Rebellion and Renovation – St Peter’s Church, East Cliff
Nestled on top of the East Cliff in Folkestone, protected by a run of buildings from the dangers of the Channel, St Peter’s Church looks out to sea and is the protector of the fishermen of the town.
The church was originally opened as a missionary project in 1862. The parish church of St Mary and St Eanswythe felt the need for a chapel on the East Cliff to support the fishing families of Folkestone. They always seemed to get to church before the rest and nab the best seats. The East Cliff was quite a slum area of town, and the Church focused its efforts so keenly, that by 1868 the community had grown so much, the initial chapel was extended and the area became a parish in its own right.
At first, all the parish wanted to do was to protect the East Window; it was in danger of falling out and landing on the priest during mass. Church Warden David Wilson said that funders came to see them and said they wouldn’t support this work financially unless the leak in the roof was fixed; “It had been leaking as long as anyone could remember!”
The work was undertaken, the window was saved, and then work on the leak started. This was when the project started to grow in size in terms of understanding just how much work needed to be done. The slender spire – fleche – of the church sits just over the nave of the building, and as the restorers moved up to reach the tip, they realised it was moving, moving far too much for it to be safe; “How on earth it didn’t come down in the hurricane of ’87 or the earthquake of 2007 must have been by the grace of God!” chuckles David Wilson, confidently standing underneath the structure now.
Under attack by messershmitts
The structure needed bracing, so the lead was removed from the outside and it soon became apparent as to the reason for the movement – a large chunk of wood was missing from one of the beams.This was attributed to a bullet from a Messerschmitt attack in 1941. “The bullet had gone in, taken a huge chunk out and gone out the other side. We think it was from the raid on 27th March 1941. There were a lot of raids, but that was the one we think it was because it did a lot of damage in this area of the town.”
Victorian Polychrome brickwork, an extraordinary discovery
“At the end of the war, parts of the church had been blown away, others shot to pieces! They patched the holes up with lead and didn’t think to fix the holes beneath. So the fleche has been renewed, the lead replaced and touch wood, so far, the leak has been fixed.” I think David might have had his fingers crossed at this point in the story!
So, what started out as a small project, had turned into something far bigger than intended, and was soon to explode out of anyone’s idea of proportion! There was wood rot inside the church, thanks to the many years of rain pouring through the war wounds of the spire. The paint on the walls was peeling and it was “really quite disgusting” according to the congregation. “My view, as church warden,” continues David Wilson “Was to just repaint the inside of the church, but English Heritage said no! They said we needed to do paint studies on the paint, which, you can understand if this was a medieval church hiding some wall painting or something. I said ‘come on! We’re only 150 years old, there isn’t going to be anything there!’ but they made us do it and how right they were!”
An amazing discovery
The paint that had been put on wasn’t breathable so the bricks were retaining a lot of water and this was doing a lot of damage. The whole church had been painted white. “When we took the painting off we found this extraordinary Victorian Polychrome brickwork, the original brickwork of the church and we didn’t know it was there.” David turns to one of the volunteer guides of the church “Adrian has been a member of this church for years and never knew!”
“I had a postcard from the 1920s which showed the black outlines so we were suspicious of finding something but nothing like this. It was really exciting.” Adrian Wilson (no relation to David) towers over me, surveying the black, red and white brickwork, as if it’s still a surprise to see it.
rebellion on the Cliff
Some of the walls have been repainted, and these are the original walls of the ‘cheap fisherman’s chapel’ built to get the fishermen and their families out of St Mary and St Eanswythe’s in 1862. By the time the chapel and missionary project had proved its success, and a larger church was needed, there was the money to extend the walls and use the more expensive polychrome brick work which is now all exposed for all to see.
This extension though, and the success of the church was to bring it into contention a few years’ later. St Peter’s is in fact incredibly significant in British Church history. Its first incumbent, the Reverend Charles Joseph Ridsdale was curate at St Mary and St Eanswythe’s and became the parish priest in 1868 of St Peter’s. He was well known for his catholic leanings and association with the traditionalism of the Oxford Movement. Because of this, he was prosecuted in a case known as the Folkestone Ritual Case.
Prosecute the Vicar!
12 charges were brought against him. He didn’t have the support of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, nor of some of his parishioners, and even Queen Victoria was wanting to stamp-out the leanings the protestant church was giving towards the catholic tradition – as seen in St Peter’s at the time. Father Ridsdale was accused of basically being ‘too Catholic’!
The Public Worship Act was brought in to specifically prosecute Fr Ridsdale, and to try and shut down St Peter’s in Folkestone. Thanks to the extensive restoration this building has undergone, of which there is more to do, children from the adjacent St Peter’s Church of England Primary school, locals and visitors alike can enjoy this magnificent Victorian example of polychrome brickwork.