St Mary the Virgin church - which inspired Dickens - to reopen but without bells
One of Medway’s most historic churches could soon reopen – but not as an Anglican church, and its bells will chime for the last time after 115 years.
St Mary the Virgin in Dock Road, Chatham, is on a site of worship which is thought to date to pagan times.
Charles Dickens sat in its pews and is said to have taken more than a dozen names for his novels from the gravestones.
Church of St Mary the Virgin
But the 18th century, Grade II-listed building has not been used for worship since 1974 and officials are now in advanced stages to lease it.
The proposed occupant has not been revealed, and the Rochester Diocese has declined to comment on rumours it could be a different Christian denomination.
Diocese officials have, however, applied for planning permission to remove St Mary’s eight huge bells, which were cast in the 1890s at the Whitechapel Foundry, and re-hang them in a church in Cornwall.
The bells were deemed so important that Queen Victoria gave permission for the tenor bell to be named after her.
Diocesan spokesman Lindy Mackenzie said the bells were no longer rung regularly and would soon need “substantial repair and maintenance” including new fittings, bearings, headstocks, bushes and the cast steel frame.
Author Charles Dickens sat in the church's pews
“There is neither the finance immediately available for this work nor the appropriate personnel,” she added.
But Doug Snoswell, spokesman for the Kent County Association of Change Ringers, said the bells were rung at least once a month.
He added: "One of the reasons they stopped ringing is because the diocese had the electricity cut off so we couldn't go up there at night.
"The tower needs a heck of a lot of work. It's criminal really in my mind how it's been allowed to deteriorate.
"It's a shame it's been left for too long to see what could be done. It's heartbreaking to see the inside of the building. The only things left in there are the reredos, the altar and the font."
Chatham Historical Society president Brian Joyce added: “Those bells sounded across the Towns for generations and it would be a great loss if they were moved elsewhere.
“If they’re never going to be used as part of a working church in Chatham again, if that’s out of the question, then I suppose it makes sense. But I would prefer it if they could be used for Christian worship in that building.”
The church ran for some time as a heritage centre and in 2002 won approval to convert to offices, but the work never happened.
Since then the empty church has been hit by crime. In 2011 it was badly damaged in an arson attack.
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