The Church of St Clement is one of the Borough’s twelve surviving, town centre, medieval churches. Of those which have become redundant, five have found new uses. The last, St Clement, has been cared for by the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust since 1981. The main structure dates from the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It is one of the three dockland churches of Ipswich (St Peter to the west is now St Peter’s on the Waterfront, a concert and meeting venue; St Mary-At-Quay in the centre has been extensively restored to become Quay Place) and was long known as The Sailors’ Church; many interesting monuments attest to this association. It is also the church of the notable brewing and banking family, the Cobbolds.
In the early Tudor period, the time of Thomas Wolsey, the tower was added to the church. The south porch survives from the earliest times of the church. Throughout the Tudor period Ipswich remained important as a port and centre of the wool trade. Around the Church of St Clement were maltings, warehouses and six shipyards which built many a warship and merchantman for the East India trade. The church has served the merchants, sailors, dock-workers and their families for more than 500 years.
Restorations of St Clement in the 19th century saw the removal of the former, rather unsightly galleries; their timbers were used to make a beautiful screen for the church. This carved and partially-glazed screen is in the north aisle, near to the vestry door. The chancel, too, was rebuilt in 1860. Since the 19th century the church had remained largely unchanged but, during the bombing raids of World War II, the church was extensively damaged. Restoration and repair followed including the reglazing of all the broken windows – and there were many.
In September 1995 St Clement was badly damaged by fire, but the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust was able to put it back in order. Almost two-thirds of the roof covering was lost, but the Victorian rafters only needed cleaning. The tall tower, nearly eighty feet, has also been restored by the Trust. It dates from the early Tudor period and is Perpendicular in style (the diminishing buttresses make it appear narrower as it gets higher). The Church of St Clement has the only remaining complete ring of six bells cast by the Ipswich bell founder John Darbie. Five of the bells bear the date of 1660 with the largest (F#) dated 1680. During the rehanging of the bells in 1884, a clock and mechanical chiming mechanism, a ‘carillon’, were installed; they were the gift of Felix Thornley Cobbold. In 2018 the mechanical carillon was replaced by the Trust by an electronic version.
There is a 15th century font in the baptistry, near to the south door. A carved and painted royal coat of arms survives from the Restoration of King Charles II in 1661 and is mounted high on the west wall; it features the figures of Adam and Eve. The church organ was dismantled and removed and in 1983 it was installed in the church at Selworthy in Somerset. The clerestory (two rows of twelve double-light windows above the aisle roofs) enhance the loftiness and lightness of the nave lightness of the nave and great length of the building can be appreciated.
The church closed to worshippers in the early 1970s, with occasional reopenings for occasional arts events, for The Ipswich Society’s regular Heritage Open Days, and national historic churches cycle-ride open days.
[Source: The Church of St Clement: a guide published by The Ipswich Society, 2018.]
All photographs from Ipswich Historic Lettering.