Higham Village History Group logo  A Profile of St Mary's Church, Higham

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St Mary's Church, Higham. Spring 2004. (C) HVHG



Higham is not really one village but three. They are strung out along the slope which drops down from the Gravesend-Rochester road towards the Thames. Each could be characterised by one dominant feature. Up at the top is the busy A226. The middle Higham (called Lower Higham on the Ordnance Survey map) has the railway station, set at the mouth of the tunnel originally cut for the Thames and Medway Canal. At the bottom of the hill, some distance away, right at the edge of the Thames marshes, is the small settlement which contains St Mary's Church. It is here that Higham began.

Archaeological evidence hints at an intriguing prehistory for this location. Higham itself stands at the neck of the Hoo peninsula, an area well-known for high-quality Bronze Age finds. In 1912 a hoard of eleven Iron Age gold coins were found in Hillyfield, hidden in a hollow piece of flint which had been scaled with clay. They have been dated to around 100BC and are on display in the Guildhall Museum, Rochester. In common with much of Kent, there was plenty of activity in the area during the Roman period. Bore holes sunk throughout the marshes indicate that the Thames flowed right up to nearby Cliffe and Cooling, while around Higham itself there were probably timber cause- ways carrying traffic to a ferry and possibly a wharf. A quick glance at the map will show how well-placed Higham would have been to supervise the movement of goods between the rivers Thames and Medway, a position later exploited by the canal.

The village first appears in the historical record in AD 774. This is the date of an Anglo-Saxon charter which mentions the village. Offa, king of the Mercian kingdom in the midlands and in control of enough of the south to call himself 'rex Anglorum' (King of the English), gave land there to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jaenberht. There is no reference to any church in the charter, but we do know one existed at the Norman Conquest. Domesday Book (1086) notes that a certain Adam held Higham on behalf of Odo, Earl of Kent and bishop of Bayeux. The entry mentions that the land included a church and a mill and a fishery worth 3 shillings.

This pre-Conquest church must have been rebuilt before long and some evidence of the subsequent early-Norman structure can be found at St Mary's today. The present church's unusual double nave was completed later with the addition of the south aisle. This building of this aisle and therefore a large part of St Mary's architectural history may be linked in some way with a neighbouring institution, now lost but acknowledged on OS maps as the 'Site of Priory'.

The Priory

In 1148, Mary, the daughter of King Stephen, was granted the manor of Lillechurch, next to Higham, to build a nunnery. She became its first Prioress in 1151. The site of the original Priory is not known, but its name is preserved by the Lillechurch settlement, which can be found on the map to the south cast of St Mary's. The significance of this foundation for the history of Higham really became apparent when the nuns bought their neighbouring manor sometime around 1205. They soon began building a new home on the site of the present Abbey Farmhouse opposite the church. This is the site marked on the map. They moved in about 1280.

Perhaps it was the use of St Mary's by the nuns which led to its being enlarged with a new aisle which turned out to be as big as the original church. We know the Priory received a Papal Indulgence in 1357 to raise money for repairs. This meant that anyone making a donation over a set period of three years received forgiveness of his or her sins. 'Mere is no reason not to date the south aisle to this period. St Mary's thus doubled in size and began to look more like the building we know today.

The nuns seemed to prosper. Henry 111 granted them the right to hold a market and they were responsible for the upkeep of the causeway and bridge leading to the ferry. Later they were in dispute with the town of Gravesend over the rights to ferry people and goods across the Thames, whatever the outcome of this disagreement, the service was still operating in 1474, when the Prioress hired a replacement boat from Rochester. By this stage how- ever, the reputation of the Priory was not what it had been. The rumours were such that the Bishop of Rochester was prompted to order an inquiry and he paid the nuns a visit in 1513. He found only four in residence. The fact that two of them had been made pregnant by the new vicar of Higham must have made the decision to close the place fairly straightforward. This finally happened in 1522. All the possessions of the Priory were transferred to St John's College, Cambridge.

18th - 20th centuries

Little further is known about St Mary's until we are able to draw on the parish records of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Revd. George Smith put up the tiny spire in 1710. Two of the present bells are dated to 1713. A large amount of repairs and restoration took place at the beginning of the 19th century - so much in fact that the bills could not be met by the usual means of a parish rate and the vestry had to borrow £500 at interest from a wealthy parishioner, Thomas Stevens. The same volume of vestry minutes reveal that in 1848 'it was resolved that a gallery for the accommodation of schoolchildren should be erected near the north west corner of the church'. Four months later, how- ever, 'it was resolved to alter the plan for a gallery and to get the frame work now put up removed into the west end of the church'. Did this ever come to anything? No physical evidence survives.

The 1824 Thames and Medway Canal, which can be followed from its basin at Gravesend right up to the railway station at Higham, was a good plan which just never seemed to come right. The main difficulty was the time and money used up in digging the tunnel through the chalk ridge to Strood. People were lost too. The parish registers describe the deaths of local workmen from a variety of accidents linked to the construction work. Until the recent tunnel relining works the trains were occasionally stopped by chalk falling in the tunnel. The South Eastern Railway bought the whole operation in 1846 and for a few years ran a service through the tunnel on a platform above the water, until finally draining this part of the canal and filling it in. The same company added a branch line to Port Victoria on the Isle of Grain in 1880.

Higham's most famous resident did not move in until 1859. Charles Dickens bought the large house on Gad's Hill which he had, so the story goes (his own), admired and coveted as a boy living in Chatham. It was in Higham that he died, in a chalet in his garden while halfway through The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Much of the interior of St Mary's was restored in the 1860s and new furniture installed. By this time, most of Higham's population was concentrated further up the hill, closer to the railway and the road to Rochester, and it was here that a new church, St John's, was built in 1862. The 20th century saw further repairs to St Mary's roof and spire, and the church was vested in the Redundant Churches Fund, now The Churches Conservation Trust, in 1987.

St Mary's Church, Higham. Spring 2004. (C) HVHG



St Augustine lands in Kent on a mission of conversion from Pope Gregory


Foundation of Rochester Cathedral


'Heh ham' mentioned in charter of Offa, king of Mercia


Norman Conquest


Domesday Book: Higham listed with church


King Stephen grants manor of Lillechurch to his daughter Mary for a nunnery


Lillechurch Priory buys the manor of Higham. The nuns move to a new site near St Mary's a few years later.


A Papal Indulgence allows the nuns to raise money for repairs to the church. The subsequent activity may include the construction of the south aisle.


The priory is dissolved


St Mary's spire erected

1805 - 1824

The Thames and Medway Canal built


Canal bought by the South Eastern Railway Company


Charles Dickens buys Gad's Hill Place


The building of St John's church reflects shift in village population

St Mary's placed in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust


From the river, the unmistakable peaky silhouette of St Mary's draws the visitor on a narrow footpath across the marshes, along low dykes and between deep ditches of silvery water. From Lower Higham, it seems big and barn-like, its miniature spire perched off-centre above its west end. It certainly dominates the tiny settlement around it, now indeed honoured only with the name Church Street on the OS map. Close-up, its walls turn out to a lively mix of flint and ragstone, laid out from the ground to the caves in regular lines. The flints themselves are cut to present a flat face to the air, but are otherwise irregular, so that they are ingeniously shuffled to present clear horizontal stripes all round the church. St Helen's, in Cliffe, just a few miles away, makes a similar striking use of this abundant local building material. There is also an excellent example of galletting on the buttress at the south west corner, where dozens of thin slivers of flint have been pushed into the mortar between the blocks of stone. This can often be seen in historic buildings in Kent. As well as flint and ragstone, the church buttresses also include occasional courses of tiles laid in piles between the cut stone rather in the fashion of ancient Roman walls. These general aspects of the church's construction can all be seen from outside the south porch entrance. It is when the visitor moves round to the west wall that the building really begins to assert its scale. The flint banding serves to emphasise the breadth of the nave's twin aisles, although here it does become a little incoherent at ground level. Another buttress supports the north western corner - this one without flint detailing.

North side

The north wall is the oldest part of the church and it is here that we find some of the clearest clues to its development. High up at the western end of the wall can be seen the faint but distinct outline of a Romanesque window. Its plain rounded arch, long since filled in, makes a clear contrast with the rest of the church and its later Gothic style, especially its existing windows. Another Romanesque feature lies behind the next buttress in the centre of the north wall - this time the partial outline of a doorway. The south aisle brought a new door with it in the 14th century, when no doubt the north door began to seem unnecessary and old-fashioned. Two small rooms are built onto the north wall here, the smaller with external access only. The larger room served as a vestry and has two small windows and an entrance from the Lady Chapel inside.

East end

The East end of each aisle has a window. That to the south displays two excellent heads, one possibly wearing a crown, the other bearded and perhaps having lost some head-gear. More heads are visible around the corner on the south wall, again with some fine costume detail, one including a hood which gives its owner an irresistibly medieval aspect.


When entering the church the visitor straight away encounters one of its most remarkable features, the 15th-century door, enthusiastically carved and well-preserved. This door is a wonderful thing and full of the spirit of the medieval period, its formal Gothic structure enlivened and enhanced with striking individual motifs. These consist of roses and lilies, faces both melancholy and menacing, and some designs which appear to be a combination of all three at once. Inside is the font, dating back to the Norman period but presumably moved here when the south aisle was built and the south door became the main entrance. It stands on a short central trunk, with slender columns supporting the four corners of the lead-lined bowl.

Above the door are two timber panels, both dated 1845, detailing the wills of former parishioners. That of William Rolfe provides for the support of the Parish Clerk. Lists of trustees to the legacy can be found in the parish records. The other, the will of one Thomas Shaveby, describes his 1653 legacy which included land 'lying in the mowing Salts' - where rushes would be harvested and sold. The will states that the executors are to provide with the surplus income'good wheaten bread to be distributed among such of the poor people of the Parish as the Minister and Churchwardens may think fit'.

From the west end, the general symmetry of the church plan is apparent, but so are many important irregularities. High above, below the roof of the north aisle, is the loft under the belfry; the bell- ropes drop down the west wall. The north aisle itself bears many marks of adaptation and rebuilding. At the west end is the inside of the filled-in Romanesque window; further along the remains of the north doorway. The plaster cannot entirely conceal the irregularity of some of the masonry; it has been suggested that some of this marks the place where the pre-Conquest church was enlarged by Norman builders.

A very impressive 15th-century rood screen divides the north aisle from the Lady Chapel, which was the chancel of the original church. This consists of five Gothic arches, the central arch forming a door. They are divided by slender columns carved in relief, each topped with a small spire. The pulpit completes the church's fine collection of medieval woodcarving; its crooked patterns and variable intervals (the different motifs are simply stretched to fill the appropriate gaps) make an appealing contrast with the formal accuracy of the 19th-century seating and lectern. In front of the screen, and near the west wall, are two slow-burning heaters. Like the rusty stumps of two huge iron columns, they have a hole in the top for loading the fuel, a hole at the bottom for removing the ash, and a flue to the outside. The lid is decorated with a tortoise design and the words 'slow but sure'.

The Lady Chapel

Inside the Lady Chapel is the tomb of Elizabeth Boteler, who died in 1615. Her coat of arms and an inscription are displayed on brass plates. The three strange devices on the shield are covered cups; her surname is an ancient variation of 'Butler' - the servant who looked after the wine in a large household. Another tomb stands against the north wall. Above it is a brass inscription to one of Henry VIII's Yeomen of the Guard. But the most fascinating survival here is an old aumbry, complete with what could be its original door and hinges. This was the cupboard used for storing the communion wine; it still has its iron keyhole, although the lock behind it is gone.

The Chancel

An arch separates the Lady Chapel from the chancel of the south aisle, and also houses the organ. Walking through, we find a complete piscina on the south wall, with drain, shelf, and a canopy decorated with two small heads. This motif is picked up by the later recessed panels which display the Ten Commandments either side of the altar. There is a lot of text hereabouts, with the Creed and Lord's Prayer also prominent. Alpha and Omega, as well as the words 'Holy Holy Holy' are visible on the altar cloth.

In the south wall lies a medieval tomb partly obscured by later adaptations. It was originally the resting- place of an Abbess, Joan de Hadloc, who died in 1328. An inscription informs us that it now contains the body of Ann Cordewell (died 1642), as well as serving as a remembrance of her grandson, Samuel Levinge (died 1748). The stone canopy has been mercilessly cut back to give us a better view of Samuel's inscription. And thus three people who never knew each other have come to share the same memorial.

See a short video about St Mary's Church .


Redundant churches

Parish churches are such a familiar and beautiful part of our English scene that they seem to be as permanent as the landscape itself. Sadly this is not so. For a number of reasons, such as the mobility of the population in town and country and decline in church attendance, many of them cannot now be maintained for their original purpose. But every parish church is special. All over England people are raising huge sums of money to keep their churches standing and in good repair, because they value them so much.

When a church has to close for regular worship, the Church of England at its highest level becomes very concerned and a complicated legal process is set in motion to decide on its future. A few have to be demolished, usually for very good reasons and as a last resort, but many are given new leases of life through alternative uses. The Churches Conservation Trust cares for 325 outstanding churches which, because of their beauty and interest remain unaltered and still consecrated for all to visit and enjoy. The Trust makes them accessible to the public and, of course, to educational groups.

The Churches Conservation Trust was established to look after parish churches which have been declared redundant. Currently there are 325 churches in the Trust's care. It has an active programme of repair, maintenance and long-term conservation, as wall as providing access, publications and encouraging occasional services. Events are held in many Trust churches. The Trust has joined with English Heritage to establish an education service

For more information, please contact:-

Miss V Johnston
The Churches Conservation Trust
1 West Smithfield
London EC1A 9EE

Tel: (020) 7213 0679
Fax: (020) 7213 0678

Web: www.visitchurches.org.uk
The Churches Conservation Trust logo

Photograph of St Mary's Church, Higham. Spring 2004. (C) HVHG

St Mary's Church, Higham. Spring 2004. (C) HVHG

Link to KArchS Monumental Inscriptions in St Mary's Churchyard, Lower Higham

Last Revised: 09 October 2014

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