Gravesend and St. George's Church
The First People and the Name
Gravesend owes its significance to its position as the first secure landing place on the Kent side of the River Thames. For centuries, the river carried most of the traffic and, until the late eighteen hundreds, the journey to and from London would have been safer and quicker by river than by road.
When the Romans came to Kent, they needed a main supply route from the coast to London and built the road that became famous as Watling Street. It was guarded by numerous camps, and close by was the religious settlement at Springhead, two miles southwest of Gravesend, where evidence of three Roman temples and other, smaller, shrines has been found on top of Iron Age remains.
The first Christians to arrive here, after any who may have been present in Roman times, were likely to have been missionaries making their way west to London from Rochester after Justus became its first Bishop in AD 604. Those who stayed formed a settlement in the vicinity of Old Road, possibly to avoid raiders coming up river. In 1838, a hoard of Saxon coins dating to AD 878 was found near The Pelham Arms. Both Saxon and Roman remains have also been found closer to the river, with evidence of activities such as pork and fish smoking.
Twenty years after the Norman Conquest, the Domesday Book records that there were churches at Milton and Gravesham. That name may be derived from the Saxon ‘gereve’ (linked to old Scots ‘grieve’), which later became ‘reeve’, a word meaning magistrate or sheriff; the word ‘-ham’ meant homestead. Other derivations persist, of course.
A prominent one is based on the Old English word ‘graf’(a grove) and ‘Grafs-end’ may signify the end of the grove.
The First St. George's
The church at Gravesham mentioned in Domesday was probably on a site near the present Old Road, chosen by the early Christian settlers. The earliest known parish church was dedicated to St. Mary and stood behind what was the White Post Inn in Pelham Road (not far from its junction with Old Road).
In succeeding centuries, the English made greater use of Gravesend as a port while fighting to retain a foothold in France, and this drew more of the population to the riverside. As a reprisal for English devastation, a French and Spanish force surprised the town in 1380, destroying it and carrying off many captives. The distress of the survivors was lessened by confirming the privilege of the men of Gravesend of carrying all passengers by water to London.
Though the parish church may not have sustained damage in that attack, its distance from the main centre of population must have made it increasingly more difficult to keep in repair.
By 1475 a mood of confidence and a measure of royal patronage encouraged church building. King Edward IV commissioned the building of a new chapel at Windsor Castle, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, St. George and St. Edward. In the Court Roll of 1475-78 a petition from Gravesend is recorded, to build what ‘in time to come shall be a parish church’ in the town of Gravesend to be dedicated in honour of God, the Blessed Virgin and St. George.
This is the first reference to a church on the site of the present St George’s, though there had been a Royal Manor close by, with its chapel, until 1376 which may have led to the choice of location. St. George's Church (built as a ‘Chapel of Ease’ – a church more convenient for those who live away from the main church in the parish) was licensed for worship in 1497 and consecrated by Bishop John Fisher, then the Bishop of Rochester, in 1510. It replaced St. Mary's as Gravesend’s parish church in 1544.
This change of parish church was brought about by the dilapidated condition of the ancient parish church. In 1508, St. Mary's suffered a serious fire and, it seems, was not repaired very successfully, although it was reconsecrated by the Bishop the day after the consecration of St. George's, on April 2nd 1510. However, by 1529, St. Mary's was described as ruinous. In the same year that St. George's became the parish church of Gravesend, King Henry VIII ordered that the ruins of St. Mary's Church should be removed. The last recorded burial in St. Mary's churchyard took place in 1598. Finally, in 1797, its foundations were allowed to be broken up, with some of the remaining material later used to repair roads in 1822.
From traces uncovered, it is possible that the first St. George's may have extended west of the existing churchyard and probably comprised a nave, chancel and north aisle. It was bequeathed some money in 1487 and, between 1532 and 1545, bequests of money for a steeple were made and St. George's is certainly shown to have a steeple in the drawing of the town in 1662. Sadly, no other drawing or representation of the church survives. In 1710, the church is described as ‘old and without steeple but pretty well adorned withinside and has a handsome Vestry Room’. That year, a petition was raised to obtain a grant for a new steeple but no funds were forthcoming. Of this former church, only one stone survives, which can be found at the entrance to the nave.
The Present St. George's
Gravesend has suffered several disastrous fires. On 24th August 1727 one such blaze swept through the High Street and West Street, burning down between 110 and 120 homes, and engulfing the church. A fund was set up for the relief of sufferers to which King George II gave £1,000 and Queen Caroline £500, but none of this was allotted to rebuilding the church. However, the Rector and Wardens applied successfully to Parliament for a local Act, the Gravesend Churches Act 1730, to rebuild the church, as one of fifty new churches to be built out of dues on coal coming into the Port of London. The number of churches actually built was considerably less than fifty, about fifteen in fact, but St. George's was one of the fortunate applicants. The foundation stone was laid by Sir Roger Meredith M.P. in June 1731 and the new building was completed in 1732. The inscription round St George’s tower (now mostly worn away) thanks the King for this. A grant of £5,000 was awarded to Gravesend, of which £3,824 was spent on the actual building. The balance was presumably used for the pews, fitting out the interior and the legal expenses of the Act. The new church finally opened for worship on 11th February 1733.
A local man, Charles Sloane, was the architect and his design comprised only the present nave, with a small apse for the altar. The main entrance was on the north side, where there was also a gallery reached by the present stairs. Opposite this entrance, at the centre of the south wall stood the pulpit where the Priest and Parish Clerk sat. Ranged in front of them and filling the nave were the box pews, unlocked by the pew-opener for a fee. To local dismay, the new altar table, with curved legs and marble top, was ordered to be covered - as it is to this day.
The survival of the present building as a place for worship owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. George Tatchell (1881-1965). In 1951, following a review of places of Anglican worship in Gravesend, St. George's was not, for a time, the parish church of Gravesend and was called a ‘Chapel of Unity’.
Given Gravesend’s connection with the Native American, Princess Pocahontas, St. George’s had enjoyed links with the people of the U.S.A for a number of years. Rekindled, these links, particularly in the State of Virginia, brought donations to ensure a lasting memorial to Princess Pocahontas.
In 1958 the Princess Pocahontas Gardens were opened (the memorials in the churchyard having been moved to stand against the church wall) and the statue of Princess Pocahontas (a replica of one in Jamestown, Virginia) was unveiled.
Mr. Tatchell sold his home to move into a flat built into the north aisle of the Church. He acted as unpaid custodian from 1956 until his death. It is certain that, without his efforts, St. George's Church would have deteriorated and fallen into disrepair.