ST MARY’S CHURCH, GILLINGHAM,
This ancient and beautiful building goes back to the time of the Normans. Some old records say that it was built on the site of an earlier Saxon church.
It is much as the Normans left it except for the two aisles which were added during the 19th century. It is a pretty and unusual little church in a country setting and surrounded by a churchyard containing many old and historic graves.
Looking from the west door it provides an interesting vista. The Norman arches of the tower, and the chancel leading to the apsidal end of the church. As can be expected the interior of this small Norman church is dim, the windows being small and the walls of great thickness. Electric light helps the visitors to appreciate the beauty of the structure. An interesting view is obtained by looking back from the chancel through the Norman arch, along the nave with its massive arcades, through the narrow arches of the tower, past the font, to the west door.
The west and north doorways are Norman and the suggestion of the original classical scroll-work on the latter is worth looking at. The small loophole windows also speak of great antiquity. There is a much weathered mass-dial near the south door.
The tower has an unusual position between the nave and the Baptisty, so that it appears to be in the centre of the church. The tower has unfortunately been given a new top, but is however a fine example of a Norman square tower. There are narrow Norman openings and quaint Norman faces below the parapet. The amount of stone work involved indicates that it probably came from Caen in France through the little ports of early East Anglia, there being no quarries this side of the Fens. The apse is characteristic of the church-work of the north of France.
The small bell-cote on the roof of the nave for the saints-bell is said to be one of the most perfect left in Norfolk.
There are numerous points of interest in the church. Near the south door is a holy water stoup.
A small section of the screen hangs on the north wall near the font. It has 15th century carvings and colouring, and bears the inscription “May we pray for ye sowle of John Corda and for ye good life of Elizabeth Corda and John”.
Immediately next to St Mary’s is the ruins of All Saints church of which only the tower remains. St Mary’s and All Saints were separate parishes and were united in 1748. The separate and single list of Rectors will be seen on the board under the tower arch.
There was once old box pews, but these were removed in 1860 when the present seating was introduced.
The font of St Mary’s is not so old as the church. Near the south door is the base of a 15th century font belonging to All Saints church. This was found in a cottage garden in the village where it had been used as a garden seat for many years. The bowl of this font is said to have been sold to Kirkley Church, near Lowestoft, for a guinea.
St Mary’s has three bells which were cast by members of the Brent family, whose foundry was at Norwich. The first bell is marked D.D. 1579 I.B. (I.B. Stands for Brent Snr.) The second bell is marked A.D. 1610 with a crown and three shields engraved. The third bell is marked A.B. 1634 with a plain cross and the words TRINITAS SALVA ME. (A.B. Stands for the dedication of the bell to Alice, the wife of I.B.)
There are interesting angel figures in the roof of the nave, but some have been affected by time and death watch beetle.
There is an old picture of the church under the tower arch, showing that it once had a thatched roof.
During excavations to repair the chancel floor, leaden burial caskets, one of which was that of a child, were found. These were buried in sand, not in a vault as would be expected, and belong to members of the Bacon and Shultz families to whom there are many memorials in the chancel. One memorial slab when taken up was found to weigh two tons. On it are the Bacon armorial bearings, the helmet and the hog.
The oldest memorial in the church is a small brass on the chancel step to John Everard 1553, member of a noted Norfolk family, he once owned an estate here. An Everard was bishop of Norwich in 1166, and he excommunicated Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, for defrauding the Augustinian Canons of some of their property. There are brass memorials on the church wall Rev. J Farr and also to Rev. J. Loring,. Both were once rectors of Gillingham, Mr Farr’s daughter Fanny was an authoress and she married a missionary and went to India. She wrote many novels, mostly about that country, under the pen name F. Penny, and in one of her novels she mentioned Winston Hall in this parish.
A stained glass window over the west door is in memory of Mrs Loring and her daughter who were drowned at sea when on their way to Australia to visit one of Mrs Loring’s sons.
Another memorial near the west door is to the Rev. John Lewes. He was something of a character, and was rector here for many years. Being a keen horseman, it is said that, when he was too old to stand in the pulpit, he had his old saddle fixed in the pulpit so he could sit on it to preach his sermon, it is not stated whether he used the whip on the congregation. The saddle was still in position when Mr Farr arrived in the parish and he soon removed such an unsuitable seat from the church.
The west and north door of the church were until quite recently kept closed by thick wooden bars which used to slide in holes in the thick walls. These are still there, but not often used. A picture exists showing a door on the right of the chancel and leading to a stairway to a roof loft, there was also a window over the chancel arch looking down into the nave.
The chancel screen is said to have been removed at some time and made into the Hall pew, which stood just in front of the pulpit. It was a large and curious affair having four posts and a canopy, rather like a four poster bed, and was removed in 1860.
In early days there were four parishes and churches in what is now known as Gillingham.
One, St Andrew’s at Windale, was sited near the junction of the Aldeby and Yarmouth roads, where a sandpit is still known as the church hole. What remains of the old village is now called Waterloo.
The other church, also St Andrew’s at Winston, was in a meadow behind the rectory. There are many references to this church in the church registers at St Mary’s. Some shaped stones on the rockery in the rectory garden no doubt come from the old church, and human bones have often been dug up in the meadow. The rectory at Winston was used by the rector of St Mary’s as St Mary’s rectory, which was near the church on the left of the old Bungay road, was burnt down.
The parishes of Windale and Winston were united with All Saints in 1440 by the Duke of Norfolk. The church of All Saints was not so old as St Mary’s, its tower being 15th century, but was however larger. It was pulled down in 1748 and the stones were used in making a new road near the church. Both churches once stood in one churchyard but are now divided by the drive to the Jacobean Hall.
The people of Gillingham are very proud of their beautiful little church which has been cared for by many generations of people who have lived in this parish. Many people have worshipped here, been baptised in the font, married in the church, and at last buried in the churchyard. We do not know the names of the men who built St Mary’s, they are gone but their church still stands as witness to their work. We hope to leave it in good order for future generations of Gillingham people.
The parish of Gillingham is now linked with the neighbouring parishes of Geldeston, Stockton, Kirby Cane and Ellingham. The Gillingham rectory has been sold and the present rector lives in Geldeston.