The Church of St Mary-the-Virgin
The story of St Mary’s is the story of a small country church since it was built in 1869 and how it has adapted to meet the needs of the community it serves.
The original early Victorian building, as the architectural style bears witness, still comprises the greater part of the present-day church. It was build as a combined church and school on a site given by the then Lord of the Manor, the Reverend William Smyth. Prior to that time, occasional services had been held by the first Rector of Harpenden, Canon Vaughan, in the kitchen of one of the houses on the Green. The first school mistress was a Miss Freeman, and a separate classroom for infants was added to the original building in 1892.
From the outset, St Mary’s stepped straight into its role of serving the community around it. The school in the Church spared local children the need to travel daily to and from the centre of Harpenden to get an education: and the creation of a “chapel of ease” was no less appreciated by their elders. Chaps of ease has a most appealing sound and its role can scarcely be better defined that in Brewer‘s dictionary where is it described as “a place of worship for the use of parishioners residing at a distance form the Parish Church”.
An early edition of the Harpenden Parish Magazine shows that St Mary’s was known originally as “ St Mary’s Mission Church Kinsbourne Green”. The pattern of worship was:
- The Holy Eucharist 4th Sunday at 9 am
- Sunday Evensong 6.30 pm
- Holy Baptism & children’s service 2nd Sunday at 3 pm.
Clergy were not always available and services were often conducted by Lay Readers.
During the week Church furnishings were stored behind a curtain in the chancel and it was no small task each weekend to change over from school to church and back again. The building continued in use as a church-cum-school for 86 years until it closed in 1955 when Roundwood Park schools were opened. At that stage the Parish of St Nicholas acquired the school element of the building from the Diocesan education authorities which opened the way for the building to be developed exclusively as a church. The ten years which followed were to prove highly significant in the development of St Mary’s Kinsbourne Green.
During World War II (1939-1945) there had been no new house building and continuing materials shortages in the immediate post-war period restricted building for several more years. By the late 1950s however, new houses had started increasingly to appear in Harpenden – and North Harpenden was no exception. The resulting population increases which this foreshadowed presented a substantial challenge to the Parish of St Nicholas as a whole.
Designation of District Churches
The Rector of St Nicholas at that time was the Reverend Peter Bradshaw and it was under his clear-sighted guidance that it was recognised that the organisation of the Parish needed to be reviewed and modernised. He it was who first introduced the concept of the Parish of St Nicholas operating at three Districts centred respectively on St Nicholas Church, All Saints, Batford and St Mary’s Kinsbourne Green. All Saints and St Mary’s were designated as District Churches and each was to have a Priest-in-Charge. All three Districts were to have a church committee which, while subordinate to the main PCC responsible to the Rector, would nevertheless within prescribed limits operate as a ‘mini’ PCC and accept responsibility for much of the day-to-day running of district affairs.
To emphasise the concept of separate Districts, each was allocated a colour. Thus, All Saints District (defined as being that part of Harpenden then lying to the east of the Great Northern Line Railway which ran through Harpenden East station became the Green District. St Mary’s District (defined as that part of Harpenden lying to the north of the Nickey Line) became the Blue district. It is largely for this reasons that blue has figured so much in the colour scheme of St Mary’s. The central area of Harpenden became the District of St Nicholas and was given the colour Red. Within each District the system of area representatives was introduced whose function, co-ordinated by Sector Leaders, was to keep the Clergy aware of any matters at street level of potential pastoral concern. The soundness of many of the measures introduced during Peter Bradshaw’s incumbency is borne out by the fact that they are still in use.
Deacon-in-Charge – Rev Hon John Edmundson/Sandford
On the 1st October 1958 the Rector appointed Reverend the Honourable John Edmundson (who later became the second Baron Lord John Sandford) as the first Deacon-in-Charge of St Mary’s. This marked the start of a new era in the story of the Church in the Kinsbourne Green district.
Until St Mary’s became a District Church it was run from St Nicholas. To assist the Parish Wardens, two Deputy Wardens were appointed at St Mary’s in 1953: Mrs S E Catton and Mrs E M Cunningham. When John Sandford took over the District he assembled the first new-style District Committee. The two Deputy Wardens continued their invaluable work in organising the provision of chairs, hassocks, vestments and alter linen needed as the congregation at St Mary’s started slowly to increase. They stood down as Deputy-Wardens when the Reverend Peter Nott, who had succeeded John Sandford as Priest-in-Charge in 1963, appointed Lt. Col Victor Band and Mr R O Bradbury as District Wardens.
Until John Sandford was ordained Priest in 1960 the former pattern of worship at St Mary’s remained unchanged. However, following his Priesting, a regular Holy Eucharist was introduced on Sundays at 8.45 pm. The congregation at St Mary’s began then slowly to increase in size, as worshippers took advantage of the regular weekly Holy Eucharist and new-comers started to appear from the first post-war wave of housing development in the District. This highlighted many of the limitations of the Victorian church building. A major improvement had been the installation of electric lighting in place of gas in time for Easter 1959, although space heating continued to be provided by gas for a further five years. A large radiant gas fire, affixed high to the first roof truss standing clear of the chancel arch, was the sole means of space heating (the residual piping associated with this fire can still be seen). It was not until 1964 that electric space heating was provided with night storage heaters which, in turn, replaced by two powerful gas radiators, on in the church and one in the hall.
Decoration of the chancel roof
Another major improvement in the last 1950s was the decoration of the chancel roof in blue and gold, and the hanging of a specially designed lozenge on each side of the chancel arch. These additions were the work of a then up-and-coming artist called Gordon Beningfield who had a personal association with Kinsbourne Green. He was born in London in 1936, the son of a Thames lighterman. To escape the bombing in London in WWII his family moved to London Colney. The teacher as the local village school recognised that the boy had an exceptional talent as an artist and gave him every encouragement. On leaving school at 15 he was apprenticed as an ecclesiastical artist in St Albans [Faith Craft] where his aptitude to work on stained and engraved glass carving, gold leaf, watercolour and oils was further developed, His father by then had become an odd-job man and gardener and worked for several of the houses on Kinsbourne Green Common. So his son grew up knowing the area well. When he married in 1958 housing was still in short supply and Gordon Beningfield and his wife lived for a while in a cottage owned by Mrs E M Cunningham. He went on in later life to achieve a national reputation as a doughty defender of the English countryside and as one of Britain’s most talented wildlife and countryside artists. St Mary’s is fortunate indeed to have in its chancel such a lovely exampled of his early work as an ecclesiastical artist.
Site in The Close
No history of St Mary’s would, however, be complete without the story of the Close site.
The Catton family were well known in north Harpenden as farmers and builders. Part of their land they developed for housing with their own building firm while continuing to farm the remainder. In the 1930s they built much of Roundwood Park, The Pleasance and The Close. The family had a close connection with St Mary’s church and when the Close was built, Mr Jesse Catton (whose wife Mrs S E Catton was to become Deputy Warden at St Mary’s in 1953) bequeathed the unbuilt central area of the development as a site for a new St Mary’s church when circumstances permitted. This generous pre-war bequest and how it might best be used for the good of St Mary’s and the Parish was to become a matter of major concern for several years.
For the older residents in the district there was the long-cherished expectation that the old St Mary’s Church would be replaced by a new one on the Close site. While there were no expectations that this could be done in the short term the uncertainty as to timing introduced an imponderable which coloured the thinking of the District Committee in those early days. It raised the question of how far it was prudent to spend money on making the old church building usable for worship if it were destined, sooner of later, to be replaced by a new Church.
But this was not the only uncertainty facing the Parish in the later 1950s. At All Saints, where an expanding congregation already filled to overflowing the small, original, mission church in Coldharbour Lane, the situation was dire in the extreme. Although a site at Pickford Bridge had been bequeathed to All Saints, the parish, as was the case at Kinsbourne Green, did not have the money to build a new church in the foreseeable future. It must be remembered, of course, that at this time the Parish had not adopted the principles of Christian Stewardship and so lacked the ability to plan major capital developments with confidence.
Stated in simple terms, the problem for the Parish as a whole was that as a matter of extreme urgency something needed to be done to ease the insoluble overcrowding of the congregation in the old All Saints Church. At St Mary’s on the other hand, although the church needed a lot doing to it, it was at least capable for the time being of containing the existing congregation. Moreover, its site on the edge of the Common was greatly liked by many and was large enough to allow for some extension of the original Victorian building. Perhaps it was with the arrival of new-comers to the District, but the long-standing assumption that the future for St Mary’s lay with a new church on the Close site was beginning to be questioned.
It was being mooted that if the congregational needs of the Kinsbourne Green District could be satisfactorily met for the foreseeable future by extending the St Mary’s church building on its existing site, the Close site could then be sold and the money thus released would enable the building of a new All Saints Church to go ahead. Thereafter, the extension of St Mary’s on its existing site would become the next major capital project for the Parish. It was accepted by the PCC that these propositions should be looked at more closely and the District Committees of All Saints and St Mary’s were asked to give detailed consideration to the implications for their respective districts. The St Mary’s Committee identified four things needing special attention:
a) making the best possible estimate of the number of new worshipping Anglicans likely to be living in the district when local authority plans for the development of North Harpenden were completed;
b) confirming that the existing site would take an extended Church large enough to meet the needs of such a number;
c) ensuring that land on the Common could be made available to provide adequate car parking space,
d) that if such were the final choice, everyone concerned should be made fully aware of the reasons for selling the Close site.
Under John Sandford’s energetic leadership St Mary’s District Committee set to work. Plans were obtained from the Harpenden Urban District Council of zones in North Harpenden earmarked for housing with details of expected housing densities. The Lord of the Manor (Mr Sandy Blair) agreed that common land adjacent to the Church could be made available for additional car parking space. Possible ways in which the existing Church building might be extended were explored with advice from Mr Pat Wilson, the Parish Architect. The conclusion was that it would be practicable to design an extension to the Church which would meet the needs of worshippers in the Kinsbourne Green area for the foreseeable future. The PCC accepted the findings of the District Committee. The Close site was duly sold for housing and the Parish was able to go ahead with the building of a new All Saints church on the Pickford Bridge site. The new Church was completed in 1965.
Spiritual and social Life
While all these matters were going ahead the spiritual and social life of the Church at Kinsbourne Green was developing. John and Catherine Sandford lived in a house in Roundwood Park which they generously made available as appropriate for St Mary’s Church activities. This greatly eased the limitations which the original church building would otherwise have imposed. Catherine Sandford started a Young Wives Group which proved popular among the younger women among the many newcomers to the District. It was during this period, in world Refugee Year, that the Young Wives sponsored a visit by two refugee girls. This has been written up separately in the story of the Raidl crib at St Mary’s.
Breakfasts at church after Communion on Sundays were introduced. A Church Fellowship was started. Coach outings were organised to places of interest. A youth club was started called the Blue Ladder. (In accordance with the district colour scheme it was matched with a Red Ladder at St Nicholas and a Green Ladder at All Saints.) Given the limited accommodation at the church, the Blue Ladder was fortunate in being able to use a hall owned by the parish at that time on a site on the Luton Road, now occupied by St Nicholas Court between Bloomfield Road and Hillside Road. Thus, by the time John Sandford’s ministry ended in September 1963, there was a growing and well-established church community centred around St Mary’s Kinsbourne Green. John Sandford was followed briefly as Priest-in-Charge by the Reverend Peter Nott, who in turn was succeeded in 1964 by the Reverend Hilary Sharman. A list of the names of the Clergy who have served at St Mary’s since 1933 is at Appendix A.
With the completion of the All Saints new church project the PCC was able to turn its attention to the extension at St Mary’s. In 1966 it set up a St Mary’s Building Committee which comprised the Rector (Reverend Peter Graham), Reverend Hilary Sharman, Lt.Col. Victor Band, Mr Alan Squire and Mr L T Woolley (St Mary’s District Committee), Miss M E Lane (All Saints), Mr F Hubbard (St Nicholas), Mr H C Williamson (Parish Warden) and Mr Gordon Taylor ARIBA (Parish Architect).
A watercolour painting hangs in St Mary’s which shows the church building as it was before extension. The design proposed for the extension by the Building Committee envisaged pushing back the rear wall of the nave to the boundary with the Common to gain space for a further 29 seats; building a new porch and vestry on the south side; enlarging the former schoolroom on the north side to provide a two-part room for Sunday School and social gathering as well as a kitchen, toilets and storage space. The two-part room to be capable, by means of sliding doors, of being incorporated with the nave, making a further 41 seats available for worship and bringing the total seating in the Church to 125. A copy of the paper prepared by the Building Committee for the PCC is at Appendix B. The proposed extension as approved by the PCC. Claridge & Hall of Harpenden were appointed as contractors. Work began on 27 May 1968 and the project was completed on 15 November of that year.
An impressive service of re-dedication was conducted by the Bishop of St Albans on 19 December 1968, almost exactly 100 years after the original church building was erected on the site.
In the years which followed, St Mary’s as a Second Curacy (?) welcomed many a Priest-in-Charge, and each made his special mark and contribution to the life of the Church. The furnishings and facilities of the Church continued to benefit from the generosity of members of the worshipping community. A special appeal in 1993 enabled a pipe organ to be installed. The hall at the Church met a long-felt need in the District and has been of inestimable value to a wide range of communal activities in the District.
For 129 years (celebrating 150 in 2019) St Mary’s has provided a place where Christians have been able to foregather to worship Almighty God and to join together in a spirit of good neighbourliness. Their prayers and witness have hallowed this small community church which reflects their unflagging loving care and concern.
May Almighty God continue to bless the work and the life of the Church of St Mary-the-Virgin, Kinsbourne Green, Harpenden.
R O Bradbury
Postscript by Fred Pointon May 2014
The successful appeal leading to the installation of the Pipe Organ occurred during the Curacy of Julie Childs who was to become one of the first women to be ordained to the Priesthood in 1994 and thus the first woman priest-in-charge at St Mary’s.
Unfortunately Julie died in the year following her priesting but during her time a Holiday Club had been started at the instigation of Shirley Barber, which had led to an increase in the number of children coming to the Sunday School. This was to have far reaching consequences.
Accommodation for youth work
The need for better accommodation for youth work prompted Julie’s successor, Revd. Duncan Swan, to examine ways in which the Church and Hall could be enlarged. For a variety of reasons these ideas did not lead to a viable plan but Duncan did leave a legacy in the form of a link with the Jeel el Amal Children’s Home at Bethany. This arose from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by Duncan in March 1999 for people drawn from St Mary’s and the wider parish.
By the time the Revd. James Reveley arrived in September 2000 the need for increased space for youth work had become pressing and under James’s energetic leadership the idea of building out into the car park beside the Church was examined in detail. Eventually an acceptable plan was created with major input from the congregation including a splendid scale model built by Ian Hemmin. The new building designed by the Architect Michael Dales envisaged replacement of the existing vestry by an octagonal structure with a room above and incorporated a vestibule, disabled toilet and new doors into the existing Church.
Diocesan approval was given and costings obtained which revealed that the concept would require the raising of a minimum of £250,000 to bring it into being. This was a daunting sum particularly as it was a condition of Diocesan approval that the whole of the amount needed had to be in place before work could begin.
With support from St Nicholas PCC, a parish-wide appeal was launched in the Autumn of 2004 with a Committee under the Chairmanship of Phil Hepworth. Belief that the money could be found was supported by the existence of two substantial legacies left to St Mary’s by former worshippers; May Harris and Janet Campbell, but there was still much to be done.
It was a sad blow when James Reveley moved on in 2004 just as the main fund raising effort got under way but St Mary’s people have a long history of coping during clergy vacancies and the Appeal Committee rose magnificently to the challenge.
Fund raising efforts
Before moving to his new post James Reveley had the sad task of presiding at the funeral of John Cunningham CBE, DSO, DFC. DL. John was a distinguished war hero and civilian test pilot and he and his mother had been staunch supporters of St Mary’s over many years. He was also a frequenter of The Fox, which is a near neighbour of St Mary’s and upon his death the regulars at The Fox started a collection in his memory. The idea of a summoning bell as a feature of the extension had already been discussed in the planning stage and when it was mentioned to the regulars at the Fox they gladly gave it their support as a fitting memorial to John Cunningham. However Penny Alcock, John’s next door neighbour on the Common turned the concept into a reality.
Revd. Jenny Pavyer succeeded James Reveley in 2005 and quickly became involved in moving the extension project forward with vigour. By the end of 2007 the large number and variety of fund raising events had brought the target within reach. With one last nail biting effort the objective was reached and by the year end the Builders were authorised to start.
Construction was rapid but not without problems. Kevin Goodbun, the husband of a member of the congregation with professional skills in project management was of enormous help in seeing the Church through the difficulties to the official dedication on 22 November 2008 by the Bishop of Hertford. The John Cunningham Bell, cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and installed in the apex of the new extension tower, was unveiled by Air Commodore Rob Cunningham, a cousin of John and then dedicated by the Bishop.
The final stage in the project was to landscape the area. An Easter Garden given by Revd. Derrick Elliot and his wife Brenda in memory of Derrick’s parents, which had stood on the site of the new vestry was recreated at the front of the building by Dilys Hemmin with plants donated by members of the congregation in memory of loved ones.
Thus a further milestone in the history of St Mary’s had been brought to a successful conclusion. There was sufficient left in the Appeal Fund to cover some much needed improvements to the rest of the building but the new extension provided modern facilities not only for the Church’s own work but also for the wider community who were able able to hire the upper room for meetings and social events. In recognition of this and the quality of the facility, the building was awarded a Harpenden Society Award in 2008.
Jenny Pavyer left St Mary’s in January 2010. During her Curacy she married Simon Fennell. Their son Andrew was born in 2008 when she took maternity leave – another first for the Parish.
Another period of vacancy then followed for the Church community. Continuity was however available as since 2000, St Mary’s had benefited and continues to benefit from the ministry of Revd. Professor Nicolas Goulding as Honorary Assistant Priest and to his wife, Jenny, a licensed Reader who live in the District.
A new chapter in the St Mary’s story
In June 2011, Revd. Becky Leach was licensed to serve at St Mary’s, initially as Curate in Charge but subsequently her role was Associate Vicar. Becky very quickly established herself as an energetic and enthusiastic pastor to her new flock. A corner of the enlarged vestry created as part of the Extension opened in 2008, became her Office and she was soon joined by her dog, Rosie. Becky’s presence “on site” with telephone access and internet availability brought us firmly into the 21st Century and so began a new chapter in the St Mary’s story.
Initiatives under Becky’s leadership have included an Olympics Service in 2012, a Messy Mass to mark the Festival of Christ the King also in 2012 and a major Easter Experience in 2013. This latter event involved the congregation helping to create a series of settings situated in the Church building illustrating key elements of the Easter story which were then used to describe the narrative to nearly 400 children from local schools.
New styles of worship have been introduced including Simply Worship on Sunday afternoons and Alternative Worship on Sunday evenings which have extended the reach of the Church to those coming to Church for the first time or looking for less traditional forms of worship. New members have begun to respond to these initiatives and after a period when numbers of young people attending were in decline, growth in their numbers has begun to grow again.
Stronger links with local schools have been put in place under Becky’s leadership and following the “Living Gods Love” initiative launched by the Rt. Revd. Alan Smith, the Diocesan Bishop, Mission Action Plans are being developed to look with fresh eyes and develop new ways of life and mission directed towards all who live in the St Mary’s District .
- Richard S Wilkie 1933-1935
- Philip Gerald Handford 1935-1947
- Robert B S Jameson Watson 1952-1956
- John Henry Henwood May-Oct 1956
- John Edmundson (later Lord Sandford) 1958-1963
(first Priest in Charge)
- Peter John Nott 1963-1964
- Hilary John Sharman 1964-1972
- David Ireland 1972-1976
- Patrick Henry Woodhouse 1976-1980
- Derrick Elliott 1980-1987
- Julie Mary Childs 1987-1995
- (ordained Priest 23 April 1994)
- Duncan James Swan 1995-1999
- James Reveley 2000-2004
- Jennifer Pavyer 2005-2010
- Rebecca Leach
(Curate in Charge then Associate Vicar) 2011-2016
- Sally Goodson 2017-From 2000 the Revd. Professor Nicholas Goulding has been Honorary Assistant Priest.