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Haverhill Architecture

Exterior of the Church

Although St Mary’s lacks the airs and graces of some other mighty East Anglian churches, it nevertheless has the dignity and ‘feel’ of a Suffolk market-town church. It grows out of the town’s centre and it is worth standing back to admire the building as a whole, with the open area to the north and the green oasis to the south. Its walls are of flint-rubble and, although most of the stonework of the windows and doorways was renewed in 1867, the restorers did their best to reproduce the mediaeval originals.

Look for the variety of carved heads and creatures that peer out from the sides of some of the windows and doorways and from the string-courses beneath the parapets, some of which serve as gargoyles to throw rainwater clear of the walls.

All of the windows in the body of the church are in the Perpendicular style of architecture, which evolved between 1375-1550. Those in the north aisle have three lights.

The north doorway, with its fine stone carving is a reproduction of the 15th-century original; its doors probably date from the rebuilding of around 1668-9. Beside it is a holy water stoup beneath a renewed arch. Here people dipped their fingers in the holy water and made a sign of the cross as an act of symbolic cleansing and rededication upon entering the sacred building. There is also a stoup in the south porch.

In the north-east corner is the embattled staircase turret, which has access to the rood-loft and the nave roof.

The handsome south aisle and its eastern chapel are crowned with battlements and pinnacles, and are lit by wide and elegant, three- and four-light Late Perpendicular windows. Above the aisles rises the nave clerestory – also embattled and lit by two-light windows. Notice the four fascinating creatures beneath its southern parapet. The chancel has a large, five-light east window and a three-light south window.

The 15th-century porch has an embattled parapet with pinnacles. Again there is much renewed stonework here, but the doors which it shelters are probably those provided around 1668-9 and three mediaeval corbels which supported its original roof remain at the corners.

The western tower is elegantly proportioned, reaching a height of 71 feet to the battlements and 75 feet to the summit of the south-east staircase turret (rebuilt in 1851), which rises above the parapet and is a feature of several towers in south-west Suffolk (including Withersfield and Great Bradley). The west window (with some original stonework) dates from around 1330 and traces of the original 14th-century belfry windows may be seen inside at clock level. The present 15th-century belfry windows are unusually tall and are divided horizontally. Beside the northern one are the remains of a simple niche. The tower is crowned by an embattled parapet, with three curious, mediaeval carved creatures, each about three feet tall, peering out over Haverhill from the corners.

Interior of the Church

The 1985 remodelling divided the interior into three distinct areas: the welcome area, the community area and the worship area, showing that this is not a museum, but a working building, equipped to serve its people.

Arcades of five bays divide the aisles from the nave and a further two bays divide the Lady Chapel from the chancel. These were entirely renewed (in the 15th-century style) in 1867, their predecessors having been found to be dangerous. Also of 1867 are the aisle roofs, the flat panelled nave ceiling and the arched and panelled chancel ceiling. Some of the carved corbel heads supporting the aisle roofs are thought to be mediaeval; many have very distinctive faces and could have been modelled upon real people.

The two western bays now form an attractive welcome area in the south aisle and the community area in the nave and north aisle. The former chancel screen (given in 1924 by the Bigmore family) is a fine piece of wood-carving in the 15th-century fashion. The community area is self-contained, although its screen (1985) can be opened to extend the worship area for larger services. Within this area there are two stone plaques listing the vicars of Haverhill from 1146. The tower arch, although renewed, originally may have dated from the early 1300s. Nearby is the original entrance to the staircase turret, blocked in 1851, when the external entrance was made to the 80 steps that gave access to the chambers above.

The tower contains a ring of six bells: two were recast and another added by John Warner of London in 1902-3; another two were cast at John Darbie’s Ipswich bellfoundry in 1669. The tenor bell, cast by Thomas Newman of Norwich in 1729, has a diameter of 3’ 5” and weighs about 12 cwt. Although the upper stages of the tower are lined internally with later brick, pieces of ancient stonework survive, some inscribed with graffiti of the 1600s and 1700s. In the nave’s west wall is a Sanctus bell window, giving a view of the altar from the ringing chamber so that a bell could be rung at the climax of the daily Eucharist to enable those unable to be present to join in the prayer.

The worship area has been adapted to give the sense of belonging together as a Christian family, worshipping around the nave altar, yet in a lofty and historic building, with chancel, nave and aisles.

In the nave and aisles, the benches, oak pulpit and font were part of Elmslie & Franey’s 1867 refurbishment. The modern font cover, in memory of Stella Fuller, who died in 1967, was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, who planned the 1960’s expansion of the town and was also the Master Planner of Harlow New Town and the architect of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral. 

At the east end of the south aisle is the old 17th-century communion table and a 16th-century parish chest, where documents and valuables were stored. This sturdy piece of craftsmanship, decorated with linenfold panelling, must have survived the 1667 fire.

The Lady Chapel screen was designed and carved by three local brothers named Wilson, in memory of those who died in World War 1. The little memorial to the fallen, with its crucifix, is a reminder of the moderate catholic tradition, which developed here under Canon W G Hodges (vicar, 1918-41) in whose memory the lecturn was made, also by the Wilsons.

In front of the chancel arch stands the nave altar, made in oak by Compasses Joinery of Stradishall and dedicated on 3rd October, 1993 in memory of Ken Morgan, a faithful parishioner.

An archway, cut through the wall on the north side of the chancel arch, gives access to the roof loft staircase that leads to the loft (or gallery) over the mediaeval screen, which long ago stood beneath the chancel arch.

The chancel stalls, with their poppy head ends, date from 1867. The organ is on the south side, in its chamber. It is a two-manual and pedal instrument with 18 speaking stops by Miller of Cambridge and was rebuilt by Hill, Norman & Bears in 1938 and thought to incorporate some old pipe work from the original organ in the west gallery. The blocked arch in the chancel’s north wall may have been a niche, or possibly a lancet window: if the latter, then it dates this wall back to the 1200s.

The communion rails, a memorial to Catherine Heckford, who died in 1952, stand at the entrance to the sanctuary, containing the high altar. In the south wall here, the windowsill has been lowered to form a sedilia, where the celebrant, deacon and subdeacon sat during parts of the mediaeval mass. Nearby, beneath a cinquefoil-headed recess, is the piscine drain, into which was poured the water from the washing of the priest’s hands at the Eucharist. On the north side of the sanctuary is an iron chest of considerable age.

The Lady Chapel forms a bright, intimate and devotional corner for small services and for quiet thought and prayer. Its communion rails were made by Mr Harold Onion, a local craftsman, and the altar by a local firm, Masons. The chapel was renovated in memory of William Farrant, who died in 1937. The aumbry was installed in 1991. The white light tells us that the aumbry contains some of the bread and wine from the Eucharist, reserved so that it can be taken to the sick and dying. It also reminds us of the special presence of Our Lord in this building.


Some of the furnishings already mentioned have been given in memory of past worshippers and the church contains a variety of memorials to people who have been part of St Mary’s and its community. These include:

  • (welcome area) John Neville, 1773, and his wife Frances, who died in 1820, aged 102 years. This unusual memorial is painted on wood.
  • (welcome area) The Reverend Thomas Milway, 1787. He was a ‘dissenting minister’ and his inscription tells us ‘What his character was / Will be known at that day / READER / Think what thine then will be’!
  • (welcome area) His wife, Dorothy Milway, 1795.
  • (nave west wall) Two diamond-shaped hatchments: one for a member of the Howland family (probably George Howland, who was Lord of the Manor in the late 1700s) and the other for Thomas Hungate, who died in 1729. Hatchments were hung for a time outside the home of a deceased person, before being brought for permanent display in the parish church.
  • (north aisle) Edward Griggs (churchwarden), 1911 and Emma, 1927.
  • (north aisle) Miss Joanna Howland, 1815. The inscription for this 92-year-old spinster informs us that ‘She bore a tedious illness of years …’
  • (north aisle) The Reverend Charles Hayward, 1807 (aged 40). He introduced an organ to the church and filled the east window of his day with old glass.
  • (north aisle) A beautiful headstone from the churchyard, for Charles Hardy Cocke, 1782 and Mary, 1790. In the floor nearby are some ledger slabs with very worn inscriptions.
  • (Lady Chapel, south wall) A plaque to three of the Reverend Robert Robert’s children: Robert (died 1855, aged 33), Priscilla (died 1852, aged 23) and Harriet (died 1827, aged 9 months).
  • (chancel, north wall) The church’s finest memorial commemorates Dr John Ward, an Elizabethan clergyman here and an eloquent preacher, with strong Puritan leanings, who died in 1598. He was the father of Samuel Ward, well known in Ipswich as its ‘Town Preacher and Lecturer’ from 1605-1635, and also of Nathaniel, who, having preached in Germany and held a living in Essex, went to settle and preach in Massachusetts and of John, who was also a preacher of the Gospel. This curious memorial is surrounded by rather crude strapwork and its inscription (now rather difficult to read) is in Latin and English and is framed with mottos like ‘Watch, Warde’, ‘Lightes here’ and ‘Starrs hereafter’. The framed portrait beside the memorial is dated 1622 and shows John’s eldest son, Samuel Ward.
  • (chancel) The Reverend Robert Roberts, who died on Christmas Day 1875, aged 88 years.

Stained Glass

This was a superb teaching aid for mediaeval people and St Mary’s must have had a very fine array of mediaeval glass until Dowsing and the locals removed it in 1643. Even the glass which the Reverend Charles Hayward imported for the east window has long disappeared. Some of the windows are now filled with colourful scenes in 19th- and 20th-century glass, mostly given as memorials, which are as follows:

  • (Tower, West Window) ‘The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple’ and ‘Noah and his Family after the Flood’, by Gibbs & Howard of London, around 1880-90.
  • (South Aisle, West Window) Re-set figures of St Paul, King David, a bishop and Roman solider (St Alban?)
  • (South Aisle, 4th from West) SS John, Paul, Peter and James with their emblems, by Percy Bacon of London. In memory of James Manders Walker (vicar 1896-1900) and his wife, Anne.
  • (North Aisle, Eastern Window) ‘Jesus with the Children’, by Percy Bacon. “From the children here new-born, Easter, 1900.”
  • (Lady Chapel, East Window) ‘The Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to Mary’ and ‘The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple’. In memory of Jane, widow of William Wakelin Boreham (a local brewer). Made by Shrigley & Hunt in 1897.
  • (Chancel, East Window) This was given by Mr H W Jackson (a local solicitor) at the 1867 restoration. It is a splendid window, probably by Clayton & Bell, showing the Crucifixion as its main subject, beneath which are ten scenes tracing the story of Our Lord’s Passion from His Agony in the Garden to the carrying of His cross to crucifixion.


The Woodwose is to be found on the north end of the church tower. Although woodwose are often found inside churches, sometimes carved on the end of pews, around the base of fonts, in arch spandrels, etc., it is believed that this is the only woodwose on a tower in Suffolk.

The Woodwose is a creature that appears in the artwork and literature of mediaeval Europe. It resembles the Sasquatch, also known as ‘Bigfoot’. The Anglo Saxon version of the name was ‘Wuduwase’ (wood being) and the defining characteristic of the Woodwose was its wildness; from the 12th century they were consistently depicted as being bearded and covered with hair. Unlike the Bigfoot however, the Woodwose is not thought to be ape-like, but rather more human in appearance.

Reports of woodwose have come from several continents; sightings range from the lakes of Scotland, to the mountains of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America.

The exact origins of the woodwose are unclear. Some people believe that they were forest-dwelling aboriginals, possibly the last surviving community of Neanderthals. Others believe that they were originally human beings who had moved to the forests in search of food and then settled there. Others believe that they were a particular genus of human being, with extra hair on their body and of a wild nature, who had been left to the forest by mainstream human society.


Our thanks to Roy Tricker, 1994, for preparing much of the history and description of the architecture of the church. Acknowledgement also to the input of Michael Horne.