Building » Chislehurst – St Mary

Chislehurst – St Mary

Hawkwood Lane, Chislehurst, London BR7

A small church of 1853-54 by the Puginian architect William Wardell, notable above all for its associations with the exiled family of Napoleon III, who then lived in Chislehurst. After his death in 1873, the Empress funded the addition of a large French Gothic chapel by Henry Clutton (1874). Although the coffins of the Emperor and the Prince Imperial were later transferred to Farnborough Abbey, the church retains the memorial to the Prince, as well as some furnishings given by the Empress. Graves in the churchyard include that of Charles West, the founder of Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Around 1851 Mass was first said at Chislehurst in the home of Captain Henry Bowden of the Scots Fusiliers Guards, a house called The Coopers (later known as Tudor Hall). Bowden, a Catholic convert, also donated land on a field across the street from his house, and endowed the work. The foundation stone was laid on 8 December 1853 by Bishop Grant. It took only nine months to build the small church and the attached presbytery. On 8 August 1854 the church was opened by Bishop Grant. The architect was William Wilkinson Wardell (1823–99), an architect and engineer, who was a friend and follower of A. W. N. Pugin. He designed about thirty churches, mainly in London and the southeast, before emigrating for health reasons to Australia in 1858. In 1861, he became inspector-general of public works in Victoria. He designed St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, and St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

The first mission priest at Chislehurst was Fr Baron Gauci-Asseopardi, originally from Malta. The third priest was Canon William Todd DD, who founded an orphanage at Norman Cottage on Chislehurst Common. He moved the orphanage later to Greenwich, and then to Blackheath, which led to the founding of the Blackheath mission (qv). The graveyard surrounding St Mary’s church was opened without permission and against the conditions of the foundation. Among the earliest burials was that of May Anne Bowden, the wife of Captain Henry, the founder, in 1864. In 1876 a parish school was opened on land on the other side of Crown Lane.

The initial congregation consisted mainly of Irish quarrymen and farm labourers; however, this changed when in 1871 the exiled family of Napoleon III, France’s last emperor, arrived at Chislehurst, where they settled at Camden Place. The exiled Emperor himself died in 1873 and was buried on 15 January 1873 in St Mary’s. Bishop Dannell officiated at the service. In 1874 the architect Henry Clutton built for the Empress a large French Gothic style chapel  to  house  the  large  granite sarcophagus. (The detailing of the chapel’s steep roof behind a pierced parapet apparently derives from the chapel in the château at Amboise). As a gift, Clutton also built a downstairs room for the presbytery.

The Prince Imperial joined the British Army and died fighting in the Anglo-Zulu War on 1 June 1879. His body was brought back to Chislehurst, and Cardinal Manning preached the funeral sermon. Mgr Isaac Goddard, the then mission priest, erected a large memorial with effigy to the Prince Imperial. However, Empress Eugenie refused to unveil the memorial – possibly due to the failure of her plans for a large mausoleum at Chislehurst, which apparently were thwarted by the diocese and by the existence of the Bowden family vault just outside the chapel. The residents of Chislehurst erected a monument to the Prince on Chislehurst Common.

In 1881 the Empress founded St Michael’s Abbey at Farnborough, where she transferred the Emperor’s sarcophagus and the Prince’s coffin in 1888. The Prince’s memorial remained in the church, and the spot in the chapel where the Emperor’s sarcophagus had rested was marked with an inscribed slab of black marble. (Apart from  the  chapel,  the  only  remaining  gifts  from  the  imperial  family  are  the monstrance, a prie-dieu and the presidential chair. On his retirement, Mgr Goddard apparently took with him the vestments given by the Empress.)

Fr Augustus Mary Boone, mission priest from 1892-1914, found the church in a state of neglect. He closed the churchyard in 1900, except for burials in existing family vaults. The parish school struggled against the competition from three local Anglican schools, until it was closed in 1898. Fr Boone made numerous additions to the church, including eight stained glass windows in the nave and the chapel (two by I. Daniel of Paris, and six by Hardman), one window in the sanctuary, an organ gallery, a large statue of St Peter, five other statues, the communion rails, and new seats by the Misses Butler. He also supervised (and mostly funded) the arrangement and colouring of the high altar and Stations (later replaced), and the painting of four panels in the old reredos by a Prix de Rome artist in Paris.

From 1914 to 1919, the parish priest was Fr Robert Collinson, son of the Pre- Raphaelite painter James Collinson. The Tiarks family, who had settled in Chislehurst in 1900, gave £200 each year towards the cost of maintaining the church and presbytery. They also funded the building of a furnace chamber and the installation of a new heating system in 1921, the installation of electricity in the church and presbytery in 1922, and the repair and repointing of the external stonework of both buildings in 1924-25. In 1925 the Tiarks’ Silver Wedding Anniversary, they gave to the church a large organ and a carved timber gallery, and new white stone Stations to replace the Victorian ones. The new Stations are reminiscent of Eric Gill’s Stations for Westminster Cathedral. The Tiarks also paid for the installation of the wrought iron screen between the nave and the chapel; oak panelling around the font (since removed); a statue of St John the Baptist; and a stained glass window in the sacristy which used to be in the Tiarks’ private chapel, which was destroyed by fire. (The window itself was destroyed during the Second World War.)

In 1938, a neighbouring landowner, Col. Edlemann, donated part of his meadow as a cemetery extension, enabling the reopening of the graveyard. The site rapidly filled up again. The new owners of Edlemann’s meadow later donated another slice of land. Today the graveyard is closed again, apart from the existing family graves.

During the Second World War, a statue of St Anthony carved by an Austrian Jew was presented to the church by an Austrian who had escaped from Vienna. On 23 April 1943 the church was finally consecrated by Archbishop Amigo; the ceremony originally planned for 1934 had been postponed ‘until happier times return’.

In 1966 the original school building in Crown Lane, which had been used as a hall, opened as a nursery school. It was sold in about 1975 and is now in private residential use. In about 1969 a stained glass window was installed featuring scenes of St John Fisher. At some point after Vatican II, the altar was moved forward, the communion rails removed (a section survives in the chapel), the sanctuary raised, and the pulpit shortened. In the 1970s or 1980s, church land to the north and east of the church was sold and developed as housing. Between 1981 and 1986, the external fabric was repaired by the architects Ralph Lovegrove and Associates of Dartford, funded by a grant from English Heritage. As part of the restoration work, four small stained-glass panels depicting the Evangelists, originally from Dunstable Priory and rescued by the London Stained Glass Repository, were installed in the nave.

Graves in the churchyard  include that of  Charles  West (1816–1898), the founder  of  Great  Ormond  Street  Hospital,  and of the short-lived Claude Sophie O’Shea (born and died 1882), daughter of Katherine (‘Kitty’) O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell. The graveyard also has a section dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy community of Bermondsey who moved to Chislehurst in 1945.


The list description (below) is fairly short and focuses mostly on the historical associations; it does not mention the architects or describe the building, either inside or out.

The church faces northwest; however, this description will use the conventional liturgical orientation. The church was built in 1853-54 from designs by W. W. Wardell. A chapel by Henry Clutton was added to the northeast corner in 1874. The church itself is built using rubble ragstone masonry with ashlar dressings. The tiled roof has several modern skylights. The chapel is built from ashlar. The plan is rectangular of an aisleless nave with a narrower chancel. It has a chapel and an entrance porch on the north side, and a smaller porch at the southeast, beside the sacristy which connects the church and the presbytery. There is a small bellcote on the gable to the chancel.

The west facade is very plain, with only two two-light windows between angle buttresses. The side elevations are similarly austere. In contrast, the exterior of the chapel is very decorative. The parapet has an elaborate pierced screen on whose solid corners stand imperial eagles. Both gables have finials on apex and corners, with a further finial on the centre of the roof ridge supporting a large metal cross. The chapel has its own entrance at the west. At the east, it half-obstructs a window on the north side of the chancel, which is awkwardly accommodated in a niche.

The four-bay nave has a timber organ loft at the west end (1925), half obstructing the west windows. The windows depict the Annunciation and St Rose of Lima (north), and the Presentation and St John Berchmans SJ (south), both of 1908 and by Hardman. Below the west gallery is statue of St Peter enthroned (acquired between 1892 and 1914). The nave ceiling is timber panelled with scissor-beam trusses. The north side of the nave has two windows: Two small evangelists (originally from Dunstable Priory, installed  here in 1986),  and  a window  of St  Augustine and  St Edward (1894, by I. Daniel, Paris). Between them is the door to the main entrance porch. Further east is the entrance to the chapel. Two round-headed arches with two central columns are filled with a wrought-iron screen and gates with the inscription ‘Laus tibi Domine, Rex eternal gloria’ (c.1920s, given by the Tiarks family). A mural in the spandrels above includes the imperial eagle with the letter ‘N’, an inscription from Psalm 2,10, and inscriptions to the hearts of Christ and Mary. The chapel is dedicated to the Sacred Heart, which appears in the central quatrefoil of the chapel’s west rose window, surrounded by French saints, including St Louis of France, St Henry and St Margaret Mary. The chapel has three bays, a stone rib vault with wall shafts and naturalistic leaf capitals. The three single-lancet north windows depict St Agnes, St Joseph, and St Paul (1907, Hardman). Near the west entrance to the chapel is a small shrine to the Virgin, the octagonal stone font, and a timber screen used as a confessional.  On the west  wall are two  timber war  memorial plaques. Below  the central north window is a niche with an effigy of Christ in the Tomb. In front of this stands a section of the timber altar rails, and the Empress’s prie-dieu. At the east stands a stone altar, with a stone canopy, and a small modern Sacred Heart statue. The floor of the chapel is covered in tiles with a crowned letter N and the imperial eagle,  surrounding the central slab of black marble,  marking  the spot where the sarcophagus of Napoleon III used to stand.

The sanctuary has a scissor-beam roof with four roof lights. The rose window depicts the Queen of Heaven with the Child, surrounded by angels (undated, maker unknown). Below is a large white stone reredos with blind tracery panels and the tabernacle. The forward altar is also of white stone. The timber pulpit is decorated with tracery and a plaque in memory of Blanche Mary Rathbone. Lectern and chair are also of timber, the latter apparently a gift from the Empress. The north side of the sanctuary has another window, darkened by the chapel extension. The window depicts the Noli me tangere with an inscription dedicating it to the memory of Digby Hugh Beutell (died 1944); however, stylistically the window dates from much earlier, possibly the 1890s. This may be the sanctuary window added by Fr Boone during his incumbency between 1892 and 1914. The south wall of the sanctuary has a piscina, the doorway to the sacristy, and an oil painting of the Pietà in Netherlandish style.

There is a niche in the corner between the sanctuary and the nave, which apparently used to be a doorway and has been blocked up. It now holds a large statue of St Joseph. Directly adjacent is the memorial to the Prince Imperial. The niche is flanked by two pillars topped by crowns with eagles. The effigy of the Prince is depicted wearing his British army uniform. The back of the niche is covered in tiles with golden bees from the coat of arms of the Bonaparte family,  around a memorial plaque. Below the effigy are quatrefoils with the eagle, panels with the letter N and a more personal inscription by Mgr Goddard.

On the west side of the memorial is another door, leading into the south porch. Some of the windows on the south side of the nave match those of the north: a window of St Dunstan and St Philip (1894, attributed to I. Daniel, Paris), a window showing St John Fisher and scenes from his life (c.1969, Hardman Studios, in memory of John Henry  Walshe  (died  1969)),  and  another  window  with  two  small  evangelists (originally from Dunstable Priory, installed here in 1986). The Stations of the Cross (1925) are square white stone relief panels. The outlines of the figures are highlighted in simple red lines, with the haloes picked out in gold.

List description


Plain Gothic building erected in 1854. The Emperor Napoleon III’s body was placed in the Sacristy on the 15 January 1873. The Empress Eugenie, in 1874 added to the building a Mortuary Chapel in French Gothic style to contain the Emperor’s sarcophagus. The body of the Prince Imperial was brought back here on the 12 July 1879, but both the Emperor’s sarcophagus and the Prince’s coffin were removed by the Empress to Farnborough, Hants., in 1889. There is a memorial to the Prince Imperial on the East wall of the church erected by Monsignor Goddard his friend and tutor on the spot where the Prince’s coffin rested from 1879-89.

Listing NGR: TQ4422269671

Heritage Details

Architect: W. W. Wardell

Original Date: 1853

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II