Parish church of St Mary the Virgin

A booklet published by St Mary's

The fifteenth century porch
The nave
The expansion of the church through the ages

The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, South Benfleet

Welcome to St. Mary’s Church, which is one of the oldest landmarks in ‘South East Essex. Whatever may have been its origin, it is highly probable that a building set apart for Christian worship has stood on this site since the very early days of the Christian era, for the very name of the parish, “Benfleet”, comes from the Saxon words, “Beom” which means wood, and “Fleote”, which means a stretch of water, a stream or a creek.

Here, before local history can produce any record, it is certain that ancient communities existed. Unfortunately, the thick clay soil over hundreds of years has probably swallowed up whatever prehistoric men, Ancient Britons or Romans left behind them.

There is a tradition that an early church at Benfleet was built in 894 A.D. after the great battle that was fought here in the ninth century, between King Alfred’s men and the Danish pirates, who had constructed a fortified camp at Benfleet. Thus in the Spring of 893 there were in Benfleet Creek and along the shores of Hadleigh Ray, no less than two hundred and fifty Danish ships and a settlement consisting not only of warriors but their woman, children and horses. Then Benfleet probably had a bigger population than at any time until the present century.

One thing was clear, that if England was to be saved, this trouble spot must be made harmless and it was a bold stroke which brought King Alfred’s son Edward out from London with the remains of the English army, together with as many Londoners as he could raise, to destroy the camp at Benfleet. The story of the expedition is given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which the name Benfleet is mentioned for the first time in history.

Anyone wishing to know more about the campaign will find it, with maps, in the second volume of Hodgkin’s “History of the Anglo-Saxons”. Thus, for one short period Benfleet was without doubt, the most important place in England and recently a plaque has been inserted in the wall of the churchyard to commemorate this battle.

There are said to exist some foundations of an old building in the churchyard, to the South East of the present church. Sir Charles Nicholson refers to it as a battlefield chapel. It is also possible that Benfleet could, like Tilbury, Prittlewell and other places round the Essex coast, have been one of the original preaching stations when the people of Essex were being converted to Christianity by St. Cedd.

Thus, before the Norman Conquest, there was a church and parish in Benfleet which was owned by the Abbey of St. Mary’s in Barking. This was a convent and the Abbess of Barking would have a parish priest to celebrate mass and other services in the church. In 1066 the political picture of England changed. William the Norman invaded England and was crowned King at the newly built Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster. In the following year, William granted Benfleet with many other manors, to St. Peter’s Westminster, thus depriving the Abbess of Barking of at least one of her estates and to this day the advowson of Benfleet church is still retained by St. Peter’s Westminster, but the church retains its old name of St. Mary’s, by which it was known before 1066.

Some time after the Conquest a new church was built consisting of a sanctuary and aisleless nave. It was lower in height than it is now and at one end was possibly a bell turret. The walls were plastered and covered with colourful wall paintings illustrating scenes from the Bible and ancient Christian stories. The roof was probably of thatch and the floor of hard, beaten mud. There would have been no seats other than for the priest, except for some stone benches round the walls. The altar would have been a stone table standing forward in the sanctuary and the altar cross would have been in two pieces, one part detachable for taking in procession round the village. Near to the doors were two stoups for Holy Water — one of these still remains in the porch. The church was the spiritual home of the village and every villager went to it, it was open day and night. It was also, on many occasions, the fortress. Those strong walls, those high, narrow windows, that stout oaken door were enough to protect the whole village in times of crisis or when pirates sailed upthe Thames.

The oldest wall of the church is the West wall and the outer door was the one which now leads to the sacristy. There is evidence that even this wall was built at two different times, first the lower part with the door in the middle, then the upper part extending the wall and building into it two windows higher up, equidistant from the centre of the new wall but unevenly placed with respect to the original door. Thus they have remained to the present day. It is interesting to compare Benfleet church with the perfect, almost unaltered example of a Norman church at Hadleigh, which, without aisles, must today be like Benfleet was eight hundred years ago. Hadleigh remains unaltered but the interesting drawing by Sir Charles Nicholson shows how Benfleet expanded with the centuries. This drawing, together with the valuable plan which appears in the South East Essex volume of the series published by the Royal Commission for Historical Monuments, gives more information than this short guide could possibly do.

Look now at the walls of Benfleet Church. There are few regularly shaped stones in them. People point to the Roman tiles in our church as evidence that the Romans once lived here. It is certain that there were settlements at Canvey, within a few miles of the creek. Certainly there was no natural stone in Essex and the walls have been built out of materials that were at hand, rubble, flint, fragments of Kentish ragstone and mortar, incorporating lime that was obtained from shells of local molluscs. Only in the corners and in the buttresses was this conglomerate material fortified by the insertion of stone blocks.

Over a century ago stonework was excavated near the Anchor pub and South of the bus shelter. Possibly this was the spot on which the masons trimmed the stones which were rafted in and hauled up from the creek.

In about the year 1300 the chancel arch was rebuilt and the church was enlarged by the addition of the South aisle and a tower built on the West wall. Between 1360 and 1370 Hadleigh Castle was completely rebuilt and there must have been great discontent among the inhabitants of Benfleet when forced labour had to be obtained for raising its walls. Then there were religious troubles, John Wycliffe challenged the doctrines of the mediaeval church and heresy spread far and wide. John Ball challenged the domination of masters over man and in Benfleet, as in the rest of South East England, the “Peasants’ Revolt” flared up. Many Benfleet men took part in this eventful march to London, although only one of them, Thomas Spragge, is mentioned by name. Meanwhile life in the village went on and there were no other important alterations to the church for nearly 150 years, but by the year 1440 a big scheme of reconstruction had begun. The sanctuary area was rebuilt, the South aisle remodelled and later a North aisle was added. The nave was raised so that windows might be inserted in the walls above the arcades and the splendid timber porch was built against the South door.

In 1540 the long association between Benfleet and Westminster Abbey was broken off because by this time Henry VIII had set himself up as head of the Church in England. This act was followed by the dissolution of religious houses and the confiscation of their lands. The church and much of Benfleet now fell into the hands of the King but three years later Henry granted them again to Westminster Abbey. Thus with a break of three years the association of Benfleet with Westminster Abbey has continued from the Conquest to the present day.

Benfleet did not escape religious disturbances of the period. Vicar Thomas Wilson was deprived of his living during the reign of Mary and was restored in 1559 on her death. In 1573 Benfleet registers were begun and many of them make very interesting reading. Some Vicars were not resident in Benfleet and in 1612 a complaint was laid against Vicar Bayley “for that he is not resident, in so much that some times there is nobody to bury the dead nor to christen”. In 1621 Canvey Island was embanked by Dutchmen under Cornelius Vermuvden and many Dutch families settled here. Their baptisms, marriages births and deaths are entered in our Parish Registers.

Clashes between Catholic recusants and Puritans went on all through the seventeenth century but Benfleet marched on with the times. The church became not only the focus of parish life, but also of its government. The Vestry books date from 1679 onwards.

About this time the roof of the nave was replaced by. the present tiled roof and during succeeding centuries various repairs have been carried out but its main features the old church stands much as it did more than four hundred years ago.

Interesting Extracts from Parish Registers and Churchwardens’ Accounts

1525 William Tyndale translating Bible into English. English ports watched to prevent its entry. Search of parishes.

1530 John Tendring (Vicar of Benfleet) employed in Prosecution of Edict of Search.

1547 Edward VI. Parochial Inquisitions. Legend that Benfleet Churchwardens buried a golden image of the Virgin Mary in the precincts of the church.

1548 Edward VI. “South Benfleet. John Camber and Thomas Button, Churchwardens do present and say that they may by the consent of the Parryshe have sold of the Church Plate one chalice for 5 marks which summe they say was employed partlie in repayring the saide Churche and partlie in settling for the souldyers towards the Kinges Majesties warres which was soulde as they say aboute Whitsuntide last past”.

1553/58 Mary. Roger Appleton of South Benfleet active in seeking out protestants. (Robert Drake, Thunderslev and William Tyms, Hockley).

1566 “Against the Vicar because he will not minister in a surplice and came to the house of Henry Wood with his bow and arrows to seek for the said Wood (who probably reported him).

1583 ‘Johan daughter of Ellis Mones of South Benfleet scolded and cursed in church”. (Special service was arranged and she was led to the church by the Parish Constable and admonished).

1602 Footpath from Benfleet to Pitzea in very noyous state.

1614 Baptism — “Repent, son of Anne Seamer and Supposed Bonne of Christianus the Quaker, a Dutchman”.

1618 “Catherine Edwards for a slanderer of her neighbours, a makebait and common liar”. She was formally ducked in the Creek.

1663 Geoffrey Philmead, Vicar. “To know the season when marriage is out of season. Momento: ‘it goeth out on February 7th or on Shrove Tuesday and comes in not again until Low Sunday then it goeth out again on Rogation Sunday and continueth out till Trinity Sunday which time it is in season until Advent Sunday. Then it goeth out till January 13th’.”

1665 Plague year “Annual Fair August 24th. It is agreed by Parish on consideration of sad and heavyv hand of God upon the Kingdom and the Proclamation of Charles II of this realm that the fair be suspended, etc”.

1677 A school for paupers was held in the North aisle and two old men were fined for not coming to church to knit.

1684 “For burying in woollen of William Marsh a poor man £2.10s.”

A Parish Cage was kept somewhere in the centre of the village in which to throw vagrants.

1802 “A lock for the handcuff Is. 3d.”.

1825 “New handcuffs 30s.”


Rev. Dr. Francis Clerke left certain lands to the corporation of the Sons of the Clergy on which they were to pay annually to the Vicar of South Benfleet £30 a year to be paid to the Organist.

Robert Loten, a descendant of a Dutch family, served in various parish offices form 1767 – 1784. He was a Hoyman as well as being a farmer and bought the right from the Lord of the Manor to take all wrecks of ships, boats, etc., for his own use. When he died he directed that £50 be paid to the Vicar and churchwardens to be put out at interest to provide bread for the poor of the parish. The proceeds of the Loten Charity are still in existance.

The development of the name of “Benfleet”.

894Beamflete1291 Bemfeth
1068Benfleota1397 Sowthbeniflete
1117Bienflet1486 Southbewinflete
1157Bemflet1519 Bendflyt
1200Bamflet1576 Bemflete


1272Bonefleet1885    Benfleet



An Architectural Description of the Church and its Furniture

The Sanctuary area

built in the fifteenth century, has a modern East window but a segmental relieving arch to a preexisting one shows externally and internally. The chancel arch is also fifteenth century work but the half pipers on which it rests are part of the thirteenth century sanctuary and were probably reset when the area was widened. High up in the wall above the chancel arch are three, small, blocked windows which were placed there in the sixteenth century. Two were reopened and glazed and the arms of Westminster Abbey and of the dioceses of Rochester, St. Albans and Chelmsford were inserted in 1925 when the church was renovated. The roof dates from the fifteenth century. There is also on the South wall a monument to Dr. Francis Clerke, Rector of North Benfleet who died in 1734 and who gave among his benefactions the marble paving of the choir and sanctuary.

On the North wall is a brass tablet to john Aubone Cook, Vicar of this Church from 1850 to 1859, recording his heroism during an outbreak of cholera in 1854. Two marble slabs on the floor mark the graves of Sir Henry Appleton of Jarvis Hall, his wife, Lady Dorothy, and their two sons. A fifteenth century piscina with credence shelf is to be seen on the South wall of the sanctuary and just above the priest’s door is a small brass inscription to William Cardinal who died in 1568. On the North wall you will notice a little aumbry or cupboard in which is placed part of the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion, which is carried by the priest to those parishioners who are unable to come to church.

The sanctuary has been beautified by the erection of a reredos from the designs of Sir Charles Nicholson painted by his mother , Lade Nicholson, and presented by her in 1891. The three pictures are after a fresco by Perugino 1448 — 1524 and pictures by Benoyzo Goyzoli 1420 — 1498. The centre picture depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds.

The sanctuary rails, given in memory of Arthur Carsten Holthouse, Vicar from 1914 — 1920, the oak clergy stalls which are a memorial to Thomas Julius Henderson and his wife Francesca, and the roode screen,are all worthy of notice as good modern work. The panels on the front of the rood screen are filled with paintings by Miss Barbara Nicholson to represent six male and six female saints, St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Nicholas, St. Edward, St. Francis, St. Martin, St. Christopher, St. Frances, St. Clare, St. Joan, St. Catherine, St. Osyth and St. Cecilia.

The Nave.

The arcades are of three bays. Those on the South side were built early in the fourteenth century but the eastern pillar was rebuilt about a century later and it was renewed during a recent restoration, the old stones being used for constructing the altar in the South chapel. The arcades on the North side rest on clustered columns and date from the fifteenth century.

The West end of the nave is partly hidden by the Organ and the oak-panelled Choir Vestry (the work of an Essex craftsman), but looking up, two blocked Norman windows can be seen, and inside the Vestry, a Norman doorway leads into the Clergy sacristy beneath the Tower.

The windows above the arcades were inserted late in the fifteenth century to give more light and air to the church, but all the eight stone corbels on which the supports of the earlier roof rested are still on position. They are all beautifully carved, four which are in the angles of the walls, have grotesque heads, and the others, which are placed within the clerestory windows, have the symbols of the four Evangelists.

The North Aisle was built late in the fifteenth century. In the East wall is a window with two cinquefoiled lights with a quatrefoil in a four centred head. In the North wall are two windows. The eastern is of three cinquefoiled lights in a four entred head, the western is similar to the window in the East wall and all are typical of that period. Between the windows in the North Wall was a doorway, now blocked, and to the East of this is the rood loft staircase. From the upper door of this staircase there used to run a passageway to the rood loft or gallery from where the Gospel would be read on great festivals. The piscina in this aisle dates from the fifteenth century and the curious recess in the North East angle was probably made for a statue or picture. Some fragments of fourteenth and fifteenth century glass may be seen on the East and North East windows of this aisle.

The reredos is an Arundel print 1848 – 1898 from a mediaeval painting of our Lord with side panels of St. John the Baptist, St. Blasius,, St. Jerome and St. Giles. The original, by Hans Memling 1440 – 1494 is in Lubeck Cathedral.

The North Aisle Chapel is dedicated in honour of St. Michael the Archangel, and in the corner to the North of the alter can be seen the very fine carving in lime wood of the saint. This is the work of Sister Angela of the Community of St. Clare, and is the gift of a worshipper.

On the North wall is a tablet on which are recorded the names of those men of the parish who gave their lives in the two wars. Below is a fine carving in olive wood based on Leonard’s “The Last Supper”, this was carved by a local man, W.H. Longley, in 1849, at the age of nineteen years. On the window-sill nearest the Altar is a beautiful model of a Viking ship, given in memory of Mrs. Jessie Elizabeth Jeff, reminiscent of those which hang in the naves of many Scandinavian churches.

The Tower

was built early in the fourteenth century against the West wall of the Norman church. It is of three stages and has an internal spiral staircase of timber and an octagonal newel. The ground stage has, in each exterior wall, a window of one trefoiled light with square head. The second stage has in the South and West walls a similar window. The bellchamber has an opening in the East wall communicating with the roof which is now blocked. The North, South and East walls each have a square-headed window of two trefoiled lights with square defaced label.

There are six bells, one dating from the fifteenth century, while the others were made in 1636, 1664, 1676, 1790 and 1949. The latest, the treble, was added as a thanksgiving for Victory. The tenor weighs twelve hundredweight.

A tall wooden spire once crowned the tower but it was blown down late in the eighteenth century and the present short spirelet was substituted in 1785, the date on the weathercock.

The South Aisle and Lady Chapel.

The corbels which remain indicate that the original fourteenth century aisle had a lean-to roof and that the wall was raised, the existing windows inserted and the aisle covered with a flat roof by the fifteenth century builders. The piscina and Southern doorway are of fourteenth century origin. The recess with a projecting ecting shelf south of the Altar is fifteenth century, and is now used for what was probably its original purpose, to set off the statue of the Patron Saint of the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the West end of the South aisle is an ancient coffin lid of the thirteenth century and the inscription in Norman French reads “Here lies Marcelie, pray for her soul”.

The Organ

is of modern workmanship. It is a very fine two-manual instrument, built to the specification of Sir Sidney Nicholson by Harrison & Harrison of Durham. It was enlarged and re-cased in the 1920’s, having been installed originally during the incumbency of the Rev. F. Box who raised money to replace the old organ of Fr. Henderson’s time which he had installed in the choir.

An interesting note in the Parish Magazine of 1897 runs:- “As a last word for the poor old organ, it has been shamefully treated and tampered with apparently by inefficient repairers. Some of the pipes to prevent them speaking out of turn, have been treated in the same way as the human ear to prevent taking cold – stopped up with tow and moreover rags have been used to keep the wind within the bellows. How Mr. Box sold it for £14 was a mystery and to whom was never put on record”.

The paintings on the organ loft are copies of Fra Angelico’s angel choir.

The Font.

Unfortunately the old font was replaced by a modern one in 1845. This in its turn made way in 1871 for the font now in use in which is incorporated a circular Purbeck marble stem from the ancient font which is of thirteenth century origin or earlier. The 1848 font was given to St. Katherine’s, Canvey Island.

The Stained Glass.

Except for a few fragments in the North aisle all the stained glass is modern. The East window shows our Lord in Glory, flanked on either side by St. Augustine, missionary to Britain, 597 A.D. and King Alfred whose forces took part in the Battle of Benfleet. This window was inserted in 1948 in place of an older window in memory of Rev. J. Aubone Cook, 1850 – 1859, which was damaged during the war. The old painted glass above still remains. The windows in the South aisle, donated by Sir A. K. Nicholson in 1926, depict Our Lady and the Archangel Gabriel, St. Elisabeth and St. John the Baptist, St. Barbara (church tower inset), St. Nicholas (a Benfleet hoy inset), St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles and St. Edward the Confessor (who founded Westminster Abbey).

In 1945 a scheme was devised for filling in the seventeen plain glass windows with stained glass figures. Most of these have now been inserted by parishioners as memorials, and in the North aisle and sanctuary from West to East, are, St. Patrick, St. David, St.Columba, St. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Aidan, St. Dunstan, St. Anselm, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, John Wycliffe, King Charles the Martyr, Archbishop Cranmer, and continuing round to the South side, William Wilberforce, John Keble, Mary Summer and Canon Apolo Kivebulaya.

The Plate

includes an Elizabethan chalice of 1576 with a band of engraved ornament and a cover paten of the same date. In 1921 a chalice and paten were presented to South Benfleet Church as a memorial to Rev. C. F. Box. It is of fifteenth century design, made in solid silver with an octagonal base and replaced the Elizabethan chalice which had been in continual use for 345 years.

A very full list of Parish Priests has now been compiled beginning with John de Trapestone in 1189; one, Edward Grant, was one of the foremost scholars of his time, and is mentioned in the Dictionary of National Biography.

The Porch erected late in the fifteenth century, is one of the most beautiful in Essex, if not in the whole country. The East and West sides are divided into two bays by slightly projecting buttresses and the outer part of each bay has Mullions and tracery. The outer arch is made from two whole sections cut from a tree. Above the moulded beam of the base of the gable are three panels divided by buttresses and each having a traceried head.

The roof is of two bays with grooved principals, a middle hammerbeam truss and a tie beam against the North wall. Its rich decoration cannot fail to be admired.

To the East of the South doorway is a mutilated holy water stoup of the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

As you leave the church do spare a moment to look at a very interesting gravestone near the porch entrance which carries the epitaph, now nearly obliterated, of James Matthews, farmer and hoyman, who served in almost every parish office between 1706 and 1728:-

Sixty three years our hoyman sailed merrily around.

Forty four lived parishioner where he’s aground.

Five wife’s bear him thirty three children. Enough, Land

another as honest before he gets off.

The monument carries at its head the Matthews arms:- A stork on a gold background with its wings folded.

A close inspection of the doorway on the South of the chancel will reveal a roughly scratched sundial on the West jamb. This was probably used to fix the hours of service. The interesting gargoyle in the South East corner should not be overlooked, also the consecration crosses on the North West buttress and West tower.


Slab In the centre of the chancel floor, directly in front of the Altar, lies a slab of stone some 9 feet long, 4 feet 6 inches wide and an estimated thickness of 8 to 9 inches.

Upon this stone remain the indents of a monumental brass, a type known as a bracket brass. It was last seen in its entirety (minus its inscription plate) in 1728. It was in 1735 that the Vicar of North Benfleet, the Rev. Francis Clerke, had the present, marble floor laid in memory of his recently deceased wife. The brass must have been removed at this time. When the stone was rediscovered in 1978 the only remaining pieces of brass left were three pairs of trefoils adjoining the main stem of the bracket. Of the fragments, since relaid in the indents of the stone, two pieces were found under the floor of the chancel, one piece came from Brightlingsea, where it had been incorrectly placed in a slab in the church there. The rest came from Colchester Museum, where they had been deposited for safe keeping, by a Mr. King, in 1848, on the understanding that they should be returned to Benfleet if the slab should ever be recovered.

Of the persons commemorated by the slab, their names were Thomas Blosme and his wife Olive, the stone was laid, when she died c. 1400; Thomas himself died in 1440 and his will expressed the hope that “his body be laid beside his wife Olive, in the chancel of South Benfleet Church.” His wishes were carried out by his second wife, Margaret, and their son, William.

John Dobson.

This booklet is reproduced on this site with the kind permission of John (Jack) Dobson

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