Settlement began in ‘Stoctun’ in the Anglo-Saxon period. It sat at the centre of the manor lands, and was a port for river trade in wool, grain and lead. The church was central to the town’s early growth. The Bishops of Durham had their manor house here, took rent on the lands and tolls on river trade. The Bishop invested in the first shipyard in the 1200’s, and instituted the market in 1310. Stoctun means a village belonging to a monastery. St Mary’s church at Norton (a monastery until the Dissolution) was Stockton’s parish church until 1713.
The population of Stockton grew throughout the medieval period and worshippers had to travel a marshy, treacherous path to Norton. Between 1235-7 a ‘chapel of ease’, dedicated to St Thomas-a-Becket, was built here. The chapel, literally, provided locals with an easier place to worship. St Mary’s remained the parish church, providing the chapel priest and taking tithes.
Stockton’s congregation soon outgrew their chapel. St Mary’s seems to have become the main place of worship. By 1600 the road to Norton had been improved, St Thomas’s lost income after the closure of its chantries at the dissolution and the chapel became dilapidated.
Rev. T. Rudd
Rev Thomas Rudd became Curate at Norton in 1661. In 1663 he was made Curate of St Thomas’. During his 50 years of service, he raised funds and saw the new, larger church built. The foundation stone was laid in 1705. The building was completed in 1712 and opened on March 20th.
The new Church consisted only of what is now the nave (main part of the building), tower and porch, which seated 550 people. The new building was not named St Thomas’s, simply being ‘Stockton Parish Church’ (SPC). The town sits on a bed of clay, so brick was the obvious choice of material for the bulk of the Church. It would have stood out even more than it does today, as many of the surrounding buildings would still have been single storey, wattle, daub and thatch houses (the last thatched house on the High Street was demolished in 1788).
A Tour of the Building…
The Church clock pre-dates that on the town hall. A public clock indicated Stockton’s importance as a commercial centre. Standardised timekeeping was crucial to trade, law-making, and communication with a widening area. Whereas one might expect the clock to be on the front of the tower, note that instead it faces the High Street.
Tower & Belfry
SPC, unusually, has a peel of twelve bells – two more than Durham Cathedral. St Thomas’s Chapel gained two bells in 1696 which were probably transferred to the new Church. By 1714 six bells hung in the new belfry. In 1899 four more were added. In 1953 the ten bell peel was recast, and the tower strengthened to hold the now over-heavy peel. The final two were added in 1983.
Only the clock winder and bell ringers entered here as the porch was used to store the town fire engine! The congregation entered the Church through the South door.
The lobby contains details of all Stockton’s Mayors and Town Clerks. In the 18th century, political and Church life were closely intertwined. The Church was run by the Vicar and 12 Vestrymen, including the mayor and seven Aldermen (councillors). The Mayor is no longer involved in running the Church but SPC remains the civic Church for Stockton; hosting the Mayor’s Commissioning Service, Carol Service and Remembrance Sunday.
The Church was originally designed to be a light, open, plain space. The walls were plain – not panelled. The windows were of clear glass.
Thomas Rudd preached his first sermon on the text “My house will be a house of prayer”. This and the layout of the original Church speak of the aspirations of those who commissioned it. The massive three tier pulpit stood in the middle, at the front of the Church. The top level would have been used for the preaching of sermons, with the lower levels for Scripture reading and liturgy. The lower levels have now been removed. The church hosted public lectures, and had a substantial theological library. This was a place where people came to pray and worship, to learn and to study.
Originally there was no central communion table. Communion was served from a niche in the back wall. The font was also a later addition, suggesting that the sacraments of communion and baptism were of secondary importance.
The Church had hardly been completed when in 1719 a gallery was erected at the West end – adding a second tier of seating. Over the next 40 years galleries were added on the north and south sides. This gave more seating, but cut out most of the light from the windows.
The balance between having enough seating and sufficient daylight caused much debate between 1913 and 1940. Finally the argument was resolved by the discovery of death watch beetles in the galleries, they were swiftly removed. The footprints of the galleries can still be seen in the aisle floors.
The nave became even more claustrophobic as the space filled up with box pews. Families could rent or buy a pew space and then provide their own seats. The box pews and part of the galleries were removed in 1893. The timber was used to create the current pews and to line some of the walls.
About sixty of the pew-ends are individually carved. Some mark local achievements such as the first passenger railway, others celebrate notable local figures such as John Walker (inventor of the friction match). Many are memorials.
The memorials around the walls date mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. They represent the wealthy and influential families of the town. There are Mayors, Aldermen, merchants, industrialists, and philanthropists. Many of the families are linked to one another by marriage.
Many of the individual memorials, windows and pew-ends commemorate Stocktonians who have served and fallen in the wars of the past 300 years. There are also memorials to the Durham Light Infantry (1914-19), 39th Div Royal Engineers (1914-19) and the Parachute Regiment (1965 to present day).
Next to the side-chapel screen are books of remembrance for the dead of both World Wars. The town’s Cenotaph is in the parish Church gardens.
The first stained glass window was installed in 1828, on the East Wall. Known as the Gibson window – named after the Newcastle workshop which produced it – it depicts Christ bearing the cross. The rest of the stained glass dates from the early 20th century.
The side chapel was added in 1925. This was funded largely by the Kirk family of Norton Green. They owned a brewery on Stockton High Street.
The chancel window and three of the five windows in the side chapel are dedicated to Kirks.
In the early 20th Century the church underwent a phase of renovation. This included the addition of the chancel in 1906. With its high altar, ornate panelled walls, choir stalls, Italian marble floor and massive stained glass window it is far grander than the nave. Later it was (mistakenly) claimed that the chancel had been designed by Sir Christopher Wren – this is not the case, although the style is similar to many of his churches in London.
The first organ was installed in 1759 on the west balcony. In those days the organist was clearly held in high regard – he was often paid more than the Curate!
A later organ was housed in the ‘loft’ above the North side of the chancel. The current organ was installed in 1982 by the then Vicar, Rev David Whittington.
Stockton’s Parish Church has developed with our town. For over 300 years we have been a house of prayer, praying for Stockton on Tees. We are a vibrant and growing congregation with members of all ages and from over 13 nationalities. We have a great location from which to bear witness to Stockton of the love of God and the saving power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.