The lepers’ doorway

RAINHAM IN THE London Borough of Havering, but formerly in Essex, has an attractive and venerable parish church: St Helen & St Giles. Helen (c247-c330) is mistakenly believed to have been British. Probably born in Asia Minor, she was mother of Constantine the Great. Giles was a 7th century saint of Greek origin. Much of the body of this building was constructed in the 11th century. A small doorway on the south side, which has a fine carved stone Norman arch, was added in the 12th century, and is known as the Priest’s Entrance. The main entrance is via the South Porch, which was restored or recreated in 1897. As with so many old parish churches, Rainham’s is filled with interesting features, some of which I will describe.

View through the squint (hagioscope) in Rainham parish church

The simple stone font bowl is from the 12th century. Almost as old as the church, it stands on a carved stone pedestal, created in the 15th century. The nave is flanked by sturdy square columns that support semi-circular arches typical of the pre-gothic era. The arch above the chancel has geometric carvings (chevrons), a fine example of Norman architecture. At the southeast corner of the nave, there is an old wooden door, covering the entrance to a spiral staircase that used to lead up to a no longer existing gallery. The door was originally located in the above-mentioned Priest’s Entrance, and was constructed in the 13th century. On the floor near this old door, there lies the black gravestone of John Harle, who built nearby Rainham Hall in the 1720s. His wife and son are also buried beneath it. Near to the grave, there are a couple of memorial brasses set in the floor.

Close to Harle’s gravestone on the wall of the south aisle, there is a niche in the wall and below this, part of a late 12th or early 13th century piscina. This small basin was used by the clergy for washing sacred vessels used during a service. The nave receives natural light through several clerestory windows. In Rainham’s church, these are shaped like human eyes. Probably installed in the 13th century, their shape is extremely unusual in English churches.

The lady, who was kindly showing us around the church, pointed out a slit in the north side of the western end of the chancel. The slit, which passes through the thick wall, is not perpendicular to the wall. It runs from the northwest to the northeast. It is what is known as a ‘squint’ or a ‘hagioscope’. These were incorporated into churches to allow worshippers a view of the high altar when their view was obstructed by the walls of the side aisles in churches where the width of the chancel was considerably less than that of the combined aisles and nave.

Our guide suggested that the squint in Rainham’s church might have been used by diseased worshippers such as those suffering with leprosy. She believed that these unfortunates would have been admitted to the church by the small north door and confined to the northern aisle. By peering through the squit, they could glimpse the crucifix on the high altar in the chancel. Where or not this was really what happened, I cannot say, but I like the story.

We were extremely lucky to have been able to enter the church because, as we learned later, it is often closed. We happened to arrive when our self-appointed guide and her colleauges, all volunteers, were decorating the building with flowers.

A merchant’s house near the River Thames

THE FIRST DENTAL practice in which I worked was in the village of Rainham in north Kent. Although I practised there from 1982 until about 1994 and knew that there is another place called Rainham in east London, I never ever visited it. It was only in August 2022 that we drove to Rainham, formerly in Essex, and now in the London Borough of Havering. Situated between Dagenham and Tilbury, the former Essex village contains a few reminders of its past: several cottages; a fine old parish church; and Rainham Hall. It was to see the latter that we travelled through the industrial areas of east London to reach Rainham.

Rainham Hall, now beautifully maintained by the National Trust (‘NT’), was built in about 1729 by John Harle (1688-1742), who was buried in the nearby parish church. Son of a successful mariner of South Shields, who had made his fortune shipping coal from South Shields to London, John became a prosperous businessman in London. Harle came to Rainham (Essex) in 1728, and built the fine brick house, which we see today. As the NT’s guidebook pointed out:

“By aristocratic standards, the Hall is a modest house … The Hall is a rare survivor and a wonderful example of early 18th-century architecture. It was designed as a home, not for the super-rich, but for the ‘middling sort’ of successful marine merchant.”

Between Harle’s death and WW2, the Hall became the property of a series of different people, and occupied by many owners and tenants. During WW2 and until 1954, the Hall was requisitioned by Essex County Council, who used it for various purposes including as a nursery for the children of working women. The Hall was offered to the NT in 1945 and the organisation adopted it 4 years later.

Until the 1990s, the Hall had a series of tenants. Each of them had interests in arts and design. First, the place was leased to the architectural historian Walter Ison (died 1997) and his wife, the artist and architect Leonora Payne. In 1962, they left, and the Hall became home to Anthony Denney (1913-1990). Denney, who trained at the Royal College of Art in London was already an established fashionable fashion photographer and collector of modern art by the time he came to live in the Hall. He helped restore the house. After Denney left the house in 1969, it became home to the architect Adrian Sansom and his wife Marilyn, a cellist. In the 1980s, the Hall’s tenants were the viola player Paul Silverthorne and his wife Mary. They encouraged local residents to use the Hall’s extensive gardens and also did restoration work. Stefan Roman, the film-set designer and his family followed the Silverthornes, and the last tenants were the painter David Atack and his family.

The visitor to Rainham Hall can wander through rooms on the ground, first, and second floors. The various inhabitants of this large but intimate family dwelling have all made modifications to the building, but mostly in keeping with the age and character of the Hall. When we went around recently, many of the rooms were being used to house exhibits relating to the life and work of Anthony Denney. We entered the garden, which was in a sad state because of the lack of rain and the heatwaves affecting most of England. The recently restored stable block will be discussed in a future essay. I am glad that we visited Rainham in Havering. Although it cannot be described as being one of England’s most picturesque places, it is certainly more pleasing to the eye, and has more redeeming features, than Rainham in Kent.