People and places of historical interest in Thurrock


St Catherine's Church, East Tilbury

There has been a Christian place of worship in East Tilbury, or Great Tilbury as it was originally known, for over 1300 years although it is probable that the original chapel of St Cedd, built about 654 AD, was below the present high tide level. The present church is however of considerable age with parts of it having been built as early as the 12th century.

The church is built mainly of flint, with some Kentish ragstone and some Roman material. Dressed Reigate stone has been used for important parts such as window and door frames and arches. The fact that some materials are of Kentish origin is not surprising given that there was an important ferry crossing to Higham certainly as early as Roman times. From the outside it can be seen that there was once a South aisle of four bays. The columns and arches of the arcade can be seen framing two 14th century windows which are probably the original aisle windows. The Westernmost arch is obscured by the "tower".

The stump of a tower, which contains the vestries, was built by the First World War garrison of Coalhouse Fort, No.2 Company, London Electrical Engineers. Originally they had planned to build a complete tower in memory of their fallen comrades but were stopped by higher authorities as the correct procedures had not been followed. There is an inscription tablet in the stump recording the original intentions rather than what actually happened!

At the west end of the church is a large blocked up arch which was probably a tower arch. What appears at first sight to be a buttress is in fact the remains of a 14th century wall. The fate of the original tower is uncertain and for many years writers have stated that it was destroyed by the Dutch under De Ruyter when they sailed up the Thames in 1667. However it is apparent from ecclesiastical records that the church was in a considerable state of disrepair around this time and it is quite likely that the tower simply fell down!

The only entrance to the church is by the north porch which was added in 1704 and leads into a simple well lit interior. The lightness is due to the large number of south windows and the exceptionally wide chancel arch C. 1350.


The north arcade (1) with its alternate round and octagonal columns was inserted in what must have been an earlier north wall in about 1150 and traces of a blocked Norman window can be seen above the easternmost arch. A small window (2) half way along the north aisle wall is probably original.

The South wall (3), constructed in the 17th century by simply filling in the arches of the 14th century aisle, contains several windows from the original which were reused.

The Chancel was given its present shape in about 1250 prior to which it was probably round ended. The three windows (4) in the east end, one window in each side wall, the priest's door (5) in the south wall and the stone basin in the south wall near the altar are all features of this original rebuilding. Several more windows were added later probably in the 14th century. The glass in the three east windows was presented by the widow and son of Robert Hamilton Williams in 1905

The large table tomb in the chancel (6) is in memory of Henry Knight, a churchwarden, who came from Tortworth, Gloucestershire and lived in East Tilbury for over 40 years. He died in 1721 aged 63. There are also several floor slabs which are uncovered on church open days. The earliest is that of John Rawlinson who died in 1698.

The single remaining church bell (7) is also in the chancel and was cast by William Oldfield in 1629.There were originally at least three bells but their fate following the collapse of the original tower is unclear. They were at some time re-housed in a weather-boarded bell turret with spire on the western end of the nave roof but by 1850 if not earlier only one was fit for use. The turret was removed about 1900 and the single bell was housed in a wooden lean-to on the south wall. This subsequently became unsafe and was pulled down.

The large eagle lectern (8) was given in 1906 in memory of Elizabeth Williams by her son.

Set in the floor near the lectern is a tile fish (9) that was designed and executed by the pupils of East Tilbury School in 1966. The fish has been a Christian symbol since Apostolic times, signifying both Baptism and Jesus Christ.

The pulpit (10) is Elizabethan.

Up to 1904 the east end of the north aisle was enclosed to form a chantry chapel and this may have been one founded in about 1328 by Sir Thomas Gobyon. The altar in this part of the church was brought from St James', West Tilbury when this was closed in 1979. The window dedicated to St James is in memory of Ted King a former churchwarden at West Tilbury and his wife Peggy. It was erected in 1996. Also in this area of the church in the north wall is an interesting oak framed window.

The church has three Royal Arms, although that above the chancel arch is scarcely recognisable as such! This dates from the 16th century whereas the paintings on wood of the Arms of George III on the north wall, one of which is from St James' West Tilbury, are 19th century. The font (11) is a plain octagonal one of about 1500, the cover having been given in 1865 in memory an earlier vicar, William Thomas Goodchild and his son Cecil Wray Goodchild.

The Catherine Wheel (12) which hangs at the west end of the nave was presented by the Rev. Dudley Whitwham, vicar 1954-1971 in memory of his parents. It came from a farm tumbril and was decorated by local blacksmiths to represent the spiked wheel which flew into pieces when the Alexandrians tried to break St Catherine on it.

At the back of the church adjacent to the steps leading to the tower vestries are some old photographs and sketches of the church and a small showcase (13). This contains some Medieval encaustic tiles with which the church was tiled throughout up to the end of the 18th century.

Lastly who was St. Catherine?

She is believed to have been born in the 4th century in Alexandria of a noble family.

Converted to Christianity through a vision, she denounced the Roman emperor Maxentius for persecuting Christians. Fifty of her converts were then burned to death by Maxentius.

He offered her a royal marriage if she would deny the Faith and her refusal landed her in prison. Whilst there, and while Maxentius was away, Catherine converted his wife and two hundred of his soldiers. He had them all put to death. Catherine was likewise condemned to death. She was put on a spiked wheel, and when the wheel broke, she was beheaded. She is the patron saint of philosophers, preachers, unmarried women, wheelwrights, nurses, potters, spinners, millers, librarians, rope makers, secretaries, school girls and universities