Ipswich Icons: Can a new use be found for abandoned medieval church?

St Clement's church across the vacant site Picture: JOHN NORMAN

St Clement's church across the vacant site Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

Ipswich is blessed with twelve medieval churches; (thirteen if we include St Mary and St Botolph’s at Whitton), writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

St Clement's Church Lane Picture: JOHN NORMAN

St Clement's Church Lane Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

Six of these (or seven if you include Whitton church) are still in use for worship and six are redundant. Five of the redundant churches have found new uses, leaving just St Clement’s alone and abandoned.

Well not quite, St Clement’s is being looked after by Ipswich Historic Churches Trust who is working hard to find a new user.

St Clement’s is one of three churches close to the dock, the other two being St Mary at the Quay and St Peter’s, but it is St Clement’s that has always been regarded as the sailors church. Surprisingly for such an industrial location St Clement’s stands in a splendid green and leafy churchyard.

The body of Thomas Slade, designer of HMS Victory lies buried hereabouts and Thomas Eldred, who lived locally and sailed with Thomas Cavendish on the second complete navigation by Englishmen (1586 – 88), was a regular worshiper.

St Clement's church west elevation Picture: JOHN NORMAN

St Clement's church west elevation Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

The present building has its roots in the fourteenth century, almost certainly on the site of a previous place of worship and was the church of boat-builders, sailors, dock workers, merchants (and their families) for 500 years. It was later used by brick makers, brewers, engineers and factory workers who lived in the heavily populated parish.

In the early Tudor period when Thomas Wolsey was using St Peter’s, the 80 feet high tower was added to St Clement’s, paid for by the local merchants who were engaged in the wool trade, exporting woollen cloth from the wool towns west of Ipswich and importing wine, woad and goods manufactured close to the River Rhine.

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Ipswich enjoyed a resurgence of trade with the dredging of the river (early nineteenth century), the opening of the Wet Dock (1842) and the coming of the railway (1846) a resurgence that caused healthy young men to leave agricultural employment and seeking work amongst the new opportunities in Ipswich. The population of the parish of St Clement’s increased threefold between 1801 and 1851.

So great was the number of worshipers that a chapel of ease (a second church, Holy Trinity) was built, a couple of hundred yards away in Back Hamlet. This church is still in use today. Non-conformists used St Clement Congregational Church at the bottom of Back Hamlet which has recently lost the last of its congregation and is about to be sold.

Like all of Ipswich’s medieval churches St Clement’s has seen alteration, extension and some rebuilding. The south porch is fourteenth century, the nave a hundred years younger and the chancel 1860. It is a fine light and spacious church with clerestory, double light windows high above the aisle roofs. Typical of Suffolk’s medieval churches St Clement’s is built using flint, with Caen stone quoins and buttresses, perpendicular, the large windows allow light to flood the interior.

St Clement was the patron saint of mariners and there are two anchors carved into stone tablets set into west face of the tower. There is a ring of six bells, cast by Darbie, bell founder of Ipswich in 1660. Additionally a carillon (a mechanical chiming device) has recently been restored and is rung on high days and holidays. It was originally presented by Felix Thornley Cobbold in memory of John C Cobbold MP and High Steward.

St Clement’s, unused? Yes, unloved? No, for four separate groups are working towards a new use for the church. The Ipswich Historic Churches Trust who care for the fabric, the Cobbold Family Trust who recognise St Clement’s as the Cobbold family church. Ipswich Arts Centre who are trying to turn St Clement’s into a venue for music and performance, for exhibitions and conferences and the Ipswich Society who have just produced a booklet, ‘A guide to the Church of St Clement’. The church will be open for Heritage Open Days over the weekend of 15th – 16th September.

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