St James’ Church

08 May 2021

The inspiration for a dramatic Dickens’ tale

Charles Dickens used the churchyard of St James as his inspiration in the opening chapter of Great Expectations, where the hero Pip meets Magwitch the convict. The site – on the Hoo Peninsula with marshes stretching north to the Thames estuary, is dramatically desolate and bleak in winter, recalling the sinister opening scene in David Lean’s 1946 film of the book. Here, you can find what have become known as ‘Pip’s Graves’ – the forlorn gravestones of 13 babies that Dickens describes as “little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their parents’ graves”.

Inside, the church is light and spacious. There is a 500-year-old timber door that still swings on its ancient hinges – even though it now leads to a blocked north doorway! Another quirky feature is the nineteenth-century vestry – its walls are lined from top to bottom with thousands of cockle shells – the emblem of St James. The monuments in the church walls and floor are a fascinating record of those who once lived here.

They include a slab with a brass effigy of Feyth Brook, who died in 1508 and was the wife of Lord Cobham, of nearby Cooling Castle. Dickens fans should also visit St Mary’s in Higham, the village where the novelist ended his days while writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

St James’ Church Cooling, Isle of Grain
St James’ Church Interior, Cooling, Isle of Grain
St James’ Church Interior, Cooling, Isle of Grain
St James’ Church
(Great Expectations)
30 Main Rd
United Kingdom