From being a small rural village with a tiny population living in thatched cottages surrounding the church for centuries, Upchurch, which means ‘Church on the hill’, has grown into a big village in Swale and at present has a population of over 3,500. Although the road layout is similar to previously, many parts of the village are unrecognisable from past times and some big changes have taken place.
The first significant rise in population took place in the second half of the 19th century when the figure rose from 777 in 1871 to 1,121 in 1881, mainly due to the establishment of the brickfields. The village population only rose slightly to 1,129 in 1901 and only grew gradually after that until the 1960s. During this period several housing estates were constructed in quick succession starting with Crosier Court in 1961, followed by The Poles, Church Farm Road, Marstan Close and later Bishop Lane. These estates attracted new residents from far and wide. The population then grew substantially until it exceeded 3,000.
Old thatched cottages once existed at Ham Green and Wetham Green while oast houses were located in Horsham Lane, Chaffes Lane and Forge Lane. As a result of population growth and the building of new houses some old historical buildings which were left over from past centuries disappeared for ever. For example, on the site of Church Farm Road housing estate an old Elizabethan barn, a forge and Church Farm Cottages had existed up to the 1960s before being demolished. Opposite The Crown several buildings that dated from the 18th century were knocked down while Bradshaw Close replaced the old vicarage building which had existed since 1724.
There are still buildings which have survived from the distant past. These include the church which dates from 1100, ‘Wayside’ situated opposite which is believed to have served as a vicarage, a coach and horses stop off point, a pub and a confectionary shop at different times. The site originally dates from the 14th century although the present house dates from the 17th century.
The site of The Crown pub has survived from the 14th century with a layout that suggests that it had a connection with the church, a meat store, a coffin maker’s workshop and finally a pub. Gore Farm farmhouse also dates from the 14th century and Black Horse Cottages in Oak Lane survive from the 18th century. The Paddock still exists in more or less the same condition since the mid-19th century with the exception of the children’s play area and the recreation ground has existed since 1897 although trees have been planted around the perimeter. A scout’s hut named Drake’s Lodge adjoins it, the wooden hut that Upchurch Football Club used for changing purposes no longer exists and Upchurch Football Club no longer play there. Next to the recreation ground and opposite the doctor’s surgery is the former police house where the village policeman lived. A policeman had been resident in the village since the second half of the 19th century and before then constables were elected by the parish overseers to maintain law and order in the village. This is no longer the case.
Holywell School served the village for the education of all village children from 1847 until 1883 when the Infant’s School was opened. Children of secondary school age continued to be educated at Holywell until the 1930s then began travelling to Medway for their secondary education. In 1976 the school closed and the pupils were moved to a new building in Forge Lane along with pupils from the Infant’s School to form the new Holywell School. The old Holywell School eventually became the location for a private company while the Infant’s School became a private nursery school named ‘Nursery Days’ in 1996. Upchurch Children of secondary age now travel to Sittingbourne schools for their education.
The village post office has occupied various buildings starting with the shop now known as ‘Terry’s’ during the late 19th and first part of the 20th centuries. It then moved to the Old Bakery in Forge Lane for a while, back to ‘Terry’s’ then to the Upchurch Stores opposite the church in The Street. During the 1950s it moved on to the building now known as ‘Snaffles’ and finally to its present location at the newsagent’s in 1982.
The building opposite Snaffles is now the Co-op stores but after its construction in 1893 it became the Edward 1st pub which had originally been located at ‘Wayside,’ the white building opposite the church. It became a convalescent home during and after World War 1 then the Co-op Stores from the early 1950s.
Today there is more and better quality housing available than at the beginning of the 20th century. A village hall appeared for the first time in 1961 which has served as a venue for parties, village organisations and sports clubs. Previously the Infant’s School and the former Labour Hall served as the main social venues. The golf club replaced the hop gardens in Oak Lane and a new location appeared first for the cricket club in 1987 then later for the football club in Holywell Lane. A garage with a petrol pump existed almost opposite Crosier Court in Horsham Lane from the 1950s but this closed down and became a car showroom.
With the coming of Woodruff Close in Horsham Lane and the construction of housing estates on the sites of the former brickfield and Four Gun Field near Canterbury Lane, Upchurch is expanding and getting closer to being joined to Rainham.
Outside the village centre farmland is worked more intensively by fewer farmers than previously. In the past a larger number of farmers and smallholders existed in the parish but due to economic circumstances many went out of business and local labour has been replaced by seasonal and temporary Eastern European workers. This has led to barns and farm workers cottages being converted into luxury homes, mainly in the Ham Green area of the parish and a change in the composition of the local population. While ‘Pick Your Own’ strawberries are no longer available at Twinney, The Barnyard farm shop still continues at Gore Farm.
Otterham Quay has served as a port over the centuries allowing the transport of agricultural products and bricks to other locations. In the 16th century it became an outlet for the export of corn which made the village affluent for a while. It also became an important consideration in the building of the brickfields during the mid-19th century from where a single track allowed bricks to be transported to Otterham Quay then on to other locations by barge. A similar situation arose at the Wakeley Poot Lane brick works from 1862 when bricks were transported across Wetham Green by rail to Twinney Creek then on to other locations by barge. By the early 20th century three pubs known as The Anchor & Hope, The Lord Stanley and The Three Sisters served the Otterham brickfield workers, bargemen and seamen. Today only The Three Sisters continues to exist as a pub in the Otterham Quay area.
The area of the village has remained about the same but Burntwick Island just off the Ham Green Peninsular is no longer part of the village as it got cut off by the river during the mid-18th century. During the same period a large area of land incorporating the lower end of Poot Lane and Ham Green which got handed over to the parish of Lower Halstow by the owner as a gift was returned to Upchurch in 1882 although parishioners living there didn’t officially obtain ecclesiastical rights in the village until the early 1960s.
Until well into the 20th century most Upchurch residents were born, educated, married, worked and died in the village. Being a rural area male residents found work on local farms, on the barges or in the brickfields. Women did periodic fruit or hop picking on local farms to supplement their husbands’ income. This remained relatively unchanged until the 1960s. At present residents generally work away from the village with many commuting to London and are generally much better off than residents from previous centuries who suffered hardship, periods of unemployment and disease such as ague, a marsh malaria that wasn’t totally eradicated until the early 20th century.
The church, which is characterised by its ‘candle snuffer’ tower and where Sir Francis Drake’s father Edmund Drake served as vicar, has remained a focal point in the village but its social role has changed. Up to the early 19th century it incorporated the village school. Although it continues its traditional role for religious services, baptisms, weddings and funerals, it’s now also the venue for musical concerts and fund raising events. There is no longer a resident vicar but instead a group of clergy who operate between several parishes which includes Upchurch.
Many clubs and organisations have existed since the second part of the 19th century with the oldest being Upchurch Cricket Club formed in 1883 and the Mother’s Union formed in the early 1890s. With a large variety of clubs the village has catered for a vast range of residents’ recreational interests over the years.
The village continues with its long tradition of fund raising which has remained a feature since the mid-19th century. Old traditions have ended like the annual village fete and carnival, the village marathon and the Empire Day celebrations while new events like the Upchurch Festival of Music and theatrical plays have become established.
Upchurch today is a well organised village with good quality housing and facilities for residents while still maintaining its rural character with plenty of open spaces and a healthy environment for families to live.