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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
25 - St Leonard's - from fires to Feast, and from Spires to a dilapidated churchyard
The English Martyrs Catholic Church stands opposite the green on Mitcham Lane. It was built on a site previously occupied by Russell House and was completed in 1896. A memorial to the first rector inside says: 'Of your charity, pray for the soul of William Lloyd Priest, first rector of this church who died 7 October 1912. I have loved, oh Lord, the beauty of thy house and the place where thy glory dwelleth.' This Thursday morning, the church is open and busy. The same is not true of the much older and more celebrated St Leonard's which stands on the other side of Tooting Bec Road, at the very heart and centre of Streatham and its history. The Church door is closed, externally the building looks unkempt, and the churchyard is a complete mess, even the early crocuses flowering don't seem to improve the look of the place.
There has been a church here for at least 1,000 years. William the Conqueror gave the Streatham estate to his cousin Richard of Tonbridge, who in turn bestowed it on the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary de Bec (thus the Bec in Tooting Bec). The Abbey's monks decided to dedicate a chapel at Streatham to their patron saint, the Frankish hermit, St Leonard, about whom little is known other than that he seems to have helped the wife of a Frankish King called Clovis give birth safely. Records show St Leonard's was constituted as a parish church in 1291, but was completely rebuilt in the 14th century by Sir John Ward, a companion of the Black Prince. Only the flint tower at the west end of the present church survives from that 14th century construction. The church clock was made by Chas. Penton of Moorfields in 1779 and is still driven by the original weights which have to be wound manually every Sunday. The brick spire dates to 1841.
Most recently, the church was gutted by fire in 1975. The interior was completely rebuilt by Douglas Feast with stained glass designed and made by John Hayward. The church newsletter said this about the interior in 1999: 'Today's light, airy and flexible interior with moveable furniture and simple, uncluttered space, makes one wonder whether some other Victorian churches might not benefit from a similar disaster!'
Among the church's surviving memorials is one for Henry Thrale, who died in 1781. He was not only a wealthy brewer but the Member of Parliament for Southwark. He and his wife Hester entertained many distinguished guests including Dr. Samuel Johnson, a very frequent visitor, James Boswell, Edmund Burke and David Garrick. Thrales' memorial carries an inscription by Samuel Johnson (who, after Thrales' death, also mentioned the church in his diary): 'I bade farewell to the church with a kiss.' In the following century, the pre-Raphaelite William Dyce was a churchwarden here (and he designed the chancel when the church was extended in 1863).
Round the corner from St Leonard's on Tooting Bec Gardens is the Spires Centre. In the late 1980s, the two churches, English Martyrs and St Leonard's, became concerned about the homeless, and the fact that all media attention to the problem was focused on central London. In 1989, a temporary Christmas centre opened, and this was expanded to a Sunday Centre in 1992. It offered hot meals, clothing and advice. Additional weekday openings followed, and, in 1993, the Spires Centre was registered as a charity. By the late 1990s, 150-250 homeless and disadvantaged people were using the Centre each day. Its success has won the support of many other churches as well as support agencies, and has attracted funding for improved facilities.
Although there was a project to restore the St Leonard's churchyard in
1999, and regular working parties are meant to have kept it in 'good order',
there is little evidence of good order today. The gravestones are broken
or skew, memorial railings are broken, and barely a word of the stone engravings
can be read with ease. The one that looks in best condition is 'In loving
memory of George Pratt, who died March 14, 1890 aged 62, a resident in this
parish nearly 50 years'. This must be the George Pratt who built Streatham's
famous Victorian period department store, Pratt's. His wife Mary died on
Valentine's Day in 1915, aged 82 and is remembered with the words 'Peace,
perfect, peace'. According to St Leonard's itself, the churchyard is meant
to be to be an oasis in the middle of Streatham High Road, 'an area of tranquillity
and peace surrounding the church, a haven for wildlife in the midst of suburbia'.
If this is not, in fact, true because the church's energies are being so
diverted to the Spires oasis that it has no time for the churchyard, than
who can complain.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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