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Mystery of Old St James the Apostle Church Cemetery, Dover, Kent, UK

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John Latter on October 15, 2009

This is the first of three photographs about the burial grounds of Old St James' Church in St James' Street, Dover, UK.

The stonework running down the left-hand side of the photo is the west buttress of the North Tower Wall.

The South Aisle - where once the Duke of Wellington walked - occupied the area between the wall on the right and the low bank on the left.

The main part of St James' cemetery is now the carpark lying between the South Aisle and the Dover Sports Centre] building on the far side of the photo.

Three tiers of Family Vaults were set against the cliff-face, out of shot to the left.

In the book extract given below, the final sentence of paragraph 6 is of particular interest:

All monuments and tombstones [from St James Churchyard] would also be removed at the Council's expense and destroyed.

Any monuments or memorials the size of the "Sergeant John Monger Obelisk" (a well-known 'landmark' in Dover's Cowgate Cemetery Nature Reserve) may well have been destroyed, but such was not the fate of the tombstones themselves.

The tombstones are, in fact, still there.

Indeed, many of the Family Vaults are also still there, although the second photo (Location of the Family Vaults, Old St James Church Cemetery, Dover, Kent, UK) shows why nowadays people tend to assume they were all destroyed along with the other graves.

The third photo (The Missing Headstones of Old St James Church Cemetery) gives a side view of one of the still-existing Family Vaults, and the caption explains what happened to the 'missing' headstones.

Other intriguing aspects of the St James' Church burial grounds are indicated in the following:

Excerpt from pages 107 and 108 of the 1976 book, "The Tidy Ruin: History of the Parish Church of St. James the Apostle Dover" by Douglas Welby (hardback):

St. James's Churchyard

Typically the church was built on the Southern side [1] of the churchyard so that the shadow would not fall on the graves. In the churchyard were the graves and vaults bearing the names of many old Dover citizens who once lived and worshipped in this parish at Warden Down.

In 1855 the churchyard was closed by order from the Local Health Department because the grossly overcrowded cemetery was becoming a health hazard, due to its close proximity to the Trevanion Street area which was an over-populated and confined community bordering the churchyard. Later the same year a new site was started at Copt Hill, just off Barton Road, occupying approximately 6 acres. There had been an earlier attempt in 1851 to acquire a parcel of land which was called Upmarket, but this application was turned down by the local authority.

A few additional interrments were permitted but only in existing vault and grave plots, the latest being in 1901, which was that of Georgina Mary Dell.

Inventories of the gravestones were taken in 1915,1949 and again in 1973. The first and second lists gave the total gravestones as 461 but the last list drawn up by the Borough Engineer's Department grouped together relevant stones (i.e. headstone, footstone and a raised bodystone) therefore this reduced the total to 357. The earliest being one Robert Pepper who died on the 11th May 1681.

In June 1970 it was announced that the Borough of Dover had obtained under a compulsory purchase order from the Church Authorities, Old St. James' Church and Churchyard with the view of using the area and tidying up an unsightly mess.

The Dover Corporation in March 1973 gave notice of their proposals and informed the heirs of those buried in the churchyard that they could apply for permission to rebury or cremate the remains. The Town, it stated, was willing to help pay for the cost of the removal up to a maximum of £50 as long as application was made before the 2nd May 1973. After that Dover Borough Council would obtain a Secretary of State's licence to clear the remains and have them reburied. All monuments and tombstones would also be removed at the Council's expense and destroyed.

The churchyard was to be cleared to make way for an access road into the proposed Sports Centre car park. Walker Brothers of Folkestone undertook the clearing operation in June-July 1973, under the discreet but watchful eye of Dover Archaeological Group.

A systematic operation began with the removal of the remains from the vaults in the cliff face. A workman stated that some of the coffins appeared to be in an excellent state of preservation but crumbled when they were about to be lifted out. Coffins which had lead coverings or linings presented no problems and were quickly rifted out. Gravestones and other surface brickworks were soon cleared and then the contractors started excavating to clear all the buried remains. The workmen had a surprise, when, thinking they had about one thousand graves to clear, were confronted with the harrowing task of removing several times that number. In places the remains were buried in five tiers, and close to the Swimming Pool side excavations carried out were to an approximate depth of four metres before all the remains were cleared.

The section through the churchyard suggested that over the years attempts were made to level using chalk from the cliff face as infill. The reason for this seems clear, as subsidence in this area was due to the close proximity of the subterranean tributary of the River Dour called Eastbrook (which runs just in front of the West Door).

At the same time as the contractors were at work in the churchyard Dover Archaeological Group were digging two parallel slots in the area originally known as Trevanion Place, see Fig. 19. The section drawn from these slots showed a similarity to the sections seen in the churchyard a few metres to the North, with the massive subsidence on the Swimming Pool side and the use of chalk rubble as infill.

From information given by the workmen and from personal observations the lower layer of remains could not with any certainty be dated earlier than the middle of the 14th Century. This staggering fact does not bear out the known age of the church and makes one wonder whether the earlier burial ground was in a different area or perhaps the contractors were mistaken when they thought they had concluded their task. The latter suggestion is based on the idea that work stopped when the workmen struck a thick layer of wet sand which had shown itself all over the churchyard. Believing that this was an alluvial deposit rather than blown sand they stopped probing, but as seen on the extensive excavations carried out on the West side of the River Dour, a thick layer of blown sand was clearly visible and a tentative date is given as after the Norman Conquest. The sections in Trevanion Place area revealed no sand, thus assuming that the sand layer was lower than the deepest layer the Dover Group was able to record, (i.e. c 1250 at a depth approaching 5 metres).

Another possibility is that earlier burials were all within the church. A hint of this was the remark made by the Deputy Town Clerk to the Dover Express "some digging had been done in the church, to see if there were any more remains. There were thousands, she said, so it was decided to leave them"."

[1] The book actually says, "Northern" (!)

Old St James' Church was destroyed during the Second World War and the ruins are now a memorial to the people of Dover who suffered between 1939 and 1945 (see 'Standard Info' below).

Click to see all photos of Old St James Church.

Standard Info (from an information plaque inside St James'):

St James' Church, known locally as 'the Tidy Ruin' was founded in Saxon times and is probably one of the Dover churches mentioned in the Domesday Book.

It was used not only as a Church but also by the Barons of the Cinque Ports for several of their official Courts until 1851. The Court of Shepway, the governing body of the Cinque Ports, met here under the Lord Warden, as did, from 1526, the Court of Lodemanage, the body which licensed Cinque Ports Pilots. The last meeting here took place in 1851 with the Duke of Wellington [1] presiding as Lord Warden.

By 1860 a larger Church was needed and with the opening of New St James' in 1862 the old Church fell into disuse for some years, until it was restored in 1869.

The church was virtually destroyed in the Second World War by German shells fired from France. The large front doors and the original Lord Wardens Bench were taken out and given to Dover Museum where they can still be seen. After the war, in 1948, the ruins of the church were not demolished but kept as a commemorative monument to the people of Dover who, like the church, suffered greatly from the bombs and long-range guns of the 1939-1945 War.

The White Horse Inn next door to the church is said to date back to about 1300, although most of the building visible today dates from the 18th Century.

St James' Street, of which little now remains, ran from the Church to the Market Square. It was one of Dover's busiest thoroughfares and the main Stage Coach route until Castle Street was opened up into the Market Square.

1] [Wellington Dock is named after the Duke of Wellington, as is - I believe - the swing-bridge (opened in 1846) between the dock and the Tidal Harbour.

John Latter / Jorolat

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John Latter on November 26, 2010

The "Remains of St. James's Church" is a Grade II Listed Building (1).

The following is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence (PSI licence number C2010002016):

Building Details:

Building Name: REMAINS OF ST JAMES'S CHURCH Parish: DOVER District: DOVER County: KENT Postcode: CT16 1QG


LBS Number: 177821 Grade: II Date Listed: 30/06/1949 Date Delisted: NGR: TR3226141553

Listing Text:

In the entry for:-


1/15 Remains of St James's Church

GV 30.6.49 II

the address shall be amended to read: CASTLE HILL ROAD

1/15 Remains of St James's Church

GV 30.6.49 II

WOOLCOMBER STREET l. (East Side) 1050 Remains of St James's Church TR 3241 1/15 30.6.49.


2. Originally a Norman building but restored in tile C19 (C19 = 19th Century). There is a Norman zigzag arch (2) and the side elevation, built of flints, has a blocked entrance filled with Norman fragments. The rest of the church is of Caen stone, with stone quoins. There is a C14 addition on the South side of the Nave which was used until 1851 as a Court house for the Chancery and Admiralty Courts of the Cinque Ports, and for the Court of Lodemanage. The last Court of Lodemanage was held by the Duke of Wellington here in 1851. The seat and bench used by the Duke of Wellington and the Barons of the Cinque Ports have been transferred to St Mary`s Church. This building was not used as a church since the middle of the C19 when the garrison Church in the Castle was restored. The building was very badly damaged by shelling from the French coast during the last war. AM.

Remains of St. James Church and White Horse Inn form a group.

Listing NGR: TR3226141553

Source: English Heritage. Click to see photos of Listed Buildings and English Heritage sites in the town of Dover, England.

(1) Grade II: buildings that are "nationally important and of special interest".

(2) The arch is Norman but I've seen photographs confirming the zig-zag engraving was added during the 1869 restoration.

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on October 11, 2009
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2009/09/13 11:34:42
    • Exposure: 0.005s (1/200)
    • Focal Length: 35.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/6.300
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash