Church History

History of St. Matthew’s

St. Matthew’s Church has been justly acclaimed ‘the finest late Victorian ecclesiastical building in the  borough’, and it is undeniably the most eye-catching, occupying, as it does, a commanding site that makes it a notable landmark from many viewpoints, both in and beyond the parish.

The first St. Matthew’s church building was built in 1860—61, on the site of the present Church Centre. Although three times enlarged in its short life, it remained too small to cope with the needs of the fast growing district of Silverhill and so the decision was taken at a public meeting on May 31st 1883 to open a fund for the building of a new church and a parsonage. This was a bold decision. Without the faith of those who took it, it would have seemed foolhardy. The Building Committee had no suitable site available and faced the daunting task of raising over £11,000. Without the generosity of Mrs. Cumberlege, widow of the Rev. John Cumberlege, who had founded the first St. Matthew’s, the fund-raising might have dragged on for many years, but she made donations totalling a princely £3,000. Other gifts ranged from three figure sums to a regular penny a week from ‘one of the humbler families of the parish.’

The acquiring of a site for the new church was the first problem to be faced. The growth of Silverhill had forced up land values and several possible building plots all proved to be too expensive. Then, quite unexpectedly, the Rev. Francis Newton, the minister at St. Matthew’s, was offered about an acre of land immediately adjoining the original church for only £500, about a third of its market value. The Committee quickly and unanimously accepted this offer, with thanks to the owner for his ‘gracious liberality.’

Church picture 1905However, faith continued to be put to the test. The building had to be completed stage by stage as the money came in, and several times the order for the next stage to be started needed to be given before there was the money in the bank to pay for it. Each time this confidence was justified and the money arrived.

The first brick of the new church was laid on May 20th 1884 and the foundation stone ceremony was on June 17th the same year. The architect was John Loughborough Pearson, who also designed Truro and Brisbane Cathedrals, and the builder was Mr. J. Shillitoe of Upper Norward.

Hopes that the church could be opened free of debt were not realised. When the building was completed, £1,800 remained outstanding. It was only after much prayer and heart-searching that Mr. Newton and his Committee decided that the needs of the parish were so pressing that they should go ahead with the Consecration as planned. Again, the decision proved justified. The bulk of this debt was quite quickly settled and in his New Year letter in the Parish Magazine for January, 1889 the Rector was able to announce that the entire £11,134 1 10d had been paid.

It is pleasant to record that throughout the period of construction relations between the Committee and the builders remained consistently cordial. Mr. Shillitoe, the builder, was always most helpful and obliging. In September 1885 he agreed to ‘do the necessary work in adapting the font without charge,’ and also announced his willingness to ‘provide lathes and screws to arrange the 550 chairs at 2½d. per chair, but they will not be fastened to the floor as we have never done them so.’

The new church was consecrated by the Bishop of Chichester, on November 25th 1885. It was arranged that admission to the Consecration Service should be by ticket but the Rev. Newton, a man of uncommon sympathy, announced that ‘some seats will, if possible, be reserved for the general public without tickets.’ He also told his congregation that ‘As there are many persons who are neither Parishioners nor Members of the Congregation who have contributed liberally to the Building Fund, and who may wish to attend the Opening Service, it is hoped that Seat Holders will not mind if they should not occupy their usual place on that day. The Churchwardens will do all in their power to accommodate everyone.’

Those going to the Consecration Service, and perhaps intending to worship at the new church subsequently, were advised that ‘The form of prayer and the hymns to be used on that day can be obtained from Mr. Olney (Coachman), Tilsworth Lodge Gate, one penny each. Bickersteth’s Hymn Book will be adopted as the hymn book in the New Church. Copies in good type can be obtained from Mr. Olney, price l0d. Kneeling pads will be provided. Hassocks, which it is requested should be of the same colour as the pads, can be obtained at Mr. Lancaster’s, Robertson Street, or of Mr. Olney, price l/3½d. and 2/1d.’

With all this, plus five shillings for a luncheon ticket, the Consecration Day was quite an expensive occasion. Nevertheless although the weather was unfavourable, all 800 places in the church were taken.

The following brief description of the church is based very largely on the original ‘Notes by an  Architect,’ which appeared in the Parish Magazine in 1886.

“The walls have an outside facing of local dark red bricks, and inside facing of Sittingbourne yellow stocks and a filling in of Portland cement concrete. The foundations are of concrete composed of blue lias lime and beach, and to support the immense weight of the church the trenches in some places were sunk sixteen feet below the surface and are from six to ten feet wide. The roof, a single span covering the nave and aisles, is of pitch pine covered with local red tiles.

The nave is 84ft by 24ft and about 56ft high. Its principal feature is the arcade of columns, based on the square, with half circle shafts attached to each face, moulded bases and caps of an original combination of circular, diagonal and square members, from which spring back arches of two square orders. Above the arches is the clerestory. The circular windows do not admit light from the outside and so it is correctly described as ‘blind.’

The pulpit was the gift of Mrs. Cumberlege, widow of the founder of St. Matthew’s, in 1888 and was completed about three months before her death. It was designed by the church architect and made by J.  Daymond & Son, of London. The brass eagle lectern was given by ‘Mrs. Andrews and her Pupils’ in 1885. Mrs. Andrews ran a private school for girls at Nos. 1 and 2, Markwick Terrace

The Chancel is defined by a low stone wall, a rise in the floor of three steps and a double tie beam overhead. The Chancel is of the type known as Apsidal, because of the end wall being semi-circular. The text around the walls was painted, ‘with the architect’s advice and approval, ‘by Mrs. Ellen Newton, the wife of the then Rector. The screen behind the communion table, the reredos, was the gift of Dr. Beasley, of Filsham Lodge. It was designed by Sir Aston Webb, one of the most distinguished architects of his day, and made by J. Daymond & Son. With the oak panelling on either side, it was dedicated in 1901.

The organ is a ‘Father Willis’ and was originally installed in 1890 by Messrs. Henry Willis & Son for £1,064. It replaced a small organ which had been taken up from the first church. The fund for the new organ was started in 1886 with a £5 donation, given because ‘the present little organ, though sweet in tone is not sufficiently powerful and can scarcely be heard when the choir is singing.’ The organ case was designed by the church architect and the wood carver was A. Robinson. The organ was restored in 1971. 

On the south side of the chancel is the Askwith Chapel. This was known for many years as Founder’s Chapel, and, according to the original description of the church, ‘Here is suitably placed memorial stained glass from the old church, very cleverly adapted, and the tablets in memory of those  who have gone before.’ It-was redesigned by a local architect, C. F. Callow, as a memorial to Canon Askwith and dedicated by the Bishop of Chichester in 1951. Canon Askwith was Rector for thirty one  years, a period which covered the whole of the First World War and part of the second.

At the west end of the church is the Newton Memorial Window dedicated in 1896 and commemorating the Rev. Francis Newton, who was responsible for the building of the present church. The north transept houses the War Memorial, which was designed by Kruger-Gray and put up in’ 1921. It deserves notice if only because the contemporary documents refer to it consistently as ‘the Peace Memorial.’”

Naturally, there have been some structural changes during the 127 years history of the church. The first of these came in 1896, when the South Tower block was added. When the church was consecrated, the south door was flush with the main wall but the architect had prepared plans for a tower block to provide a vestibule for the south entrance and he had intended that this should be surmounted by an elaborate stone steeple. The tower was put up by a local builder, C. W. Pelling Hurrell of Silverlands Road, but there was not enough money for the steeple. However, in preparation for it, the brickwork was carried down eight feet below ground level and the walls were supported by six massive buttresses. The project was revived in 1931 but again defeated by cost. The original estimate for both tower and steeple had been £1000. In 1931 the architect reported that to extend the tower ‘to the base of the steeple would be somewhere about £5,000, and the cost of the spire about £3,500 in addition.’ This was considered prohibitive and the idea was abandoned.

However, there was more building in 1935, when the Jubilee of the church was marked by the adding of a Clergy Vestry. Fifty years later, the Centenary saw the realisation of a bold and imaginative scheme to provide a room opening off the North Porch which can be used for a creche or for small meetings, and which has its own kitchen and toilet facilities, and to effect a general improvement in the Fellow-ship Area at the west end of the church.