ST MARY MAGDALENE CHURCH

WOOLWICH, LONDON


A place of Christian worship for over 1000 years!

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In a list of what are believed to be pre-conquest churches, the so-called Textus Roffensis mentions one under the name of ‘WLEUUIC’, almost certainly Woolwich. [F. C. Elliston-Erwood, 'The Mediaeval Parish Church of Woolwich', WDAS Reports, 29, 1949, p.39] It was probably a modest building on the same hill site as its successor, some xxx yards north of the present church. That successor lay just north-east of the bend in Church Hill, across today's grass plot behind the elevated viewing platform over the Thames, on the north side of the churchyard. [Dan Jones, 'Rescue Excavations on the Site of St Mary's Church, Woolwich', WDAS proceedings, 34, 1972 (1973), p.2] The Conspicuous site was no doubt chosen as the best high ground close to the river, presiding over the shore road from Greenwich to Plumstead, now Woolwich Church Street, which described a shallow curve round its base.


A stone church, first dedicated to St Lawrence but later to St Mary Magdalene, probably succeeded the original one shortly after the Conquest. Its form and outline are known from engravings of 1698 and 1739, and from a full but muddling description written in 1736 when it was scheduled for demolition. ('The Church at Woolwich in 1736', WDAS Procs, 1904-5, pp.44-9] From such information F. C. Elliston Erwood was able in 1949 to reconstruct a plausible plan of a church with a west tower, nave, chancel, and narrower south aisle with porch and chancel or chapel, so that there were two parallel eastern altars and an arcade running the whole church's length. In rescue archaeology on the site of the tower in 1970, the diggers were able to confirm that configuration but found a more compact plan, with thicker, irregular wails to the tower. The main wails, it was reported, were of chalk and flint, faced perhaps with Reigate stone. [Elliston-Erwood, p.43: Jones, p.2: GHC, rolled plans)


As to the dating of the church, Elliston-Erwood hazarded that the nave was Norman, the chancel and body of the south aisle were thirteenth-century, and the tower and east end of the south aisle fifteenth. A brass somewhere on the south side to William Prene, rector, who died in 1404, described him as builder of 'this chapel and the tower of this church'. [WDAS procs, 1904-5, p.45] The chapel in question may have been at the original end of the south aisle, or formed its eastward extension parallel with the main chancel. If the latter, the presence of a chapel built by the Boughton family in 1517 can only be explained by the hypothesis that they took over and recast Prene's chapel. [Elliston-Erwood, pp.40-l]


The 1736 document mentions abundant monuments, and in the main chancel an (Alter Piece, consisting of the Decalogue writ on a handsome table under a Pitcht Pediment, supported on the sides by two Cartouches, between the Lord's Prayer and Creed, over which are Moses and Aaron; also the wall on the North and South side as well as the East is painted with a view of the Cloudes, Cherubims heads, etc., discovered by the seeming drawing aside of Scarlet Curtains proceeding from a Piece of Architecture, with Columns, etc' WDAS procs, 1904-5, p45]


The demise of this church followed from its exposed position near the edge of a precipitous sandy cliff eaten away by an increasingly busy road. As early as 1631 local residents petitioned the Admiralty that the road was in a poor state, 'so that the foundation of the parish church is thereby in danger'. It was 'in hazard speedily to fall', repeated the parishioners three years later when nothing had been done, 'and the bones of the dead are washed out of the churchyard into the river'. [SPD, Charles 1, 5 Sept 1631, p.14O; 17 June 1634, pp.81-2: Drake, p.162, n.16] These fears may have been qualmed, for in 1698 order was made for the vestry room to be fully fitted out 'for records and ornaments', while monuments were still being added right up to the 173Os. [WVM, 13 Nov 1698: WDAS Procs, 1904-5, 1717.44-9]


Alarm was renewed however around 1710 (the exact chronology is uncertain) when part of the roof sagged, 'and gave such a Crack when it was full of the Inhabitants, which put them all into a very great Consternation, insomuch, that many were trampled under Foot, and hurt in crowding to get out of the Church'. [BL, SPR 357.b.6(53)] This crisis, plus the shaky foundations, the smallness of the old church and the recent leap in Woolwich's population, spurred the project of procuring a new one. The timing looked propitious, for in 1711 the so-called Fifty New Churches Act was passed. Woolwich was not then adopted by the Commissioners for the new churches, but permission was sought and granted from the Crown to send out a brief or national appeal for money. This went out in 1711- 12 attached to an estimate of £5,069 for rebuilding 'with the utmost frugality', prepared by John Windell, bricklayer, John Symmons, joiner, and Bonham Manfor, workman. [CKS, Q/SB/31/45, microfilm 234: Procs of the WDAS, 1907, pp.86-8]


The appeal brought in almost a quarter of the sum required, not enough to start work and obliging the parish to soldier on with the old church for a further generation. In about 1718 a further setback took place, as a fresh appeal of that date describes. 'Woolwich-Church, Is situated on the Top of a Sandy Hill ...The Fence of the Church-Yard is on the Edge of the said Hill, and is mostly undermined; above 60 loads of the Surface of the Earth having slid and been washed down the Hill within these Three Months last past, and several Bones of dead Bodies have been seen sliding down with the Sand into the common Cart-road which increases the Danger of its Foundation, and very much lessens the Burial place' [BL, SPR 357.b.6(57), with printed date of 1718 on verso] Now the Commissioners for New Churches did make a small grant, but the total raised was still not enough to start. The next stage came in 1726-7, when the Vestry formally resolved to build a new church higher up the hill to the south, on one and a half acres purchased from Richard and John Bowater. Matthew Spray of Deptford, bricklayer, was appointed in August 1727 to dig foundations and carry them up to ground level according to an agreed plan. (WVM, May 1726-Aug 1727] That no doubt took place, and some 636,000 bricks were made, but the superstructure was further delayed pending appeals to the King and the Commons.


In 1732 the parish obtained an Act of Parliament sanctioning the Commissioners for New Churches to grant £3,000 on top of the £2,038 already collected, thus almost realising the sum of the old estimate, which still held. [5 Geo.II, c.4: CJ, 21 & 28 Jan & 20 March 1731/2] Spray and the carpenters William Reynolds and John Henshaw could now embark on the carcase of the church. In February 1739 this together with the tower were reported 'some time since built ... and well covered in', but money had again run out. The situation was rescued by a legacy from Daniel Wiseman, clerk of the cheque at Deptford Dockyard, who died that month leaving £1,000 for finishing the church. A further Act of Parliament was needed to resolve certain implications of the legacy, but once that was passed the interior could be completed. The consecration took place on 9 May 1740. (12 Geo.II, c.9: CJ, 22, 28 Feb 1738/9, 13 March 1738/9: Drake, p.163] That same year the churchyard was extended by a further purchase from the Bowater family and walled in, the old church demolished, and a makeshift vestry added at the south- east corner of the new one. [WVM, 4 May, 16 June, 1 Sept 1740]


The new parish church was a solid, old-fashioned piece of builder's work in the guise of plainer buildings by the Office of Works or the Ordnance. There is no need to look beyond the obscure Matthew Spray and his coadjutors for a designer. Six-bay parish churches in just such a plain stock-brick style, with shallow end- projections and round-headed clerestory windows lighting the galleries over lower windows to the aisles, had been built in the London area since at least the 1670s. The exterior's most individual feature is the sparing use of Portland stone dressings. No doubt for 'frugality', these are confined to window and door surrounds, sills, parapets, plinths and the weighty principal cornice, which is coved along the sides but slightly enriched on the tower. The corners all round were marked by virile brick piers. These, together with the way in which the tower is half-engaged in the body of the church and topped off bluntly without a balustrade or lantern, help give the west front a sturdy look. The parapets are deep, and relieved by blank windows. The tiled roof is hidden at the west end, but old engravings show that it could be clearly seen at the east end, where it finished in a hip. The slight projection here for a sanctuary was marked by a Venetian window, similar in form to the one now in the same eastern position at the end of the lengthened chancel of 1893-4.


The original interior is harder to assess, since early views have not come to light. The plan is conventional, though the absence of a crypt, perhaps omitted in order to ensure solid foundations, is rare for a London-area parish church of the 1730s. Entrances into staircase compartments left and right of the tower gave access to the aisles and, by means of well-preserved wooden dogleg stairs with winders and standard balusters, to the galleries above them. The bookcases into the body of the church remain. The aisle doors are plain, but the main door from beneath the tower, probably altered, is framed internally by fluted pilasters with triglyphs in the frieze. The walls are lined with wainscot to about the height of the old pews. The body of the nave is divided by a five-bay colonnade with straight entablature, and is flat-ceiled over the aisles but gently coved over the broader nave space. Below gallery level, the piers take a crude octagonal form, but there turn into tall columns with entasis, culminating in shallow Ionic capitals with pronounced volutes; attached pilasters at the ends of the colonnade follow the pattern. The entablatures sat directly on the capitals, but in 1961 they were cut back upwards between the columns, leaving a series of pulvinated cushions over the capitals as a reminder of their former depth. The galleries originally extended one bay further east on each side. Their oak fronts, divided into three compartments between each column, appear heavily renewed.


The one pre-l893 photograph surviving shows that the east end stepped in slightly from the easternmost pilasters in order to frame the sanctuary projection. This was entirely lined beneath window level with the fine oak joinery of which a rearranged portion now forms the reredos in the south chapel. It was divided into panels containing the tables of the law etc. by fluted Ionic pilasters and, in the centre, engaged columns. Its quality suggests that through Wiseman's legacy the internal finishing may have been executed to a higher standard than the exterior, but the craftsmen's names are not recorded. The same photograph shows a deep- bellied octagonal pulpit on a high base north of the centre, probably moved from an original more central position. The only other surviving fitting of note from 1740 are the royal arms, which hung over the eastern projection before 1893 but are now in the porch beneath the tower.


Data about alterations to the church are scanty before the 1870s. Some features of the sanctuary in the early photograph, including a pretty iron communion rail, suggest work of around 1800, tallying with a payment for work to the cornice round the chancel in 1801; this could have involved the architect- builder Richard Martyr, who was replanning the churchyard at the time. (LMA, P97/MRY50: WVM] An organ made by John Byfield was given in 1754 and installed in the 'upper gallery' at the back of the nave, suggesting that there were already two levels of gallery here from the start. WVM] The present configuration of the rear gallery over iron columns may date from 1820, when extra seating was added for children from the National School. Gas-lighting followed in 1827, and probably also hot-water heating in about 1838. (LMA, P97/MRY51) A large and raw-looking east window showing Christ the Saviour, seven feet high, was installed by George Hoadley in 1846 after a drawing by E. H. Corbould. It involved the destruction of the original Venetian east window and its replacement by a large single light. [B, 2 Jan 1847, p.7]


Presages of the inevitable Victorian takeover followed upon the appointment as rector in 1875 of the 34-year-old Hon. Adelbert Anson, brother of the 2nd Earl of Richfield. Soon came the announcement that the church would be replaced by 'a more fitting structure'. [BN, 7 Jan 1876, p.4] Anson seems to have tackled the task desultorily, without serious fund-raising. In 1877 two architects then fashionable with the aristocracy were asked to submit schemes for recasting the old church: William Young, not noted for his churches, and the experienced Arthur Blomfield, who had already built a mission-school in the parish (p. ). Only Young seems to have made a design, published next year and showing the building reclothed in a heavy French Gothic dress. [BN, 24 May 1878, p.520; 19 Sept 1879, p.356] Next another architect, E. F. C. Clarke, produced an equally grandiose design for altering the 'ugly old church', this time in basilican-Romanesque style [BN, 2 May 1879, p.467; 6 June 1879, p.630]


If these efforts were seriously considered, they had been sidelined by the spring of 1879, when Anson had the upper gallery removed and chairs substituted for pews. [BN, 9 May 1879, p.526: LMA, P97/MRY/127] But he had not given up larger ambitions, for in May a rebuilding committee resolved to hold a limited competition for a wholly new church seating £1,000 and costing £12,000. [LMA, P97/MRY/189] Six architects were invited: James Brooks, Clarke, the obscure Thomas Laslett, I. L. Pearson, R. Norman Shaw, I. W. Walter (architect for St Michael's, Woolwich) and Young. Only Brooks, Clarke, Laslett and Walter agreed to participate; Blomfield reputedly returned in the role of assessor. [BN, 19 Sept 1879, p.356; 26 Sept 1879, p.385] Brooks having been declared the winner, the designs were exhibited at Woolwich Town Hall in October. [BN, 24 Oct 1879, pp.481-2: B, 25 Oct 1879, p.1183] Only those by Brooks and by Clarke, who sent in two versions of a church with a central tower (making three designs by him for Woolwich altogether), were published. Brooks's scheme, illustrated in the Building News from perspectives by Maurice B. Adams, A. H. Haigh and F. G. Knight, was in his exalted French Gothic manner, with an exterior of dressed stone, twin towers and spires at the west end, high transepts, and a vaulted interior from end to end untrammelled by a chancel arch. lt was clearly a costly design, and one of the competitors, Laslett, protested against Brooks's flouting of the competition instructions. [BN, 31 Oct 1879, p.538; 19 Dec 1879, p.740; 26 Dec 1879, p.812]


The viability of the winning design must always have been in doubt, and though a faculty to start with the chancel was sought in 1880, little more was heard of it. [LMA, P97/MRY/127] In 1883 Anson was appointed first Anglican bishop of Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan, to be succeeded by the Rev. Samuel Gilbert Scott. In 1888-9 Scott came forward with a scheme not for a new church but a new chancel and vestries, along with a restoration and cleansing of the old interior, 'encrusted and stained with the dirt of years'. The architect was his cousin I. Oldrid Scott, who had designed a vicarage for his previous living, St Saviour's, Battersea Park. [LPL, ICBS 9311] But the project did not come off during S. G. Scott's tenure of the living, for he resigned in 1892 not long after details had been agreed by the parish vestry. [Kentish Independent, 7 Dec 1889: LMA, P97/MRY/127] Perhaps there was a discreet arrangement that his successor, Charles Escreet, would help pay for the work, as he was married to a banker's daughter and the Escreets are named as benefactors of the church on their memorial. Escreet promptly took up J. O. Scott's designs without much change, but some added High-church touches, notably a stone- topped communion table, were to get him embroiled in long-running litigation with a troublesome churchwarden. [LMA, DR/F/1901/005] The scheme was built in 1893-4 by Bennings [or is it Bunnings?] of Camberwell. [Illustrated Church News, 10 Nov 1894] The work coincided with the churchyard's transformation into a public garden.


The extension lengthened St Mary's by some xxx feet. It does nothing for the church's external proportions, while the excrescence of transepts and south-side vestries in further plain brickwork, this time with Bath stone dressings, lacks grace. The liveliest feature is the pedimented gable topping off the east end over a faithful recreation of the former Venetian east window. Internally, however, I. Oldrid Scott's work is a most successful solution to the problem of adding a chancel to a Georgian town church, and one that may owe something to his brother G. G. Scott junior's lengthening of Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge. At the centre of the design is the chancel compartment, framed on three sides by Venetian arches that take their cue from the restored east window. It is slightly deeper than wide, so the arches are round-headed across the church but elliptical towards the transepts. The tall flanking columns are of red stone (overpainted in white at the time of writing), while the smaller ones framing the east window are of red Irish marble (also overpainted). The floor rises in stages by ten steps to the altar, with compartments in between for a pavement in red and white marbles. The chancel ceiling takes a form of a plaster barrel vault simply embellished with ribs and coved near the wall-plate. There is a solid dwarf wall beneath the chancel arch.


The fittings are of high quality. They include choir stalls and desks of walnut inlaid with marquetry; a wrought-iron sanctuary rail; and a group of sedilia. There is no reredos. The pulpit, also of walnut with inlay and movable on rails, was added to Scott's designs and made by A. Robinson of the Bloomsbury Art Carving Works in 1899. [LMA, P97/MRY/123] The stained glass in the east window, showing the Crucifixion, is by A. L. Moore, 1901. [www.stainedglassrecord.org/ch.asp?chId=8128] In the south transeptal space is a chapel focussed upon the old reredos, re-erected but much cut down. The equivalent space on the north side was dedicated to an organ chamber. In the first instance the old instrument was brought down from the west gallery, but in 1906 a larger organ by Harrison & Harrison was installed, though never supplied with a worthy case. Above the south chapel reredos is a window of 1922 in memory of Charles Escreet by Herbert Hendrie. Some other memorials remain in this chapel, notably the cartouche to Daniel Wiseman (d.1739).


In the nave J. Oldrid Scott introduced new benches, cut back the galleries by one bay and may have reseated them, but seems to have done little structural work. The nave was further restored in 1924 under the auspices of his son C. M. Oldrid Scott. [ECE 7/1/52144/1] St Mary's escaped major damage in the Second World War, when the young and socially effective rector (1940-4) was Cuthbert Bardsley, later famous as Bishop of Coventry.


A second young rector arrived in 1960. This was Nicolas Stacey, a radical with a penchant for publicity. He embarked on an eight-year whirlwind of experiment, described in detail in his book, Who Cares (1971). He recalls on his first visit admiring the churchyard gardens, where he could see ships, docks, factories and 'the whole of life around me', and then stepping into a church 'dark, dank and decaying, and depressing beyond all description. Rats and mice scurried round the unused galleries, damp patches told their own story of a leaking roof ... It seated 700 and had a congregation of about fifty [Nicolas Stacey, Who Cares, 1971, pp.71-2] Both church and parish Stacey found in an appalling financial mess'. [LPL, ICBS 13876] He persuaded his bishop, Mervyn Stockwood, to allow him a large complement of curates, and set about intensive social engagement coupled with the closure of subsidiary churches, the drawing-in of other denominations, and the refurbishment of St Mary's as the centre for his activities.


Alan Ford of the firm of Thomas Ford & Partners, architects to the church since before the war, provided the architectural component for Stacey's plans. To start off, during the first half of 1961 the roof was completely overhauled and extensive dry rot eliminated. It was at this stage that the nave entablature was altered, with steel beams substituted for timber bearers. The galleries were then sealed off behind frosted glass, as yet a rare move in Anglican churches, and assigned for a parish hall and social space. That May, Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones came to open the 'contemporary Coffee House, with its modern coffee and tea making machines' and the 'peaceful Lounge' in the gallery. [Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, Diamond Jubilee, Visit of Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret and Mr. Antony Armstrong-Jones ... 11 May 1961] The works were partly paid for with proceeds from the closing of Holy Trinity, Beresford Square, and the sale of its church halls. [Stacey, pp.102-22] An extra south-eastern vestry followed in 1965. Then in 1967 the aisles were also sealed off and leased as rooms to Greenwich's Council of Social Service, the nave was reseated with chairs and carpeted, while the small crypt under the chancel was enlarged, given new access from beneath the east end, and converted into a youth dub cum discotheque, said to be 'so successful that local probation officers fought to get their clients accepted as members'. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_Stacey]


Though his energy and ecumenism revitalised the parish, by 1964 the restless Stacey was proclaiming in The Observer that St Mary's had 'failed', largely because the complement of worshippers remained obstinately static. During the latter half of his incumbency he promoted a scheme whereby the clergy took secularists, reserving church work for the evenings. Stacey also spent much energy on founding the Quadrant Housing Trust for the conversion of smaller properties. [Stacey, pp.198-293] When he left in 1968 to become Deputy Director of Oxfam, his Woolwich experiment dwindled away.


More recent works at St Mary's have included the strengthening of the nave roof in 1977, and removal of the gallery partitions in 2008, so restoring much of the church's former spatial integrity. Both these projects were carried through by Thomas Ford and Partners. At the time of writing it is the parish's intention also to remove the partitions cutting off the aisles. [LPL, ICBS 13876: papers at church]


Written by Andrew Saint

General Editor

English Heritage

Survey of London

18 March 2009




St mary’s church ~

a history by english heritage