The Building and Decoration of St Mary Plaistow, Bromley
St. Mary’s rejoices in a wonderful building with impressive decoration. But it was not always thus. Early in its history it had a reputation as being anything but delightful.
For more than seven centuries the parish church of Bromley had been sufficient but, accelerated by the arrival of the railway in 1858, the population of the town increased rapidly and more churches were needed.
In 1839 the church of Holy Trinity, Bromley Common, had been built to serve the needs of south Bromley. Plaistow, in north Bromley, demanded a third place of worship. Somewhat dismissively it was pronounced; “As the residents consist mainly of journeymen and labourers, a place of low church persuasion with free seats is called for”.
Largely thanks to the generosity of the Scott family of Sundridge Park, a site on Brown Field to the west of Plaistow Lane (renamed College Road in 1897) in this “favoured residential area” was purchased from Morgan’s Trustees, and building at an original cost of £3000 commenced in 1862.
The foundation stone was laid by Sir Samuel Scott, and St. Mary’s Chapel‑of‑Ease was consecrated and dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Longley), the parish being within the See of Canterbury until 1905, on Tuesday 15th September 1863. The adjoining charity lands, owned by the church of St. Mary, Aldermary, in the City of London, may have suggested a dedication for the name of Bromley’s third church.
“A Stark, Oblong Building”
The original church, under the architecture of Waring and Blake, comprised a somewhat stark, oblong building with bell tower, approximating to the outline of the presentday nave. It endured the obloquy of being denounced by ‘The London Standard’ as “one of the ugliest unfinished churches near London”. Judging by a delightful impression of 1865 of St. Mary’s in the fields with the inceptive church school in the background, this may have been a little unfair.
The year 1881 saw a considerable advance with the addition of a chancel, vestries and organ chamber. The foundation stone was laid by Lady Scott, widow of the great benefactor Sir Edward Scott (nephew of Sir Samuel), who had died in 1884 aged only 41. It was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in May 1881. The Chapel‑of‑Ease was thus upgraded to the Parish Church of Plaistow.
The Grand Design
The small Church remained badly over‑crowded. The year 1879 was an important one as the architect W.R. Mallett (later to become Churchwarden) drew up a design for a larger St. Mary’s Church. This drawing showed the Church not only with north and south transepts added, but also two side‑aisles and a 150‑foot tower in geometric style of Gothic creation.
With the population of Plaistow now increasing by about two hundred people each year, further major steps forward were taken to accommodate the attendance. Lady Scott laid the foundation stone of the south transept in July 1891, and it was dedicated on 10th January 1892.
The consecration of a north transept and enlarged vestries took place on 13th October 1900, for which Lady Farquhar (Lady Scott on re‑marriage) had also laid the foundation stone on 26th May of that same year.Thus was St. Mary’s Church given its present cruciform shape; all the work of one firm of architects, all built of flint and Caen stone.
Even with these adjuncts the Church remained over‑crowded. Thus for the Church’s Golden Jubilee in 1913 Mallett’s drawing of the finished church was again floated in support of a subscription list for the construction of the south side‑aisle and the tower itself. However the First World War put paid to the plan.
!n 1997, inspired by Rev. Canon Peter Henwood (Vicar 1971‑1997), a handsome and spacious oak‑framed entry porch arose. Conjoined to it was a covered ‘lych gate’ extension. It is now possible to perceive the inside of the Church through the entrance, and glass doors invite the newcomer into the resplendent interior. This handsome construction won first prize at the Bromley Designs Awards Scheme 1998 for the best extension to an historic building.