History of St Margaret's Church

From local historian Geoffrey Kitchener

St Margaret's Church at Halstead, an unpretentious building with bell turret, low sweeping roof and knapped flint walls, is Victorian. But inside, its memorials name members of the community back to the 14th century, and these were taken from the old church, when demolished in 1880-1. The remains of that building lie some two hundred metres away, in the grounds of Halstead Place School, most of its remaining memorials having been vandalised, largely in recent years.

The early origins of church and community may be inferred from these sources. First, a church at Haltesteda is recorded in the manuscript known as Textus Roffensis (c.1115), as part of a list of churches believed to be based on a Saxon original. Secondly, the site adjoined, and lay well within the private grounds of, Halstead Place. This was an 18th century mansion that replaced an earlier manor house, which suggests a continuity of relationship between church and principal landowner. In conjunction with the evidence of Textus Roffensis, this could point to origin as a private chapel erected by a Saxon thane next to his residence. Place-name evidence suggests that, in common with many other settlements ending in "-stead" high up on the downland, Halstead was an outlying secondary settlement, perhaps used for stock grazing, from middle or later Saxon times.

The church was rebuilt in the 13th century. Halstead does not enjoy the richness of medieval ecclesiastical records that its neighbours, Otford and Shoreham, possess. There are records of church bequests, proceedings for debt against the rector, and even excommunication of William Bebyngton, the incumbent in 1419. But the general paucity of information reflects the fact that this was a very small and impoverished parish. In 1377, only 38 persons over 14 years old paid their groats for the poll tax. In 1535, the living was assessed as worth £5 17s. 1d per annum, plus an additional 3s.4d allocated solely to the priest. By way of comparison, Shoreham with Otford was worth £56 gross, Chevening £21 6s.8d and Brasted £32 6s.8d.

In these circumstances, the parish might be fortunate in possessing a rector who was able to devote care and attention. Examples are John Hoadly (rector 1678-1725), who kept school "when I was young and Able"*1, or John Cottingham, for whose appointment during the civil war the parishioners petitioned the House of Lords. Although the Commonwealth in 1653 took away from clergymen the conduct of marriage ceremonies, the marriage register shows that Cottingham was still prepared to marry in the old way. These examples may be contrasted with the non-resident Carswell Winder (rector 1742-70), who was 'better known as a Fox hunter than as a Divine', according to Streatfeild, the historian*2.

Halstead's community began expanding in the 19th century, with the growth of the London fruit market. Woods were grubbed, and the ground laid to soft fruit. Halstead became famous for strawberries: the fields and fruit-pickers' huts are depicted in one of the south windows of the present church. Several rectors commented on the tensions created by fruit growing, especially drunkenness through money earned and anti-clerical feeling amongst farmers. By 1885 there were some fifty dissenters in the parish, with a focal point provided by Albert Bath of Colgates farm, described by the Bromley Journal in that year as "a well-known local politician holding advanced radical views"*3. He campaigned through the Farmers Alliance against the extraordinary tithe rentcharge payable on hops, obliging the Halstead rector to seize his produce to secure payment.

Halstead's population was increased by migratory fruit-pickers, leading Harry Cumberlege (rector 1891-1900) to institute open air services for them on summer Sundays, as well as providing a class on Saturdays for the children. He continued Sunday schools, which had been run by his predecessors from at least the 1870s (attendance about 30 in 1876, 50 in 1880, 87 in 1885). Fruit pickers' children were also encouraged to Sunday school by Francis Deane (rector 1903-1915), with the added attraction of lemonade, ABC biscuits and "hundreds and thousands". His wife ran temperance socials for young men and women, with tea in huge urns being provided. A frequent injunction to her daughter was "Take this strong one to so-and-so, who is here drunk again!"*4

With Halstead's 19th century expansion came a proposal to demolish the old church and build anew. Four factors may have been involved in this proposal.

First, it has been claimed that the old church was pulled down as being in a dangerous condition. The evidence for this is not convincing. Secondly, the population was increasing. However, average congregations were in the order of two thirds of the church capacity. Thirdly, the Victorian period was one when substantial private benefactions for religion were not uncommon. Fourthly, T F Burnaby-Atkins had inherited Halstead Place in 1872. He contributed most of the building costs and would have been conscious of the advantages of removal of all access to the church through his grounds, and removal of the bells from outside his windows.

The old church was pulled down in 1880-1, and the new one built in the separate cemetery grounds, converting a burial chapel of 1855 into the chancel. An unfortunate omission marred the transfer of the church. The rights of the old church as a place for the solemnisation of marriage were not transferred, with the result that the 112 marriages celebrated at the new building until 1919 were, strictly speaking, invalid. A sizeable proportion of the village population was accordingly illegitimate, until the marriages were validated by an Order, confirmed by a special Act of Parliament in 1920.

At that time, the civil and ecclesiastical parishes were smaller than at present. Most of Otford Lane lay in Shoreham parish, and the fruit growers there faced a walk of two or three miles to their proper parish church. The Otford Lane Mission Church, a small wooden building, was opened for their benefit in 1891. Other straggling communities in the large Shoreham parish were similarly served by mission churches at Twitton (1890) and Well Hill (1893). Both Otford Lane and Badgers Mount, which had no separate church, were brought into Halstead ecclesiastical parish in 1938.

The consolidation of the Parish of Halstead, which was instigated in 1938, was carried out by two Rectors John Barker and then Grosvenor Aslachsen.

1967 saw the appointment of a new Rector on the retirement of Grosvenor Aslachsen who had seen St Margaret's through the war years and quite a period of change. Not only a new Rector but a new Rectory built on land next to the Church and the old Rectory being sold off by the Church Commissioners into the public domain. The Rev. Nowell Wood had experienced many years of commercial life before entering into the ministry and brought with him a variety of skills and enthusiasms that benefited both the Church and the village. It was during his incumbency that several organisations were started, St Margaret's Players and The Ladies Fellowship being two of them which brought villagers and churchgoers closer together.

Three further Rectors followed Nowell Wood before the appointment of Michael Woodcock in late 1999. All Rectors have held the position of Chaplain at Fort Halstead and during the early 70s the Director of the Fort was Fred East also Lay Reader at St Margaret's. This unique link with both civilian and military personnel brought extra enthusiasm and talent to the service of St Margaret's. In 1983 the two livings of Knockholt and Halstead were combined although separate parochial church councils were continued. The vision and commitment of the Rector Malcolm Bury enabled the building of the North Room onto the church in 1992 which allowed for informal gatherings after services, crèche facilities in services, space for meetings of adults and children. The closure of the Otford Lane Mission Church in 1985, with only a small residual congregation, marked the end of another era.

Since then the varied talents of John Benson and Hugh Thomas see the spiritual life of the church continuing to grow.


*1 Archbishop Wake's Survey of Peculiars, 1717, Lambeth Palace Library MSI 115.
*2 Annotation in Streatfeild's copy of Hasted's History of Kent, BM ADD MS 33880.
*3 Bromley Journal, 20 August 1885.
*4 in litt., Mrs G C Griffiths to G T Aslachsen, 11 October 1952.