"St Mary's, Battersea, pre-eminent as the original parish church, has been the subject of an exhaustive study, J. G. Taylor's Our Lady of Batersey (1925). It was a dependency of Westminster Abbey up to the Reformation. Its patronage passed along with the manor of Battersea to the St John family in 1627 and hence in 1763 to the Earls Spencer."
Survey of London (English Heritage, 2013)
The Church is built with brown brick and stone and is set in a churchyard full of trees. The churchyard was closed for public burials in 1854 and is managed by the London Borough of Wandsworth and is a public open space. The porch, the most striking external feature faces the River Thames to the west and is in the Doric style with a pediment above. The steeple is octagonal and made of wood. The church is entered either through a stepped access from the portico or through a wheelchair accessible side door and a lift.
People are often surprised by the sense of light and space when they come into the building, made even more attractive by the 2019 lighting project. It is said by some that the Church was originally painted a deep chocolate brown. There are many who are grateful that it is so no longer. The most immediate difference from most English churches is the existence of a gallery, accessed by stairs on the north and south sides of the building
The gallery is faced with a series of plaques commemorating significant charitable gifts in the history of the parish. One records the foundation of Sir Walter St John’s School in Battersea High St (on the site of the current Thomas’ Day School). Another of a gift of money, the interest from which is to be used to buy clothing for ‘decayed families of the parish’. The most recent benefactor recorded here is Harold Carter, a local greengrocer, who left the parish a large sum in his will in 1988. The church is furnished with pews, made of refurbished wood from the original Georgian box pews.
The Memorial to the fallen of Battersea in the two World Wars is just to the right of the vestry door. It is reputedly the largest terracotta work in London, and was unveiled in 1949 by a cadet and a Chelsea pensioner. It is the focus of the Borough Remembrance Sunday service every November.
The rear of the church contains a small servery area for the provision of refreshments and a simple vestry with an oriel window. Turner painted sunsets and cloud effects from here. The vestry doors are of particular note and were designed by Sally Scott and installed in 2008, containing an image of the woman standing on a dragon from Revelation 12, often associated with the Virgin Mary.
The central focus of the East end is the medieval painted glass windows and the impressive pulpit. The window, preserved from the earlier building, shows conspicuous loyalty to the Tudor dynasty of the St John family, with the Tudor rose being prominent. The stonework of the East Window dates from 1379 and was crafted by a stonemason from Westminster Abbey (which then owned the church). Before the old church was demolished in 1774 the window was taken out, and placed at the east end of the new church.
The glass, which is actually painted rather than stained, was inserted in 1631 by Sir John St John, in order to commemorate his succession as Lord of the manor of Battersea in 1630. It rehearses the history of the St John family’s lineage, especially the connection of the family with the Tudors, the origins of the family estates in Lydiard Tregoze, Purley and Battersea, symbolised by the coats of arms in the top half of the window. The connections of the family by marriage to other distinguished families are portrayed by the three portraits in the lower part of the window – Margaret Beauchamp, Henry VII and Elizabeth I.
The pulpit, originally sited in the centre of the nave, is made of inlaid carved oak. It originally had three ‘decks’ and was once placed centrally centrally at the foot of the chancel. It was given as a gift by an anonymous donor in 1776, as the new church reached completion. It was moved to one side in 1878 when the bottom two ‘decks’, the readers desk and the clerk’s desk, were also removed. It now stands on the south side of the nave, and is used only infrequently on grand occasions like Remembrance Sunday and Christmas Eve.
The choir stalls and chancel panelling were installed in thanksgiving for the ministry of Canon John Erskine Clark, whose distinguished 37 year ministry as Vicar led to a period of church building within the parish.
The sanctuary railing and altar are 18th Century originals.
The two round windows in the apse, with the imagery of the Lamb of God and the Holy Spirit as a dove, were added to make up for the absence of explicitly Christian imagery in the medieval window in 1796. They are by James Pearson.
The Arms of the Former Metropolitan Borough of Battersea were installed in the sanctuary of the church when the borough became part of the current Borough of Wandsworth in 1965. The crest bears the motto, Non mihi non tibi sed nobis, ‘Neither for me nor for you, but for us’. Sprigs of lavender behind the bird commemorate the importance of Lavender Hill as a source of the plant for London, and the wavy blue lines of the shield call to mind the centrality of the river as a source of food and avenue of transport in Battersea’s history.
The original parish organ was purchased by public subscription in 1791 at the cost of £230. It was moved down from the gallery in 1877, and twice more rebuilt, before being replaced in 1991 by a new instrument incorporating some of the old pipework. The new organ is the work of Saxon Aldred, which replaced the rather wheezy pneumatic action of the old instrument with a mechanical action – with suspended tracker action to the two manuals. The image of Lamb of God inlaid in the case just under the pipework is in fact a ram, the symbol of the local Young’s Brewery, who made a very generous contribution to the cost of its construction. It is thought to be one of only two organs in London displaying the symbol of a brewery.
The organ is dedicated to the memory of Harold Davies who was organist at St Mary’s for a remarkable 50 years, from 1938 to 1988. It was substantially revoiced in 2020.
The side chapel is used for smaller celebrations of Holy Communion including the 8.30am Sunday Communion. Above the altar hangs a triptych donated to the parish by John Napier, who was married here in 1946. It shows some stories from Scripture against the background of images from Battersea: the raising of Lazarus under the lamp of the church porch, the Annunciation within sight of Battersea Power Station, and Christ walking on the water of the River Thames. The cross on the altar is made entirely from material discovered on the river bank.
The parish has had in its possession for many years a First Edition King James’ Bible of 1611. This had been kept in storage until 2012. Following the generous offer of funding from a local resident, the Bible was restored by the archivists at Lambeth Palace Library and is now kept on display inside the church. The 1611 bible is known as a ‘He’ bible, owing to a typographical error in the Book of Ruth, where the editor likely made a mistake in understanding a clause and substituted ‘He’ where ‘She’ was intended.
A notable feature of the body of the church is the modern stained glass. Between 1976 and 1982 four new stained glass windows were added to the ground floor of the Church. They commemorate some of the famous people associated with the church. In each case they were made by John Hayward of Edenbridge, Kent. The glass on the ground floor had been plain since the 1940s. Stefan Hopkinson, the Vicar of Battersea during the Second World War, knew how to find the silver lining in every cloud. He writes in his memoirs, Encounters: “Among the improvements in the church’s interior decoration is one other with which I am rather proud to be associated. When we arrived [in the parish] the ground floor windows were filled with very bad Victorian stained glass, which was not only ugly in itself, but excluded the daylight. But the air raids began, and one morning a bomb fell nearby. I went to investigate. There was considerable damage, but the church was unharmed — at least, until I picked up a stone and smashed all the Victorian glass.”
General Benedict Arnold is one of the most famous (or infamous) figures of the American Revolutionary War. At first he fought for the British, then switched sides to fight for the Americans before returning to fight for the British once again. As a result of this, he is remembered as the archetypal traitor in American culture. The centre of the window itself is a monochrome portrait of General Arnold, and below it are the arms of George Washington, in whose army Arnold (at times) fought. The four flags in the centre are, left to right, the modern ‘Stars and Stripes’, an earlier version of the American flag with thirteen stars representing the original thirteen states, the ‘Union flag’ of 1777, and the modern ‘Union Jack’. This window was donated by Mr Vincent Lindner of New Jersey, USA. Benedict Arnold, his wife and daughter are buried in the crypt, where their resting place is marked by a further memorial plaque. More details about Arnold can be found here.
The artist, engraver and poet William Blake was married to Catherine Boucher in the church in 1782. It surprises many to learn that the wife of one of our greatest poets was illiterate, and could only made her mark with a cross in the wedding register. The wedding is suggested by a wedding ring between two pencil portraits. The one of the left is William drawn by Catherine, the one on the right, Catherine as drawn by William. The rest of the window design attempts to give expression to the diversity of Blake’s talents as a painter, engraver, printer and poet. Among his more insistent themes are those concerned with seeing the great and the small and the idea that all things contain a male and female principle. He is also the author of the words of the hymn, ‘Jerusalem’, now a very popular hymn at weddings in the church today. At the bottom right is a picture of the Houses of Parliament to mark the connection with the late William Hamling, MP, in whose memory the window was given. There is more information about Blake and his work here.
It is said that Turner painted some of his riverscape studies of light from the vestry window of the church. He lived in a terrace house across the river in Chelsea, which can be seen from the churchyard, and was rowed over each day by his servant in order that he might paint. ‘Turner’s Chair’, in which he sat to paint, now sits under the pulpit and is used by the clergy during celebrations of the Eucharist in the side chapel. The window contains an early self-portrait of Turner set against a drawing of the West end of the church. This is lightly treated on white glass in a style suggested by Turner’s paintings, in red, orange and golds. Below the portrait are reminders of his close association with the Royal Academy. At bottom left are shown the original works of Morgan’s Crucibles, a local industry, the donors of the window. More of Turner’s pictures can be seen here.
William Curtis is a famous Eighteenth Century botanist, who collected many of his samples in the churchyard. The portrait of Curtis is framed with a chaplet of flowers form his book, Flora Londinensis. Below the portrait is the epitaph of the original headstone (now lost) and above the emblem of the Royal Horticultural Society. To the left are the arms of the Society of Apothecaries, in whose gardens (now known as the Chelsea Physic Garden) Curtis was Demonstrator of Botany. To the right there are the arms of the Linnean Society, of which he was a founder member. At the bottom of the window is a schematic map of the Thames between Battersea and Bermondsey showing the approximate positions of Curtis’ gardens.
In the gallery above the vestry door hangs the tithe map of the parish of Battersea in 1838 AD. It shows the area to be still largely market gardens and river-based industries.
The gallery also contains the laid-up standards of various military regiments associated with the local area.
A number of significant memorials are to be found in both the gallery and around the main body of the church. Full details of these can be found on the website of Mr Bob Speel.
Any ancient building presents challenges to the modern need to adjust to welcome people with disabilities. St Mary’s has fortunately already risen to the challenge, through the installation of a lift in the north west corner of the church. Access to the lift is via the riverside door, which can be reached by going around the back of the church through the churchyard, close to the Montevetro building, and down the north side of the church.
There is a disabled toilet in the crypt. An induction loop is fitted for those who use a hearing aid. There a spaces for two wheelchairs at the end of the long pews in each side aisle.
We wish to continue to learn about how to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. If you have any suggestions, please contact the Parish Office.
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