St Mary Magdalene Church stands on a small hill close to the Thames in Woolwich. A village church has stood here for hundreds of years but today it feels isolated, rather than part of a community.
A brief history
Perhaps 1,500 years ago a Saxon fishing village and its small church stood on sloping ground in Woolwich, close to the River Thames. In 918, together with the Manors of Greenwich and Lewisham, King Alfred’s daughter gave the church to the Abbey of St Peter in Ghent.
Shortly after the Conquest it was replaced with a stone building dedicated to St Lawrence. And in 1100 King Henry I gave the church to the Priory and Convent of St Andrew in Rochester. By the 15th century the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a century later it was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene.
By the 17th century the building was in danger. A new road to service the expanding dockyard ate into the sloping ground, destabilising the building. Worse still, local residents warned the Admiralty in the 1630s that ‘the bones of the dead are washed out of the churchyard and into the river’.
Today’s church dates from the 1730s. It was built through fundraising and a small donation from the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711. It stood further to the south and higher up the hill on 1.5 acres of land bought from the Bowater family, the main landowners in this area. The old church was demolished, the ossuary rebuilt, the churchyard was extended and new walls enclosed the site. The churchyard was further enlarged in later years but finally closed for burials in 1865. Plumstead Cemetery opened in 1890 and replaced the graveyard at St Mary’s Church.
Gardens of St Mary
Charles Escreet was appointed Vicar in 1892 and he worked with Basil Holmes of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association to convert the 4-acre graveyard into a public garden. Fanny Rollo Wilkinson, the first professional woman landscape designer, was employed by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. She laid out the gardens. (She also worked with the Kyrle Society.) There is surprisingly little information about how she worked and the original layout of her gardens.
G P Youngman, the Council’s Consultant Landscape Architect, redesigned and enlarged the gardens in the early 1960s. He added raised beds, alpine rockeries, and new paths. More gravestones were moved to the perimeter which is always a sad sight to me.
In the garden
The trees in the gardens are lovely, and there is the usual curious wildlife! The autumn was unusually warm and some out-of-season flowers popped up.
Tom Cribb (1781-1848) was the World Champion Bare-Knuckle Boxer. His rather curious tomb stands in a corner of the gardens.
The gardens of St Mary’s Church in Woolwich are quiet and pleasing and feel quite apart from the busy life of the town below.