapel of Ease to the Cathedral, which was itself in the process of being rebuilt around that time.
The nave and chancel as we have them today date from the early – mid 19th century, but the tower is a leftover from the medieval church. Precisely when the tower was built is also something of a mystery. It is generally accepted as dating from about 1465, although it is possible that it was built earlier and simply restored then. The records are unclear.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries Rochester expanded southwards, greatly enlarging the population of St Margaret’s parish. Up to then the parish had been a predominantly rural one, indeed it was sometimes referred to as ‘St Margaret Without’, but the purchase and development of land on the south side of the city by a Chatham wine merchant by the name of John Cazeneuve Troy gave Rochester a new suburb – Troy Town. The medieval church was becoming increasingly inadequate for its growing congregation and in 1823 the decision was taken to re-build. Re-building of the nave seems to have taken place fairly swiftly – it was completed during the following year, 1824. Surprisingly there is no documentary evidence of who designed the new nave but Canon Wheatley declared that it was probably Mr Sidney Smirke who, with his brother Robert, was responsible for the design of other buildings in this area and in London which display similar characteristics. It is possible that the absence of any formal record of an architect was because it was done as a favour to – or privately paid for by – a member of the congregation or of the rebuilding committee. At this stage only the nave was rebuilt; the tower, chancel and side chapels remained from the medieval church and the whole building must have looked very odd indeed.
Within a few years the demolition of the remains of the old church (except the tower) was sanctioned. When an application for a grant was made to the Incorporated Society for Building and Enlarging Churches, the Society insisted on the formal appointment of an architect and Mr Richard Hussey of the firm of Rickman and Hussey was appointed. The rebuilding of St Margaret’s was completed in 1840. ‘Completed’ is perhaps slightly misleading as the building has undergone a great many changes since then. The Victorian enthusiasm for all things Gothic led to many embellishments being made to the church which were not always keeping with the original concept. For example, the classical east window was replaced in 1872 with the present Gothic-style one. Its stained glass was introduced as a memorial to the Rev’d William Drage who was Vicar during the later stage of the rebuilding. One wonders whether he would have approved of such a drastic change!
The faculty of 1872 also gave permission for the 20 foot high three-decker pulpit to be lowered and moved from its central position. At the rebuilding preaching was the most important part of any Service and the pulpit had been so designed that the preacher could see – and be seen and heard by – those sitting in the galleries. The old box pews were removed at the same time; some were reconditioned and placed in the galleries (some still remain in the south gallery). The new reredos and altar table were introduced in the early 20th century.
The present choir stalls were installed in 1898. A west gallery had been incorporated in the re-building of the 1820s and this was removed in the 1870s together with the barrel organ that had been there. The next organ was a small one placed beneath the gallery at the east end of the south aisle. In 1877, however, the present – much larger – organ was built. This organ was built by Forster and Andrews of Hull and modified and added to by Browns in 1902. Its installation necessitated the removal of part of the south gallery and one of the columns supporting the roof.
The interior of St Margaret’s in 2008, showing the organ of 1877
Although not visible from inside the church, there is a curious second ‘barrel’ ceiling within the roof space above the organ and it is interesting to speculate whether an even larger organ was planned. In 1890 the church was re-decorated in a colour scheme which included various shades of green, red, brown, black and yellow. In comparison with today’s restrained colour scheme this must have been eye-catching to say the least! The church came close to being completely re-built once again at the end of the 19th century when the then vicar, Canon Arthur Thorndike, and some like-minded parishioners, determined to demolish the existing building and erect a new church in the fashionable Gothic style, at an estimated cost of
£9,000. Although two sets of drawings were produced the project was finally abandoned, probably through lack of money. During the Second World War the church suffered damage when a land mine fell on Short Brothers’ aircraft works a few hundred yards away.
In 1953 the parishes of St Margaret and St Peter were amalgamated, or re-amalgamated, as it was from St Margaret’s that St Peter’s had been created in the 19th century. St Margaret’s was relegated to the status of a chapel of ease and for a time closure seemed a distinct possibility. Its survival was not re-assured by severe damage to the roof in the hurricanes of 1987 and1990 However, St Margaret’s refused to die and in recent years much effort – and over £100,000 – has been expended in making the church more comfortable and giving it a greater flexibility of use. The provision of new and effective heating, a toilet and kitchen now enables it to be used for a variety of events including concerts and exhibitions.
The church’s ring of eight bells – the earliest of which dates from 1621 – fell silent by the early 1970s when defects were found in the old timber frame. The estimated cost of their restoration spiralled ever upwards, but by 2005 over £70,000 had been raised to enable the construction of a new steel frame and the full restoration of the bells. During the summer of 2008 the tower itself underwent a major restoration project. New stones replaced those which time and weather had damaged; re-pointing, and replacement of the tower and turret roofs and of the mullions around the belfry windows was also carried out. The total cost of this project is close to a quarter of a million pounds.
Although St Margaret’s does not boast many celebrities in its history, there have been one or two. In the north gallery there is a memorial to Captain John Moore Mansfield who commanded HMS Minotaur, one of the Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar, in which he distinguished himself by capturing an enemy ship. He owned land in the parish. One of Canon Thorndike’s daughter’s – Sybil, who taught in our Sunday School – made an international name for herself as an actress, and from the same talented family came Russell, famed for his books for children. Lastly we can make a small claim on the anti-slavery campaigner and hymn-writer John Newton. [Amazing Grace is the hymn for which he is probably best remembered.]
He was married here in the old church on February 12th 1749 [1750 new style*] to a Chatham girl, Mary Catlett, known as Polly, daughter of George (Customs Officer in Chatham Dockyard) and Elizabeth Catlett. Elizabeth was a cousin of John’s mother (also Elizabeth) who had also been born in Chatham. The close family ties of the Catletts and Newtons had meant that John and Mary had been childhood sweethearts, and had been besotted since he was seventeen, and she no more than fourteen.’