The Book of Molesey
Rowland G. M. Baker, 1986
'Here is the church, and here is the steeple,|
Open the door and here are the people'.
Like many other things, it is to Domesday Book that we must turn to find the earliest mention of a church in Molesey. It appears on the holding of Odard Balastarius. Probably the monks of Chertsey Abbey first planted it here for, wherever Benedictines controlled the land, the brethren brought the Cross. No details of the building have survived. It undoubtedly would have been of extremely elementary timber construction, of modest size, and almost certainly on the site of the present St Mary's.
A more solid church of mortar and flint rubble was erected in the 12th century, and survived until the Victorian era. It was still a small edifice, of nave and chancel only, the whole about 52 feet long by 26 feet wide. By 1368 the fabric had fallen into such disrepair that, following a visitation by the Bishop, the Dean was instructed to hold an inquiry to find out who was responsible for its maintenance and to issue directions for its repair. The roof, at first probably thatched but later tiled, was crowned at the western end by a small weather-boarded tower surmounted by a splay-foot spire. On either side of the nave was a family pew, each a small room about ten feet square and entered only from the outside. That on the south side was built in 1712 for Mr Hezekiah Benson of Bridge House, and that on the north, which was divided in two, in 1760 for Captain John Clarke and Charles Carpenter. In each case permission was given to enclose part of the churchyard, and to be forever appropriated to their respective houses.
In 1849 the building was described as 'a pretty rustic structure'. Its pride, however, was the number of monumental memorials to be seen on the inside. Some of these were high baroque ornaments, inscribed with a plethora of fulsome compliments such as the epitaph writers could tax their minds to devise. Most of these are now preserved in the base of the tower of the present church, but lack of space makes their display extremely limited.
The church, being so small, could only seat some 135 people, and for many years was far too small for the population of the village. Although St Paul's had been opened in 1856, pressure on the accommodation continued. Agitations had been afoot since 1843 to rebuild the church, but all attempts had been frustrated by lack of funds and personal animosities.
On Sunday 6 December 1863 the people went to church as usual and, being a cold wintry day, the wardens lit the stove to keep the congregation warm, which they evidently failed to make certain was fully dowsed before they left. The next day smoke was observed issuing from the building, where some pews had been smouldering from the heat of the stove; they immediately burst into flames when the door was opened. Help was called and in a short time the fire was extinguished. However, some damage had been done, particularly to the pews, pulpit, and other fittings. References to this fire usually exaggerate the damage caused. In fact the insurance company's estimate for restoration was less than £160. Its importance, nevertheless, lay in that it forced the parochial authorities to act, and they decided on the demolition of the old church and the construction of a new one on the same site.
The architect chosen to design the new church was Thomas Talbot Bury, a student of Augustus Pugin; he chose the Early English style, using Kentish rag stone. He was also responsible for the parish schools (later the Adult Education Centre) and the vicarage (now demolished). The nave and chancel were consecrated on 17 October 1865, a north aisle and tower and spire were added in 1867, and the south aisle in 1883, for which the architect was Bury's old friend Charles Barry, son of the architect of the Houses of Parliament.
Over the years the original dedication of the old church had been lost and, when the new church was consecrated, the name of St Mary was chosen. However, from documents preserved in the British Library and the Surrey Record Office, it is now clear that in Tudor times St Lawrence was the patron saint.
East Molesey was at one time a part of the parish of Kingston upon Thames, whose vicar appointed a curate to serve the needs of the people, although from early times it enjoyed some parochial privileges. In 1769, under a private Act of Parliament, East Molesey, together with certain other places, was separated from the mother church to form what was called an ecclesiastical district, and the incumbent was entitled perpetual curate. It was not until 1868, when a general Act was passed allowing all benefices to be designated parishes, that the three ministers of Molesey could claim the right to be called vicars.
The coming of the railway in 1849 increased the population of East Molesey rapidly. In 1854 Mr Kent, who had long campaigned to have the parish church moved onto his new estate, decided to escalate the matter by building a church in the middle of his development, and offering it to the village in lieu of the old overcrowded building. This proposal was turned down by the older residents, as it meant moving their sacred edifice away from its time-honoured site to a new one on the edge of the parish. Mr Kent then applied to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for leave to open it as a district church with himself as patron, and this was granted. The church was opened for divine service on 24 February 1856, and consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester later in that year. It consisted at first of nave and chancel, seating about 250 people. As further accommodation became necessary, a south aisle was added in 1861-2; a north aisle in 1864, and the nave was extended in 1870. In 1887-8 the church was completed by the addition of a tower and lofty spire, with a baptistry beneath, and a total seating capacity of 500. The style is Perpendicular, and the architect was Stephen Salter.
The earliest mention of a separate village of West Molesey was in the latter part of the 12th century, and it is probable that a church was first built here at that time. It was a low building, of nave and chancel only, with a small porch on the south side. The walls were constructed of plastered rubble with some small round flints, and were in some places nearly five feet thick. The roof was probably originally made of thatch, but was later tiled. In the 15th century the present tower was added, and it seems probable that there was an intention then to rebuild the whole church, but the scheme was never put into effect. The west window was most likely inserted in the early 16th century, as it has a pelican, the badge of Bishop Fox who was lord of the manor here in 1511, sculpted at the apex, although time and the English weather has badly eroded the carving.
In 1843, mainly due to the efforts of the Rt Hon John Wilson Croker, a well-known politician and author who lived at The Grove, where he often entertained some famous people, the dilapidated old church was demolished, except for the tower, and rebuilt on the same site. The architect was John Macduff Derick of Oxford, who chose to build in white brick, in a rather poor, imitation-Gothic style. In 1859 it was enlarged by the addition of a north aisle.
The church contains one or two things worthy of note. The font is a good example of 15th century work. The oak pulpit, with a heavy sounding board, is Jacobean, as is the old communion table, which has now been moved to the north aisle and is backed by a screen carved and painted by the late Rev E. A. Sydenham, vicar here in the inter-war years. A piscina saved from the original building is incorporated in the walls of the chancel, and there are several old memorials, including a brass to Thomas Brende, who died in 1598, his two wives and his eighteen children, and a 17th century cryptogram on a black marble tablet to Frances Thorowgood.
Just as happened in East Molesey, over the years the original dedication of the church became forgotten. During Mr Sydenham's incumbency, permission was sought to have the building re-consecrated and, on 3 July 1928, the rather rare service of re-dedication was performed by the Bishop of Guildford and, by the wish of the parishioners, St Peter was elected as its patron saint.
In October 1936 a mission church dedicated to St Francis was opened in Eastcote Avenue, on what was then a rapidly expanding housing estate, to do duty both for religious purposes and as a community hall. A sliding screen was provided to conceal the altar when the building was in secular use. However, the need for separate services in this area soon proved to be unnecessary, and the hall became used almost entirely for social functions. In 1971 the Charity Commissioners sanctioned its demolition and the sale of the land for the erection of a block of flats.
In the early part of the last century, dissenting services were held in various cottages, including one in Bell Road. In 1847 Methodist meetings were held in the classroom of a private school, which a Mr Thomas had opened in Suffolk Cottage, Bridge Road. The school, together with the services, moved to new premises in Tor House, Manor Road, in 1860. The congregation then increased to such proportions that additional accommodation was urgently required. A piece of ground by the side of Tor House was acquired and, mainly by the assistance of Mr Chubb from the well-known firm of locksmiths, a building for about 100 people was erected and opened in 1867, to serve both as meeting hall and Sunday school, until sufficient funds were available to construct a proper church. Enough ground was left in front for the purpose.
Plans were drawn up by Alexander Launder of Barnstaple - a simple edifice in unostentatious Gothic style, of yellow brick with stone dressings. The foundation stones were laid on 3 August 1876, and the first service was celebrated on Whit Sunday the following year. The Sunday school was rebuilt in 1885, unusually consisting of a main hall with 14 classrooms leading from it — allegedly the first institution of its kind. The school was modified and a new community hall constructed in 1970, named Moss Hall, after one of Molesey's pioneer Wesleyans.
As the population of the district increased, so did the number of people who wished to practise non-conforming worship. Many of them trudged all the way to Kingston each Sunday, but by the 1880s there were enough of them to form a congregation locally. A Mr Alfred Hall was chosen as pastor and, under his enthusiastic superintendence, a site was chosen for a church in Bridge Road, which was opened on 14 December 1886. It was soon realised that mistakes had been made. Firstly the scale of the church was much too ambitious for the size of the congregation, so they were loaded with a debt repayment far above their capabilities. Secondly the church was at the wrong end of the village. Membership did not increase and, when the energetic Mr Hall left the district to take up an appointment in Wales, it dwindled even further. Finally the church was closed and sold in November 1896 to Mr Harry Tagg, boat builder, for £1,000, hardly enough to pay off the debts. In the same year a new pastor, Rev George Harper, was appointed and for a time services were held in the Conservative Hall, until enough money was raised to start on a new church. In 1897 that church was begun in Walton Road, almost opposite the end of Park Road. Of corrugated iron on brick foundations, and capable of seating about 250 people, it opened on 15 July 1897. When first built it had an ornamental spire on the front end of the roof, said to be considerably higher than many buildings of its class. The spire was not as secure as it might have been; during a bad storm it was blown right off and ended upside down impaled in the roadway outside. By the early 1930s support had again dwindled. The church was closed and the building was sold to the Molesey Labour Party, who used it as a meeting hall. Just before the last war, together with adjacent property, it was demolished to make way for a parade of shops. The building in Bridge Road still exists, and can best be seen from the little alleyway which leads past Creek Cottages.
Around the turn of the century a community of French nuns, Les Dames de la Mere de Dieu (The Ladies of the Mother of God), founded a convent in a large house called Stonyhurst in Vine Road. In 1905 the sisters gave permission to local members of the Catholic faith to worship in the little chapel they had had erected in the house. It was so popular that it soon proved far too small. Mainly through the energies of the clergy of St Raphael's Church, Kingston, a building of timber and corrugated iron at Putney, where its services were no longer required, was purchased, dismantled, and re-erected on a plot of land adjacent to Stonyhurst. The church, dedicated to St Barnabas, was consecrated and opened by the Bishop of Southwark on 28 November 1906. Seating was for about 120 people.
A fine new church in mottled brick in the Romanesque style, seating some 300 people, was built beside it in 1931. The old building was afterwards used as a meeting hall and school, but was later demolished after being gutted by fire. A new hall now occupies the site.
West Molesey church about 1900, before the building of the lych-gate. The general stores between the church and the Royal Oak was run by William Mason and is advertised as 'The original Tea & Coffee Rooms'. It was taken over in 1910 by Miss Fry, known to all the children who went in for sweets as 'Polly' (although this was not her name).
ISBN 0 86023 251 4
The Book of Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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