The Medway Towns - St Mary's Church, Chatham
St Mary's Church sits deserted and unused at the top of the hill on Dock Road. Sandwiched between Gun Wharf, the council offices, and Fort Amherst, and right next to Dock Road, one of the main roads into Chatham, it's a strangely quiet and peaceful place.
St Mary's was the at centre of Chatham, when Chatham was just a riverside village of a few dozen houses. After hundreds of years of worship there, and having been rebuilt several times, St Mary's closed its doors to its congregation in the early 1970s. On a personal note, St Mary's was my family's parish church, and one of my uncles was a choirboy there. He wouldn't thank me for saying when that was!
The church is boarded up now, and the last burial was over a century ago. The new Chatham Burial Ground, now the Town Hall Gardens, was the churchyard's replacement and was itself replaced by the huge cemetery on Maidstone Road.
St Mary's is one of the oldest buildings in the Medway Towns - parts go back to the Normans, and there has been a place of worship of some sort here since pagan times, long before Bishop Justus was granted land by Ethelbert, King of Kent, and in 604AD built the cathedral along the river at Rochester to practice the "new" religion of Christianity.
"The oldest thing in the Medway Towns"; a stone tablet 39" high and 19" wide depicting the goddess Euphrosyne is built into the porch. It was originally discovered built into the Norman wall of the chapel which once stood on the site of the present porch, and is believed to date from when Greek traders travelled up the Medway.
The Southern Section of the Churchyard
Most of the graves which survive are from the 19th century, but there are some earlier ones around.
Most people don't realise that this churchyard has some classic gravestones, complete with the symbolism of the time - lanterns, cherubs and skulls adorn several, and the carvings range from simple to ornate.
On the western edge of the churchyard you can still see reminders of where you are. On the western side of the path is a thick brick wall, around 8 feet high, with two white boundary stones set into it, as well as a bricked up entrance and a memorial.
The boundary stone on the left is inscribed:
This marks the beginning of the land belonging to the War Department, which extended southwards towards Chatham town centre.
The boundary stone on the right is inscribed with an anchor and
This marks the beginning of Royal Naval land, which extended northwards to St Mary's Island.
Moving northwards along the wall on the west edge of the churchyard, at the bottom, before it turns westwards is another boundary stone, this time it looks like an iron plate embossed with an arrowhead and:
Turning the corner, you can see another Royal Naval boundary stone on the edge of the wall, again inscribed with an anchor and, this time:
If anyone knows where numbers 3, 2 and 1 are, please let me know.
In this corner of the churchyard, under walls running east to west and south to north, under a heavy covering of ivy, are a row of gravestones. These are some of the best-preserved gravestones in the churchyard, probably because of their sheltered position.
On the left of this photograph you can see a stack of stones which were either paving slabs, or gravestones in the process of being moved from other parts of the churchyard. I couldn't make out exactly what they were, so I'll have a closer look next time I visit.
Some of the stones are visible in gaps in the hedge, but they're so covered in moss that you can't see whose they are.
The leftmost stone on these walls, next to the "No4" marker, is engraved:
To the memory of
of this parish, plumber and glazier
who departed this life
on the 12th of April 1812
Aged 41 years
also ANN, daughter of
JAMES and REBECCA YOUNG
who died in her infancy
also BARZILLAI STROUGHILL
who departed this life
on the 25th of November 1814
aged 69 years.
Also of the above named
who departed this life
on the 20th of November 1838
aged 70 years
... of REBECCA YOUNG wife
of the above James Young
who departed this life
on the 31st of March 1846 aged 75
Opposite the west wall, next to the path, is a row of gravestones. These look like some of the oldest in the churchyard. The one in this photograph has appeared in several books, and is inscribed:
Here lies the body of
late Master House
Carpenter of His
Majestys Yard at
Sheerness. He died
the 29th of November
1745 in the 55th Year
of His Age
One of the things that keeps occurring to you as you wander round the churchyard, is the sheer age of some of these things. This stone itself was erected 31 years before the thirteen colonies of the United States of America unanimously declared independence from the British Crown.
Looking eastwards across the church path, John King's gravestone can be seen to the left of centre, next to the broken gravestone. The stones have been cleared to a certain extent, especially on the western side of the churchyard. In the background, across Dock Road, is Fort Amherst.
Just to the right of the tree in the picture above, there is a red brick vault with a stone lid. There are several tombs in the churchyard, some brick and some marble.
In Memory ...
... ua HOOPER who departed ...
... 6th of August 1703, Aged 66 ...
... Mary Wife of the above departed this ...
... the 12th of Septr 1727, Aged 70 Years ...
... HOOPER Son of the above departed this ...
... the 24th of August 1741, Aged 70 Years ...
... AH BURKETT departed this Life ...
... e 19th of April 1781, Aged 79 Years.
... RLOTTE SPENCER departed this Life
... 17th of January 1784, Aged 21 Years.
... NRY SPENCER departed this Life
... of September 1784, Aged 60 Years
... THONY MANLEY (late first Assistant of ...
... Majesty's Dockyard Chatham) departed ...
... Life the 16th of May 1797 Aged 47 Years
... OMAS BURKETT departed this Life ...
... 19th of August 1797, Aged 70 Years.
... AH SPENCER, departed this Life ...
... 8th of August 1818, Aged 88 Years ...
In this Vault
are deposited the Remains of
... AM SPENCER Esqr who depated this
... e the 2nd of March 1835 Aged 66 Years
... nd also of his Daughter
... Wife of the Revd H.J.D ...
... this life the 7th of April 18 ...
Next to the church porch, under a frame which used to hold the sign advertising the church for "Sympathetic conversion to office space", is a raised area of ground. On top sits the base of a memorial, missing its original cross, with the following inscription:
loving memory of
wife of CAPTAIN
SIR JAMES A CORDON R.N. K.C.B.
Born May 12th 1783
Died July 29th 1835
Also of CLEMENTINA JANE.
Their infant daughter
Captain Sir James Cordon R.N. was born in 1782 in Aberdeenshire, and fought as a Master's Mate under Rear-Admiral Nelson in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile. He fought in the war of 1812 between the British Empire and the United States of America, leading the expedition up the Potomac, and took part in the Battle of Baltimore and attacked Fort McHenry. In 1832 he became Superintendent of HM Dockyard Chatham, and his wife died three years later and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, buried in the parish churchyard along the road from his work by the church porch, as would have befitted Lady Lydia, the wife of a Knight.
Sir James eventually became Admiral of the Fleet in 1868. He died in 1869 at Greenwich, and was buried in the grounds of Greenwich Hospital. In total, he served 75 years in the Royal Navy.
The Church Now
The church was used as a heritage centre for some time, but is now closed. It is apparently awaiting conversion to offices. More information is available from here. A similar fate probably awaits St John's Church, just along the road.