Exploring Saint Mary's

A guide to the church

The famous porch
Drawn by Charles Nicholson
Floor plan drawn by Sir Charles Nicholson

Welcome to Saint Mary’s

The people of South Benfleet have undoubtedly worshipped on this spot for over 1100 years, and the west wall of the present nave is at least 900 years old.

Since that time, people from many periods and Christian traditions have altered and enlarged it and have left their mark upon it. They have made it beautiful by their craftsmanship and have made it a Holy Place by centuries of prayer and care.

Today South Benfleet people still cherish and use it daily for Christian worship – the purpose for which it was built.

We hope that you will enjoy exploring St Mary’s and that these notes will tell you something of its history and point you to some of its treasures. Above all, we hope that you will feel thoroughly “at home” here in our Father’s House.

Our old churches are places where people of all faiths or of none may find peace, beauty and inspiration, and where Christians – whoever or whatever they are – may look upon as “home”!


Some Landmarks in the Church’s Long History

The 600s

It may be that the Christian faith was first brought to Benfleet by St Cedd, the missionary to the East Saxons, whose missionary work is known to have reached Prittlewell and Tilbury.


A section of King Alfred the Great’s army defeated the warriors of Haestan the Viking at the Battle of Benfleet. The Danes had set up a fortified camp here some years before and had destroyed all evidence of Christianity in Benfleet. According to tradition, a Saxon church was built on the site of the Danish camp in 894 to give thanks to God for the victory, and it is possible that some ancient foundations discovered in the churchyard to the south-east of the church may have been part of this or the remains of an even earlier building.


South Benfleet church and parish were given into the care of the nuns of Barking Abbey.

The 1000s

William the Conqueror transferred the church and parish into the care of the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey. (King Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1540, making the great church a Royal Peculiar and Collegiate Church. After a break of about three years, the advowson of South Benfleet was placed in the care of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, who remain its Patrons today.) Probably around 1067 or just after, a small Norman church was built. Its west wall remains as part of the present nave west wall, with a simple doorway, now north of centre.

The 1100s

The small Norman church was heightened and extended southwards. Its larger west wall was given a pair of single windows, symmetrically placed in the new wall, but out of line with the earlier doorway.

The 1200s

The responds (sides) of the chancel arch date from this time.

The 1300s

The western tower was built and probably also the south aisle was added.

The 1400s

About 1400 most of the present two-light windows were inserted, in the early Perpendicular style of architecture. Work was also done to the chancel, which was extended eastwards. Towards the end of the 1400s, the north aisle was built (or maybe rebuilt) and the south aisle was reordered and given a new roof. The walls of the nave were heightened and clerestory windows inserted above the aisles, also new belfry windows were placed in the tower. This work was c6mpleted by the addition of the beautiful timber south porch.


The timber-framed spire was taken down (the Churchwarden bought the materials for £1.10s) and was replaced by the present spirelet. On top of the spirelet there is a cockerel dated 1785.


A report was drawn up by William White of London (who designed several fine churches, including Lyndhurst Hants, All Saints Notting Hill and St Saviour’s Aberdeen Park, Highbury, in London) and shortly afterwards restoration work was done to his designs. The work included the lowering of the nave floor to reveal the bases of the piers, repairs to the porch, re-seating the nave, a new east window and its glass and later a new font.


During this period, Sir Charles Archibald Nicholson (1867-1949) became intimately involved with St Mary’s as its architect. Also involved in the development of St Mary’s were his brothers Archibald K. Nicholson (1871-1937), the stained glass maker, and Sir Sydney Hugo Nicholson (1875-1947), who was organist of Westminster Abbey and director of the Royal School of Church Music. Sir Charles, who was consulting architect to seven cathedrals, designed several late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century churches which are amongst the most beautiful of their period. They include St Matthew’s Chelston, Devon, St Augustine’s Grimsby, St Lawrence Eastcote, Middlesex and St Alban’s Copnor, Portsmouth. Here in Essex, he created St Alban’s Westcliff and Frinton Parish Church (amongst others), also the east end of Chelmsford Cathedral and much of St Margaret’s Leigh-on-Sea. He was trained in the office of John Dando Sedding and worked fora time with Henry Wilson, who designed splendid church furnishings.

Benfleet had a part in Sir Charles’ formative years – its parish boundary passed through the porch of Hadleigh House, his childhood home, where he spent his first nine years. Later he lived at The Grange, Totteridge, which was destroyed by fire in 1899 and during much of the second half of his life he lived at Porter’s Grange, Southchurch Road, Southend. He is buried near the south side of the tower here at Benfleet, with his first wife Evelyn, who died in 1927. St Mary’s is adorned with a host of tasteful fittings and famishing which he designed for it and which take their place alongside the work of past ages.

Exploring the Exterior

Although St Mary’s stands at the southern end of the parish which it serves, with most of the modern housing to, the north, the church has an attractive setting, in the old village centre, upon a slight eminence of land, overlooking Benfleet Creek.

Its large tree-shaded churchyard contains a few box-like chest-tombs (although some of these have been lowered), and several eighteenth-century headstones. To the south of the church, look for that to Jeremy Greenway of Canvey, also one behind it with a skull and cross-bones (emblems of mortality rather than of piracy!), another to Mary Nash (1760) with angel and trumpets and a headstone by the north chancel wall with a skull, cross-bones and hour-glass.

Rising out of this attractive churchyard are the rugged walls of South Benfleet’s ancient church. Although it does not possess some of the airs and graces of our larger Essex churches, it is a noble building, of dignified proportions, with its embattled aisles, its walls strengthened and enhanced by buttresses and its tall rooflines. Notice the mixture of mellow colours and textures in the building materials used. The rubble walls contain grey Kentish ragstone, flints from the fields, bricks of varying vintages (some possibly re-used from the Roman period) and white chalky clunch. These,together with the weatherworn timbers of the porch and the perky white- painted little spirelet, all blend with the greens of the churchyard to create an exterior of great character. There is much to see here and as we explore, we must remember that what we see was built by hand, built with love and built to last – and it has!

The western tower looks rather squat in proportion to the tall roof of the nave, but it is in fact quite sturdy. The buttresses which strengthen its western corners rise only to the height of the first stage. The tower dates probably from the early 1300s. Single windows light its lower stage and ringing-chamber, hilst the bell-chamber above has double windows of the late 1400s This tower was built to support a tall timber-framed spire, but this was replaced by the present white weather-boarded spirelet in 1766 (the weather-cock is dated 1785). The clock was placed in the tower in 1911.

The embattled north aisle, with walls of ragstone, was added in the 1400s. The shape of its west window (which is identical to others in the south aisle and chancel) indicates the early 1400s, whilst the northern and, eastern windows date from the closing years of that century. There is a blocked north doorway, with what may have been a recess fora stoup to the east of it, and further east is the turret containing the rood-loft staircase.

Above the aisles rises the nave clerestory, punctured by three double square-headed, fifteenth-century windows each side. Beneath the eastern gable of the nave are small windows to give light to the rood-complex inside.

The north and south walls of the chancel have two-light windows of the early 1400s, whilst the three-light east window, in the style of the early 1300s, was made in 1861 to the designs of William White.

More windows of the early 1400s may be seen in the south aisle, the core of which is 100 years earlier, but was remodelled and given its battlements when the north aisle was built.

A great treasure of St Mary’s is its beautiful timber porch – a masterpiece., of late fifteenth-century woodcarving, and sensitively restored in our own century to the designs of Sir Charles Nicholson, who, with his first, wife Evelyn, is buried just south of the tower. Essex is noted for its mediaeval timberwork and here is one of its finest examples. Many original timbers remain (worn by 500 years of British weather). It is worth looking carefully at the exquisitely carved wooden tracery in the openings in the sides, above and around the entrance arch and in the barge-boards beneath the roof gable. Inside there are thick moulded cornices each side and the roof is punctuated by a pair of hammer-beams at the centre.

We enter the church beneath the fourteenth-century arch of the south doorway. In the wall beside this is the holy water stoup, where worshippers, pilgrims and visitors over the centuries have (and still do) dip their fingers into the holy water and they make, the sign of the cross as a symbolic act of cleansing and re-dedication upon entering the sacred building.

Inside the Church

It is worthwhile taking time to drink in this bright and colourful interior as a whole. Here the craftsmanship of many periods combines to create a church of great beauty, which has been made holy by 900 years of prayer. There is much to see here, including a great deal of work designed by Sir Charles Nicholson. These items will be marked (CN) in the notes which follow.

The nave. This, the “people’s part” of the church, contains its earliest craftsmanship, which may be seen in the west wall. High up in this wall are two blocked single Norman windows, with wide internal splays which date from c.1150 and were the west windows of the church before the tower was added. Beneath them (but not central in the wall) is the simple early Norman doorway, now leading from the choir vestry into the base of the tower; this may well date from the 1060s or just after.

Dividing the aisles from the nave are arcades of three bays. The north arcade rests upon quartrefoil (four-lobed) piers, with moulded capitals and bases,. dating from the 1400s. Notice how this arcade leans outwards, betraying its great age. The south arcade has octagonal piers, made in the 1300s (although the eastern pier was renewed in 1924). The broad chancel arch is supported each side by responds, each with three attached shafts, indicating work of the late 1200s. Above, in the east wall, two small windows have been placed, to admit light above the rood complex, which stood beneath.

The present roof which crowns the nave may well have been renewed in the 1600s and is of simple construction. Four great tiebeams straddle the nave and high up on the walls between the clerestory windows are the stone corbels which were placed here in the 1400 to support the mediaeval roof. Each is a nicely preserved piece of stonecarving. The eastern and western pairs have fascinating faces (notice how the south-east one holds its mouth open with tiny fingers), whilst the central pairs, are the emblems of the four Evangelists (the Angel of St Matthew, the winged Lion of St Mark, the Ox of St Luke and the Eagle of St John).

Also in the nave, notice:

The rather plain and functional benches which were part of William White’s c. 1861 restoration.

The organ loft (CN) at the west end and the panelled screen to the choir vestry beneath it. The loft was made in 1927, but the three musical angels (inspired by the work of Fra Angelico) were painted by Lady Nicholson in 1897 when a new organ (by H. Jones of Kensington) was placed in the, chancel. This was rebuilt and enlarged by Harrison & Harrison of Durham to a specification by Sir Sydney Nicholson, forming the present organ. Although not a large instrument (it has two manuals, pedals and seven speaking stops), its tonal quality is beautiful.

The pulpit (CN – 1924) has linenfold panelling, reproducing woodwork of the 1500s.

The lectern (1908) is a memorial to the Reverend F.J. Bunton.

The rood screen (CN) beneath the chancel arch shows splendid woodcarving by Messrs Bowman & Son of Stamford. The screen arrived in 1927, given in memory of the Reverend T.J. Henderson (Vicar from 1860-72), the rood loft above it was added in 1931 and the rood itself (Christ crucified, and flanked by his Mother and St John) was given by Sir Charles Nicholson in 1933 in memory of his first wife. In the panels of the screen-base are twelve painted figures, originally executed by Miss Barbara Nicholson, but repainted in 1976. Six female saints adorn the north side – St Cecilia, St Catherine, St Osyth, St Joan of Arc, St Francesca (Mrs Henderson’s patron saint, with a picture of her standing at her feet) and St Clare (after Joan of Arc). The male saints on the south side are St Thomas A Becket (with Fr Henderson standing at his feet), St Nicholas, St Edward the Confessor, St Francis and St Martin. These saints either have their emblems, or some incident from their lives or legends.

The aisles were added as extensions outwards from the nave; their east ends also provided excellent positions for side chapels in mediaeval times, and these have been re-instated during our present century.

The north aisle dates from the late 1400s and its roof (CN) of memel pine was made in 1900 – a copy of the mediaeval original. Fragments of nineteenth-century wall painting have been revealed towards the east end. This aisle also contains:

The war memorial (made and given by Mr F. Rowe of East Street, whose firm undertook much of the restoration work in this church) commemorates South Benfleet folk who lost their lives in the two World Wars.

The book of remembrance, in its case nearby, records the names of those who are still loved and prayed for, although we see then no more.

On the wall is a carving of the Last Supper in olive wood – the work of 19 year old W.H. Longley (a local man) in 1849.

Further east is the staircase in the wall, which led to the loft (or gallery) above the parclose screen which enclosed the chapel on its west and south sides, then to the original rood-loft (which jutted out in front of the chancel arch) and then possibly to a parclose loft around the south chapel.

In what is now the Chapel of St Michael (furnished in 1922) is a piscina to the south of the altar, showing that there was an altar here in mediaeval times. Into its drain was poured the water which needed to be disposed of at the Eucharist.

In the unusual (and greatly altered) recess in the north-east angle is a statue of St Michael, made of lime wood by Sister Angela of the Community of St Clare.

The model of a Viking ship on the windowsill nearby was given as a memorial. It reminds us that in 893 there were something like 250 of these out in the nearby creek and estuary.

The communion rails were given as a 1914-18 war memorial and the altar was moved here from the sanctuary in 1922.

The focal point of this chapel is the reredos which is an Arundel print of 1876, taken from Flemish paintings of the fifteenth century forming an altar piece in Lubeck Cathedral. These pictures were given by the Reverend W.C. Bishop (Rector of Orsett) and framed by Sir Charles Nicholson. Here we see St Blaine, St John the Baptist, Jesus carrying his cross, the Crucifixion, Jesus’ Burial and Ressurection, St Jerome and St Giles.

The south aisle, originally dating from the 1300s, was altered in the 1400s, when its wall was heightened (see the position of the one remaining corbel upon which the earlier lean-to roof rested) and was given a new roof, of which some of the mediaeval timbers remain. This aisle was restored (CN) in 1924-5 and here we see:

Tasteful 1924 woodwork in the benches, with friezes of carving in their ends.

The font (positioned near the entrance to symbolise our entry through Holy Baptism into the Church Family). A circular stem of the 1200s and four nineteenth-century comer pillars support a square bowl made in 1871 (probably to William White’s design), embellished with crosses and patterns of three trefoils in circles. The mediaeval font was replaced in 1845 and taken to St Katherine’s Canvey Island when the present font was made.

The beautiful font cover (CN – 1924) was influenced in its design by font covers of the 1600s which survive in some of our churches.

In the comer at the west end is a part of a stone coffin lid, which may have covered the body of a priest of the 1200s. Its inscription, in Norman French, tells us “Here lies Marcelie; pray for his (or it could be her) soul”.

The lady chapel at the east end has a stone altar, made with masonry taken from the eastern pier of the south arcade when it was rebuilt in 1924.

The large mediaeval image recess and pedestal now contains a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Mother of our Lord and Patron Saint of this church.

In the south wall is a fourteenth-century piscina, for use at the altar which stood here in mediaeval times.

In the eastern respond of the arcade (beneath the hymn-board) is a shallow mediaeval recess, possibly for a light.’

The chandelier was a gift to the church by Sir Charles Nicholson.

The chancel. Four steps lead up to the chancel, which is spacious and is unusually long (351/2 feet) in comparison with the nave (44and a half feetY2 feet). A further three steps rise to the sanctuary, containing the High Altar, at the east end. The roof is supported by tie-beams and crown-posts, parts of which are original fourteenth-century timbers. The floor, of black and white marble slabs, was given by the Reverend Dr Francis Clark, Rector of North Benfleet, who died in 1734 and is commemorated by a handsome wall plaque on the south chancel wall, which also mentions his gift of an organ – a great rarity in a village church at this time. Other features to notice in the chancel include:

The return stalls (for clergy in choir), designed in mediaeval fashion, but using the style of the 1600s. These (by CN – 1928) are a memorial to the Reverend T.J. Henderson (Vicar 1860-72).

The Dutch brass chandelier was given in 1912 by Miss Burlton as a memorial.

The communion rails (CN – 1922) area memorial to the Reverend A.C. Holthouse (Vicar 1914-20).

In the centre of the chancel, just beneath the present floor-level and covered over with boarding, is an enormous burial slab (9 feet x 41/2 feet) which has indents for what must have been a magnificent brass (of which only a few fragments now remain), commemorating Thomas Blosme (died 1440) and his wife Olive (died c. c. 1400). For further details, see picture and description on the north wall nearby.

On the wall near the priest’s doorway (but originally in a burial-slab in the floor) is a small brass inscription for William Cardinal, who died in 1568.

Two ledger slabs in the floor commemorate Sir Henry Appleton of Jarvis Hall, his wife Dorothy and their two sons.

The high altar (CN – 1922) is adorned as English altars would have been before the Reformation. It is backed by a colourful reredos (of 1891, with a gilded border of 1924 – both by CN). The paintings (by his mother, Lady Sarah Nicholson) were inspired by fifteenth-century pictures, show the Adoration of the Shepherds (appropriately with a river estuary in the background), flanked by angels. On the riddel posts at the sides are paintings by Miss Barbara Nicholson of the four Evangelists (north) and Saints Peter, James, Paul and Jude (south).

The hanging lamp over the aumbry (or cupboard recess) in the north wall (1940) reminds us that our Lord Jesus Christ, for whose glory this church was built and famished, is specially present in the Blessed Sacrament, reserved here so that it can be taken to the sick, dying and house-bound. This also provides us with a quiet and appropriate corner in which to think and pray. In the wall opposite is a fifteenth-century piscina.

The tower. This is not usually open to visitors. Its lower chamber is now the sacristy, from which a most unusual spiral staircase of timber, enclosed in timber and built around a central timber beam, gives access to the ringing chamber. The six bells are all of different dates and by different makers, as follows:


cwt qtr lb

Diameter Date



Mears and Stainbank (Whitechapel)Treble5122251949
J. Hodson (London)2nd6221271664
Thomas Mears (Whitechapel)3rd6014287/81790
John Walgrave (London)4th8072103/415th C
Miles Graye (Colchester)5th9117313/g1676

& Henry Wilmer (Borden, Kent)


Stained glass. Characters, scenes and symbols in stained glass provided a host of visual aids to teach the faith to mediaeval people. Although the church’s mediaeval glass has long disappeared, the array of characters who now look out from the windows provide a wonderful textbook of people from church history. The glass is nearly all twentieth century, and so lets in the light – something which Victorian glass often failed to do. Many of the windows were given as memorials and bear appropriate inscriptions.

Most of the glass was designed by A.K. Nicholson and was made at his studios. He gave the windows in the south aisle in 1926. In 1945 a scheme was devised for equipping the remaining windows with stained glass and this has almost been achieved.

The windows are as follows:


East window In the tracery is all that remains of the 1861 memorial window to the Reverend John Aubone Cook (Vicar 1850-59). (See the brass plaque on the north side.) Although some people were suspicious of his support for the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival in the English Church – this wonderful tribute to a parish priest and his care of his people during the cholera epidemic in 1854 shows the affection in which he was held. The rest of the window, having been damaged during the War, was replaced in 1948 and shows Christ in Majesty, flanked by St Augustine and King Alfred the Great. It is signed E.R. Smith (of St John’s Wood, London).

North-East Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (+1556) and King Charles I (+1649) – both martyred in defence of the Church and Prayer Book.

South-East William Wilberforce (+1833), who abolished slavery and John Keble, whose “Assize Sermon” (also 1833) marked the beginning of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England.

South-West Mary Sumner (+1921), founddr’of the Mothers’ Union and Canon Apolo Kivebulaya (+1923) – a missionary to the Ugandan pygmy tribes. This window was given by people who had been married in this church between 1922 and 1948.

Nave The two windows above the chancel arch (1924) show the arms of Westminster Abbey (Patrons of the Living) and dioceses of Rochester, St Albans and Chelmsford, in which this parish was situated at various times in its history.

South aisle

East window Our Lady and the Angel Gabriel (the Annunciation). South-East Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her son, John the Baptist.


St Barbara (her emblem – a tower – is the tower of this church) and St Nicholas (note the Benfleet Hoy or sailboat).

West window St Peter and St Edward the Confessor (patron saint and founder of Westminster Abbey). .

North aisle


window St Dunstan (+988) and St Anselm (+1109) – both Archbishops of Canterbury.


St Columba (+597) – missionary to western Scotland, Theodore (+690) – Archbishop of Canterbury and reformer of Church government, and St Aidan of Lindisfarne (c. +640).


St Patrick of Ireland (c. +640) and St David of Wales (c. +601).

It was planned that the west window should have figures of St Alban and St Ninian.

This booklet is reproduced on this site with the kind permission of Roy Tricker.

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