The history of St Mary’s

St Mary’s was originally built in Tudor times but there has been a church in Mortlake since 1348. The church has undergone many alterations and enlargements during its long history and of the original Tudor church only the tower remains.

St Mary’s was built in 1543 but the first church in Morlake was built in 1348

The First Church in Mortlake

Mortlake is a place of great antiquity. The presence of Stone Age implements in the River Thames has suggested the existence of a prehistoric settlement. Before the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, Earl Harold owned lands and a fishery on the riverside, and the Archbishops of Canterbury occupied the Manor of Mortlake.

The first recorded church in the village of Mortlake was erected in (or shortly after) 1348 under licence from Edward III. The church stood near the Manor House, on the site of the present brewery, and served the spiritual needs of the villagers for nearly two hundred years. The Manor belonged to the see of Canterbury until 1536, when Archbishop Cranmer transferred it to King Henry VIII in exchange for other lands. During Henry’s occupation of the house, the land on which the 14th Century church stood was apparently required for other purposes, and in 1543 it was replaced by a church on the present site. This 1543 building has undergone many alterations and enlargements during its long history, and of the original Tudor church, only the tower remains.

The Tower

The belfry and the cupola are a distinctive feature of the tower which appears as a landmark in many historic prints and pictures of the Thames bank.

It is believed the tower was constructed using stone from the first church, supplemented with other stone and brickwork to the upper tiers and staircase. The fourth tier was given its current form in 1796, when the belfry was refaced in stock brick with a plain parapet.

The cupola, on the top of the tower, is thought to be original, though it would have been repaired many times over the centuries. The weathercock on top dates from 1678. Inside the cupola is a bell on which the hours are struck. It bears the date 1712, and was presumably installed with the first tower clock. The present clock was made by John Moore & Son of Clerkenwell, in 1838.

Major works to the tower were completed in 2010. These works included the rebuilding of the north-west buttress, repairs to the roof and cupola, a new boiler system and the installation of a new spiral staircase, which now allows easy access to the roof, belfry, clock chamber and ringing chamber. The original stairs had been removed in 1850, when heating was first installed in the church.

The Bells

The tower contains a ring of eight bells, six of which were cast by Philip Wightman of Clerkenwell, in 1694/5, and replaced three much older bells. Two trebles, to make up the eight, were added in 1746, cast by Thomas Lester at what is now the Whitechapel Foundry. Two of the bells were recast in 1751 and 1784 but, apart from being re-hung at various times, remain unaltered since the latter date, and are among the very few eight bell rings to survive intact from the 18th Century. They have a remarkably good tone for their age. The bells vary in weight from about 4 cwt for the treble to 14½ cwt for the tenor.

The Vestry and North Aisle

The brick built extension on the north side of the building was the Vestry House. Thought to have been completed in 1670, it effectively provided a North Aisle to the church. Alterations were made in 1816 to extend the North Aisle westwards to its present position.
In 1979-80 extensive re-ordering of the interior was undertaken, and the North Aisle was redeveloped to provide meeting rooms, a kitchen and choir vestry. At the same time the existing parish office and clergy vestry were added as extensions to the original buildings.

The Nave and South Aisle

A number of different priests served All Saints through the church’s early years, which was unsettling for the worshipping congregation and the wider community. To inject a greater degree of stability, with longer serving incumbents, the Parish became a Team Ministry in 1976 with the appointment of a Team Rector at St Mary’s Mortlake and Team Vicars for the other two churches. This pastoral scheme also enabled the three churches to develop their own distinctive characters. All Saints is perhaps best described as liberal catholic.

The Memorials

On the north wall are memorials to several prominent parishioners: Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, Prime Minister of England 1801 – 1804, and other members of the Sidmouth family, and Sir Brooke Watson, Lord Mayor of London in 1796. Although she is buried in Kew, there is a memorial to Dorothy Lady Capel, dowager Baroness of Tewkesbury, a great early benefactor of the Mortlake charity school for boys. Addington Court and Capel Court, parts of the housing development on the site of the old Church School, commemorate these two ancient families. A small brass near the north doors commemorates Edward Myles, servant to Prince Henry and Prince Charles, later King Charles I. Above the West door, is a mosaic depicting the Nativity, given in memory of James Wigan and his wife, benefactors of the church.

Perhaps the most important memorial in the church is the one located on the east wall of the south aisle. In memory of the Hon. Francis Coventry (1612-1700), it was sculpted by William Kidwell, the leading English sculptor of his time.

A more recent memorial, located by the side of the south porch door, commemorates the tragic loss of Wangle III and its crew of Mortlake Sea Scouts in the English Channel in 1950.

The 15th Century font is the only surviving relic from the old church. It was the gift of Cardinal Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury 1454 – 1486. A full description of its heraldic devices and its history appear on the nearby pillar.

The Chancel

Built in 1885, the Chancel was panelled in 1928 by Mrs H Minton. The devices in the panels from left to right represent the Province of Canterbury; the Diocese of Southwark; St Mary the Virgin; Worcester Cathedral, patrons of the living; the family arms of John Dee (see below); the family of the Revd E. H. Tupper, then Vicar of the parish.

Two hatchments in the chancel commemorate Mrs Elizabeth Taylor, Lady of the Manor of East Sheen and West Hall, who died in 1826 and Frederick Reeves, of the East India Company (1763 – 1842). Two further hatchments appear on the north wall, commemorating Baron George Best KCE, FRS (1756-1823) and Sir Frances Molyneaux Ommaney, MP for Barnstaple and churchwarden of Mortlake.

The Chancel stonework was extensively cleaned and restored in early 2006.

The Churchyard

The present churchyard and church were given to the parish by King Henry VIII in 1543. The churchyard was originally much smaller, surrounding the Tudor church, of which only the Tower remains.

The churchyard was extended to the south in 1742 and 1799 with gifts of land and was the sole burial place for parishioners for over three centuries. It was closed in 1854 when a new cemetery was opened in South Worple Way. A further addition was made in 1950 when some ancient houses along the High Street were demolished.

The earliest surviving tomb is that of John Partridge, the astrologer (d.1715). Other famous people include a Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth (d.1844), and three Lord Mayors. There are vaults for well-known local families such as the Temples, Gilpins and Penrhyns. Other tombs recall craftsmen and tradesmen, such as the potters Sanders and Kishere, the market gardener Grayson and the Woodliss family of masons, who made many of the headstones. The Information Board near the old arch will help you with further details and show you where to find some of these features.

In the 1980s the churchyard was derelict but funds were raised locally towards its restoration. The project was carried out to a sensitive design prepared by Allan Hart and completed in 1989. The Friends of Mortlake Churchyard was then launched as an association with the objective of maintaining the historic churchyard. The aim of The Friends was to ensure that the churchyard is attractive to look at, is sympathetic to wildlife and is maintained as a resource for the whole community, helping people make connections with others in various ways.

In 2022 the Friends were dissolved and responsibility for the upkeep of the churchyard reverted to the church. Working parties are held on the first Saturday of each month, 10.00am – 12noon, including a break for coffee and cake. New helpers are always welcome.

Dr John Dee

John Dee was one of the most learned scholars of the Elizabethan age and was noted for his interest in alchemy and astrology. Queen Elizabeth I came to Mortlake to consult him on many occasions, travelling by royal barge or on horseback from Richmond Palace. His house stood on the riverside facing the church. Born in 1527, he died in 1609 and is said to be buried in the Chancel of this church. A plaque in memory of Dr Dee was installed in the church in 2013.