Above: View today of the church of St Mary, seen across the Thames from Chelsea, with the large Montevetro development on the northern (left) side.
This is an unusual location for a parish church. It stands in its churchyard whose western boundary is beside the Thames. In fact, it is not unusual to see boats moored on the river right beside the railings of the churchyard.
The origins of the church are believed to go back to AD 800. The church was first mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) when the manor and rectory were held by the Convent of St Peter, Westminster – now better known as Westminster Abbey.
Above: The west front of the church today.
A new church, replacing the medieval one, was built 1775-76, designed in Dutch style by Joseph Dixon. The elegant west front of the church faces almost immediately onto the River Thames. It is certainly the only church in London to be sited so close to the river and, in England, there are few churches that are situated in a similar position.
On 18 August 1782 the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake was married at the church. His bride was Catherine Sophia Boucher, the daughter of a Battersea Market gardener. Blake was a writer and artist who is regarded as an important figure of the Romantic Age. His writings have influenced countless other writers and artists through the ages. He was both a major poet and an original thinker. Blake was born in the Soho area of London and claimed to have had his first vision – a tree full of angels – at the age of 10. He studied engraving and grew to love Gothic art, which he incorporated into his own unique works.
A few years later, the English botanist and entomologist William Curtis died in 1799 at Brompton where he was then living. There is a stained glass window in the church of St Mary, Battersea, in tribute to him. It is claimed that many of his botanical specimens were collected by Curtis from the churchyard in Battersea. Curtis was born in Alton, in Hampshire. From 1771-77 Curtis was a demonstrator of plants and ‘Praefectus Horti’ at the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is on the north bank of the Thames. He established his own London Botanic Garden at Lambeth in 1779, moving to Brompton in 1789.
Another visitor to the church was Joseph Mallord William Turner. He went there not to attend the church services but because the western side of the church faced onto the Thames. It is claimed that Turner painted scenes of the river from the vestry window.
Until the 1990s, the church was surrounded by small industrial warehouses and a few factories. It gave the area a feeling that little had changed since Victorian times. It came as quite a shock to locals and visitors alike to see the site to the north of the church cleared before the erection of a vast asymmetrical block of apartments called Montevetro. The development in glass and steel, contrasting sharply with the 18th century church, was completed in 1999 and has certainly changed the landscape of this otherwise ‘sleepy’ corner of Battersea.