The Old Church in decline
The Benedictine community in St Helens survived for over 300 years until financial problems led to it disbanding in 1414. The property was given to Eton College who owned it until 1799 but failed to maintain it, so the church gradually fell into disrepair.
Its exposed position became even more acute in the 1620s when Sir Hugh Myddleton built an embankment across the harbour from the duver (dunes). Limestone rocks making up the foreshore had protected the church but were now used in the construction of the new embankment, which only lasted eight years.
Dismantling the church
In the 1630s, the sea defences were further undermined by the tenant of the priory, who sold off the church stones.
A dispute arose with his parishioners, but it's likely that they too were removing stones for their own purposes.
Blocks of soft sandstone from which the church was built – known as 'Holy Stones' - were used by sailors of vessels anchored off St Helens to ‘holystone the decks’ - meaning to scour and whiten them.
As a result, the church was left jutting out on a peninsula, washed on three sides by the sea. Eventually only the tower remained and this was subsequently bricked up and painted white as a seamark for Navy ships in 1719.
It fulfils this purpose today and is associated with the high-level seamark on Ashey Down erected 16 years later. A new church for St Helens was built further inland in the 18th century.