Published: 06:00, 22 January 2021
| Updated: 11:50, 22 January 2021
More than 60 years after the shock closure of the Royal Dockyard at Sheerness, work has begun to restore the 19th century Naval Dockyard Church at Blue Town thanks to a £4.2m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. As scaffolding covers the building, former bride Georgina Williams, 92, tells Lesley Bellew about her wedding there 70 years ago...
On Boxing Day 1950, snow had fallen over the Naval Dockyard Church as Georgina Jarvis walked down the aisle to marry her sweetheart Donald Williams.
The love-birds had special permission to marry in the grand 19th century church at Blue Town, Sheerness, because Georgina’s father was head groundsman at the dockyard and Donald was a boilermaker.
“It was a bright and crisp day with blue skies,” recalled Georgina, 92.
“The church looked absolutely beautiful, all decked in holly, and light flooded through the stained glass windows picking up the decorations of gold, cream and blue.
“We were still in times of rationing so I borrowed my sister-in-law’s wedding dress and my mother and I made the two bridesmaids’ dresses after sending off for the material.”
Donald's brother Leslie was bestman with bridesmaids Glenys Jarvis, nine, and Christine Hall, 17.
A decade later, the happiness of Georgina and Donald’s wedding day was shattered when their whole family, along with thousands of others, were hit by the closure of Sheerness Dockyard. It had been one of the Royal Navy’s most important sites for more than 300 years.
Great grandmother Georgina, who still lives on the Isle of Sheppey at Minster, has since watched the church deteriorate and was ‘horrified ’ when it caught fire in 2001.
But news that work has started to rebuild it using a £4.2m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has lifted her spirits.
The Naval Dockyard Church is considered to be one of the UK’s great forgotten monuments and Georgina agrees.
She said: “It was always ‘the father of all churches’ to me. My family had a long relationship there. Donald’s grandfather used to tend the gardens and my brothers Bill, Trevor and Ray were in the choir.
"Trevor met his wife there. My brothers also played in the St John Ambulance Band and on Remembrance Sunday there was always a big parade with marching bands so the church was always packed. It was a real occasion. As children, we would sit upstairs looking down on all of the uniformed officers.
“My son Stephen was one of the last to be christened at the church before the dockyard closed in 1960. And then everything changed.
“It was a terrible shock, a real slap in the face for the Island. So many workers, more than 2,500 lost their jobs, so you can imagine how many families suffered.
"It ripped the heart out of the Island. My mother and father lost their house which went with the groundsman’s job and had to move into a council place. My husband lost his job and ended up working nights in a bottling factory and later did shifts at the glue works. They were hard times.
“When the Dockyard Church was deconsecrated in the 1970s we watched it gradually fall into rack and ruin. It became completely derelict. There was no roof, the stained glass windows were gone and trees were growing inside.
“It looked like it was going to collapse. How that could have been allowed to happen I don’t know."
Her husband died 12 years ago.
She added: "Although I will feel sad that I can’t go along to the church to relive our wedding day on what would have been our 70th anniversary, it makes me happy to know ‘our’ lovely church is going to rise from the ashes and be restored to its former glory.
“My wish is that this regeneration project is the start of a bright new future for the Island.”
* The Grade II-listed Naval Dockyard Church was built in 1835 to serve the officers and workers of the Royal Naval Dockyard. The dockyard covered 53 acres of marshland, reinforced by huge timber piles. It replaced a smaller dockyard where Admiral Lord Nelson had been brought back to Britain in a barrel of rum after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The architectural importance of the church was recognised by conservationist Will Palin, the son of TV presenter Michael Palin. Will has helped found the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust which is turning it into an enterprise centre to help young people develop and sustain business ideas. It will also display a giant scale model of the dockyard.