St Thomas a Becket
St Thomas a Becket


By Don Foreman

The Rev. Harry Capel became vicar of this coincidentally eponymous parish in 1924. Years later he told a "Courier" reporter that when he arrived he found Capel's St. Thomas a Becket Church in a shocking condition. "It seemed," he said, "encompassed by neglect of ages."

It was not until the mid-1930s that his hopes for restoration of the church were crystallised, and a plan to re-roof it was drawn up. Not only did Mr. Capel intend to renew the roof, but also to remove the ceiling boards visible in some old photographs and thus reveal the fine old oak beams which form the original rafters. 

The church must have been thatched when it was first built, but in later years a slate roof was substituted. Replacement with peg tiles would not only make the church far more beautiful, and be more in keeping with its ancient traditions, but it would also have the effect of preserving the oak beams, some of which had suffered sadly from the death-watch beetle.

It was estimated that the cost would be £125, and the Vicar sought funds, but by September 1937 only £25 had been promised. Nevertheless the work, entrusted to local builder Mr. Lawrence, was begun during the summer of 1937 and completed in time for dedication on Sunday 10th October of that year. 

Harry Lawrence, whose business was based at a yard adjacent to Orchard House, Badsell Road, also worked on Capel School and many other buildings in the parish. He died aged 76 in 1951 and was buried in the graveyard overlooked by the church he re-roofed.


The project had attracted attention beyond the parish boundary, and the service was attended by a Courier reporter, who waxed lyrical in his fulsome account of the event:

"There was not a vacant seat in the beautiful little old church of St. Thomas a Becket, Capel, when a combination of harvest thanksgiving and dedication of the new roof was celebrated. The Chapel, for it is little bigger than one, had been decorated simply and tastefully with harvest fruits and flowers by Mrs. Thompsett, Miss Pemble and Mrs. Joy. 

"The Vicar (the Rev. H. Capel) conducted the service, and as the stately ceremonial proceeded the mind swung back through the ages like a pendulum. 

"The rude Saxon peasant with his everyday piety, the haughty Norman conqueror, having only his religion in common with his subjects, the travelling pilgrims of the Middle Ages, full of the boisterous life and piety of the period, had all worshipped there, and the house had afforded them sanctuary and consolation even as it afforded it to the 20th century congregation then assembled, less colourful, though not less devout, than its predecessors."

Bishop Molony, Rector of Teston, pronounced the dedication and gave the address. "It was wonderful," he said, "to worship in the place where people have prayed, using in many cases almost the same form of prayers, for 900 years." 


He went on to relate that Teston has a sad association with St. Thomas a Becket, for Reginald Fitzurse, one of the saint's four murderers, lived there. He recalled Capel's own association with St. Thomas, and said he did not know why the legend of that last sermon under the yew tree should not be true. 

That part of his sermon concluded with him saying "Generations to come may, if God spare us, worship here, and we thank God for the generosity of those who have given money or materials."

The Bishop would be pleased to know that the current generation, 82 years after he preached his sermon, does indeed worship at St. Thomas a Becket's Church, but perhaps disappointed that no evidence has come to light to confirm that Thomas Becket came to Capel, still less that he preached under our ancient yew.

The Rev. H. Capel then paid a tribute to his parishioners, declaring "I do not know what I should do without the poor people of the parish. Those with riches might well benefit from their example."

After the service, while some 120 people were preparing for home and saying how splendid the church looked, Mr. Capel was able to inform the Courier's reporter that his appeal for funds had been met "with unlooked for fervour." 

A donor who preferred to remain anonymous had given £25, while a working man in humble circumstances had given £30 for his mission church, St. Luke's in Five Oak Green. Although the cost of the renovations and the roof had increased to £140 (almost £7,000 today) he had £50 in hand, and hoped to get a grant from the diocese. For the remainder he said he would "just have to see what turns up." 

He expressed his heartfelt thanks to Sir Osmond Goldsmid, who provided half of the tiles, which were all old ones, selected to blend in with the rest of the building, and praised Mr. Lawrence's workmanship.