St Mary’s Churchyard in Lewisham

St Mary’s Churchyard in Lewisham lies on the busy main road between Lewisham and Catford and it is easy to ignore the site. But this is an interesting churchyard, and a very old one which today covers 0.9 hectares. It is one of several interesting churchyards in Lewisham, more accessible and ‘complete’ than Christ Church in Forest Hill, and smaller than St Paul’s in Deptford.

History of St Mary’s Church in Lewisham

‘…A church has existed at Lewisham from at least the C10th, an earlier church replaced in the C15th, the current building dating from the late C18th…’.

London Gardens Online, April 2012

St Mary’s Church was also the graveyard for the parish until 1856. Ladywell Cemetery opened in the same year because it is a larger site, alongside the older Brockley Cemetery.

St Mary’s church in Lewisham
View of the Church from the main road
Former Vicarage of St Mary’s Church in Lewisham
The former Vicarage

Views in the Churchyard

Sadly there is quite a lot of neglect in the churchyard – broken graves, trees growing into tombs, inscriptions which can’t be read anymore, and litter.

People buried in the churchyard

St Mary’s Church how uses the Ladywell Cemetery for burials. The Ladywell Cemetery, joining on to Brockley Cemetery, is the bleaker of the two, but they are both fascinating and beautiful. Do visit. There are still various large tombs in the churchyard but the churchyard has not been restored and so they are in varying states of repair and disrepair.

Information board in the churchyard
Unidentified grave
Ebenezer and Elizabeth Blackwell’s memorial in St Mary’s graveyard

Ebenezer Blackwell (1731-82) was a banker, and a partner in Martin’s Bank in the The City. He was also a trusted friend of John and Charles Wesley, and supported their charities financially. He and his wife Elizabeth lived at The Limes, one of the mansions in Lewisham, and they are both buried at St Mary’s.

According to an article published in The Finial, the journal of The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain, Ephraim How and his son John were very successful and enterprising cutlers in Southend in the 18C. Their mill was established on the River Ravensbourne, c.1700, and the pool at Homebase was the mill stream for their Lower Mill. Ephraim How died in 1720 and his son in 1736 and they are buried in the churchyard. By contrast, Thomas Dermody (1775-1802) was an Irish poet and his tomb stands today in the garden behind the Church. It seems that he wasted the talents he had, and his life.

Henry Tibbats Stainton co-authored British Butterflies and Moths in 1857-59 and lived in Mountsfield House. Today the grounds of the house are Mountsfield Park, a glorious park, with wide views and wonderful autumn colours.

Henry Tibbats Stainton’s tomb
Tomb of Captain Charles Weller (d.1866) and his wife Maria (d.1870)

Captain Charles Weller captained and then owned the Albion, a ship in the East India Company.

The Desvignes Family owned Wilderness House and Hither Green Lodge, both large country mansions alongside Mountsfield House. The mansions were demolished to build a hospital, which has in turn been demolished for housing. Peter Hubert Desvignes (d.1883) designed the Liechtenstein Palace in Vienna.

Desvignes family tomb

John Edward Gray (d.1875) was a scientist who worked at the British Museum where he was in charge of Zoology. He apparently created the largest zoological collection in the world. He also founded a group which developed into the Royal Entomological Society.

Trees at St Mary’s Church in Lewisham

The Yew Avenue

‘…Rows of historic yew trees line a distinctive path along the north east side of the churchyard. Yews are common in churchyards as they were needed for making longbows and arrows, and could not be planted in fields as they were poisonous to cattle. For Christians the tree symbolised everlasting life and the patient wait for Resurrection…’.

Information board in churchyard

And amongst the trees…

Ferns in the churchyard

Information board in the churchyard

I fear the situation appears to have deteriorated badly in 2020. The wall is mainly bare. I found ferns here and there but they do no look happy – perhaps this is because the summer has been so dry. I also couldn’t find more than two varieties. There were lichens, but I regret I know nothing at all about them!

Front wall of St Mary’s Church
Front wall of St Mary’s Church

The Therapeutic Garden

Part of the former graveyard is now a garden, managed by volunteers.

The path separating the church (R) from the garden (L)
Evening light in the garden
The vegetable garden

The River Ravensbourne is at the end of the garden, between the church and Ladywell Fields.

  • River Ravensbourne in St Mary’s Churchyard in Lewisham

St Mary’s Church in Lewisham, from Hilly Fields

St Mary’s Churchyard in Lewisham is worth visiting. Just pause for half an hour before rushing on to Catford, or back to Lewisham. Local people are making a garden and the tombs tell a story of a wealthy and high-achieving past in the area.

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