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St. Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey

[Newspaper cutting , source unknown, 19th - early 20th C.]

Sir,—A visit to this church will well repay a stranger, if only to see what can be done with an old building to render it in conformity with modern times. The church, we are told, was built in 1690 — that is, the body of the church. The tower is much older, and from the Norman arches supporting the second storey, seems to date from the period when "that grasping rasping race" held rule. These arches can at present only be seen by entering the belfry and opening the case of the organ, which occupies nearly the whole of the recess. There is, however, a drawing extant by Turner, R.A., which shows the vestibule of the church previous to the introduction of the belfry floor in 1722. The arches there delineated exhibit all the beauty seen in Norman structure, whilst the light emitted from the Gothic window (restored by G. Porter, Esq., in 1830) sheds a delightful chiara oscuro over the picture. The roof of the nave of the original church was supported, no doubt, upon a series of similar columns and arches, of which these only remain. While I am on the subject of the tower, I may mention that in 1733 the image of Mary Magdalen over the clock was ordered to be taken down, and iron bars put up in the belfry windows to prevent the boys from going on the leads; so even at that time the Bermondsey youths had to be restricted in their amusements.

In the beginning of the year 1676, the parish church being much decayed, and in great danger of falling, we find the vestry meeting, and agreeing that it shall be well and sufficiently repaired from the foundations upwards, at the charge of the parishioners. It was further ordered that a tabernacle be set up for the purpose of divine service, and that Dr. Parr, the rector, be requested to procure the bishop's licence for preaching therein. The cost of these reparations was about £1,799, and the necessary sum was raised by a three years' tax, together with subscriptions collected by a committee of gentlemen, formed to assist Dr. Parr in petitioning the Earl of Salisbury, and other persons of quality who were living out of the parish for their free gratuity towards the repairs of the church. William Castel, a Justice of the Peace, whose monument is at the south east-end of the church, seems to have taken a very active part in this re-building.

In the same year, we have the parish getting into litigation with the Quakers, who refused to pay the tax for the church, and which resulted in the imprisonment of some of that body; for in 1681 William Schoomger, a Quaker and pin-maker, attended before the vestry, and obtained the release of his friends upon their promising to do something for the parish in some other way, because, as they said, their consciences would not allow them to pay any tax for the repairs of a church which they neither do nor can worship in, and this spirit moving sect again contended with the parish in 1807.

In 1705 the north gallery was erected (at this time the hangings of the pulpit were of green velvet with gold fringe). Aubrey, writing in 1718, thus describes the chancel: "The altar piece is adorned with cornish and large compass pediment; under the latter are Queen Anne's arms, carved in relievo, and under the former the decalogue in two tablets placed between the portraits of Moses and Aaron." This carving has long since disappeared, and your correspondent was very much struck at seeing only a few years ago in the window of a public-house, called the King's Arms and Hand Inn, opposite the church, a shield of oak wainscoat of a like character to that in the church.

I went in and saw the landlord, who told me that he had found it among other lumber when the house was transferred to him, and that he had separated the lion and unicorn from it. He stated that as the house was the sign of the King's Arms, the carving represented the arms of the monarch who had quaffed a glass of foaming ale at the house. This was very fine, but scarcely agreed with the quartering on the shield which was such as Queen Anne alone bore, the arms of Scotland on its union being quartered for the first time with the royal arms during this reign, and no succeeding monarch ever bore the same arms. But to pass on. In 1795 the gallery on the south side was erected, the carvings of cherubims and oak leaves being of like description with the north gallery. The pulpit and desks were then removed from where they stood, and set up on the north side of the middle aisle.

In 1843, the old double pews were made single, and extensive alterations effected. The chancel window of stained glass was put in, with the dove holding an olive branch; this was the gift of the then contractor, James Hunt, Esq., of Idol-lane. The pillars supporting the church, which, till then, had been plain white, were painted imitation Sienna marble; the flags of the Bermondsey Volunteers were taken down, and the whole of the repairs cost about £500.

The present alterations consist in lowering the pews about a foot throughout the church; the backs have been also inclined. The carved pulpit, which dates from 1609, has been moved some seven feet farther east from its former position, enabling a better view of the preacher to be had, as also of affording more pew accommodation. The old reading-desk has disappeared, and a neat oak one, divided by Gothic panels, in admirable keeping with the early portion of the church, has been substituted. This has been erected upon a raised platform on the south side of the chancel.

Two new coronas, each with eighteen burners, for lighting the church, have been introduced, and does credit to the taste of the churchwarden, G. Redgrave, Esq., who has personally superintended the whole of the recent improvements. The Tuscan columns supporting the roof have been cleaned and revarnished, the bases painted imitation red granite, the corbels white. The columns of the composite order supporting the galleries are red. The carvings of the cherubims, fruit, and festoons in the communion have been painted white, enriched with gold; the paterers adorning the ceiling have been likewise gilt, with cobalt ground, and harmonizes nicely with the stained glass window.

The manner in which the alterations have been viewed by the parishioners is evinced by the crowded state of the church during the two last Sundays, and betokens that they admire both sound gospel preaching and comfortable seats. The services at this church, commencing at 11 am, and 6.30 p.m., are conducted by the Rev. Lewen Tugwell, the rector; there is also afternoon service at 3 o'clock for the benefit of persons unable to attend at the other services. This is under the able ministration of the Rev. R. S. Keitch, the senior curate. I may mention as a sign of the times that the alterations have been effected by voluntary means.

H. L. P.