There is no doubt that St Leonard’s is a very remarkable building indeed. I will leave the desriptions to people who know about such things, much better than I.
St Leonard’s lays currently on the edge of the town, on the border with its neighbouring parish, Sholden. It currently sits next to a very busy mini roundabout, but towers over all buildings around, with it’s jaunty cupola.
Inside, the original church has been greatly enlarged reminding me slightly of King Charles the Martyr in Tonbridge Wells, or that could just be my memory playing tricks.
I received another warm welcome here, for which I thankful, but also to finally see inside this wholly remarkable church.
There can be no more remarkable church in Kent than this. St Leonard’s incorporates work of every century but you do need to search out its architectural gems so closely are the different periods overlaid. Its chief period are Norman and early and late Georgian, although there is something for everyone here. From the outside it is obvious that the church has been clothed in an outer layer of brick and render, but just here and there medieval stonework appears from under the skirts. The fine west tower is obviously a Georgian structure and it is through this that the church is entered. The vestibule contains the 1st of what will be a fine collection of 15 hatchments and benefaction boards showing that this was one a very wealthy place. On entering the church one is baffled by an illogical layout. In front of you is an empty space that should be the nave, leading into a very little medieval chancel. To the south is an aisle and chapel but to the north is a veritable auditorium facing south and surrounded on three sides by huge balconies improbably lit by circular windows! You really do have to see it. Occupying the nave is a most elaborate nineteenth century font but it isn’t until you are in and look back that you realise that this area too has an enormous gallery currently holding one of the grandest organs in Kent, rising like a slightly bedraggled marriage cake! Of the contents one must choose a favourite. For me the Norman pillar piscina of sandstone is an oddity and would not look out of place in a cathedral, whilst the east window of the south aisle with its garish depiction of The Crucifixion cannot be ignored. It is by William Morris and Co of Westminster and is about as far removed from the famous William Morris as it possibly could be! Apart from the hatchments the church contains many fine monuments mostly to Naval men and two Royal Arms. It is not a church to rush as something brand-new is to be found at every turn. To those interested in structures, how it all fits together is a mystery in itself with the lovely Norman arcade having been stretched out to support two elliptical arches. Somehow it works and draws us in.
St Leonard’s is still the Parish Church of Deal, despite currently lying on the outskirts of the town and there being several other churches within the town. It gains its name from the Saint to whom it is dedicated – St Leonard of Limoges an Abbot who lived in France during the 6th century and who is currently the Patron Saint of Prisoners.
Today, St Leonard’s serves the local community as the mother church of a Benefice (group of churches) which includes three other local churches;
St Richards, Mill Hill; St Nicholas, Sholden; and St Martins, Great Mongham. Services are held several times a week in all four churches, with each church having its own unique look and feel.
Although some sources give credence to a place of worship having been on the site since Saxon times, no evidence of this building exists currently, however parts of the current Church of St Leonard’s certainly date to approximately 1100 although over the centuries since, it has seen many alterations. This leaves the building currently standing, as a confusion of architectural styles. The Nave and chancel contain the earliest remaining arcitecture, with the original tower being added some 80 to 100 years later.
The chancel was remodeled in the 13th century, and during this period the narrow north and south aisles were enlarged and doors added to each (These doors are both currently gone, although the southern can be detected in the outside wall and parts of the northern doorway were reused in the current north door, leading from the early 19th century extension to the church, into the north porch.)
The current tower is of 17th century construction (completed in 1686) having been built to replace the 12th century one which had collapsed due to the church falling in to ill repair prior to the reformation. Many other repairs and alterations have obviously occurred over the centuries and in this history, I will try and lead you through them and show how they have influenced what we have today.
While this amalgam of architectural styles has led to what some would call an aesthetically unattractive building, certainly from the outside, as evidenced in the picture above, it has along with various changes in fashion and the foibles of its congregations over the ages, led to an intriguing, if no less confusing, interior. This is very lopsided and results in the bulk of the congregation facing south, rather than the traditional east and therefore sitting side on to the Altar.
The picture alongside is a view from the gallery over the north door and shows how the orientation leaves the choir and high altar hidden in the chancel off to the left and the congregation facing the end of the brand-new altar which has been installed forward of its more usual position. One Bishop is said to have commented that it is "The most cockeyed church in Christendom". It does however mean that the church contains features of architectural importance and interest spanning nine centuries.
The current tower is surmounted by a cupola which featured on charts as an important landmark for ships approaching the Goodwin Sands. This cupola has recently been completely refurbished, at a total cost in excess of £69,000.
The original 12th century tower that collapsed in the mid 17th century had possessed a steeple ( at least according to Philip Symond’s Map of Kent which can normally be relied upon in these matters. I am not aware of any pictorial evidence either way)
The tower currently has a clock on the north and south faces and a peal of six bells. Originally there was a peal of five, 1st cast and hung in 1686. These were recast in 1887, with a 6th bell being added, as a jubilee gift (interestingly to the town rather than the church) from Captain George Coleman who later became mayor of Deal. The current clock is dated 1866, the earliest record of the tower having a clock is for 1715, but the current one dates from 1866.
One normally enters St Leonard’s via the west door in the tower, however the north door to the church is available to to give access for wheel chair users etc and also serves as the entrance for the bride at weddings as it allows her a longer procession, passing through the congregation.
Once through the main doors of the tower, the visitor passes down several steep steps into a lobby notable for a spiral staircase to the bell tower and two hatchments (those numbered 12 and 15 in the separate article) The table on which the Deal Charter was displayed after its signing by William III in 1699 also stands here. It is also worth noting the insides of the entrance doors and the large lock, which are probably original to the present tower
. If you are lucky and the inner doors into the body of the church are open and the sun shining in the right direction, you will be struck by the splendour of the view this allows of the altar, chancel and ascension window. Unfortunately, they are normally kept closed to help keep the heat in and drafts out.
As you enter the main body of the church, take time to look back the way you came; as well as the modern interior doors, you will have passed by an earlier door which is a fine example of Jacobean panelled work complete with a hand wrought latch and bolt. This door is currently kept open, but it is worth closing it as far as possible, to better view its splendour from both sides.
Once inside the main body of the church, you begin to sense the "ordered chaos" that has resulted from the many extensions. To the south the aisle is still the width it became when the church was expanded in the 13th century, the northern aisle however was extended both in the 13th century to a similar width to that of the current south, and again in the 19th century, which created the current lopsided interior. Prior to the Reformation, St Leonard’s, in common with most churches had many side altars and images of Saints, where candles were kept burning in both these aisles, these are all currently gone..
It should be noted that the extensions of the 13th C were not symmetrical, the south aisle was always longer than the north, both to the east where the Lady Chapel altar currently stands and to the west where it stretches almost as far as the west wall of the tower. Part of this was divided off to form the clergy vestry in 1709 and a further section in 1979.
The 2nd extension to the northern aisle took place in 1819 when the whole north wall was taken down and the current dimensions reached. It was with the building of this extension that the pews in the northern aisle were turned to face south so giving the bulk of the seating in St Leonard’s a most unusual orientation. For a long period of time after this it meant that any acts of worship carried out at the main altar in the chancel were hidden from the bulk of the congregation.
In 1979 this changed. Worship was becoming much more centred around Holy Communion and moving away from people attending church primarily to hear the clergy preaching, so leading to a bigger need for people to be able to see the altar. Rather than a wholesale redesign of the seating, screens at the front of the chancel were moved and placed on the walls of the vestry, the pulpit which stood by the side of the little 15th century door linking the chancel and northern aisle was removed and a brand-new, forward altar and communion rails placed where they stand today, just outside the chancel (see picture right) At the same time several pews were removed, leaving an open space from the altar to the west door. It was also at this time that a further section of the western end of the south aisle was partitioned off to increase the size of the vestry and provide today’s toilet and kitchen facilities, such as they are.
Standing in front of the altar and looking around the church, another feature stands out apart from the unusual shape – the galleries. St Leonard’s is rare, if not unique as a parish church, in having galleries from three different periods still intact. Galleries were another way of meeting the needs of the expanding population of Deal over the centuries and these, as with the basic structure of the church have evolved several times over the years.
he Georgian gallery over the north aisle is contemporary with the extension (1819) and is rated as being of great significance by the Georgian Society among others as an Amazing example of its type. Although at 1st glance the benches and kneelers in this gallery appear quite sad, they are for the most part original and I am told by the Georgian Society, well worth retaining. This picture shows the North aisle. The original extent of the aisle was as far as the two iron pillars which currently support the ceiling. The georgian gallery runs round three sides of the brand-new extension. The bulk of the panneling is unfortunatly concealed behind murals currently, but I hope to be able to take a picture with these temporarily removed in the near future,
The gallery which currently houses the Bevington Organ is known as the Pilots Gallery and while not the original, which suffered when the tower collapsed, still dates to 1705 and is clearly of ‘Restoration period’ style. On the front, either side of the picture of an 18th century Man O’ War can still be seen the inscription from its most recent rebuild and some interesting paintings of the globe and pilots in traditional uniform although these are currently much faded. The date shown on the picture of 1705 is the date of painting, rather than the Great Storm of 1703 which it commemorates, where some 1,200 men were lost on the Goodwin Sands.
The final gallery is Victorian, erected in 1860 over the entrance to the vestry, and of interest for several reasons. The front bears the carved Arms of William III (after Mary’s death) which had originally been on the front of a gallery built in 1696 by Thomas Bowles (who later became Mayor of Deal) which sat over the chancel until it was removed in 1860. The old Gallery is believed to have been made of panels from Northbourne church. Incidentally, it was at this time (1860) that the old ‘horsebox’ pews were replaced with those we currently have. The picture to the left, shows not only the gallery, but also the screening that was removed from the front of the chancel when that area was reordered in 1979. Was it a quirk of fate or a plan which brought the gallery and the screens which for many years had existed in close proximity back together after almost 120 years?