Today, all that remains of St Mary’s Church is its bell tower, standing in the former churchyard, a little back from Hornsey High Street. St Mary’s Tower is a focal point for the local community and a poignant reminder of the long history of this site as a place of worship.
The church is first mentioned in a papal taxation list of 1291 but could be much older. The Bishop of London’s 1303 will refers to Walt de Londinia, as ‘Rector of the Church of Haryngeye’. The list of Rectors of Hornsey from 1391 to the present day is complete.
There is physical, written and pictorial evidence of the medieval church but most of the images we have are from the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a small building, added to over the centuries, with small windows, a south aisle, dormer window, vestry chimney, stair to the loft over the rood screen and a squat tower.
On the west wall of the tower remain two weather-worn carvings of angels holding armorial shields. These are of Thomas Savage and William Warham, successive bishops of London between 1496 and 1503, marking the tower’s height at that time.
The local gentry helped maintain the church but there was no substantial landowner to pay for major improvements. By the 1820s the building was dilapidated and its quaint features seen as picturesque by the many artists who have left us a wealth of images.
A new church
The arrival in 1829 of a young and enthusiastic rector, Richard Harvey, signaled change. The medieval church was knocked down in 1832 and George Smith appointed to design a new, larger and higher church on the footprint of the old one.
By the time this church was consecrated in 1833 it was realized that the squat bell tower needed to be heightened and stone rubble from the old church was used to extend it by a third. Ancient monuments were retained and family vaults planned below the new church.
Interior paintings show box pews, a tall elegant pulpit, medieval font, a gallery and a new stained glass East window. A small section of the plaster ceiling with moulded ribs and bosses at the intersections can still be seen in the tower. The gable lines of the old and new churches can be seen clearly on the tower’s east wall.
A different place
By the mid 1880s, only fifty years after the building of the second church, Hornsey was a very different place. Canon Harvey had retired and Hornsey was fast becoming a London suburb. The church was now too modest, old fashioned and in need of repairs.
In 1887 Rector John Jeakes started a building fund. James Brooks was commissioned to design a grand Perpendicular Gothic edifice, seating 1200 people, with a splendid tower and steeple. There was insufficient room on the current site so Brooks had to shoe-horn the new building, on a north-south axis, on land the other side of the churchyard.
A relic of Old Hornsey
The old church, covered in ivy, was moth-balled and left in situ as a relic of old Hornsey. The bell tower, however, was still needed as there was insufficient money to build the intended tower and steeple to the new church.
When Bishop Frederick Temple consecrated the church in November 1889 the west end entrance was incomplete. The base of the tower and two porches were added in 1900. By 1904 it was realised that unstable ground made building a tower unadvisable even though funding was available. Cracks appeared in the fabric and interior scaffolding was required by 1935.
For nearly forty years the ivy-covered redundant 1833 church and tower stood in close proximity to the 1889 church, the former providing an attractive picture captured in numerous early 20th century postcards. However, the building was falling into ruin, as were the tombs and gravestones in the churchyard, closed in 1892.
Demolition of the old church in 1927 seems to have excited little interest. All that was left was the tower containing the bells. By the late 1960s the dangerous state of the 1889 church was becoming increasingly evident. Although there were plans to build a modern church they did not come to fruition and the church was demolished in 1969. The ancient monuments were disposed of, many disappearing without trace.
The parishioners moved to the church hall half way down the High Street. This had been the National Hall (1888) and is now the Turkish Religious Centre of Unit. St Mary’s congregation worshipped in its church hall for twelve years. Then in 1982, the parishioners joined St George’s Church in Cranley Gardens, N8, and the two congregations became one as St Mary with St George, Hornsey’s parish church with an incumbent who is the Rector of Hornsey.
The old bell tower is Hornsey’s iconic building, remaining a consecrated building, part of St Mary with St George parish. For the last 28 years the Friends of Hornsey Church Tower have energetically restored and safeguarded it and maintained and developed the garden around it. Inside and outside it is a wonderful community facility for the use of all. (see Long View Working Group Vision Statement)
Bridget Cherry, Ivy-Mantled Tower A History of the Church and Churchyard of St Mary’s Hornsey, Middlesex, Hornsey Historical Society, 2015
Thyrza Meacock, A Hundred Year History of St. George’s Church, Hornsey Historical Society, 2006
Steven Denford, Hornsey Past, Historical Publications Limited, 2008
Joan Schwitzer, Buried in Hornsey, Hornsey Historical Society, 2000
Eric Robinson, Geology from a churchyard: a tombstone trail round St. Mary’s, Hornsey Historical Society, 2000
Bridget Cherry, Hornsey Church Tower A brief history and guide, Friend’s of Hornsey Church Tower, 1993
Joan Schwitzer, An Introduction to St Mary’s Hornsey Churchyard, Friend’s of Hornsey Church Tower, 1990
Ian Murray, The old parish church of Hornsey, Friend’s of Hornsey Church Tower, 1990
Pauline Dallman, Enid Hunt and friends, Monumental Inscriptions with index to St Mary Hornsey, North Middlesex Family History Society, 1987
F.T. Cansick, A Collection of Curious and Interesting Epitaphs in Middlesex, 1875
Also see: Friends of Hornsey Church Tower website