About the Church

History of the Church

This year marks the 160th Anniversary of the opening of St Mary Magdalen’s Church Roman Catholic Church in Mortlake on 12th May 1852.

The founding of the church reflects a number of wider historical events and trends in the 1830s to 1850s. Over that period there was a significant increase in the number of Catholics in the United Kingdom caused by factors like immigration from Ireland, the influence of high-profile Anglicans who converted to Roman Catholicism like John (later Cardinal) Newman and the restoration of the Catholic diocesan hierarchy in England and Wales by the Vatican after a 300-year gap. There were only a small number of Catholics in the Mortlake area in the early 1840s. However, in that decade tens of thousands of people fled Ireland to escape the lethal famine caused by the failure of the potato crop and there were extensive work opportunities in the market gardens of Mortlake that grew produce for the metropolis of London.

Mass had been held by visiting priests in a room over the stables of Portobello House, home of Lady Constantia Mostyn, widow of Sir Edward Mostyn, the 7th Baronet Mostyn, of Talacre. The house, which was demolished in 1893, stood in the area now marked by Howgate and Vernon Roads in East Sheen. One consequence of the influx of new people to the area was that the ad hoc arrangements for Catholic worship quickly became inadequate. Records show that on Sunday 30 March 1851 150 people attended morning Mass in the hayloft and 146 in the evening.

By that time, construction on St Mary Magdalen’s Church must have already started. In 1849 a young priest and Anglican convert, Fr John Wenham, had been tasked with founding the parish and acquiring land to build a church. Fr John had studied at Magdalen College, Oxford where he must have been influenced by the high-profile conversions of many Anglicans to Catholicism that started in the 1830s under what became known as the Oxford Movement.

An anonymous donor provided most of the money needed to for the work and there is speculation that either Lady Constantia or Fr John was the mystery benefactor. Whoever funded the church would have had sizeable resources because some of the stonework, like the tracery in the windows and the carving on the capitals, would have been expensive.

St Mary Magdalen’s was designed by Gilbert Blount, architect to the first Archbishop of Westminster, Nicholas Wiseman. Blount started his career as a civil engineer working for IK Brunel and he had been the superintendent of the Thames Tunnel at Greenwich. Blount favoured the Gothic Revival style in fashion at the time which was popularised by Augustus Pugin, most notably in his decorations for the Houses of Parliament in Westminster when they were rebuilt after it was heavily damaged in a fire in 1834.

St Mary Magdalen’s’ construction was part of a wave of Catholic church-building in the 1850s following the restoration of the Catholic religious hierarchy in England and Wales with the issuing of Pope Pius IX’s papal bull, Universalis Ecclesiae on 29 September 1850. For the first time since Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) the country once again had an officially recognised Catholic leadership.

St Mary Magdalen’s was consecrated in May 1852 with the Bishop of Southwark, Thomas Grant, as the celebrant. It can only be speculation, but the circumstances surrounding its creation could indicate that it was well-favoured by some of the most senior clerics in England and Wales at the time. The parish priest, Fr Wenham was one of the high-profile Anglican converts from the Oxford Movement,; the church was designed by the Archbishop of Westminster’s architect and it was opened by the Bishop of Southwark. Or perhaps because the consecration came relatively soon after the reestablishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the country, they were anxious to highlight all new additions to the faith.

In addition, the provision of a church in Mortlake met the concerns of senior Catholic clergy that the church had a clear-cut duty to provide pastoral care to meet the social and economic needs of the area. During the Westminster Synod of 1852, the Bishops expressed their concern that the education of the Catholic poor nationally was patchy at best. Mortlake was not a prosperous area at the time and the fear was that parents wanted to put their children to work as soon as possible to help the family’s income at the expense of their secular and religious education.

A school opened in 1853 next to the church with two schoolmistresses and a pupil teacher for 70 infants and 40 older children. To this day, St Mary Magdalen’s Church Roman Catholic Church retains close links with St Mary Magdalen’s Roman Catholic Primary School sited on the far side of the cemetery.

The cemetery came into use in 1853. Of the hundreds of people buried there, the most celebrated is Sir Richard Burton, the soldier, linguist, explorer and translator of The Arabian Nights who was buried there in 1890 in a mausoleum shaped liked an Arab tent where he lies next to his wife Isabel. The graveyard is a place of pilgrimage for Burton’s followers to this day and in 2008 actor Rupert Everett visited the site to film scenes for his Burton documentary.

A regular group of visitors to St Mary Magdalen’s Church and cemetery are Ghanaian Catholics who come annually for a Mass to honour Sir John Marshall who is buried there. When he was chief magistrate of what was then known as the Gold Coast in the mid-19th century he invited French priests to found the first Roman Catholic church in the area. In 1959 a delegation from Ghana visited the church on the centenary of his death, saying he was to the Ghanaians what St Augustine was to the English.