St Mary’s Walthamstow

My fieldwork at Highgate cemetery has taken me to London a lot lately. Sadly because of tax code debacles, university fees being due and a host of unexpected expenses, I’m trying to get super cheap train tickets for inconvenient hours of the day and scrimp on accommodation costs. Therefore I was over the moon when my brother who lives in Walthamstow announced he was going on holiday and needed someone to look after the cat… A place to stay and a cat to cuddle? Yes please! He’s even been kind enough to let me stay with him and his lovely girlfriend since too – I’m so grateful for their ultra-hot shower and comfy air mattress at the end of a muddy day. The route from my brother’s flat to the tube takes me through some really beautiful parts of ‘old’ Walthamstow – including walking past St Mary’s church.

It’s a stunning building and I’m not sure my overexposed photos do it much justice. The churchyard is especially lovely too – with plenty of old stones and a real country feel.

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On my second day I noticed a sign attached to the fence advertising an open day on the Saturday – starting at 10am, which would give me just enough time to explore before my nephew’s birthday party (my other brother’s eldest). I seized the opportunity with a great deal of enthusiasm – especially as the poster promised a chance to do brass and stone rubbings!

I arrived a bit early and had a wander around the churchyard until ten. I was most impressed by the chest and pedestal tombs in the churchyard at St Mary’s – there are so many fine examples including some styles I’m never seen before.

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The lions here really caught my eye – I would later learn that this memorial, which dates to 1802 (dedicated to Issac Solly, a local merchant) has been recently refurbished by English Heritage and is Grade II listed.

 

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I am less familiar with Georgian/Regency memorial forms than with Victorian ones but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tomb like this before. Isn’t it fantastic? This example is dedicated to the Bedford family, it’s form may have seemed unusual to me but perhaps not for the people of Walthamstow, as there is also another similarly shaped monument at the north end of the churchyard.

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The churchyard looks really magnificent with so many different and striking monument types. Especially on such a dazzlingly sunny day. (I should thank my nephew for the weather – he’s 7 and the weather has been beautiful for his party every year so far).

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In addition to the tombs there are some rather fine headstones too – my eye was drawn to this one in memory of Mary Ann Palmer and her son Arthur Percy. I love the floral arrangement in the centre and most of all the relief lettering around the edge ‘In the midst of life we are in death’.

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I was the first person to arrive for the open day – and I think I flustered the organisers because they weren’t quite ready (although very happy to see me!). Perhaps my eagerness for church tours and brass rubbing is not widely shared? Based on my own family’s reaction of mild disinterest when I arrived at the party, I’d say I’m easily excited by such things!

The church is amazing – with so much to see including stained glass, finely carved choir stalls, a lovely pulpit and of course a wide range of monuments.

The church is amazing – with so much to see including stained glass, finely carved choir stalls, a lovely pulpit and of course a wide range of monuments. I picked up a couple of leaflets and started exploring.

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I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to take pictures at first – until some other visitors arrived and started snapping without being ejected from the premises. I was still careful to turn off my flash – for the sake of the painted memorials in particular. The finest example of those being this memorial to Lady Lucy Stanley and her four daughters. Lady Lucy was the second daughter of the Earl of Northumberland and this monument is the work of William Cure II.

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Many of the memorials are not in their original locations – including Lady Lucy’s which was moved from the forth bay of the north arcade in 1819. In front of her memorial there were some monumental brasses to practice rubbing with – also not in their original location (which I have a sneaking suspicion was pride of place front and centre of the nave.

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Is it just me or do those outlines look familiar?

My rubbing didn’t come out too well – I think I need more practice! There has to be a secret to getting an even coverage. I think thinner paper might have helped me… The gold and silver crayon also photographs very poorly so I can’t show you my attempt!

There are also some more brasses set into a pillar near the chancel, which originally came from the tomb of George Monoux (1543), lost during Victorian restoration of the North aisle which included removal of the Monoux chapel. The brasses are a lucky survival.
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Although the brasses have been relocated, there are still plenty of inscribed stones laid into the churches floor, including several with carvings. There was even a chance to try my hand at stone rubbing too – which was even harder than brass rubbing when the carvings are so pronounced. This rubbing was supposed to be of the lion on this crest, but it came out very faint and indistinct.

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Another of the memorial slabs in the centre of the church also bears a coat of arms. This slab commemorates Benjamin Batten d. 1684. According to the leaflet, Batten’s father Sir William also lived in Walthamstow – he was a surveyor in the Navy in the reigns of Charles I and II, and also a friend of Samuel Pepys.

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I’ll have to go back to St Mary’s and investigate further one day – including taking a tour of the tower, but I had to dash so after dropping some money in the donations book and signing the visitor book for the open day.

Recently a friend sent me a link to this map and I discovered that the site of a plaque pit from The Black Death is located behind the church on Vinegar Alley! I’ll have to go and check that out, even if the only memorial is the road sign itself – the vinegar was apparently used to hide other less pleasant smells…

 

Comments

  • I haven’t done a rubbing since I was a kid, so I can’t give advice on that, but now I really want to do one again! That graveyard is just the sort I like, peaceful and “parklike”, the kind of place I would love to spend the afterlife!

  • Hello! Came across your site when doing some more research on St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow! Thank you for your kind comments about the Open Day; we’re glad you enjoyed the brass and stone rubbing! I hope we don’t burst your bubble, but we don’t think there is a plague pit in the churchyard. Our understanding (from listening to a local historian, more experienced than ourselves) is that the plague didn’t reach this far out of London and that the more likely explanation of the name “Vinegar Alley” is because, at one time, the area nearby housed a tannery which used urine and the vinegar was used to hide that smell… however, we are open to more concrete evidence about a plague pit. Do come back and see us again; our peal of ten bells are being refurbished in Loughborough at present, but are due back in September, after which we will be celebrating!

    • Thank you so much for your comment Jacqueline!
      Fantastic to have a local view on the origin of the name and the history of the area with regards to the black death. That’s what I get for not critically examining my sources!

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