History

History of the Church Building

Photo of the Church

  • Origins - The first record of a Vicar of Twickenham was in the early thirteenth century, although the original church pre-dates this earliest record. All that remains of the mediaeval church is the tower, constructed of Kentish Rag (a poorly consolidated sandy limestone found beneath the Chalk of southern England). The remainder of the Rag Stone building collapsed on 9 April 1713, the result of neglect and the digging of vaults.
  • Rebuilding - Sir Godfrey Kneller of Whitton, the churchwarden and court painter, initiated the red brick nave and interior to the plans of John James of Greenwich - a classic example of the architecture of the period, paid for by a subscription among local people.
  • Stained glass - Originally the windows were filled with Victorian stained glass but bombing in 1944 destroyed this.
  • Vestry - The vestry was enlarged in 1975, in the same style as the nave.

A history of the church by local historian, Anthony Beckles Willson, published 2001, is available from the Parish Office priced £10.00.

Alexander Pope and St Mary's

Image of Alexander PopePope came to live in Twickenham in 1719 and held court for 25 years. In these surroundings he fashioned the image of his own cultural beliefs.

His personality, villa and garden acted as a magnet for most of the major literary figures of his day: Voltaire, Swift, Gay came to stay with him at the villa he built on the riverside. Other visitors included Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II.

Most of the villa was demolished in 1807, but the grotto survives, enveloped by a 1934 building. In this context the enduring memory of Alexander Pope is a tribute to the power of his spirit, undimmed 250 years after his death in 1744. The nature of the man has fascinated writers and students of English literature both during his lifetime and since his death. As well as the body of his poetry and letters his satirical wit shines through the language we use today:

Know then thyself presume not God to scan the proper study of mankind is man
To err is human, to forgive, divine
Hope springs eternal in the human breast
A little learning is a dangerous thing
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread
                                                                 Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
                                                                 Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed

Equally Pope is remembered for his contribution to the development of English landscape gardening and can be claimed as one of its main progenitors. He left his mark on a number of country estates, such as Stowe, Cliveden, Prior Park, Cirencester Park, Marble Hill, Cornbury, Tottenham Park, Rousham. Walpole saw him as an influence on William Kent. From about 1720 there was no more famous a garden than his own, in Twickenham, where he was also advised by Kent and Charles Bridgeman.

Pope’s parallel interest in architecture found expression in the construction of his villa, connected to his garden by a tunnel. Beneath the villa the tunnel was entered through a network of cellars which he employed in the forming of his grotto. The creation of the grotto, for him the interface between man and nature, occupied him greatly during the last years of his life. The work of adornment with rock, spar, semi-precious stone and mirrors also occupied many of his friends. Pope obtained specimens of stone from all over the world. Spring water he found, by chance, in place and this too was put to service. He learned from Borlase the natural historian and expert on Cornish mining the secrets of nature underground. By linking scientific, classical and romantic nature, the creation of Pope’s grotto was a seminal event in the 18th Century’s search to establish man’s relationship with nature.

The garden and grotto attracted enormous interest and admiration. There was a constant stream of visitors to see his work, and this was encouraged by Pope. There were arrangements for guided tours. Immediately after Pope’s death his gardener, John Serle, published a guide to the layout and to the contents of the grotto.

St Marys ChurchAdulation should have ensured preservation. Unfortunately, Pope owned none of the land. He was only a tenant. Although, towards the end of his life he had the opportunity to buy his property he did not proceed. In any event he had no family to whom the property could have been bequeathed. When he died the leases reverted to his landlords. The property was sold seven or eight times between 1745 and 1919 and most of the buyers were more interested in possessing a Thames-side villa than conserving the memory of Pope. To some of them he was an embarrassment: the enduring stream of pilgrims was an intrusion. In due course adulation effectively invited the destruction of this record of Pope’s life. During the sixty years following his death later owners first stripped the garden, building a wall around it and, in 1807, demolished most of the house.

To that extent, in physical terms the memory of Pope in Twickenham has been honoured only in the breach. But attempts at erasure of Pope’s legacy have only served to strengthen the memory of this extraordinary man.

When Pope died he was buried in St Mary’s Church, Twickenham. He intended that this should be marked only by the addition of the words “et sibi” (and himself), with the date, to the memorial to his parents on the east wall of the north gallery.

However, a further memorial was installed, in 1761, on the north gallery wall. A medallion portrait which his admirer Bishop Warburton had put there, as the bishop thought Pope's own memorial too insignificant.

He was buried in the nave of the church, a stone with the letter 'P' marking the spot, and a brass plate by the chancel steps was added in 1962 on the initiative of the Faculty of English at Yale University.

Today there is the opportunity to reinforce this record, once more. The riverside property includes the grotto, buried in a mass of later building. Although much has been destroyed, records suggest that more remains concealed than is apparent today. Acquisition and restoration would enable the visible re-establishment of Pope as a poet gardener in Twickenham's cultural pantheon.

Anthony Beckles Willson
 February 2004.

Archives

Records relating to St Mary’s go back several hundred years and include records of baptisms, marriages and funerals as well as church accounts and vestry minutes.

For further information or to make enquiries contact the Parish Office on 020 8744 2693 or email administrator@stmarytwick.org.uk