The village of Borstal didn’t have its own church and was part of the much larger parish of St. Margaret’s. The villagers had to attend services at St. Margaret’s church, over a mile away, or those services held in the church school until in 1877 a local resident, Thomas Tuff, gifted a parcel of land for Borstal to have it’s own church.
St. Matthew’s Church Borstal was built in 1878 on a steep hillside overlooking the Medway valley. Its location on the side of the hill necessitates its north to south orientation, instead of the more normal east to west pattern. The foundation stone was laid by the Earl of Darnley on the 29th July 1878 and the first service was held on 22nd July 1879.
On the 10th December 1901, Borstal became a parish in its own right and a in 1904 a faculty of £1,285 was obtained to extend the floor plan to include choir stalls, Sanctuary and choir and clergy vestries.
The foundation stone for this extension was laid by the Countess of Darnley in 1905.
St. Matthew’s is not a church of great Gothic architecture, nor does it boast centuries of history or is it included in all the best guide-books. Rather it is a simple and homely building of Kentish rag-stone of a design very common in the late Victorian period.
St. Matthew’s doesn’t have a distinguished belfry but a small tower containing a single bell. The present chancel and vestries were added some twenty years after the original building was opened.
Inside the design is simple – entry is gained through the “West Porch” to a nave boasting only a central aisle, with colour washed walls below a solidly constructed timber roof of the “upturned boat” variety.
One of the most striking features of the church is the intricately carved wooden choir screen, with motifs of thorns, grapes and wheat, surmounted by a fine crucifix. The screen was a gift from the widow of Alderman Walter Coward Laking J.P. in 1907. It also incorporates carvings of grapes and wheat, symbolising the Eucharist, together with IHS and the symbols for Alpha and Omega (the First and Last). In addition, we find what is known as the “Paisley Pattern”. On the sanctuary side of the screen, at waist height, is the inscription: “To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Walter Edward Larkin J.P. Alderman of the City of Rochester and Churchwarden of the Church. The gift of his widow, Easter 1908”
The solid and well-carved Communion Rail dates from Easter 1908. The Sanctuary paving is of marble mosaic and there is a stone font of conventional design.
The Children’s Lectern
The brass lectern is known as the Children’s Lectern. An extract from the Parish Magazine explains that “it is proposed that when the Church has been extended, it would be nice to have a handsome brass Eagle Lectern (from which the lessons are read) as the gift of the children. It will probably cost at least £20, so that time will be required to raise the money. A start will be made at the Children’s Service at the Harvest Festival and commencing the following Sunday. Children are asked to bring what they or their parents can afford to afternoon school each week. The teachers will enter names and amounts in a book and an account of the fund will be given from time to time.” Over the course of about a year the fund grew and in December 1905 the sum of £23/5s/6d (23 pounds, 5 shillings and sixpence) had been collected. The lectern was dedicated at the Consecration of the Chancel and inscribed at its base with the words “The gift of the children of the Parish Church, November 11th 1905”
A re-ordering of the church resulted in a raised platform in front of the screen and a new Nave Altar, which we use for our regular services. Bishop Say consecrated this in December 1987.
The Sanctuary Lamps
St. Matthew’s Church is known throughout the English speaking world for its Sanctuary Lamps.
The hand-working on each of the seven lamps is different and are perhaps unique in a Christian Church as each incorporates the Moslem Star and Crescent, surmounted by the Christian Cross. Church Warden, Donald Maxwell, a well-known writer and artist who lived in Borstal Road, brought them to St. Matthew’s.
Visiting Damascus in Syria in 1912, he came upon the workshop of an old Arab brass-worker in Straight Street. He so admired some lamps being fashioned by the old man that he ordered a set of them to take home to his own Parish Church, promising to call back for them at a later date.
The intervention of the 1914 Word War prevented his return to Damascus and the Arab was pressed into service by the conquering Turks to make munitions for them. It was not until 1920 when Maxwell was able to return to the workshop and he was amazed to find the old Arab was still there. He had made the lamps and buried them under the floor of his house during the war.
He was a Christian and, knowing of the destination of the lamps, refused to take any payment for them. They were brought home to St. Matthew’s where they were dedicated to the memory of Victor Morgan and Luke Taylor – two of Donald Maxwell’s friends who had been killed in the war.
Originally lit by gas, they were later electrified and are lit for every service. Visitors have come from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand to find them.
The solid and well made Communion Rail dates from Easter 1908 “To the glory of God and in memory of Catherine Benifold, who endowed the benefice – the gift of the first Vicar 1908”. As befits a Church of simple design, the alter is a plain wooden construction, backed by a reredos – a handsome piece of wood carving. It is of Victorian design but was renovated in 1947, when, after being in the Garrison Church, Old Brompton, it was presented to St. Matthew’s by the Norton family. The three carved panels illustrate the parables of the Sower and the Prodigal Son on either side, with the Transfiguration in the centre.
The Chancel Window
The chancel window was presented in 1885 by Thomas Tuff, the same resident that donated the land for the church. The window depicts the figures of St. Margaret and St. Matthew as St. Matthew’s church was still a part of the parish of St. Margaret at the time of presentation. The window includes a memorial to the Rev. W. H. Drage, a vicar of the old St. Margaret’s for 33 years who died in 1865 and to his son as well as an organist of the Church, Mr. George Murton “in remembrance of his gentility and his loving works amongst the poor”.
St. Margaret: Saint Margaret was of noble birth and chose to be baptized Christian, which her father hated as he was a Pagan priest. She was born in Anitoch in Pisidia (modern day Isparta in Turkey) in around 291 A.D. At the age of fifteen, her beauty attracted the attention of a local leader named Olybrius and he demanded she marry him. Olybrius approved of her lineage, but not her religion, and ordered her to pay homage to the pagan gods. When she refused, he threw her in prison. Saint Margaret suffered many torments and tortures but refused to relent on her faith. At night, a dragon came to her cell, and either swallowed her or tried to swallow her. She slew the beast with the sign of the cross. She held fast in her refusal to denounce The Lord and Olybrius had her beheaded in around 306A.D.
St. Matthew: Saint Matthew was one of the original disciples of Jesus. Before his calling he was a tax collector for the Roman’s in Judea. He travelled with Jesus and was witness to Christ’s Ascension. It is believed that after Christ’s Ascension, Matthew preached the gospel to Jews in Judea for approximately 15 years before travelling to other counties to continue this work. How Saint Matthew was martyred is not known but it is believed that he angered a local King while preaching his Mission in Ethiopia who ordered him staked or impaled into the ground with spears and then beheaded.
The solid choir stalls are inscribed “To the memory of Henry Joseph Bristow, the gift of his widow and daughter, November 1905”. Plaques of these recall some of our most faithful members and singers of the past.
An unintentional and certainly unusual, memorial is also to be found here. One choir stall near the organ has a deep score mark across the music-rest. Many years ago, the late Miss Edna Edwards, was cleaning the choir stalls, when one of the organ pipes fell from above and nearly hit her. The mark it left in the woodwork can still be seen to this day.
In the early days, singing was led by a harmonium, the first pipe organ being installed in 1883, at a total cost of £293. It was built by F.W. Browne of Deal and was highly commended by Mr. Hopkins, organist at the Cathedral, who “presided” at the organ at the Dedication Service on September 15th 1883.
The instrument served “well for a succession of organists, including the 1930’s personality Percy Whitlock, who moved on to the Bournemouth Pavilion from where his regular broadcasts brought him national fame. He was also a prolific composer dedicating one of his settings of the Communion Service to George Bell and the choir of St. Matthew’s Borstal.
In 1961 the organ was completely re-built and a separate console installed by Messrs. Browne. Under their care it has served well and was thoroughly overhauled by them in 1978. Numerous eminent organists have practiced and taken early examinations on this useful instrument.
The Processional Cross
The Processional Cross was given to St. Matthew’s Church by Mrs Susan Anne Cooke of 25 Sidney Road, Borstal in memory of her son 2nd Lt Arthur Francis Cooke who was killed in action on Sunday 4th March 1917 at Bouchavesne in France, aged 23 years. He is buried in No. 3 Military Cemetery at Suzanne-en-Somme.
Along with his two brothers Albert and Robert he was a member of the choir in this church. All three brothers were commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery on the same day during the Great War.
The cross itself was made in France and brought to the village sometime in 1922 where it has remained ever since.
The Grant Window
This is the only stained glass in the nave and was the generous gift of Mr. and Mrs Grant in memory of their son Kenneth, who died on the 6th March 1954. The window was dedicated at the Mothering Sunday Service on March 11th 1956.
The subject of the window is Christ preaching to the multitude; the words inscribed on it are from Sermon on the Mount – “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see our God”.
The Whitefriars Stained Glass Studios executed the work that was designed by the artist Mr. Liddall Armitage. If you look VERY carefully and closely at the window you may be able to find the studio’s mark!
The Whitefriars Stained Glass Studios
The furnaces that blaze in the glasshouse at Whitefriars have been burning unquenched since 1680. In keeping with the many traditions of this ancient craft, a brazier from the old works in the City of London was carried to Harrow to ignite the first furnace in the present Wealdstone glass- works when the move to the new factory was made in 1923. The first home of the Whitefriars glassworks was near the legal Inns of Court in the Temple and beside the River Thames. As the name indicates, the site had originally been a monastery of the Carmelite Fathers, whose white habits made the monks known among the populace as the White Friars. Today, a small symbolic White Friar travels the world as the trademark on the firm’s hand-made crystal, exported to all the many parts of the globe where British craftsmanship is esteemed.
The War Memorial
In the north-west corner of the Nave is the St. Matthew’s War Memorial. The memorial book lists the names of the servicemen of Borstal Village that lost their lives in the Great War, World War II and the Falkland Island Conflict.
The Room with a Loo (Parish Room)
The need for a Parish room resulted in another extension to the church, completed in 2000. Popularly known as the ‘Room with a Loo’ it cost £46,000, which was raised in 15 months from fund-raising, donations and bequests.
Cleave Warne Hall (Parish Hall)
The church hall is behind the church building and was opened in April 1956 after being designed and constructed almost entirely by voluntary labour over a period of four years. It remains in very good condition and provides a very useful resource, its hire providing a helpful income. Facilities include a kitchen, upgraded recently, and a stage with lighting. The toilets have been refurbished to provide disabled facilities. All the buildings are on one level and readily accessed by the disabled. It is used for regular society bookings, such as Borstal WI, a dance class, a karate club and a keep fit group, Rainbow, Brownies and Guides and Alternate Shadows, a theatre group, as well as for church use. It will hold 80 people seated and 120 seated and standing.