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Kent Churches - Architectural & Historical Information

  St Mary Church, West Malling       TQ 6790 5756

Tim Tatton-Brown's Survey 1995

LOCATION: The church lies at the top (southern) end of the High Street (Market Place) in West Malling village at c. 170 feet above O.D. on Sandgate beds just above the Hythe Beds.

DESCRIPTION: Only the tower and chancel survive of the old church. The nave was completely rebuilt in 1901, to replace a nave of 1780-2 by George Gwilt. This was because of two disasters in the 18th Century. First:

`There happened a terrible and great tempest of thunder and lightning and sett afire the Spire of the Church broke down through the roofe and cieling of the Body of the Church and through the Belfry doore broke down the pendulum of the clock melted the bottom of the pendulum went through the lead of the Chaunsell and did a great deal of damage especially to the Spire on Monday morning about six o'clock the 17 Day of November 1712' (to quote the parish records).

Then in October 1778 the nave had to be closed because it was unsafe and in 1780-2 it was rebuilt with galleries. During this time only the chancel was used.

When the Georgian church was demolished in the summer of 1901, a brief excavation was carried out of the medieval foundations, and G M Livett made a sketch plan (published in the 1904 history of the church - op.cit. below).

Both the lower eastern part of the tower and the western section of the chancel show evidence for early Norman (Late 11th - early 12th Century) work, and the excavations seemed to show that the tower was initially separate from the original nave, which underlay only the eastern two-thirds of the present nave. Today only the lower eastern section of the tower is visible. The walls are thinner than for the western (early 14thCentury) part of the tower, and exhibit some `herringbone' masonry. There are also some reused Tufa quoins in the western part of the tower.

The western two-thirds of the chancel is also early-Norman, and its original tufa north-east quoin is still visible on the north side, as is the tufa jamb and the start of a round-headed window arch. On the south side one complete (now blocked) early Norman window is visible with tufa jambs and a round head cut in a single block. The jamb for a second window is just further east. This original chancel thus had two windows on each side and was slightly less wide than the tower, which is the same width as the nave. It is certainly possible that the `early tower' was not in fact a tower at all.

The chancel was lengthened eastwards in the late 13th Century, and some fine new windows and a sedilia were put in. The east window is a triple lancet (restored in 1865), which sits on a very worn Reigate-stone string course externally. Internally it has a rere-arch and shafts on the internal jambs as does the window to the north. Another contemporary lancet to the west of this also has an internal rere-arch moulding but no shafted jambs. To the west of this again is a contemporary doorway with dogtooth on its outer moulding. This doorway is of Reigate stone (now covered in limewash) as were other external features, including the north-east quoin (now cement covered). Only the western half of the sedilia (with one Purbeck marble shaft) is visible; the rest being buried behind the Brett monument. At the west end of the south chancel wall is another plain lancet but the dressings of this are all plastered over. It is also probably 13th Century. The neighbouring trefoil-headed lancet to the east (all restored in Bathstone externally) has an internal rere-arch and hood. It is probably early 14th Century. To the east of this is an early 14th Century doorway into a contemporary vestry. The vestry is, however, heavily restored and has a new window and doorway on the south and a modern timber-framed upper section and roof.

Also of the early 14th Century is the rebuilt western tower with clasping western pilaster buttresses. It has a contemporary western doorway, and two trefoil-headed windows on the north to the ringing chamber. The tower seems to have been rebuilt at this time after a collapse, and a filled up crack can also be seen on the north. The south wall contains two rectangular windows, and a brick (c.18th Century) round-headed window at the top. There is a rebuilt trefoil-headed window in the upper west face, and a crenellated parapet with a slender shingled spire behind it. This is also probably later medieval in origin, but was rebuilt in 1837.

At the extreme west end of the south aisle, where it abuts the tower, there is a fragment of 15th Century coursed Ragstone masonry, and part of a window jamb (with glazing bar holes and a sill). It also had a plinth.

The eastern end of the c.1780 aisles (with now blocked windows) are still visible externally with the north-east and south-east Portland stone quoins. Internally this church had galleries, and this was reflected in the two stories of windows externally.

The chancel floor was greatly raised in 1850 and the ceiling was removed. It revealed a very spindly trussed-rafter roof (possibly of late 13th or early 14th Century date) which has been repaired with many bolts.

The nave was totally rebuilt in 1901, and given completely new arcades and a western gallery. The porch was added in 1903.

BUILDING MATERIALS (Incl. old plaster, paintings, glass, tiles etc.): Tufa and Ragstone rubble was used in the early Norman church, while Reigate stone was used for dressings in the 13th Century chancel. In the 14th Century carved Ragstone was used as well as ironstone quoins, in the vestry and upper S.E. chancel jamb.

The c.1780 rebuilt nave was in coursed Ragstone (with galleting) and Portland stone dressings, while the 1901 nave used galleted Ragstone and Bathstone dressings.

EXCEPTIONAL MONUMENTS IN CHURCH: Large monument to Sir Robert and Lady Brett (c.1621) in S.E. corner of chancel; also some fine 18th Century monuments. There are also three fine brasses in the church.

Size & Shape: Very large irregular area around church with extensions to the south and west, of the 19th Century and down the hillside on the north-west (more recently).

Condition: Good.

Boundary walls: Some Ragstone walls to south and north (c.19th Century) with an iron railing to the east (road).

Exceptional monuments: Some good headstones and tomb-chests to the north and south of the church.

Ecological potential: ? Yes - some specimen trees in the churchyard and mown grass.

HISTORICAL RECORD (where known):
Earliest ref. to church: Domesday Book.

Late med. status: Vicarage, with appropriation to Malling Abbey confirmed in 1351.

Patron: West Malling Abbey till 1539, then to Archbishop Cranmer, and on into private hands.

Other documentary sources: Hasted IV (1798), 528-533.
Some wills in Test. Cant. (W Kent, 1906), 51-2 give details of the late Medieval church.

Finds within 0.5km: Late 11th Century St Leonard's Tower, c. mile to the south-west and West Malling Abbey c. mile to the north-east.

Inside present church: Probably good - earlier nave and aisle foundations should be found below the 1901 nave; they were partially excavated in 1901.

Outside present church: ? Good.

The church and churchyard: Despite the complete rebuilding of the nave in c.1780 and again in 1901, much of interest remains in this church in the chancel and western tower. Both contain early Norman walling which was apparently originally in two separate buildings. The chancel was lengthened in the later 13th Century, and the tower was rebuilt in the early 14th Century.

The wider context: This is one of three buildings of c.1100 in the parish. The others being West Malling Abbey church just to the north-east, and St Leonard's Tower to the south (there was also a St Leonard's chapel here). Bishop Gundulf of Rochester (1077-1108) may have been responsible for all of them.

REFERENCES: A History of the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, West Malling, Kent (1904), by Revd. A W Lawson and Col. G W Stockley (with contributions by G M Livett, L L Duncan and F J Bennett. S R Glynne, Notes on the Churches of Kent (1877), 292-3.

Guide book: Brief booklet (undated and unsigned, but c.1980s).

Photographs: Fine Royal Arms of 1685-8 (very rare - James II) are on the west gallery - see photo in Kent Church 1954, p. 152.

Plans and drawings: Plan at 1:240 (1904) in op.cit. supra. (by G.W.S.) - also sketch phased plan by G.M. Livett (also in the above). Petrie view from S.W. in 1799 (in K.A.S. Library), showing Georgian nave.

DATE VISITED: 9/5/95                                          REPORT BY: Tim Tatton-Brown

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