About the Church

The Parish of St. Mary Magdalen, Mortlake: A brief history

Early Days

Mortlake was mentioned in the Doomsday Book, though at that time the area was centred on what we know as Wimbledon and included Putney and Barnes. Eventually Mortlake became the name of the riverside hamlet where the Archbishops of Canterbury had a palace. Archbishop Cranmer exchanged these lands for others with Henry VIII. The king granted them to Thomas Cromwell who later sold them back to Henry. Henry VIII had a new church built in the hamlet in 1543 to replace a 14th century church. This is St. Mary the Virgin in Mortlake High Street, though only the tower remains of Henry’s church (and indeed, Henry’s initials can still be seen on the tower). With the religious changes of Henry’s reign and the Protestant settlement of Elizabeth 1st, Catholicism seems to have quietly died out in Mortlake.

Origins of the modern parish

The more recent history of the parish really begins in the late Eighteenth Century when John Vincent Gandolfi bought Portobello House and its estate in 1775. The estate was situated between what is now Glendower Road and Sheen Lane from South Worple Way to Milton Road. The Gandolfis were a long established Italian merchant family- they originally owned Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence just outside Rome. John Vincent Gandolfi is believed to have had a little chapel in the grounds of Portobello House for the use of the family. His grandson inherited a much more valuable estate near Malvern and moved away. The Mortlake estate was sold off in 1846 but the family kept ownership of the house. This they rented out to distant relatives and it is with the help of these Catholic ladies that the modern parish eventually developed.

The first of these ladies was Lady Mostyn who arrived in 1842. At this time Mortlake was still a rural community of country houses and market gardens. There was already a small Catholic population mainly made up of Irish workers who came to work in the market gardens and who had settled in the area. After the Irish famine of 1846 their numbers increased considerably and Lady Mostyn allowed the loft over her stables to be used as a chapel and school. It was a large low-ceilinged room and could accommodate about 150 worshippers but with numbers continuing to grow the Catholics of Mortlake needed a church of their own. At last in 1851 Fr. John Wenham, then one of the priests at Richmond, was given sole charge of the Mortlake mission.

The church is built

Fr. Wenham, who had studied at Magdalen College Oxford, had been influenced by the ‘Oxford Movement’ and became a Catholic while still a young man. At Oxford he had got to know Blessed John Henry Newman and a letter to him from Newman shows that he had considered joining Newman’s Oratorians. However he eventually became a diocesan priest instead. He had only been ordained in 1849 so he brought youth and enthusiasm when he arrived to take care of the Catholics of Mortlake. The gardens of Portobello House bordered the new railway and a house and land came up for sale almost opposite, on the other side of the railway. This house and garden would become the site for St. Mary Magdalen. Fr. Wenham lived in this older house whilst the church and presbytery were being built. The foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Wiseman on 12th Jan. 1851, for a Victorian Gothic building of Kentish rag and facings of Bath stone. The church had the latest in heating systems, a Grundy warm air heating system. It is not known who paid for the new church but it seems likely that it was Fr. Wenham. Lady Mostyn made a gift of the organ. The church was opened and blessed by Bishop Thomas Grant of Southwark on 12th May 1852 in the presence of Cardinal Wiseman. This makes St. Mary Magdalen one of the first churches to be opened after the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850. Cardinal Wiseman had still been Vicar-Apostolic of the London district when he sent Fr. Wenham to Mortlake, which may explain his presence at the opening of the church. What a remarkable occasion this must have been!

Fr. Wenham worked tirelessly till his death in 1895 building up the parish. A very important part of that work was the establishment of a school. A small school was in existence by 1853, and this was enlarged in 1861 when a government grant helped fund the building of an infant school. By 1867 the school could accommodate 160 children, though the average attendance was 100. These were children from poor families whose parents struggled to send them to school and who needed them out earning a few pence as soon as possible. By 1890 the school could take 252 pupils.

As if developing the parish was not enough, Fr. Wenham founded a private school, at what is now Acacia House, in Mortlake High Street. Among his pupils was Charles Hogan, who would one day be parish priest of Mortlake. A handbill outlining the school’s curriculum is among Provost Wenham’s papers in the Southwark diocesan archives. It gives a picture of an enlightened approach to education for boys who were intended for the Civil Service or one of the professions. Another letter from Newman to Provost Wenham suggests they had discussed educational matters. Like Newman, Wenham believed that boys’ minds should be trained, not driven. Indeed Newman tried to persuade Wenham to move to Dublin for a time to help him establish a university there. However Wenham chose to remain in Mortlake, dedicating the remainder of his life to the little parish he had done so much to establish.

The Nineteenth Century Parish

The church was consecrated in 1867 and in 1868 Fr. Wenham bought an extra strip of land bordering modern Worple St. to extend the school playground and the cemetery. There is more to say about the cemetery later. Here it is enough to say that Catholic cemeteries were very few at that time so the sale of plots was a useful source of income for the parish.

In recognition of all his work Fr. Wenham was made a Canon and later Provost of Southwark Cathedral. When he died in 1875 he was buried, as he requested, near the old church porch so that worshippers would see his grave as they went in to Mass and be reminded to pray for him. This is only right, for no one else did so much to ensure the re-birth of the Catholic Church in Mortlake and the surrounding area. It is only right, however, to add that throughout his long period as parish priest, Fr. Wenham was assisted by many curates – one of whom was Fr. Francis Bourne, later to become Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster.

Fr. Wenham was succeeded by Fr. Hogan (his former pupil). By this time, Mortlake could no longer be considered a rural area, but was undergoing rapid change. Lady Mostyn left Portobello House in 1854 and it was bought by another Catholic lady, Lady Gerard. She was regularly visited there by her niece, Isabel Arundell who later married the explorer Sir Richard Burton. Portobello House was demolished in 1893 and houses were built in its place. The same fate overtook other large houses in the area. The increase in the Catholic population led to outlying parts of Mortlake parish becoming separate parishes. In 1896 the high altar was rebuilt and the carved panels put along the front of it. Parish tradition has it that the panels came from the chapel at Portobello House but there is no proof that this was so. Certainly two of the panels have been cut down to fit and the third may have been carved especially to fit the remaining space. In the same year a stone altar and tabernacle replaced the wooden ones in the Lady Chapel paid for by Henry and Mary Whitgreave. The window in the Lady Chapel commemorates Catherine Strickland –Standish, Lady Mostyn’s sister who lived at Portobello House with her. In the late Nineteenth Century two memorial windows were installed in the church. The Burton window was installed in memory of Sir Richard Burton who died in 1890. The Towry-Law window commemorates the Hon. William Towry-Law and his son Augustus who had been received into the church at St. Mary Magdalen two days after the opening ceremony. Augustus went on to become a Jesuit missionary, and died on the missions in South Africa in 1880.

A flourishing community

In 1908 there were big changes to the school. The main schoolroom was divided into two classrooms. New cloakrooms and offices were built and the whole school was redecorated. Until 1919 the junior and infant schools were separate schools with their own headteachers. However on the retirement of Miss Annie Harrison, who had been head of the infant school for 34 years, the two schools were united under one headteacher. She was the redoubtable Miss Mary Leggett, who became headmistress in 1906 and remained headmistress until her retirement in 1942. She retired to the West Country and was still going strong in1967! The parish hall was built in 1912. It was not quite as long as the present building so that there was still room for a garden and lawn for the presbytery. 1913 saw the porch on the north side of the church enclosed and turned into a baptistery. Moving the font there left more room for the growing congregation in the body of the church.

Canon Hogan, as he became, spent most of his life in Mortlake and served the parish as its priest for 27 years. He died in January 1922 and was buried in the cemetery.

His successor, Fr. Burt, did much to shape and strengthen the social life of the parish. He encouraged and fostered the Children of Mary and the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament. Outings were arranged for the children from the school and in 1928 the parish hall was extended to provide premises for a men’s club. It was an expensive job keeping the club in good condition and it was not always supported as well as Fr. Burt would have liked. By 1935 weekly whist drives were keeping it going and membership fees were 1 shilling and 3 pence a quarter, payable in advance. The parish also had a very impressive monthly magazine. Fr. Burt established a brass band and large processions were held to Barnes or to Richmond. In 1939 a procession in Chelsea in honour of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More had music provided by the brass band. In 1924 and 1925 a Girl Guide pack and a Scout troop were established. The children also put on plays and variety shows. By 1935 the parish had an impressive list of organisations, among them: Guild of the Blessed Sacrament, Sanctuary Guild, Children of Mary, Guilds of St. Tarcisius and St Agnes for the children, the choir, the SVP, the Catholic Women’s League, parish social club, Association for the Propagation of the Faith, a Slate club (a savings club?) the brass band, Scouts, Cubs, Guides and Brownies and also Rangers.

Fr. Burt was involved in many local committees. He even stood as a candidate for the local council and was only narrowly defeated. The work of improving the parish buildings went on. Electric light was installed in the school and pews replaced chairs in the side aisles of the church. Two new stained glass windows were added. Marble altar-rails replaced the wooden ones and the whole sanctuary was re-floored in marble. The parish was noted for the beautiful gardens leading from the road to the church, and which were cared for by Mr. Saunders at the Lodge. In 1925 Cardinal Bourne (who had once been curate) came to the church to unveil and dedicate the window installed in memory of the parishioners who died in the Great War.

In 1937 Fr. Burt was made a Canon and to mark the occasion the parish presented him with a beautiful jeweled chalice. The jewels were a gift from Lieutenant-Colonel Barry, a Catholic member of Barnes Borough Council. Canon Burt later donated the chalice to St. Mary Magdalen’s, and it is still used on special occasions today.

Canon Burt wanted to build a Central School for the senior children of the parish and so he tried to buy a large property, Iyoncovel, in Derby Rd. as a site for the school. A great planning battle followed which the parish lost. Canon Burt obtained another site at Kew Meadows but the outbreak of the war meant that his plans came to nothing. However in 1938 a chapel-of-ease was set up in two houses in Sheen Road, Richmond to serve the still growing Catholic population.

The Second World War and after

When war broke out in 1939 the school was closed and evacuated to Stoke Poges but it later re-opened as the children returned home. Until the church could be properly blacked out, Masses had to be celebrated in the church hall. The hall was also used as a rest centre and a large air raid shelter was built onto it. During the worst of the bombing from October 1940- June 1942, 43 bombs fell on Mortlake and Barnes. In November 1940 one fell in the garden of 57-59 Avondale Rd. This was very close to the church. There was also great concern over flying bombs. Wartime placed a great strain on Canon Burt, his health broke down and he was moved to Angmering in Sussex.

When his successor, Canon Gibney, came to Mortlake it was still wartime. The end of the war brought problems caused by evacuated families returning home, the return of service men and women and financial problems caused by the war. However social life began again and a new venture was the Magdalen Cricket Club started by the social club in 1944. It was always open to keen cricketers whether they were members of the parish or not and it is still flourishing today. The school had shrunk in size by 1944 to just 154 pupils of whom five were non-Catholics. There were still plans to build a secondary school and in 1948 Canon Gibney bought the site of the Marist convent in Queen’s Rd. Richmond for £20,000. The school and convent had been badly damaged by bombing in September 1940. After the war the sisters re-established their school at Sunningdale in Berkshire. Plans for the school were drawn up and every effort was made to meet government requirements, but permission to build was not granted. At last in 1954 St. Edward the Confessor Secondary School was opened. It seems to have been a small school with an intake of only 30 pupils each year, which may be why it never seemed to have the full support of local parents. However, there are regular mentions of the school and its doings in “Mortnews” (the parish newsletter) during the 1960s and early 70s. In 1970 there were plans to make St. Edward’s a comprehensive school with a sixth form but this would have meant raising the intake to180 a year. Canon Gibney asked for more parents to support the school, but by 1973 the school was undersubscribed and its future was under serious consideration. Yet the PTA finished raising funds in 1974 to buy the school a minibus. There was still the expectation that it would get all-ability status and the hope that it would then become the premier Catholic secondary school for the area. It finally closed in 1997 and its site is now the home of Marshgate Primary School. At long last however, with the opening of St Richard Reynolds School in Twickenham in 2013, Mortlake children have a nearby Catholic secondary school to attend.

In 1945 the newly ordained Fr. William Nolan arrived in Mortlake as curate and he remained for 28 years as a valuable support to Canon Gibney. The Canon’s first concern was to improve the state of the primary school. On being told that the school would not be rebuilt before 1967, he refused to accept this and between1957-58 the school was completely rebuilt, due to the Canon’s unstinting efforts. This may have been the origin of the Magdalen Building Fund which was started in 1958. Mary Storkey, who died in 1980, raised £30,000 for this fund in her lifetime, of which £15,000 was spent in the parish. This fund seems to have become a diocesan fund at some point, being used to build schools through-out the diocese.

In 1951 Fr. Fagan, who was previously curate at St. Mary Magdalen’s, was appointed priest-in-charge at East Sheen. Because of building restrictions after the war the new church (Our Lady Queen of Peace) was not built until 1954. It was consecrated as a separate parish church in June 1971.

To mark the centenary of St. Mary Magdalen’s in 1952 the church was completely redecorated and a new set of Stations of the Cross were erected to replace those installed by Canon Wenham in 1891. The organ donated by Lady Mostyn was also refurbished.

We get a good picture of the life of the parish in the 1960s and70s from “Mortnews”, the parish newsletter started in 1960 by Ted McCormack. Its breezy style was very popular and it even got a mention in the Catholic Herald in 1980 as something of a local institution. There are regular reports of the activities of the various parish organizations, the Summer fete, First Holy Communions and parish camping holidays at Worth Abbey. The highlight of the year for the men of the parish was the Shrove Tuesday dinner- a three course meal with plenty of liquid refreshment and all for 5/- as it was described in 1960.
An ambitious ecumenical project set up in 1967. This was the Richmond-on-Thames Housing Trust, which aimed to provide homes for those living and working in the area but who were low on the Council housing list. It got off the ground with one large property converted into little flats. The Fellowship of Service group was set up to provide emergency and short-term help for parishioners from Mortlake and East Sheen. The parish also supported a mission at Batu Niah in Borneo including meeting the cost of medical supplies sent out with the help of the local Boots store.
The parish playgroup started in 1968 with one qualified paid supervisor and the rest of the help coming from the parents of the children attending on a rota basis. As not all parents could do this a higher fee of £1 was charged to those parents unable to help so that more staff could be afforded.

The greatest upheaval of recent times took place after the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), which altered many aspects of Catholic life and culture. Mass could now be said ‘facing the people’, which involved the whole sanctuary being remodeled. The altar was moved forward and the sanctuary enlarged and re-floored. The altar, paid for by the St. Aubyn family in 1895, when the carved panels were added to it, had to be re-consecrated and the relics of Saints Valentius and Florentina were once more set into it. The marble altar rails were removed and the present altar rails were installed. A modern pulpit was also put in place within the sanctuary. Baptisms no longer took place in the baptistery and it became a storeroom. However, it has now been restored to its proper function. From late 1969 preparations were being made for the introduction of the new rite of Mass at the beginning of Lent 1970. In 1976 when Fr. Brian Leahy was parish priest, although Mass in English was the norm, Latin Masses were still part of the regular life of the parish. Parish organizations still flourished. There were the Catholic Women’s League, the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament, Cubs, Scouts and Brownies and a youth club. The Catholic population was about 1500 with a Mass attendance of 550.

Fund raising was always necessary. In 1970 five months were spent repairing the crumbling stonework of the church then dry rot was discovered in the roof of the house. No sooner was this repaired than in 1972 the stonework of the house was also found to need repairing. At the same time Canon Gibney was helping renovate a home for retired priests near Reading, paying for the re-decoration which was carried out by Mortlake’s Venture Scouts, and for a new heating system there. Throughout these years the most reliable source of income was the parish football pools! There were highlights during these years. In July 1967 Canon Gibney celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination. After a special Mass an evening reception was held in the school- parishioners filmed the event and a souvenir magazine was planned. In June 1971 the church of Our Lady Queen of Peace was finally consecrated and East Sheen became a separate parish.

An era came to an end in October 1973 when Canon Gibney retired at the age of 80. He went to live at the retirement home in Reading which the parish had helped to improve. He returned to the parish in July 1977 to celebrate his diamond jubilee. He died in May 1978 and is buried in the cemetery at St. Mary Magdalen, close to the church hall. As well as being Parish Priest of Mortlake, he had also been Vicar General of the Diocese, and was accorded the rank of Protonotary Apostolic, which gave him the right to wear a mitre on certain occasions. He was a noted figure not only in the parish, but in the wider Church.

Shortly after this, Fr Brian Leahy became parish priest in Mortlake, while Fr. Nolan was made parish priest of St Patrick’s church, Chislehurst. Sadly he died only two years later in December 1975. The people of Mortlake wanted to have a memorial of him and it was decided to put a bench with a plaque on it outside the church. The bench has had to be replaced but the plaque has been placed back on the new bench, and it is still a popular place to sit and chat.
July 1974 saw the ordination of Philip Gilbert, a former pupil of St. Mary Magdalen’s school. He was the second priest from the parish, the other being Fr. John McCormack, brother of Ted, who was ordained at Wonersh in 1954 and who succeeded Fr Leahy as parish priest.

Modern Times

In the final years of the 1970s, “Mortnews” reflects the changes that were happening in the church at that time. A few months before his retirement Canon Gibney set up a parish council, formalising the role of the laity in the running of the parish as was encouraged after Vatican II. The parish still relied heavily on volunteers for its maintenance, and much needed work could not have been afforded otherwise. The parish football pools continued to flourish and in 1979 celebrated their 21st birthday! A parish meeting was held in September 1974 to discuss the social life of the parish. Times were changing and people no longer looked to their parish as the chief source of social activities. This lead to the setting up of a youth club in 1975 and now it was the youth club going off to camp during the summer holidays. The women of the parish still looked to each other for support - in March 1976 a self-help group was set up with the aim of teaching each other useful crafts such as knitting, crochet and dressmaking.

In his review of the parish in December 1977 Fr Leahy said there were too few altar servers - but on a more positive note the choir was flourishing. There were enough readers for the liturgy but Fr Leahy was of the opinion that they could do with some proper training!

The primary school flourished during these years. Headmaster Bill MacGregor retired in 1981 after more than 20 years at the school. Under his leadership it had become one of the best local schools, as indeed it still is today. In 1985 the building fund helped to pay for a new staffroom and a better office for the head of the school, these were improvements that had been needed for a long time.

Fr Leahy celebrated 10 years in the parish in December 1982. Fr Nolan, the second curate of that name, had retired because of ill health in January of that year. He was replaced by Fr. James Tolhurst who would turn out to be Mortlake’s last curate. Fr Leahy retired in October 1989 and was succeeded by Fr. John McCormack. He had been parish priest of St. Mary Magdalen’s Wandsworth for18 years and now returned to his home parish of Mortlake as parish priest. Fr. Leahy celebrated his golden jubilee in June 1991. He died in June 1992 and “Mortnews” reported that his Requiem Mass was attended by two bishops and 60 priests.

Early in 1990 fund-raising began to raise up to £30,000 for major renovations and repairs to the church, the sacristy and the presbytery. The sacristy and the presbytery were to have new roofs, the church was to be redecorated and to have new lighting at last (the lighting had been being discussed for the last 30 years) and the church was to have a new boiler. The house was to be completely redecorated for the first time in 25 years. When work began the roofs were found to be in a worse state than expected, wet was getting in and there was dry rot due to years of neglect. Putting this right cost an extra £3000. Parish finances were always stretched and there had not been the money to keep everything in good repair. In the end the final cost of all the work was £40,000. For many years there had been a cast iron “pillar box” in the church which contained a collecting box. Twice during the 1980s this box was stolen despite being extremely heavy. Finding that the actual money box was very small and that the whole pillar was not full of coins, the thieves dumped it in the cemetery. In September 1983 the lodge was damaged by fire. It seems that it was not being lived in at the time. By early 1991 the work on the church and the house were completed. In November 1995 the parish football pool was wound up after 37 years.

During the 1990s one young parishioner completed two outstanding pieces of fund-raising. At the end of January 1990 Philip McCormack set off on a 7000 mile cycle ride through South America to raise funds for the HCPT’s Hosanna House building appeal. He travelled through Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia and finished in Venezuela and raised £14000 for the fund. His progress was regularly reported in Mortnews. Then in 1994 he set off on an even more challenging adventure. This time he was cycling to Australia, a trip of over 12000 miles to raise funds for McMillan Cancer nurses. He worked as a waiter for 18 months before he left so that he could pay all his expenses himself and sponsors could be sure their money was going to the charity. He sent regular long letters home detailing his adventures, the journey was definitely not all plain sailing! Copies of these letters were collected together and given to Richmond Local Studies library where they are kept with the archive of “Mortnews”. They are well worth reading.

In June 1994 Fr. McCormack celebrated 40 years as a priest. He continued as parish priest until Autumn 1997 when he retired and was succeeded by Fr. Christopher Pritchard. Fr. Pritchard was the first parish priest of Mortlake not to have a curate, however he was joined in the parish by Marie Peters as his pastoral assistant. During Fr. Pritchard’s time, the parish celebrated its 150th anniversary, with a special Mass and a marquee being erected in the carpark for the celebrations. Around the same time the cedar tree which had stood beside the church for at least 140 years died. It was replaced in June 2000 by a tulip tree.

At this point the Mortnews archive comes to an end so there are few records for most of Fr. Pritchard’s time in the parish. Ill health caused him to retire in 2010 and he was succeeded by Fr. Richard Whinder. Fr. Whinder had been a schoolboy and altar server at Good Shepherd, Downham, when Fr. Pritchard was curate in that parish.

Fr. Whinder remained at St Mary Magdalen from May 2010 until September 2017. During this time the church celebrated its 160th anniversary with a solemn Mass followed by lunch, at which actors portrayed Canon Wenham and Lady Mostyn in a short drama commemorating the foundation of the parish - pupils from the parish primary school also dressed up as Victorian children - bringing home how our school and young families have always been such an important feature of parish life here. During Fr Richard's time the church also underwent another thorough renovation, with new lighting, flooring and painting throughout. The sanctuary was completely refurbished, with a new tiled floor based on the original Victorian designs, a new marble plinth for the altar (which was raised to a higher level) and a new gradine and tabernacle set into the East wall, as well as two new sanctuary lamps which flank the altar. Finally an original Victorian pulpit was acquired, which sits very well with the original church furnishings. These works were carried out under the expert guidance of architect Anthony Delarue, who has worked on many historic buildings. This beautiful church looks its best once again, and provides a fitting backdrop for the celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments which now, as always, are at the heart of life in this busy parish community.  

Parish Priests of Mortlake:
Canon John Wenham: 1851–1895
Canon Charles Hogan: 1895–1922
Canon Emil Burt: 1922–1944
Canon Gibney: 1944–1973
Fr. Brian Leahy: 1973–1989
Fr. John McCormack: 1989–1997
Fr. Christopher Pritchard: 1997–2010
Fr. Richard Whinder: 2010–2017
Canon Francis: 2017–

The Cemetery

The cemetery at St. Mary Magdalen’s was the first Catholic cemetery in London. Until that time many leading Catholics, including the Vicars Apostolic, had been buried in the graveyard of Old St. Pancras church in London. Catholic laypeople were buried in their local Anglican churchyard. By the mid-nineteenth century burials in city churches and churchyards had become a serious health problem for they were full and over-flowing. The 1852 Burial Act gave the General Board of Health responsibility for seeing that graveyards were established elsewhere. Alongside large cemeteries small parish and denominational cemeteries were set up. St. Mary Magdalen’s was one of these. The first internment took place in 1853 and the cemetery was in use well into the twentieth century.

Many of those buried there were the parishioners of Mortlake but the cemetery also contains the graves of more than fifty priests and nuns. Among the names of Catholic laymen are members of the leading recusant families, those who had stayed loyal to the church through the long years of persecution. Arundell, Bellasis, Stonor and Jerningham are some of them.

Among the other notable graves is that of the explorer, Sir Richard Burton and his wife, Isabel Arundell who lie in the exotic mausoleum designed by Isabel to resemble an Arab tent. Restoration was completed in 2010 by Richmond’s Environmental Trust. The exterior stonework was repaired and the interior decorative work was restored. The artifacts inside were also conserved.

The second mausoleum in the churchyard is that of the six year old Comte de Veslo and his mother. The Richmond area was home to relatives of the deposed king of France, Louis Phillippe. The king’s son, Phillippe, Count of Paris lived in Mortlake for a time and an annual Mass is still offered for him. Families loyal to the deposed monarchy also lived locally, and several of them are buried in the churchyard. It is believed that the young Comte and his mother probably had connections to this French ‘court in exile’.

John Francis Bentley, the architect of Westminster Cathedral, is also buried in the churchyard, as is Scott Naysmith, the first Catholic Inspector of Schools and Sir James Marshall, Chief Magistrate of the Gold Coast, now Ghana. He was responsible for bringing Catholic missionaries to Ghana and is regarded very highly by Ghanaians, particularly by the ‘Knights and Ladies of Marshall’, a lay organization who come on pilgrimage to the parish every first Sunday in May. Mass is celebrated and the Knights and Ladies go to pay their respects at Sir James’ tomb. It is their great hope that he may one day be canonised.

After the cemetery was enlarged in 1868 there was a long dispute over whether ownership of the cemetery had been transferred to the diocese. Eventually in 1896 it was agreed that the cemetery should belong to he parish. Once the cemetery was full it fell into a state of considerable neglect. The cemetery frequently caused problems for the parish. As early as 1934 Fr. Burt wrote a letter to the bishop commenting on the cost to the parish of maintaining the long cemetery wall along Worple St. He said that the cemetery was in an appalling state when he arrived as Parish priest. He was having to employ an extra man at a cost of £1 a week to keep it in good order. Even then the haphazard method of burials made using the ground for later burials difficult. Letters to the diocese from visiting relatives raised concerns about this particularly from the 1970s onwards. In 1982 there was even a letter to the Times about it following a visit of a member of the public to the tomb of Sir Richard Burton. Stung by this, the men of the parish spent the summer months working on it so that when Fr Leahy returned from his summer break he found a neat and tidy cemetery. Enquiries were made of the parish priest, Fr. McCormack in 1995. He was 74 years old at the time and felt that his energies must be concerned with the living rather than the dead. The parish could not afford the upkeep of the cemetery and it was hard to keep neat and tidy. Fr Pritchard came up with a novel solution- In July 1998 two goats arrived hopefully to eat their way through the weeds and undergrowth. Discussions continued for the next ten years to try to find a satisfactory solution. Today a team of volunteers from the parish give their time every Saturday to keep the paths clear and the grounds smart. Due to their hard work it is still possible to visit a unique piece of Catholic history.