Building » Mortlake – St Mary Magdalen

Mortlake – St Mary Magdalen

North Worple Way, Mortlake, London SW14

A Gothic Revival church of 1851-2 by Gilbert Blount. The planned spire was never built and the tower remained a stump. The church is surrounded on two sides by a cemetery, which includes the mausoleum shaped like an Arab tent where Sir Richard Burton and his wife are buried. The churchyard is the burial place of a number of other Catholic notables, including the architects J. F. Bentley and Leonard Stokes. Among the church’s historic furnishings and fittings is an altar by George Goldie and a stained glass window commemorating Burton. The church is locally listed and is an important landmark in the conservation area. The Burton connection makes the church and cemetery a visitor attraction.

In the early nineteenth century there were few Catholics living in the area. However, in the years after the Great Famine their numbers were increased by Irish workers in the local market gardens. By 1843 Mortlake was served by Fr Joseph Hodgson, curate at Richmond. From 1848 Hodgson said Mass in a room over the stables at Portobello House, made available by Lady Constantia Mostyn. The present site was acquired for a new church, presbytery, school and churchyard. The only building on the site was a brick house, which served as the presbytery until the present house was erected in 1856-7.

On 22 July 1851 the foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Wiseman. The church was opened on 12 May 1852, with Bishop Grant celebrating at the inaugural Mass and the Cardinal preaching. The architect was Gilbert R. Blount and the builders were Messrs Smith & Appleford. The building cost less than £3,000, paid for by an anonymous donor; this may have been the mission priest, Canon John Wenham, or Lady Mostyn herself. She certainly paid for the organ by Gray & Davidson. Plans for adding a 120ft spire to the short tower remained unexecuted.

The first burial in the cemetery took place in 1853. In the late 1850s the new school opened and was subsequently extended in 1859 and 1890. A Visitation report of 1863-64 mentions a temporary wooden altar with a wrought iron tabernacle. They were replaced in 1867 by a stone altar and reredos by George Goldie, which were blessed during the church’s consecration on 7 September 1867 by Bishop Grant.

On 15 June 1891 the body of the writer and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90) was placed in a mausoleum in the churchyard, in a ceremony attended by over 500 people. The mausoleum was in the shape of a tent, decorated with both Christian and Islamic symbols, and was designed by his Catholic wife, Isabel Burton (1831-96), née Arundell. Isabel had local connections and as a young woman had stayed at Portobello House with Lady Monica Gerard, the widow of her maternal uncle John, and Catherine Strickland-Standish. Several members of her family were also buried in the cemetery, including her brother Rodolph. Burton had died on 11 October 1890 at Trieste, where he was given a Catholic funeral, despite being an agnostic. Isabel also paid for a memorial window in the church, depicting St Mary Magdalen, St Joseph (on whose feast day Burton was born), and St Agnes (whose feast day was the eve of the Burtons’ wedding day). After her death, her coffin was also placed in the mausoleum, according to Burton’s wish, ‘I should like us both to lie in a tent, side by side.’

In 1885-7 Fr Bourne (later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster) was curate at Mortlake. In 1896 the high altar was rebuilt, incorporating three frontal panels, and re-consecrated on 25 January 1897 by Bishop Bourne. The new altar was the gift of the St Aubyn family. In 1896 the current Lady altar was given to the church by Henry and Mary Whitgreave.

In 1902 the church was redecorated and in 1912 the parish hall built. It was extended northwards, towards the presbytery, in 1928. In 1913 the north porch was converted to a baptistery. In the 1920s the chairs in the side aisles were replaced by pews. In 1938 the simple wooden altar rails were replaced by new rails and the sanctuary re-floored in marble. During the works the altar was disturbed and had to be reconsecrated. For the centenary in 1951 the church was redecorated, the Stations of 1891 were replaced, and the organ reconstructed. Following the Second Vatican Council the sanctuary was reordered, which included the moving of the altar, the erection of a new tabernacle stand, a new pulpit and new metal altar rails.

During 2010, the grade II*-listed Burton Mausoleum, previously on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register was restored. The project was managed by the Environment Trust, with HOK London as the consultant architect, and Holden Conservation as the conservators. The project was funded by individual donations, including from the Friends of Burton, and grants from English Heritage and the Heritage of London Trust. The door to the mausoleum was permanently sealed and a viewing window was created in the roof at the back, in the opening originally filled by a stained glass window (destroyed in the 1970s). (The window can be accessed by a short metal ladder.)

The Burton connection makes the church an important visitor attraction. During the day the building and cemetery are open to visitors.


The church was built in 1851-2 to a design by Gilbert Blount. The materials are Kentish ragstone with Bath stone dressings and a slate roof. The plan is longitudinal, comprising a nave flanked by side aisle with slightly lower pitched roofs. At the west end of the south aisle is a short tower, containing the entrance porch. Another porch, at the northwest, is now the baptistery. The sacristy at the southeast links the church and the presbytery. The south elevation is the most visible, closing the vista of the access road. Above the doorway in the tower porch is a niche with a statue of St Mary Magdalen (1850s).

Inside the southwest porch is a glazed timber draught lobby. The four-bay nave has a pointed arcade with alternating circular and octagonal piers. Both nave and aisles have scissorbeam roofs. At the southwest corner is a plaque to the parish priests between 1852 and 1952. The west window is dedicated to the memory of all those buried there (twentieth century). Its theme is ‘Through Cross to Crown’ and depicts the Noli me tangere, the Crucifixion, Our Lady Queen of Heaven, and the Ascension. Below is the west door, between a large timber Calvary (by Burns Oates) and a small timber confessional.

The north aisle has a niche with a small statue of St Anthony, a plaque to Henry Bedford Sleeman (died 1912), a benefactor to the church. The Stations are unframed carved timber reliefs (installed 1951). The second bay from the west has the former north porch, since 1913 the baptistery. It has the octagonal stone font carved with tracery, a mosaic floor and a short window with flowing tracery. The window in the third bay from the west is dedicated to the memory of the Hon. William Towry Law (1809-86), a former Chancellor of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, who converted to Catholicism in 1851, and of his son, Rev. Augustus Henry Law SJ (1833-80), who died in Rhodesia as a missionary priest. The window dates from c.1886 and depicts St William, Our Lady Star of the Sea, and St Francis Xavier, above representations of Law at prayer, and his son in his last illness.

The fourth bay from the west has the Burton memorial window, erected by Isabel Burton in c.1891. It depicts St Mary Magdalen, St Joseph and St Agnes. The lower part of the centre light shows Richard Burton as a Christian knight at prayer.

The Lady Chapel has a rail which is continuous with that of the sanctuary. Marble steps lead up to the carved stone reredos whose central niche holds a statue of the Virgin and Child, and the stone altar (both given in 1896). The relief on the altar’s frontal is of the Coronation of the Virgin. The chapel’s east window was a gift of Catherine Strickland-Standish (died 1863) and depicts St Catherine of Siena, St Mary and Saint Robert d’Arbrissel. The north window shows the Annunciation. Nearby is a timber statue of the Virgin and Child.

The sanctuary has a five-light east window with flowing tracery. St Mary Magdalen occupies the centre light, with the Noli me tangere scene to the right, and in the left two lights a scene from Luke 7. The reredos consists of a stone frieze below the window cill carved with grapes and wheat, and six angels surmounted by crowns, and a central canopied niche. It dates from 1867 and was designed by George Goldie. Against the east wall is a plain stone tabernacle stand. The altar of 1867 was altered in 1896 when three carved panels were inserted: the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Crucifixion, and Melchizedek offering bread and wine. The first two panels were apparently altered to fit their positions. The south wall of the sanctuary has a piscina, a sedilia, the door to the sacristy, and two arches above to the organ chamber with a Gray & Davidson organ. Set into the marble steps at the southwest corner of the sanctuary is a plain stone pulpit dating from the post-Vatican II reordering. The carved leaf capitals of the Lady Chapel and the sanctuary are apparently based on the famous thirteenth-century capitals at Southwell Minster.

At the east end of the south aisle is another sacristy door beside a small stone altar, reredos and canopy with a statue of the Sacred Heart. The first window from the east is also dedicated to the Sacred Heart (1920s): in the left light, Mary receives Communion; in the centre, the Sacred Heart above a scene from the Last Supper; at the right, St  Margaret Mary Alacoque.  The next  window  is  the First World  War memorial window with St George and St Patrick flanking St Michael the Archangel. The third window in the south aisle has two small stained glass panels of a Crucifixion scene and a female head. They were gifts from a Polish parishioner. Below this window is a marble plaque to Sir James Marshall CMG KCSG (1829-89), chief justice of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), who was buried in the cemetery. Near the entrance lobby is a statue of St Joseph, a marble stoup and a brass plaque to Jacob Montagu Mason in whose memory the tabernacle was erected.

List description (Burton Mausoleum)


Mausoleum. c1890. Mausoleum in the shape of a Bedouin tent made of Carrara marble and Forest of Dean stone, 12 feet square and 18 feet high. The roof has a gilt tailed 9 point star, the pelmet was enriched with stars and crescents, and the rear originally had a stained glass panel showing the Burton monogram, now replaced in clear glass. Entrance, now blocked, has a crucifix above. Door has inscription “To Sir Richard Francis Burton 1821-1890 and Isabel d.1896”. Beneath is a poem by Justin Huntly McCarthy. Interior, visible through rear glass panel contains above ground ornate tapering coffin with extensive gilt enrichment for Sir Richard Burton, with crucifix and camel bells. There is a more conventional mahogany coffin for Lady Burton. Painted roof representing the heavens with stars and seraphim and strings of camel bells. Shrine to rear wall and religious paintings of Christ with Magdalene and Crucifixion to sides and Arabic lamps on floor. This burial was a response to Sir Richard Burton’s horror of darkness. An extraordinary mixture of chapelle ardente and Bedouin tent.

Heritage Details

Architect: Gilbert Blount

Original Date: 1851

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed