The Church of England in Tenterden
ST. MILDRED'S     +     ST. MICHAEL'S     +     ST. JOHN'S

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St. John the Baptist, Smallhythe

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The Parish


In Roman times the whole of what is now Romney Marsh was a shallow sea with the coastline running from Appledore through to Hythe.


Later in the Middle Ages, Smallhythe was located in Dunborne, which was one of the six Boroughs of the ancient Tenterden Hundred. It lay on the banks of the tidal river Rother, which was then navigable from Romney along the course of the Rhee Wall, through Appledore and Reading (now Reading Street) as far as Newenden. In the 13th Century a series of storms of extreme violence blocked the channel to Romney and the river was diverted from Appledore past Ebony and Stone to the sea at Rye. This was, in fact, the second time the course of the river had changed and in earlier times it had found its way to the sea at Lympne.


A port and shipbuilding industry had existed in Smallhythe from early times and a church or chapel for the inhabitants and seamen had also existed. The earliest written reference to the church is in 1401, which records the gift of three shillings and fourpence from the Chamberlain’s Accounts of Romney to the chapel of St. John the Baptist, as a thank offering, to mark the successful launch of the Entwhistle, a sea-going barge built in the haven at Smallhythe.


In 1449, Tenterden, together with its port at Smallhythe and shipbuilding community at Reading was incorporated as one of the Cinque Ports as a ‘limb of Rye’.


Following a petition from the inhabitants in 1505, and on account of the distance from Tenterden and difficulties attending the Parish Church, Archbishop Warham issued a Faculty permitting the holding of divine service in the chapel and for the inhabitants to have a priest of their own. This was followed in 1509 by a further order allowing the inhabitants to elect their own priests subject only to his approval. This privilege, which was unique in the whole kingdom, was to last for more then 400 years!


In 1514 most of the hamlet was burnt down and the chapel suffered either partial or total destruction, and the present church building dates from then.


Of the very few ancient buildings remaining, that next to the church is known as the “Priest’s House”; and that which is now the Ellen Terry museum, now owned by the National Trust, was the harbour master’s house. A former house for the priest, on the other side of the road, was destroyed in the fire of 1514.


By the end of the 16th century the river had so silted up that there remained only a “creek of salt water” frequented by lighters and small vessels. Now there remains only a drainage ditch known as the Reading Sewer which flows in the opposite direction.


More recently the Benefices of St. Mildred, Tenterden and St. John the Baptist, Smallhythe were permanently united to form the one Benefice in 1928 but with the two parishes continuing distinct in all respects.


The Church


The present church was built in 1516-17 during the reign of Henry VIII to replace the chapel which stood on the same site and was destroyed by fire in 1514. It is an example of a Tudor church and is unusual in its use of red brick for its construction. It is thought that bricks may have been imported from the Low Countries in exchange for timber from the Weald of Kent. The stepped gables of the West front indicate a Dutch influence, and the beautiful Tudor brickwork is well worth studying. The porch was added in 1866.


The oldest features in the church are the mediaeval oak screen and the wainscot panelling. The panelling is mentioned in the records of the local history society as the oldest oak panelling known to exist anywhere. The pews in the nave are made of pitch pine and replaced oak family boxes in 1900. The pulpit and lectern were gifts from St. Mildred’s Church, Tenterden. The West window contains the only original Tudor tracery, but all the glass is modern. The window over the altar, which shows Christ victorious with a Paschal lamb and a mediaeval ship, was installed by the War Damage Commission in 1952, after the original window had been destroyed by a V1 Rocket in 1944.


The roof is a perfect example of a rectangular Tudor roof with two interesting repairs in evidence. The roof over the chancel was repaired in 1747 by the addition of oak side purlins fixed at right angles to the rafters. The roof over the West end was repaired in 1982 by steel brackets and stainless steel straps on top of the beams. These are fixed to wall plates set in concrete spreader beams on top of the walls, almost invisible, and so preserving the antiquity of the building. The cost of this last repair, still in recent memory, was £24,000. It is worth recording that this huge sum of money was raised by the small parish and the repairs carried out in under two years. During this time the church was closed and services were held at St. Mildred’s in Tenterden. The eventful story of how this was achieved will live on in the annals of the church and might almost be described as a miracle!


Dame Ellen Terry worshipped in this church and her funeral service was held here on 24th July 1928, conducted by the Rector of Wittersham, who was vicar in charge at that time.