THIS PAGE WAS PRINTED FROM THE TOUCH 2000 HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY IN TONBRIDGE WEBSITE
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St. Stephen's Church was completed and opened in 1852 to accommodate the population growth in the south end of Tonbridge which was as a result of the railway coming to the town. It was this enormous growth in population that highlighted the need for a new Anglican church to serve that part of the town.
A site for a new church was purchased in 1848 by the Vicar of Tonbridge, Sir Charles Hardynge, for £200. It proved to be a prime site for St. Stephen's, as it can be clearly seen from all approaches to that end of the town. The foundation stone (under the east window) was laid by Lady Hardynge on 29th May 1851 and the building work began. A grant of £220 was made by the Incorporated Church Building Society on condition that 400 of the 600 seats should be provided free for the poorer inhabitants. The rest of the money required had to be raised by public subscription. The architect was Ewan Christian, who had also designed St. John's Church in Hildenborough, and the builder was Mr. Punnett, a local builder who was responsible for much of the new development in the southern end of Tonbridge. John Deacon of Mabledon played an important part in the planning of the new church, as well as a subscription of £300 towards the cost of the building.
John Deacon also held the Patronage of Tonbridge Parish Church (the right to choose the new vicar). It was agreed that he would choose the first vicar of St. Stephen's, although this would normally have been the right of Sir Charles Hardynge, as Vicar of the mother church. However, John Deacon did not live to see the completion of the church or to choose the new vicar. It had to be agreed who would have the first Patronage right. Only a few days before the church was consecrated, it was agreed that John's wife, Mrs. Sophia Deacon, should have the right. Her choice of new vicar was Mr. Charles Marston.
The Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated the new church on Tuesday 26th October 1852. The Archbishop preached the sermon in the morning and Mr. Marston preached in the afternoon. As yet there was still no tower or spire, as a further £500 needed to be raised before these could be built. Collections taken on that day amounted to £200. It was hoped that the bell chamber of the tower and spire would be completed by the following Spring.
During the building of the spire, there was a terrible accident when one of the workmen fell off the spire and was killed. This story was not reported at the time.
On 5th April 1853, St. Stephen's was recognised as a separate parish from that of St. Peter and St. Paul. It was decided that the northern boundary of the Parish of St. Stephen's should be the stream that flows under the Little Bridge. On the 11th March, the church was authorised for banns of marriage, baptisms, churching (a service of Thanksgiving for a child) and burials. The first burial in the churchyard took place in May 1853.
In the middle of the 19th Century, the town was hit by a series of epidemics and the Parish churchyard became full up. St. Stephen's then became the churchyard for the town's burials until the new cemetery in Shipbourne Road was consecrated in 1857. St. Stephen's churchyard closed to further burials in May 1889.
In 1866, the church was extended by the addition of the north aisle. It was extended again in the 1870's as more room was needed for this growing parish. On 16th June 1878, a new mission church was opened at Hayesden which could seat approximately 100 people. This church was founded largely through the efforts of Dr. Flemming and Mr. W.T. Hillyer and built on land leased from Lord de l'Isle at a nominal rent.
A further expansion came in 1881 when a mission hall was built in Priory Road. Adjoining it was a large room which could have been used as a classroom or vestry. The opening service was on Thursday evening, 13th October 1881 and was conducted by the Vicar, the Rev. R. L. Alnutt.
Expansion continued in the latter part of the 20th Century when a church plant, 'The Beacon', began holding services at St. Stephen's Primary School in October 1992. Within eighteen months, the church plant had outgrown the primary school and moved to Hillview School. They thrived there, with teaching, worship and social activities including outings such as a day out to Camber Sands, fireworks parties and group meetings. It was with sadness that, because of a shortage of leaders, The Beacon was forced to close in 1999.
St. Stephen's Parish has approximately 18,000 people living in it and the church continues to play an important role, not only in the southern end of the town but throughout the whole of Tonbridge. There are groups for all ages of young people, from toddlers to teenagers, such as the thriving pre-school and After-School Club. There are fellowship meetings, lunch clubs and Alpha Courses for the adults. St. Stephen's also supports organisations including Crosslinks, South American Mission Society, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Tear Fund and the Church Pastoral Aid Society.
UPDATED! On the weekend of 26/27 October 2002, St. Stephen's celebrated its 150th anniversary with the aid of more than 500 people. Members of the congregation decorated the church with floral displays and embroidered pictures. On the Saturday, there was a free fun day with activities for all the family including face-painting, games and a barbecue. On the Sunday, there were thanksgiving services including a themed all-age service led by the church's younger members.
In 2007, St Stephen's started its five-year building project, "Shaping Up". Phases of renovation and building include replacing the ceiling, lighting and audio-visual system; renewing seating, heating and flooring; and providing buildings to accommodate the church's growing numbers and activities in the local community.
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