The substantial church of St Leonards at Streatham could almost be seen as God’s’ traffic calming measure as it makes the drivers on the busy Streatham High Road inch past its walls. But once inside St Leonards churchyard the noisy flow seems to fade to a hum and you can appreciate a church which has had a chapel on its site for over 1000 years.
I was on a guided tour organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and our guide was John Brown who had an obvious affection for St Leonards.
The first church was built in 1350 and the lowest part of its tower still stands. St Leonards was then rebuilt in 1778 and altered again in 1831 when the nave was completely rebuilt and a crypt created. During the 1860’s a chancel was added. But, on 5 May 1975, disaster struck when a fire completely destroyed the interior. It was then re-designed and St Leonard’s now has a whitewashed interior within its 19th century walls. This has created a wonderful backdrop on which the surviving wall tablets and memorials are well displayed. An inspiring blend of the ancient and new.
We began by exploring outside and stopped to admire the tower which is known as Sir John Ward’s Tower . According to John, it has the highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon growing halfway up it. The tower is built from Surrey flint and is topped by a modern spire dating from the 1841.
The churchyard contains over 250 memorials dating from the 18th century with the last burial in 1841. Part of the graveyard was bombed during the 2nd World War and, as a result, has been landscaped to create a Garden of Remembrance. John revealed that some of the burials had only had a wooden graveboard which had long since disintegrated.
St Leonards was a very fashionable church during the 18th and 19th centuries and, as a result, a chapel of ease dedicated to All Saints was built in a nearby road. Alas, even God was expected to adhere to the rigid class system of the time as the local gentry worshipped at St Leonards and their servants would attend their own service at All Saints. Dr Johnson and James Boswell are known to have visited the church. This may be one of the reasons that there are several prominent local people buried in the churchyard. John pointed out some of the more illustrious tombs; Merian Drew, the lord of the manor and his daughter Jane Agnes Fisher, George Pratt of Pratts Department store in Streatham and the Colthurst family member who had owned Coutts bank.
William Dyce, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and polymath, lies under a broken cross. He designed the florin coin and was a much in demand portrait painter. Amongst his many achievements were the frescoes in the robing room of the House of Lords although they remain unfinished. He also painted another celebrated fresco for the House of Lords, ‘The Baptism of Ethelbert’. My own favourite of his paintings is ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858’ with its haunting, melancholy atmosphere and muted colour palette. He was also a churchwarden at St Leonards and was responsible for designing the chancel in 1863. Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ of 1827 featured on the Royal Mail 2007 Christmas stamps. Robert Garrard, the royal jeweller s also lies here and there was a flat, plain slab on the grave of one of novelist Trollope’s nephews who was the owner of the building firm, Trollope and Colls. I also admired the small sculptures of angels on the Montefiore monument. There were also several tombstones dating back to the 1700’s with a scattering of skull and crossbones.
A large monument had been made from the wonder material of the 19th century, Coade Stone. A Mrs Coade, invented it but for a long time the recipe was lost. However it and the techniques for producing the stone have now been rediscovered and a new range of Coade sculptures are currently available.
We then followed John inside to admire two 17th century imposing and magnificent monuments in the porch. The striking Massingberde memorial commemorates a London merchant and Treasurer of the East India Company who died in 1653. The two figures facing each other symbolise the triumph of life over death. The dramatic Howland monument was erected by a grieving widow, Elizabeth, to her husband John who died in 1686 and features a brooding skull and several cherubs.
At the top of the chancel by the altar were the Thrale monuments. These were to Henry Thrale and his mother-in-law, Mrs Salusbury. Henry, who is also commemorated by the nearby Thrale Road, was a wealthy brewer and MP. He and his wife, Hester, entertained the well -known movers and shakers of the day including Dr Johnson and James Boswell. There were two epitaphs written in Latin by Dr Johnson and a beautiful tablet by John Flaxman is set into the wall. It has three female figures on it which were reputedly carved from the life. One of them is Sophia Hoare. John Flaxman (1726-1803) was a prolific sculptor of funerary monuments, mainly in the Classical style, and his work can be seen in Westminster Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral as well as many churches.
A somewhat dog eared and damaged figure lies on top of what looks like a table tomb. This is what’s left of an effigy of Sir John Ward in his armour. Colin Fenn of FOWNC has compiled a list of helpful notes to accompany the reconstruction drawing of it and estimates the figure as dating from 1350-1380. Sir John fought with the Black Prince at Crecy and, in the modern Streatham stained glass window, he appears holding a model of the first, 14th century chapel that he built. The rest of the window records the history of Streatham and St Leonard’s and is well worth seeing. It’s by John Hayward as all the stained glass within St Leonard’s.
There are more intriguing memorials in the Chapel of Unity and John drew our attention to Edward Tylney’s. He was the Master of Revels, under Queen Elizabeth 1 and King James 1, and who put on plays and other entertainments for the Court. He was renowned for being vain and had the memorial created during his lifetime which is why there is a blank space for the date of his death in 1610. But there is another version in which the mason was so relieved at Tylney’s passing that he omitted to add the date of his death. Nearby is William Lynne’s affectionate tribute to his wife, Rebecca which dates from Cromwell’s reign. Part of it reads: ‘
‘Should I ten thousand yeares enjoy my life I could not praise enough so good a wife.’
The oldest inscription, dated 1390, was below the altar and is a small brass plate which asks for prayers for the repose of a long past rector, John Elsefield.
Then we descended the spiral staircase to the crypt. This was an unexpected surprise. Although not as extensive as West Norwood or Kensal Green it was still impressive and atmospheric with incumbents in their loculi.
Loculus which is Latin for ‘little place”, plural loculi, is ‘an architectural compartment or niche that houses a body, as in a catacomb, mausoleum or other place of entombment’ Wikipedia
The crypt is laid out with 2 corridors and the gated individual family vaults lead off them. Some contained entire families including the Thrales. John showed us one in which the loculus had been bricked up as the occupant had been buried in only a shroud. This was Mr Costa, a silk merchant, who left instructions that every pauper who carried his coffin was to be given a guinea. Needless to say, his coffin was carried by many poor men and so his wealth was redistributed. Only the undertaker was left empty-handed. There’s also two earls who ended up down there whilst visiting Streatham but I don’t think that the two events are connected.
The crypt was rebuilt in 1831 and was used as an air raid shelter during the 2nd World War during which time an experiment was carried out to determine the depth of the charnel pit under the flagstone floor. The measure went down as far as it would go which was 20ft but the pit extended far below that. More recently it became the home of a local tramp called Black Tommy who had his mail delivered there. One wonders with whom the postmen would have left large packages when Mr Tommy was out.
As a finale, John showed us the substantial headstone of the local ratcatcher which proved that he was certainly busy, successful and appreciated. Sadly, the epitaph appears to have completely vanished. Afterwards a couple of us strolled about the churchyard reading the fine epitaphs on several memorials.
© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
Our grateful thanks to John Brown for his knowledge and enthusiasm, St Leonard’s, and Cathy Mercer of FONC for organising the visit.
http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn_07/articles/wrig_09.html baptism of ethelbert
http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artist.php?artistid=120 – portrait of William Dyce
© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.