The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Downe

Historical notes

The church is commonly dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. There is, however, a reference in a will dated 1492 describing it as to St. Mary Magdalene, by which it is also sometimes known (though not by any local people!).

St. Mary the Virgin, Downe in 1786

St. Mary the Virgin, Downe in 1997

Links to Main Dates and Points of Interest


Charles Darwin


Jacob Verzilini, glass maker


Evie Hone window


Knox-Johnston windows

1990 - present day

Notes on the spelling of 'Downe'

Why is the church here?

The village idiot? (NOT the vicar!)


There is no mention of Downe in the Domesday Book of 1086, but when Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1039 to 1109, granted titles from the Manor of Orpingtone to the Bishop of Rochester, some from Doune were included. In 1291, Prior Henry of Christchurch built a chapel in his Manor of Orpington at a cost of £61 0s. 11d and it is possible that it was on the site of the present church. The church would probably have been built without the present tower.
The Early English (c.1200-1300) lancet window in the south wall of the nave, on the right of the entrance, is all that remains of this period.

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The steeple must have been built by the 16th century, because an inventory of 1552 refers to three bells. Two of these made by William Dawe of London (1385-1418) and one, maker unknown, dated 1511. The remaining three were added early this century.

Apart from the previously mentioned lancet window, the other windows were substituted during the Perpendicular period (15th or early 16th century), although they were extensively restored by the Victorians.

The font appears to belong to this period and is undistinguished, probably local work. At some time its stonework has been defaced.

The brass in the nave floor in memory of Tomas Petle and his wife Isabella is undated but probably late 15th century. The Petley family was prominent in Downe between the 13th and 16th centuries and a house in the village is called Petleys.

The Manning family was also numerous and important, and a brass in the nave records the death of John in 1543. Another brass in the chancel shows the family arms and motto and records that Edward, the son of the last Manning buried in Downe, died in 1622 at the age of 20, having been page to Prince Charles, later King Charles I.

During recent repair work, the nave floor was taken up and revealed the broken remains of inscriptions which had covered coffins, now disintegrated. One fragment refers to John Bederenden, a citizen of London, an MP and draper, who died in 1445, although it is not clear why he was buried in Downe.

In 1538, Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General to King Henry VIII, ordered registers of births, marriages and deaths to be kept. In our diocese of Rochester, Downe possesses one of the only ten to survive from this time, although it is now kept for safety with most of the church's old records at Bromley Library.

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In 1606, Giacomo Verzelini (born 1522), a glass maker from Murano, near Venice, paid £20 to have a brass memorial of himself, his wife Elizabeth (daughter of a glass maker in Antwerp) and their children put in the chancel to cover the family grave in the crypt below.

Jacob (Giacomo) Verzelini came to England in about 1571 and took over a glass-making factory at the Hall of the Crutched Friars in Aldgate, London. In 1574 he obtained a 21 year licence from Queen Elizabeth I, provided he taught his skills to Englishmen and imported no glasses. Despite the glasshouse being destroyed by fire in 1575, his business was very successful and he bought property in Downe (including Downe Court) as well as a great number of estates in the area.

Only a few of his drinking glasses remain - examples can be found in the Victoria and Albert, and British Museums. The brasses were damaged during World War II and after repair, they were replaced in the North West wall in 1978.

(Please click here to view the Verzelini brasses)

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The family of Sandys lived at Downe Hall, an earlier building on the site of the present house opposite the east end of the church. The family grave is remembered by a floor memorial stone. Henry Sandys, who died in 1694, married a remarkable lady who, after his death, took as her fourth husband Alexander, Eighth Earl of Eglintoun. She was at least 90 when she married him (according to one source possibly even 96!). She eventually died in 1700, and was buried here.
1696. In the list of incumbents of the parish (which may be found on the North Wall X) appears the name of one Christopher Clarke. He later became Rector of Hayes and Keston and during the next century Downe became a curacy of Hayes and did not have its own vicarage again until 1841.



1825. On the left of the path leading from the road to the church door, there is a memorial to James Fontaine, a Minister. It records that "Thursday saw him cheerful and grateful for health" but by Saturday he was a "pale corpse". Various reasons have been given for the sudden "seizure" he had - but clearly he had enough time "to utter one compendious sermon"!

1803 and subsequently. Memorials on the south wall of the chancel to the Lubbock family of High Elms, Farnborough, who used to worship here. Sir John William Lubbock (1803-1865), the second of that name, was a banker, an astronomer and the first Vice Chancellor of the University of London.

His son, Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913) became the first Lord Avebury and was one of the most eminent figures of his day, a man of business, politician, educationist, scientist and antiquary. Perhaps the greatest monument to his life is the legislation concerning bank holidays, which was conceived and carried through by him. He was a friend of Charles Darwin, and was so upset by the criticism of Darwin's theories, including one from the pulpit of St. Mary's church, that he left Downe for Farnborough church.

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1842-1882 : Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) came to live at Down House in Down (as it was then spelt). He published his "Origin of Species" in 1858 and all his greatest works were written here. The house has been preserved as a memorial to him, and has recently been acquired by English Heritage.

Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey, and the only memorial to him at the church is a sundial on the outside of the south wall. There is a stone in memory of some family members outside the church door on the west of the path. His wife Emma (who was a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood) and brother were buried in the east part of the churchyard near the fence bordering High Elms Road.

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1871. During the incumbency of Charles Ffinden, many alterations were made to the church, both inside and out. The most notable was the raising of the nave floor and the installation of the present pews. This "restoration" by the Victorians may have looked good to them, but unfortunately left a legacy of repairs which present day church members are having to deal with.


1900 to 1989

After World War I the organ (a Father Willis 2-manual) was given in memory of those who lost their lives during the war.

During World War II the east end of the church was damaged by a bomb which landed on the opposite side of High Elms Road. The East Window was completely destroyed.

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The present East window was installed. It is by Miss Evie Hone, a famous Irish artist who was responsible, amongst others, for the Last Supper window in Eton College Chapel.

Click here to see the Evie Hone East Window.

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Window by Keith Coleborn on the south wall of the sanctuary, given by Mr and Mrs Knox-Johnston of the Rookery, in thanksgiving and commemoration of the solo voyage of their son, Robin, in "Suhaili", the first round the world under sail.


1981. A stained glass panel by Freda Coleborn, a copy of one in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Dijon, was placed in a window in the north wall. It shows a servitor of the Duke of Burgundy offering alms on behalf of his master. The original is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

1982. Tower Room door and screen, dedicated by the Right Reverend David Say, Bishop of Rochester.

1986. Tree of Jesse window, by Keith Coleborn, on the south wall of the nave was given by Mrs Mary Knox-Johnston in memory of her husband, David, and dedicated by the Bishop of Tonbridge. It shows Jesse, the father of David, at the bottom of his family tree which leads up, through all the human ancestors of Christ to Him and His monogram at the top.

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1990 - present

Immediately after the appointment of the Revd. Tim Hatwell as vicar of the benefice, work began on a new heating system. This led to the discovery of major structural defects in the floor and the drainage system, caused by the "restoration" of the church in the 1870s. As a consequence the entire floor of the aisle has been rebuilt to a depth of 2 meters.

During repairs various bones were found, including a skull which was so shaped that there would have been little room for a brain - perhaps the village idiot?!

1996. In December, after various delays, the heating system was finally installed and commissioned, to the great relief of all who worship here!

1998. Work was started and is now nearly finished on renewing the drainage system at a cost of over £30,000. Vital work, but unfortunately very little to show for it, as it is mostly hidden underground.

1999. The repair work on the drainage was completed - thanks be to God because we receieved gifts and grants to pay for it. There is now a little matter of some mortar bees which have made holes in the mortar on quite a substantial section of the south wall. Hey ho...

2000. Where to now? The PCC have just agreed to press ahead with looking at converting part of the vestry into a toilet. THis is likely to be our millennium project - a room with a loo!


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Why is the church here?

The ancient building of St. Mary the Virgin, Downe, despite all its history going back over 700 years, is not a museum. There is always a tension between maintenance and mission. It is important to maintain the building for future generations to appreciate the history of the place.

However, it also vital to remember that above all the church is a place of worship for the present and the future. Here Christians meet to celebrate the love of the living God supremely seen in the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus for the sins of the world.

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Notes on the spelling of 'Downe'

  • 1283 Done or Doune
  • 1304 Dune
  • 1610 Downe
  • 19th century Down
  • early 20th century fixed as Downe, probably to differentiate from the more common Down, and to increase communications through the Post Office.
  • The name probably derives from the Old English word "dun", a hill, as it rises above Orpington with which it is usually associated.

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