St John’s chapel stood midway between the railway line and the river Medway, but perhaps 15 to 20 yards to the south of New Hythe Lane. Apart from knowing that it was built, possibly in the ﬁrst quarter, in the thirteenth century, little can be discovered about its very early history. The first direct reference to the chapel was made in 1363, when the then perpetual curate of East Malling – Sir John Lorking – wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He asked for, and was given, permission to augment his living by, amongst other things, retaining the offerings and oblations made at St. John’s chapel.
The chapel was lost at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry Vlll. The exact date is not known, but it is believed that it was in 1545 – 7, when the chapels at Hailing, Cossington, and Tottington, and Longsole chapel on Barming Heath, were suppressed. This date, right at the end of Henry Vlll‘s reign, is very late in the timetable of dissolutions, but the abbess of West Malling abbey was such a successful filibuster that her abbey was the last one to be closed down.
The extent of our knowledge is no better when we consider the next reference to the chapel, two hundred years later on, when we read ‘…the Chapell within the parishe of Este Mallynge called News Hithe, the founder whereof is not knowen , nor to what entent or purpose the same was fyrst founded or erectid …’ This information, or lack of it perhaps, was recorded in 1548, when the ownership changed hands several times. From the same source we learn that the chapel did not have a vicar or preacher; that it was not a parish church; that it had not relieved any poor people; and that it had not lost any of its property, land, woods, or goods, by sale. lts rent at that time was thirteen shillings (65p) per year, but
two shillings (1 Op) of this were paid to the Archbishop of Canterbury, via the manor of East Malling.
Another document tells us that the chapel had a small cemetery measuring half a rod (approximately 15 square yards). Reference is also made to six acres of land called ‘le Chappell meade’, which were rented to William Raunger, at twelve shillings (6Op) per year. The same document recorded that Mess had always been celebrated in the chapel, the dimensions of which it gave as being 30ft by 18ft, and the rooﬁng of which was described as being of ‘singles’. Of the changes of ownership mentioned previously, the ﬁrst took place on 20th June 1548, when Hugh Cartwright, of East Malling, bought the property for £13-6-O (£13.30). The transaction released him from all encumbrances, apart from any lease or covenant obligations, but it was stipulated that he was not entitled to the bells, lead, or advowsons (the right of presentation to a benefice). Then, on 3rd August of the same year, ownership passed to Thomas Babyngton, of Derby.
There is now a huge and abrupt gap in our knowledge of the building and its history. The next reference is not until 1890, and even then all that we learn is that the building had become a peasants cottage in what was then called New Hythe Street. it remained in use as a domestic dwelling for the remainder of its life.
The area became industrialised, in the 1920, when Aylesford Paper Mill was built here by A E Reed and Co. Ltd. The site boundary extended right up to New Hythe Lane, and included the chapel, but a corrugated iron fence prevented passers-by from seeing very much. The chapel – still in use as a cottage – was occupied by one of the Reed employees and his family. The writer’s father – Leslie Fuller – was Group Analyst for Reed Paper & Board, at the mill. He remembers going into the cottage, and being surprised to find the headroom so restricted that, when he was standing at the foot of the stairs, his head was amongst the joist beams. As a result, he could look along the surface of the floorboards on the ﬁrst floor!
Partway through the war, the land on which the chapel stood was needed for expansion of the paper mill. Reeds made enquiries to check that the chapel was not a protected building, and plans were prepared to number each stone, and re-erect the structure on a different site in the village. During the preparatory inspection, it was discovered that the roof space was almost full of reeds, rushes, and grasses, brought in by the birds via the lancet windows in the apex of the end walls. lt was noticed that the surrounding ground was several feet above its original level. A close inspection of the fabric revealed a keystone in the top of an archway near ground level. Below ground level, the archway was found to
contain a door, access to which was provided by a small flight of stairs. Beneath the thin concrete floor, set on alluvial soil, were found a great many fragments of broken, white clay, pipes, and a layer of soft, large, thin, red bricks.
The chapel did not survive the war, although the circumstances of its demolition are unclear, and the relocation work never took place, but the stones were saved. They were used to build a low ragstone wall set around a stone paved area in front of an old barn and stables to the south-west of the Clifford Sheldon club house. This is within the group of oast houses at Cobdown, in the neighbouring parish of Ditton. A granite block set in the wall records the following information:
“This wall is built of stone from the 13th Century Chapel of St John, New Hythe, Kent. The Chapel, which was destroyed during the Battle of Britain, was originally used by the Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury”.
Tradition has it that a piece of timber from the demolished chapel was fashioned into a pair of candlesticks that were donated to Holy Trinity. However, it has not been possible to identify these with any certainty.
Records state that the chapel contained an Early English (thirteenth century) piscina – this was a stone basin, recessed into the fabric of the walls, containing a small drainage outlet. it was used to rinse the cruets and chalice and paten after each celebration of Holy Communion.
This, to date, is pretty well all that we know about this little chapel, built for the use of pilgrims and travellers, and dedicated to St John.
It is believed that the chapel bell is housed in the Maidstone museum.