Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
3 June 2017
The parish church of St Mary Newington has a long history that goes back to the 13th century. It has not been the most fortunate of churches but nevertheless has survived, in one incarnation or another, a ‘Rupture’, demolition and rebuilding, road widening and the bombs of the Second World War. Now located in Kennington Park Road, until the 1870s the church was located on Newington Butts in what is now called St Mary’s Churchyard, the former graveyard attached to the church just south of the Metropolitan Tabernacle,
John Aubrey’s History of Surrey which was published in 1719 states that St Mary’s Newington was about 150 years old apart from the north aisle which had been added in 1600. But around the time Aubrey’s book was published disaster struck when during Sunday Service “there happened a sudden Rupture in the Wall of this Church” (Strype) which caused the congregation to panic and run out of the church and many “were bruised and trodden underfoot, and received great Hurt” in the ensuing stampede. Upon examination, the church was found to be decayed in the pillars, walls, beams, roof and foundations and there was no alternative but to demolish the church and rebuild. The new building was completed in 1721 but had to be mostly demolished and rebuilt in 1793 when again gross defects were discovered in the walls.
The population of the parish of Newington was rapidly growing and Holy Trinity Church and St Peter’s Walworth were built in the 1820s to accommodate the increased congregation. St Peter's Lorrimore Square was completed in 1856 and St Gabriel's Church was built in 1874 at the far end of St Mary's churchyard.
The design and positioning of St Mary’s in Newington Butts was not to the liking of everyone. Richard Elsam, Architect, whose address was 21 Church Row, Newington Butts, and so a close neighbour of the church, described it in an An Essay in Rural Architecture (1803) as a:
“protuberance obtruding on the highway whose exterior semblance conveys scarcely a better idea of a parochial church than a riding school in Hyde Park It has been justly remarked that many of our best religious fabricks are only to be found lurking in bye streets lanes and alleys but it is less decorous that such a building as the one just alluded to should remain an obstruction in the centre of a public road a very great thoroughfare and whereby the most serious accidents have occurred in truth its entire removal might not be unjustly ranged amongst the improvements to one of the approaches of the first commercial cities in Europe.”
A map of 1871 shows the church right at the road’s edge.
Mr Elsam’s desire that the church be removed did not happen until after he was probably long gone as it was not until 1876 that the church was pulled down by Act of Parliament for the widening of Newington Butts. A new church was built on the present site in Kennington Park Road and consecrated in May 1876. This church was bombed in 1941 during the second world war and only a shell remained.
The present church was built in 1958, located behind the tower and part of the portico of the west front that survived from the 1876 building and which are Grade II listed.
Burials had ceased in the old church graveyard in Newington Butts in the 1850s and was laid out as a public garden when the old church was demolished. Old headstones were laid out along the perimeter of the new garden, some of which survive, and a clock tower, paid for by a former churchwarden, was erected to mark the site of the former church. This was a grand gothic structure reaching 100 feet high and the base of the structure measuring 14 foot square, but unfortunately this had been demolished by 1971 due to deterioration. St Gabriels Church had fallen into disrepair and had been demolished in 1936.
There is a granite tablet in the churchyard that tells the history of St Mary Newington Church. Buried underneath this tablet in 2008 following refurbishment works to the churchyard is a time capsule containing items that include coins, badges, photos, a tube map and a photo history of the Elephant and Castle chosen by pupils of a local primary school together with other items selected by the congregation of the present church in Kennington Park Road. The park is undergoing further transformation with the building of the new leisure centre and other surrounding redevelopment.