History of Christchurch Gardens, Victoria
Sat alongside the busy Victoria Street, Christchurch Gardens doesn’t seem that historic at first glance. However, scratch the surface and there’s plenty of stories connected to this little green space.
In September 2020 the gardens reopened after an extensive 3-year refurbishment by ReardonSmith.
Regrettably a number of plane trees were cut down during the works. The decision was made to allow more sunlight to reach the grass and gardens and from the before and after images I have, I do think it is an overall improvement.
History of Christchurch Gardens
This area of London was known as Thorney Island during the Middle Ages. Swampy and marshy, nevertheless it was close to here that Saint Dunstan decided to establish the first Westminster Abbey in 960 AD.
By the 1200s this land – owned by the Abbot of Westminster – was the site of an annual three-day fair and “markett in the Tuthill every Munday” according to John Stow in his Survey of London.
It was within the Tothill Fields that a chapel dedicated to St Mary Magdalene was built in the mid 13th century. But Stow says that by 1598 it was “wholly ruinated”
A New Chapel appeared on the site in 1631, established with money bequeathed by the Canon of Westminster, Dr George Darell.
It was intended as another church and extra burial space for the St Margaret parishioners, St Margaret being the 12th century church (rebuilt 1520s) that still stands on Parliament Square.
The New Chapel was only consecrated in the 1660s, when King Charles II was restored to the throne. Just in time too, as the site was used as a plague pit for thousands who died in the 1665 plague outbreak.
By 1841 New Chapel was crumbling and in 1843 a new church – Christchurch – was consecrated. You can see an image (with the subsequent towering spire added) on the City of Westminster Archives here.
Sadly, in the early hours of 17 April 1941, Christchurch suffered a direct hit from several incendiary bombs. Five firemen died fighting the blaze and though the tower and vicarage did survive, they were demolished in 1954.
You can view a haunting image of the interior nave transformed into a garden, painted by RG Matthews in 1946 here.
It’s very reminiscent of today’s not-so-secret bomb damaged garden, St Dunstan-in-the-East.
Victoria Street carved through this area in the mid 1800s as part of the Westminster Improvement Act, which intended to disrupt the haphazard collection of slum housing known as the ‘Devil’s Acre’.
The garden opened to the public in the 1950s. Today, aside from the name, there aren’t many clues that this garden was once the site of a church.
The only giveaway is the tombstone to Mary White tucked in one corner.
The tombstone describes Mrs Mary White, wife of George White who both lived in this parish for many years. Mary died in 1820 aged 67.
Tragically the plaque also records “Also near this spot lies seven children who died in their infancy. George, Charlotte, Sarah, Robert, Elizabeth, Charles and James. Also to the memory of George, a second son and an officer of His Majesty’s Navy who died in captivity during the late war 12 October 1805”
I’m not sure of the exact number of the many people interred here, but you might be curious to learn that a number of notable people lay under your feet…
Notable Burials in Christchurch Gardens
Born in Prague, Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677) worked in Germany before arriving in London in 1636, sponsored by his patron the Earl of Arundel.
Known for his panoramas which capture London pre-Great Fire, he was a prolific artist and helpfully created an engraving which depicts Tothill Fields, held in the Royal Collection.
The hut in the centre is described as a ‘summer house enclosed with bushes’ while in the distance can be viewed Westminster Hall and the Abbey. In the far right, the old St Paul’s Cathedral.
Born in Africa, Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) was brought to London to work as a slave for a wealthy family in Greenwich. Managing to escape from this family, Sancho secured paid work for the 2nd Duke of Montagu who also fostered his talents for reading and writing. You can find a plaque in Greenwich Park remembered his time there.
He would later become a celebrated ‘Man of Letters’, regularly commentating on the news of the day and using his pen and status to campaign for the Abolition of Slavery.
Along with his wife Anne, Sancho ran a grocery store in Westminster and as a financially independent homeowner was eligible to vote in the 1774 general election, making him the first known person of African descent to vote in a British election.
There’s another plaque on the wall of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which is part of my self-guided Westminster walk in my London Guide Book.
The Irish thief, scoundrel and absentee landlord, Thomas Blood (1618-1680) is most famous for trying to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London on 9 May 1671.
Finding the Jewel House guarded only by the 77-year old Talbot Edwards, Blood supposedly overpowered Edwards and stuffed a crown and pieces of the regalia down his breeches before making to the nearby wharf where he was caught red handed. Off with his head, surely you’d think? Well, no. Even more incredibly King Charles II let him off, even given land in Ireland worth £500 a year. Why no retribution? It’s a mystery we’ll probably never know!
A special mentioned should also go to one Mrs Margaret Batten who died in 1739 at the astounding reported age of 136! Born in Paisley she supposedly came to London to prepare Scotch broth for King James II. After his death she fell on hard times, ending up in St Margaret’s Workhouse which stood close to Dean’s Yard until it was demolished in 1834.
Statues in Christchurch Gardens
There are three statues within Christchurch Gardens, each a nod to local history.
At the entrance you can find the face of English Composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) by Glynn Williams. Foliage appear to burst from his head like a flower power thought bubble which supposedly represents the ‘flowering of the English Baroque’. Purcell is buried in Westminster Abbey, where he was organist from 1679. Quite the rise for someone born a stones throw from this site in the slums around Old Pye Street.
In the far corner is an unfurling scroll, commemorating those involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage.
“This tribute is erected by the Suffragette Fellowship to commemorate the courage and perseverance of all those men and women who in the long struggle for votes for women selflessly braved derision, opposition and ostracism, many enduring physical violence and suffering”
The last sentence is fitting, because this memorial was unveiled in the presence of Lilian Lenton who developed pleurisy after food entered her lungs having been subjected to force-feeding in prison during 1913.
After the government attempted to deny this, a letter to the Times was published by the surgeon, Victor Horsley who described the violent act:
“She was tied into a chair and her head dragged backward across the back of the chair by her hair. The tube was forced through the nose twice … after the second introduction when the food was poured in, it caused violent choking.”
Later, while serving in a Serbian hospital as an orderly during WWI, Lenton was awarded a French Red Cross Medal.The sculpture was created by Lorne McKean and Edwin Russell, erected in 1970.
Lastly there is the Victims of Violence memorial, unveiled by Helen Grant in 2013 who was at the time the Minister for the Courts and Victims.
Christchurch Gardens is open daily and can be found along Victoria Street, SW1H 0HW.
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