Research sourced from: Personal recollections of Canon Ernie Mann together with minutes of meetings and documents produced by: Gillingham Churches Together, Gillingham Inter-Church Working Party, Churches Together in Kent, Churches Together in the Countryside, The Kings Family Practice, Countryside Residential, Rochester Diocesan Board of Education, the Church Army, the Ecumenical Church Plan and St Mary’s Island Church Committee and Working Party.
Recollections of Canon Ernie Mann:
The dockyard use of the peninsular of land was mainly for recreational purposes for the employees. There were few buildings and due to the relative quietness there was a lot of wild life in the area.
Buses operated within the dockyard due to the distances involved.
The purpose of a dockyard is for war. When this country was not at war many people were not overly employed. Some ships were in the dockyard for some time – HMS Sheffield came here for a re-design and was due to have a telephone exchange installed. However, the ship was scrapped before it could be installed!
When the dockyard closed in 1984 the hub was kept as the historic part – and in fact contains the greatest number of listed buildings. The remainder of the site was designated for residential and commercial development.
The red herring in the development of the island was concern over contamination. The top metres of soil were removed in red trucks. This set fear in people’s minds and was one of the causes for delay in building the school.
The then Canon Colin Buchanan (now Bishop) was the visionary key lead in the building of the church and school on the island strongly supported by Cannon Jean Kerr. SMI Church sprang from a desire to plant a new church in the residential development taking place on the island. In 1994 the island was planned to be developed for mixed residential development of some 1700 properties.
The island area of this time was within the parish boundaries of St Luke’s Church. But the Diocese of Rochester with the agreement of St Luke’s and St Mark’s PCC’s decided that the parish boundaries should be changed. This change put the new development within St Mark’s Parish Gillingham, which it decided it was better equipped to provide a church plant.
Earlier in the planning stage it was agreed by the Education Authority and the Diocesan Board of Education to provide a Church Aided primary school on the island.
Why a Church of England School on the island?
There had been a C of E school in Brompton (Holy Trinity) but this closed in 1958. However, there remained the right to have a C of E school in the area. This right was transferred to St Mary’s Island as voluntary Aided school which meant the school is completely under diocesan control.
The school was designed to be dual purpose: primarily for school use but acting as a worship centre for the island as well and the brief to the architect was to design a building with this in mind. The cost of the initial build was £3.1 million. By 2004 numbers increased, which necessitated expansion of the building.
Whilst the development of the island commenced an ecumenical group met as an inter-church committee and planned the way forward. A number of social events were held and services held at Christmas and Easter in the open air prior to the building being constructed.
The first service held in the newly constructed building was in January, 1999, as an informal partnership of the Anglican, United Reformed and Baptist churches. In April, 2013, the church became fully Anglican under the auspices of St Mark’s Gillingham.
Minutes of the various meetings reveal the developments, delays and frustrations of plans for the school building and the residential areas of the island.
Document ‘Shaping the Future of Kent’ for Churches together for Kent highlight the two new unitary authorities to be established (N. West Kent - Dartford and Gravesham and Medway Towns). There were fears expressed that the whole of North Kent would become a concrete jungle. Medway was described as one of the biggest urban markets in the South East outside London. The main development opportunities named as Chatham Maritime, Rochester waterfront, Gillingham Business Park and the Frindsbury Peninsular – all to be beneficiaries of the £180 million Northern Relief Road.
The Education Committee held on June 9, 1995, approved the recommendation for the Rochester Diocesan Board of Education to issue Public Notice for the establishment of ‘one form entry’ i.e. one class per year group 210 place CE Aided School.
Our thanks to Janet Adkin for this research and the research notes are available via this link