St Peter's Church

The parish of Fordcombe is within the united benefice of Penshurst, Fordcombe and the Chiddingstone Churches and as such there is monthly pattern of services in each of the Churches in the benefice. Recruitment of a new minister is underway following the retirement in November 2020 of our Rector Tom Holme.

If you are new to the village or feel you might like to be involved in the Church or its activities please do go along to their services and events, you will be made most welcome.

Church History

The choice of St. Peter as the Chapelry’s patronal saint was probably that of the Penshurst Rector, the Rev. Philip Dodd, a devotee of St. Peter, who in 1837 had published a book on Peter’s work and ministry. The location of the new building was agreed when Richard Turner of the ancient Manor of Chafford (on the site of the present ‘Ashcombe Priory’ estate), and owner of Chafford Paper Mill, gave the one acre site “freely and voluntarily to Her Majesty’s Commissioners for building new Churches in Populous Parishes, to be devoted to ecclesiastical purposes for ever”. This new churchyard later allowed interment of Penshurst’s deceased, for in 1857 Penshurst’s full churchyard had to be closed and by 1855 the “Penshurst Cemetery Chapel at Pounds Bridge” also became available and was enlarged in 1889. The foundation stone records that it was “laid by Philip, Baron De L’Isle & Dudley”.

The cost of building St. Peter’s was £2,508, of which £2,000 was provided by five main donors, including £1,000 (40%) from Henry, 1st Viscount Hardinge, recently retired as Governor-General of India. A committed Christian, his letters home from Calcutta and, in the hot season Simla, show his great interest and involvement in planning the new place of worship. Henry was born in 1785 in Wrotham, son of its Vicar. He had a most distinguished military and diplomatic career, joining the Army aged 14, serving later under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula campaign and then in Flanders before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (missing the actual battle, having had his left hand shattered and amputated at Ligny two days earlier). He had been Secretary for Ireland and, in 1844, when he was Secretary at War and aged 59, he most reluctantly agreed to be appointed Governor-General of India, wishing instead, after a lifetime of public service, to enjoy a peaceful retirement at his country seat, South Park, situated half way between Fordcombe and Penshurst.

It was after his success in the Sikh War in the Punjab in 1845, where his amputated left hand boosted his image and warlike reputation with his British and Indian soldiers, that he was rewarded with a Viscountcy, becoming the 1st Viscount Hardinge of Lahore. In 1847 the British Government begged him to continue his successful work in India but, having been separated from his wife Emily for nearly four years (due to her delicate health, she had been unable to accompany him to India), he refused to remain and came home to a hero’s welcome, reaching South Park on 31st March 1848. The following month he came to Fordcombe to lay the foundation stone for St. Peter’s. Here, after a fulsome tribute by the Rector, Dodd, detailing his success not just in council and in battle but as a peacemaker, Hardinge, “sensibly affected” by Dodd’s words, replied that he hoped that “the new edifice would tend to the glory of God and be a spiritual consolation to all the inhabitants of this neighbourhood”. Sadly no inscription records the ceremony.

Just nine months later, the building was completed, ready to be consecrated, on 31st January 1849, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Bird Sumner (in splendid ecclesiastical phraseology, this was in the ‘first year of his translation’ i.e. appointment). Sadly Henry lived only another seven years and was buried on 1st October 1856 in the most imposing of the tombs in the Churchyard. At his funeral there were numerous tributes, including one from the Queen, and a pleasing touch was added by having Napoleon’s sword placed on the coffin as it was drawn from South Park. This had been captured by Wellington after the battle of Waterloo, and later, after the latter’s death in 1852, passed to his friend Hardinge, who succeeded him as Army Commander in Chief. Wellington paid a handsome tribute to his protégé when he stated that “Hardinge always understands what he undertakes and undertakes nothing but what he understands”. It has to be assumed that Napoleon’s sword was not interred in the tomb, but is now somewhere in France.

The other major donors, in the days when Church and clergy were wealthy, were the Rector of Penshurst, the Reverend Philip Dodd (£500); his successor, the Reverend William Green (£300, but he also paid over £300 for Fordcombe’s organ); Hardinge’s stepson, Sir Walter James MP, who had managed South Park in Henry’s absence in India (£100) and the Patron, Sir John Sidney of Penshurst Place (£100). The Patronage has remained with the Sidney family, periods of interregnum excepted, ever since. Today it is held by Philip, Lord De L’Isle (the title now without the “& Dudley”).


Returning to St. Peter’s church, the architect was Henry Isaac Stevens of Derby. Pevsner’s Guide in the 1960s (in 2011 under revision) rather limply stated that it is “a nobleman’s very decent chapel”, although of course it was no longer just a chapel. Much more positive was the comment by the Rochester Diocesan architects in 1974 who reported that it is “a very noteworthy building with an extremely high standard of material and craftsmanship”. Despite this, it is, perhaps surprisingly, listed just Grade ‘C’.

The materials used were fine sandstone ashlar (large, square-cut stones) for the walls, quarried locally at the now disused Quintain quarry, situated near where Leggs Lane joins the Speldhurst Road. This quarry produced stone for many other buildings, walls and bridges in the area. The diminishing courses of roofing tiles came from rather further away, being of Westmoreland slate. These have lasted well, so that when re-roofing was necessary in 1999, more than half could be re-used. This essential work was made possible by a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funding bodies. Not being large enough to merit a bell tower, the roof supports a bellcote with two bells – not adequate for ringing peals but just for summoning the faithful to worship. One bell has no inscription but the other was recast by Gillett & Johnston in 1953 – perhaps a donor commemorating the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth that year.

In 1848 the building had been constructed in plan as a simple rectangle, but in 1883 a north wing designed by Edward Tarver was added to accommodate a vestry and the organ, at a cost of £600. The builder was the local Penshurst builder, Hope Constable. Its construction required the granting of a Faculty (Diocesan permit) for the re-location of graves already present beside the building. The organ has an interesting history, having been constructed two years before St Peter’s was even considered, in 1845. It was designed by John Stevens and manufactured by Joseph (now J.W.) Walker, at a cost of £240, for the Crisp Street School Room in Poplar, near the London docks, one of many schools for the poor founded by General Gordon. It was purchased for £237-11s-4d by the Reverend William Green, Rector of Penshurst from 1852 to 1878. It seems strange for it to be sold, dismantled and removed to Kent after only four years in the school. It probably reached Penshurst by the recently opened railway line, to be moved by cart to St. Peter’s, where it arrived in May 1850, a year after the consecration. This cost £73, including installation in the building, but not including today’s “beautifully decorated rectangular oak case, with arched compartments and decorated front pipes matching the architecture of the chancel”. Some of these pipes at the side of the case are actually just for show, matching the real pipes, but made of wood. It is also claimed to be “quite unique and special for a village organ”. On being refurbished in 1991, J.W.Walker reported that “this instrument is a very attractive example of a village church organ which still has the old style charm that organs exhibited before the excesses brought about by the re-ordering of churches later in the 19th century”. There is no clue to the organ’s original position in the building, between 1850 and 1883. Before being moved to its present location it was returned to Walker’s for the installation of extra features.

The original specification required optimistically that the pews should be “capable of affording accommodation to 220 persons, in which 200 are to be for ever free and unappropriated”. A total of 150 would seem to have been more achievable – and less uncomfortable – in the space available. One assumes anyway that the front four pews were intended to afford 20 reserved places for the paying gentry. In the 1990s five pews at the west end were removed to create more space around the font for various activities, leaving seating for 100 or, at a pinch, 120, with extra chairs available. The font must have been part of the original furniture as baptisms are recorded from February 1849, a month after consecration,

The only other major change was made in 1906, 23 years after the organ/vestry wing was built, when various additions were made in the Chancel. These were in memory of George Hanbury Field of Ashurst Park, who had died five years earlier. They included:

  • raised chancel paving
  • the rood screen, separating chancel from nave, and the eagle lectern
  • the altar and additional reredos mosaic panels behind it

The Rood screen (namely one surmounted by a Cross) was donated by Emily Field, née Hardinge, the second wife of George Hanbury Field of Ashurst Park, in memory of her father, the 2nd Viscount Hardinge (1822-1894). This Field family was not related to Walter St John Field, the current Vicar. The pulpit must have been repositioned to where it is now when the screen was installed: it is assumed that a pulpit did exist but its position in the original layout is not known.

Because an altar was specifically mentioned, it also has to be assumed that there was an earlier one, needing to be replaced. The richly embroidered frontals – green, purple, red and white (the last two recently painstakingly restored) presumably also date from this time. The central mosaic panel of the reredos (old French: arere dos), representing the Crucifixion, must have been installed in 1849. The four additional panels, designed by GH Fellowes Prynne FRIBA, have been most skilfully added so that an onlooker would not guess that they were not all created at the same time. From left to right they depict the Archangels:

  1. Saint Michael, leader of all the Archangels
  2. Saint Gabriel, the Angel of the Annunciation
  3. Saint Raphael, leader of the Guardian angels
  4. Uriel, now not favoured as he is not in the Bible, only the Jewish Apocrypha.

The 1906 design drawings also included an inscription set below the panels, which was not incorporated. This would have read: “Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis” (the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us).

Natural light in St. Peter’s is provided by windows having diverse glazing. The East window, “Christ surrounded by saints”, was designed by Percy Bacon Brothers. The panels show St Augustine, who brought Christianity to Kent; St Dunstan, a memorable Archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 988, who earlier, as a young hermit at Glastonbury, had learned crafts and music (more reflective music than today’s, no doubt!); the Virgin Mary; and Jesus’ reputed favourite, St John. Unusually in a small church, there is, high up above the main east window, a mandorla window (from Italian: ‘almond shaped’). It shows a dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

Nothing is yet known about the West window, with a much repeated pattern unlikely to have any significance. Likewise little is known about the original windows in the nave, although the two with lightly tinted plain panes in the chancel opposite the organ may have been how the remainder looked when it was built as a Chapel. The others in the North and South walls are of different periods, very varied and of different significance.

A well-known stained glass designer, Walter Lonsdale, was commissioned to produce designs for eight windows, although there are ten, not just eight, window apertures of similar shape in the nave. These eight are based on the story and teachings of our Patronal Saint, Peter. Two framed pictures now hanging on the north wall depict these eight, and the legend states: “These designs for the windows in the nave of this church were prepared, and the glass to the first of the series executed, as a memorial to Richard and Sophia Saxby”. They were prepared in 1883 – at the time the north wing was being added. The first four ‘of the series executed’, those in the left hand frame, are in position and can be recognised by the similar lower part of the design. It appears that nobody else wished to follow the Saxby family’s example by paying for the remaining four, which have not been executed.

Three of the Lonsdale designs are on the south wall and separately commemorate members of the Lee family from Redleaf in Penshurst: Colonel Henry Lee (died 1862, aged 42) and two sons; William (died 1882, aged 22) and Henry (died 1886, aged 29), and the fourth, in the north-west corner, records together the two Saxbys, Richard (died 1868) and his wife Sophia (died 1882). Next to it, set in the shallow recess opposite the porch, the two panels commemorate, on the left, Philip Dodd, Penshurst Rector when St. Peter’s was built and, on the right, Richard Turner, who donated the site. A further commemorative window, in the north wall, of different design, details the lives of two Hills brothers, also of Redleaf, Penshurst: Frank (died November 1895 aged 44) and Edward (died the following month, aged 40). Another Hills surname noted in the Burials Register, Margaret Hills of Silcox, died six months earlier, aged 20. Perhaps these were related. These relatively early deaths show that life expectation then was well short of the Biblical average of three score years and ten.

Other stained glass windows were donated by relatives to commemorate two of the dead of the World Wars: on the south wall, the elder son of the 1st Baron Hardinge, who would have succeeded as the 2nd, Edward Charles Hardinge, Lieutenant, 15th Hussars. He was wounded in 1914 in Flanders in the first action of the war and died three months later, aged 22, in Folkestone hospital, where King George V personally presented him with the DSO, an award unusual for one so junior. Neither of his parents was present: his mother had died just before the outbreak of war and his father was ruling India. On the north wall, 2nd Lieutenant Francis Laurin Coleman, 18th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, heavily outnumbered in a tank battle at Bir Hakim in the Libyan desert, went missing when his tank was destroyed and it was assumed he had died of his wounds in German hands, aged 21. The small monk inscribed in the bottom of this window is the signature of James Powell & Sons.

When there was no daylight, artificial lighting was originally provided by gas produced in a shed in the churchyard, but modern electric lighting was installed in 1933 and modernised again in the 1990s.

There are two hatchments hanging on the west wall, commemorating members of the Hardinge family. A hatchment is a commemorative panel signifying the achievements of a noble person (French achèvement: completion, therefore achievements in a lifetime). On the death of a nobleman, it initially hung at the entrance to his mansion and was later transferred to the local church. The one on the left is to Henry, 1st Viscount Hardinge, whose motto Mens aequa rebus in arduis translates as ‘an equal mind in difficulties’. That on the right is to Lavinia, 2nd Viscountess Hardinge, who is also commemorated at the Lych Gate.

Surprisingly, although there is Henry’s hatchment, there is no wall plaque commemorating him in ‘his’ Fordcombe church, although there is one in St..John the Baptist in Penshurst which states that it was “erected by his mourning widow and children”. It also notes how Queen Victoria “has a high and grateful sense of Lord Hardinge’s valuable and unremitting services and, in his death, deplores the loss of a true and devoted friend”.


The churchyard is entered through Lavinia Hardinge’s Memorial Lych Gate, built by Henry Constable of Penshurst. Daughter of the 3rd Earl Lucan, she tragically died in 1864, after barely eight years of marriage. Aged only 29, she had given birth, annually for eight years, to five boys and three girls, all of whom survived. This gate was designed by George Devey, who was also the architect of the Chafford Arms, built in 1851 and described as “a new public house for Lieutenant-General Hardinge”, which suggests that he may have paid for the village pub as well as being the major contributor to the cost of the church.

Immediately on the left one passes the War Memorial Cross, erected in 1921. This records the deaths of 21 young men, with an average age of 23, during the four years of World War I. These were not just on the Western Front, in France or Flanders, but also in Palestine or at sea. What is puzzling and so far unexplained is why 15 of those 21 are also listed on the memorial inside Penshurst church (and Reginald Field’s name appears on the Lych Gate at St. Martin of Tours, Ashurst – his family, of course, living at Ashurst Park). The Fordcombe list includes the names of two Hardinges and two unrelated Fields: one the Vicar’s 3rd son, Charles, the other Reginald of Ashurst Park. Also the publican of the Chafford Arms, Bertie Johnson, at 32 the oldest listed. During the six years of World War II six perished: three soldiers and three airmen.

Subscriptions for the Fordcombe War Memorial covered the construction of the “Village Club” – today’s Village Hall – as well as the Memorial Cross, and were paid for by donations from the village. A total of £910 was raised: £734 (80%) for the Village Club and £176 (20%) for the Memorial Cross. The largest sums came from the two Miss Fields of Ashurst Park, each contributing £200. They also generously donated the site which today includes the Hall and the Recreation Field, and so of course the cricket pitch. Now (in 2011) 90 years old, the wooden Village Club building is reaching the end of its economic life.

As one might expect, the tombs and graves are dominated by those of the Hardinge family, 23 in all, most clustered around the porch. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th Viscounts are buried here: the 4th, Caryl, whilst acting as ADC to the Governor-General of Canada, having met and married a Canadian girl, decided to remain in Montreal. The Hardinge family acquired a Faculty in 1930 reserving space for further family burials but, for some reason, this was relinquished in 1980 by the 6th Viscount, who lived near Basingstoke. With Fordcombe’s churchyard now closed, he is buried elsewhere. The current Viscount, the 7th, Andrew Hartland Hardinge, born 1960, lives in London.

Of the Barons, the 1st and 2nd are buried in Fordcombe but the 3rd, with no reserved space remaining, is also buried elsewhere. The 4th, Julian Alexander Hardinge, born in 1945, and a godson of the Queen, lives in Devon. Both the current Viscount and Baron have male issue.

St. Peter’s churchyard, in its turn, is now full and closed for burials, apart from the interment of ashes outside the south-east corner of the church. Those opting for traditional burial are taken to Poundsbridge burial ground.


Various wall plaques take up most spaces between the windows. They commemorate, among others, the easily confused Viscounts, who take precedence, and Barons. Henry, the 1st Viscount Hardinge of Lahore, had received his title because of his achievements in 1845 in the first Sikh War during his most successful Governor-Generalship of India. His second grandson, Charles, took the title 1st Baron Hardinge of Penshurst in recognition of his years as the first Viceroy of India (i.e. deputising for the King) from 1910 to 1916. Of the wall plaques, the most notable is that of Alexander (Alec), the 2nd Baron, (succeeding to the title due to the death of his brother Edward) who became Assistant Private Secretary to King George V from 1920, then Private Secretary to King Edward VIII in 1936 and, finally, to King George VI until 1943, when failing health caused his retirement. His widow Helen was, one assumes, responsible for the bold inscription on his tomb, set beside the path between porch and lych gate: Here lies the body of a man whose constancy saved this Realm. In her biography of Alec, Loyal to Three Kings, she angrily rebuts accusations that Alec had helped ensure the abdication of King Edward. She would therefore have been horrified by the 2011 film commissioned by the American ‘celebrity’, ex-Dunkin Donut waitress Ms Ciccone, (better known as Madonna – a name seemingly chosen to be as provocative as possible). This is entitled ‘W.E.’, namely Wallis & Edward, which claims that Wallis had been totally “stitched up” by the “lynch mob mentality” of the British Establishment, principally the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang and the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin – and Alec. Some of Wallis’ private letters, recently discovered, show that she did not love Edward and did not wish to marry him, which now sheds completely new light on the whole sorry episode.

Helen, charming and unassuming, a regular churchgoer at St Peter’s until her death in 1979, now lies with her husband. After Indian independence in 1947 she was responsible for saving the equestrian statue of Henry, 1st Viscount, from imminent destruction. Completed in 1858 – ten years after Henry’s return to England, and two years after his death – this had been erected in Henry’s Calcutta (India’s capital until 1911), and is considered to be the well-known sculptor J.H. Foley’s best portrait work – and, of course, includes no left hand. She arranged for it to be shipped back to England and installed at South Park. This is no longer a Hardinge residence, but the statue has been ‘saved’ yet again and, in 2011, stands rather isolated and forlorn, looking out over flat Fenland in the village garden of one of Henry’s great-great-great-grandsons, Hugh, the 4th Baron’s younger brother, a bookseller in Cambridge.

Other plaques on the south wall commemorate mostly Hardinges: those in the chancel to the second Viscountess, Lavinia; also her sister-in-law Emily and niece Alice, who died in 1897 in India. There are also plaques to various Fields and Field-Marshams of Ashurst Park, including Charles Austen Field-Marsham, killed in action in North Africa in WW II.

Two other plaques, on either side of the entrance door, are intriguing. That to the left commemorates Private Frank Fauchon, originally of Walter’s Green. The Fauchon family had moved to Canada before WW I. Frank enlisted there and was assigned to the 47th Canadian Infantry Battalion. It crossed the Atlantic to join the British Expeditionary Force in France and in 1917, shortly after arriving at the Front, Frank was killed (as often happened) when helping a wounded comrade.

The plaque to the right is a charming tribute by the Hardinge family to Frances Smart (whose dates are not recorded and who is not buried in Fordcombe):

This tablet is erected to record the faithful services of Frances Smart who, from 1821 to 1850, lived in the family of the 1st Viscount Hardinge. Her devotion and attachment to all the members of that family was as constant as it was sincere. This tribute to her memory is raised by Emily Viscountess Hardinge and her children who mourn the loss of one who must ever be remembered by them with feelings of affectionate regard. Previous to entering Lord Hardinge’s service she had served John James Esq (Emily’s first husband) from the year 1816 to the time of his decease. His son Sir Walter James (who managed South Park with his mother when his stepfather Henry Hardinge was Governor-General in India) joins his relations in this token of esteem for her character and affection for her memory.

Below this touching appreciation a recent plaque records the creation of the space around the font by the removal of pews, noted earlier: this records that it was the benefaction of Douglas and Eileen Field in memory of the longest serving incumbent, Douglas’ father, Walter St John Field, and of his wife Ida.


Noteworthy in the south west of St. Peter’s churchyard, opposite the Garden of Remembrance created in 2010, is the prominent headstone of John Baker, with, nearby, the ashes of his sons Percy Bryant Baker (b.1881) and Robert Peter Baker (b.1886), father and sons all being successful sculptors. The headstone’s bas-relief of father John is a tribute executed jointly by both sons. Both were apprenticed with their father and then made their own careers. Father had many notable commissions in churches and cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey. Bryant had success with sculptures of King Edward VII, at Beverley Minster and the V&A Museum. Robert emigrated to the USA and in 1916 obviously persuaded his elder brother of the opportunities there, for Bryant followed and became the more successful, particularly after he won a competition for the famous statue of The Pioneer Woman unveiled in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1930. This paid tribute to the pioneer women who trekked with their families to open up and exploit the West. Numerous other commissions followed, including those of American Presidents, and of Churchill for the Winston Churchill Memorial Library in Fulton, Missouri. Interestingly, Bryant and Robert appear never to have lived in the Penshurst area, but must have wanted their ashes to lie near those of their parents and maternal Bryant relatives.

One enigmatic memorial not far from the Bakers, beside the path leading to the second Vicarage, is a plot with a kerbstone enclosing a stone anchor: this was erected by the Hills Family of Redleaf, already mentioned, in memory of Charles Horfield, “for 21 years their trusted friend and servant”, who died in 1905. There is no clue as to the nautical significance. Beside this path, closer to the church, is another headstone that is even more baffling It has but one letter on it, a ‘J’, and nothing else whatever.

Another noteworthy villager is the donor of the site, Richard Turner, whose tomb to the north of the church also holds his wife Eliza and two daughters, 14 year old Fanny and 42 year old Arabella. Among the hundreds of other graves, many without headstones, are those such as the deceased, including infants, among the regular annual hoppers (hop-pickers), some of whose descendants still visit occasionally to lay flowers and other travellers’ mementoes. Of graves with Monumental Inscriptions there are many resulting from the inevitable epidemics and diseases, such as the deaths of three young sons of John and Mary Piper between 1856 and 1874: first Wells John (3), then Horace (20) and finally Edgar (6 months). The parents’ anguish is summed up in an inscription poem starting: “Sweet opening blossoms prematurely nipped…..”.

It is hoped that this short history has shown that in the 160 years existence of Henry Hardinge’s “very noteworthy building”, his 1848 founding wish has indeed been fulfilled, and that it has “tended to the glory of God” and been – and will continue to be – “a spiritual consolation to all the inhabitants of this neighbourhood”.

John Sworder October 2011