Ancient churches: St Mary, Beddington

Rivers have always been magnets for human activity: barriers, highways, sources of water, food, energy, and plants with a thousand uses. Hence the endless busyness, going back millennia, in the landscape around Beddington, just west of Croydon on the River Wandle.

Over the years archaeologists have found traces of Bronze Age ditches; a Roman villa under the sewage works to the north of the river; a Roman lead coffin found on the south side which is now housed in the church; and Anglo-Saxon cemeteries on both sides of the river, with a tenth-century coin of King Aethelstan to the north, and burials to the south which date back another four or five hundred years, to the first period of Germanic settlement.

The place-name may derive from the Old English ‘bedd’ meaning, predictably, a bed. This led in the past to antiquarian speculation that the original village offered accommodation for travellers on Stane Street, the old Roman road, which was believed to pass close by. This notion of an Anglo-Saxon hotel or coaching-inn is beguiling, but unlikely, because Stane Street was not close by. Its nearest approach was at Cheam, about four miles to the west. The Roman road to Brighton was closer, though even that was about two miles away as it passed through Croydon Old Town.

Whether or not it could boast an hotel, we know that Anglo-Saxon Beddington had a church, which is recorded in the Domesday Book. A hundred years ago the Reverend Thomas Bentham argued that this church must have been standing by the late ninth century because Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, died at Beddington in 894. Bentham thought that a bishop was unlikely to visit a village unless it had a church, so there must have been a church at Beddington at the time of his visit, during which he unfortunately died. I’m not convinced. This argument seems to me to assume that the church in Saxon Wessex a thousand years ago, at a time of recent war against the Danes followed by an armed truce, operated along similar lines to the suburban Anglicanism of the 1920s, with gracious episcopal visitations to diocesan churches. I do not believe that we can fix the date of Beddington’s Saxon church any more precisely than to say that it must have existed by the late eleventh century in order to be recorded in Domesday.

However, it is generally accepted that this Domesday church was on the same site as the present church, just south of the Wandle. The present church is described pithily in Pevsner’s 1960s guide to Surrey as “Perp throughout”. This is not quite true: its style is very largely Perpendicular, but it is also significantly Victorian, each reflecting a moment of rebuilding and renovation, one orchestrated by local lord Sir Nicholas Carew in the late fourteenth century, and the other by local priest Canon Alexander Bridges in the nineteenth. Both men were wealthy, and it shows; St. Mary’s is unusually large and impressive for the size of the parish which it serves.

The Perpendicular style is best known for its large windows with shallow pointed arches, with stone mullions and metal tracery often containing panes of stained glass. The confidence, the audacity, to construct such windows derived from a sophisticated appreciation of the load-bearing capacities of the pointed arch, and its ability to direct and manage great downward stress even when the wall beneath consisted largely of glass.

Carew’s project was ambitious, but he was not starting from scratch. He was essentially re-modelling a Norman church which in his day was already about two hundred years old. Just as nothing remains of the original Saxon church, so little survives of this Norman successor – except the font, squat and solid on its sturdy pillars, harking back defiantly to an era before pointed arches and painted glass.

Canon Bridges’ nineteenth century work was mainly, and predictably, inspired by romantic medievalism. I say this not as criticism, but in affectionate appreciation. For instance, the extensive Victorian painting on walls and pillars and ceiling on and beyond the chancel arch is wonderful, rich in colour and detail. We cannot know if this is how the original medieval church looked, but this is surely how it ought to have looked.

To conclude: the first church at Beddington was built in Anglo-Saxon times, recorded in the Domesday Book, and stood on the south bank of the River Wandle in a landscape which had been settled for thousands of years. It was close to the sites of one or more pre-Christian cemeteries. No physical fabric from this Saxon church survives, but the present-day church is in the same place, and to that extent bears witness to it, and to the continuity of a human presence in this place.


John Addy (1874), ‘Account of a Roman villa lately discovered at Beddington, Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. 6.

Anon (1792), The Environs of London, T. Cadell and W. Davies, London.

Rev. Thomas Bentham (1923), A History of Beddington, John Murray, London.

John Wickham Flower (1874), ‘Notices of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Beddington, Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. 6.

H,E. Malden (ed.) (1912), A History of the County of Surrey vol. 4, Victoria County History, London.

Ian Nairn & Nikolaus Pevsner (1962), The Buildings of England: Surrey, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Sarah Porteus et al. (2019), ‘Archaeological investigations at the former George Payne Ltd site, 57 Croydon Road, Beddington’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. 102.


Ancient churches: All Saints, Banstead

Banstead stands high on the North Downs, in an area known for its Anglo-Saxon remains. Burials have been found at two local sites, Gally Hill and Headley Drive, both dating approximately to the seventh century. They are part of a scatter of relatively early Anglo-Saxon settlements across outer South London; other sites include Beddington, Coulsdon, Croydon, Ewell, and Mitcham.

The name Banstead probably comes from the Old English béan (bean) and stedewang (field or open place), giving it an original meaning something like ‘Beanfield’. But despite this unpretentious placename, it seems to have been a desirable possession. A tenth century royal charter granted it to the important and wealthy Abbey at Chertsey; and by the time of Edward the Confessor in the mid-eleventh century, it was owned by the King himself from whom it was held by ‘Alnoth of London’. After the Conquest it was given by William to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. And most importantly from our point of view, according to the Domesday Book, Banstead had a Saxon church.     

All Saints Banstead as we see it today has been much restored – in the opinion of one commentator “over-restored”. When I visited in late September a kind lady befriended me, showed me around, and told me about an illustration of the church as it appeared in the late eighteenth century; it had been “beautified” in line with the taste of the time and was, she said, unrecognisable. Further restorations followed in the 1830s, and again in the 1860s, which were more respectful of the building’s medieval character, and they essentially gave us the church that we see today.

The earliest visible elements are the nave walls and arcades.

The arches are in the primitive Gothic ‘Early English’ style, and their tooling and decoration suggest a date in the late twelfth century, perhaps around 1180. But, as we have seen before in this series, the date of an arch is often later than the date of the wall which it pierces. If an aisle is added alongside a pre-existing nave, the exterior wall of that nave becomes an interior wall; and to allow access between the nave and the new aisle, it is pierced by arches and transformed into an arcade. This is probably what happened at Banstead; the walls which now present themselves as interior late twelfth century arcades were probably originally the exterior walls of an older church consisting simply of a nave and chancel.  

Of course, we can’t prove this. It is possible that the nave walls, like other walls, date to the late twelfth century. But if this is the case, why are they so thin?

This was a time when Norman or Romanesque design was giving way to the Gothic sensibilities of the Early English style. But the soaring celebration of light and space achieved by later Gothic engineering was still far in the future. In these early days builders could perhaps be forgiven for trying to combine the new Gothic look with the familiar, reassuring, Norman affection for bulk: thick walls packed with solid masses of rubble and faced with solid blocks of stone. Hence the muscular west tower at Banstead, probably dating to the early thirteenth century and therefore well within the Early English period, and yet furnished with massive walls two metres thick.

This is quite unlike the slender walls of the nave, despite the fact that a nave wall serves a structural function every bit as crucial as that of a tower. It is impossible to explain this discrepancy if we insist on believing that both were built at the same time. But the problem disappears if we accept that they belong to two different periods; that the nave walls are different because they belong to an earlier, pre-Gothic and pre-Norman building tradition. If so, then the walls which carry today’s elegant arcades are the last remnants of Banstead’s original Anglo-Saxon church.


Harp, Peter & Hines, John (2003), ‘An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Headley Drive, Tadworth, near Banstead’ in Surrey Archaeological Collections, volume 90, pp. 117-145.

Lambert, H.C.M. (1912), History of Banstead in Surrey, Oxford.

Malden, H.E. (ed.) (1911), A History of the County of Surrey, London, volume 2, p. 450; volume 3, pp. 252-262. 

Nairn, Ian & Pevsner, Nikolaus (1962), The Buildings of England: Surrey, Harmondsworth, p. 87.

Ancient churches: All Saints, Carshalton

All Saints Carshalton stands prominently above the local High Street, overlooking ponds from which rises the River Wandle. Seen from here it clearly belongs to the nineteenth century, a neo-Gothic parish church of dressed stone and flint, tall windows with complex tracery, the creation of a single mind. The mind in question belonged to Reginald Blomfield, a late Victorian and Edwardian architect mainly known for his country houses and gardens.

Viewed from this vantage point, we might expect that All Saints as a whole is Blomfield’s work, but it isn’t. Walk around to the south side, facing the churchyard, and things look very different. The wall here lacks the uniformity of the north side. It is instead a riot of different materials speaking of a complex history: old stone, newer stone, old brick, newer brick, flint.

Here on the south side, in the quiet of the churchyard, it is clear that All Saints has a story to tell. And given that the Domesday Book records a church at Carshalton (which it referred to as Altoun or ‘Old Town’), we are entitled to suspect that the story has an Anglo-Saxon beginning.       

Interpreting any church is an exercise in mental archaeology. This doesn’t mean that we should dig up our ancient churches; it means that we should apply a version of archaeological interpretation when we try to understand them. It means working backwards through time, backwards through the successive phases of their building and alteration, just as archaeologists interpret an excavated site by working backwards through its layers of human presence, the more recent underpinned by the earlier.

At All Saints, the most recent (fifth) phase is Blomfield’s church, built just over a century ago. He was brought in because the old medieval church was in trouble: its northern side was collapsing. But Blomfield’s brief was not just a rescue job: he was also charged with making the whole church much larger, in response to a growing population as Carshalton transformed itself from small Surrey village to busy modern suburb.

Domesday tells us that there was already a church somewhere on this site at the time of the Norman Conquest. We do not know its overall ground-plan, but we believe that it included a tower (first phase). Around 1150, this pre-Conquest church was demolished, except for the tower, and a new nave was built to its west (second phase). After about forty or fifty years a north aisle was built (third phase); and a south aisle, and redesigned chancel effectively sitting beneath the tower, were added some years later (fourth phase). After this, as far as we know, the church’s basic structure remained untouched until Blomfield’s arrival seven hundred years later, though of course there were alterations to windows, fittings, monuments and the like.

Blomfield demolished the north aisle and replaced it not just with a new aisle but with a whole new nave and chancel, which effectively dragged the church’s centre of gravity a few feet to the north. This involved the relegation of the old medieval nave to the status of south aisle; and given that the old nave had already possessed its own south aisle, the overall result was to create two south aisles, inner and outer, which is what we see today. The nicely preserved arcade between them bears witness to their former more elevated status.

By the same token, a new chancel at the east end of the new nave replaced the medieval chancel, which now found itself at the east end of the inner south aisle. It was redesignated as a Lady Chapel, and in that role today it is rather intimate and lovely.  

But what of the tower, which is the church’s oldest part? To the casual eye today, viewed from outside, it doesn’t look particularly old.

But its claim to a Saxon origin lies within, where there is an old window, not accessible to the public, which seems to date from the eleventh century. The base of this window may be even older. This means that the modern-looking tower which we see today is the latest iteration of a tower which has been standing here since Anglo-Saxon times. And if this is the case, then it may also mean that the relation between tower and church has changed dramatically since it was first built.

Across England as a whole, about a hundred Anglo-Saxon church towers survive, in whole or part. They vary in size and design, but there is one feature that the great majority share: they stand to the west of the nave. In Carshalton, however, the tower stands at the east end of the nave. Why the anomaly?

We have to remember that the tower was originally built to accompany a Saxon church which no longer exists; it was replaced in the twelfth century by a new Norman church. When one church directly replaces another, we tend to assume that the new church occupies the same ground, that it is in effect built on the foundations of its predecessor. Very often this assumption is justified, but not always. And in this particular case, whether or not we make this assumption, we are faced with a problem. If the Norman church was built on the same ground as the Saxon church, that must mean that the Saxon masons built their tower to the east of the nave, breaking with all their own traditions and conventions – and why would they do that? Alternatively, if the Saxon tower originally stood at the west end of the nave, then the Norman masons in the twelfth century must have gone out of their way to change the whole layout, demolishing the Saxon church which lay to the east of the tower and building their own new church to its west – but why would they do that?

Forced to choose between with these two options, the second seems to me more likely. I can see no good reason why Anglo-Saxon builders in Carshalton would choose to scandalise their contemporaries by erecting something as outrageous as an eastern church tower.

But I can see why Norman builders, a century or more later, would have chosen a new site for their new church. They might of course have been influenced by local conditions; perhaps the land to the west of the tower was better, firmer, flatter. But I think it more likely that they were making a political and ecclesiastical point by deliberately breaking with Saxon tradition, deliberately breaking with the old convention of western towers, deliberately emphasising that both state and church now had new rulers and new rules.

If this is what happened – and it is no more than an informed speculation – then it would mean that traces of the original Anglo-Saxon church may lie today not under the existing church, but to the east, between the tower and the junction where the modern High Street meets The Square.


Cherry, Bridget & Pevsner, Nikolaus (1994), The Buildings of England: London 2: South, London, pp. 645-6.

Malden, H.E. (ed.) (1912), A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 4, London, pp. 178-188. 

Milbourn, Thomas (1880), ‘Notes on the Parish and Church of Carshalton’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. 7, p. 125

Skelton, Andrew C. (1996), ‘New light on the development of Carshalton Church’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. 83, pp. 1-19.

Taylor, H.M. (1978), Anglo-Saxon Architecture (vol. III), Cambridge, chapter 9.

Ancient churches: Lumley Chapel, Cheam

On entering the small Lumley Chapel in Cheam, the immediate impression is of cool classicism, white plaster walls with ornate mouldings, containing an extraordinary profusion of elaborate tombs and monuments.

If asked to put a date on the place, judging purely from the interior, I think many of us would go for the seventeenth century, though in fact it dates from the very end of the sixteenth.

But step outside again, and we are immediately in a different era. The external walls, with their impressive patchwork of flint, stone, old brick and new brick, representing hundreds of years of mending and repair, make it very clear that this building is old.

It is in fact the sole surviving fragment of the medieval church which was demolished in the nineteenth century to be replaced by an entirely new church, a few yards to the north. The chapel was originally the chancel, the east end, of the medieval church, and it probably only escaped demolition itself because of its collection of tombs and monuments.

We are concerned, however, with the chapel’s age. The Domesday Book records that there was a church at Cheam in 1086, and given that the Domesday Book pre-dated the Norman church-building boom, it follows that the Cheam church, like others listed in Domesday, was almost certainly Anglo-Saxon. The question therefore arises: might the Lumley Chapel include any fabric dating back to this Anglo-Saxon church?

We know the history of the church in broad outline. In phase one, it was a simple nave and chancel. In phase two, the nave was enlarged and an aisle and chapel were added to the south.

According to the Victoria County History, the church was built “not later than” the thirteenth century. It derives this date from the Early English style of a blocked-up arch which can still be seen in the chapel’s south wall.

But this arch belongs to phase two: it was one of five arches making up an arcade which gave access to the south aisle, and it was built at the same time as these. The arch is indeed Early English in style and does indeed help us date aisle and arcade to the thirteenth century – but this takes us no closer to fixing a date for the nave-and-chancel building which preceded it.

Pevsner was prepared to go further back; with his usual economy of expression, he classed the chapel as “possibly C12”, implying that the medieval church was originally built in the Norman style.

But I confess that I am drawn to Herbert Dunk. Writing in the 1950s, he put forward a detailed argument in favour of an Anglo-Saxon origin for the chapel. He did so by reference to three specific features.

Firstly, he highlighted two blocked-up square-headed windows in the east wall, which he dated to the second half of the tenth century.

When I visited recently I could only find one of these, but part of the east wall was covered in dense foliage so perhaps the other was hidden behind it. The opening I did find was clearly ancient and deliberately made, with its own small stone lintel. It hardly qualifies as a ‘window’, for it is tiny, a few inches square, and would have admitted little if any light. But that is secondary: the important point is that it is an architectural feature which is difficult to attribute to either the Norman or Gothic traditions.   

Secondly, Dunk drew attention to two blocked-up round-headed windows in the north wall.

In principle, we might expect round-headed windows to be Norman, but Dunk insisted that the arches and jambs at Cheam are typical of late-Saxon work and quite unlike Norman work.

Thirdly, he pointed to the quoin running up the chapel’s north-east corner in which stones are arranged so as to present alternate long and short sides. This, he said, is an example of the Anglo-Saxon ‘long-and-short’ style of masonry.

I am not aware that Dunk’s detailed arguments have been challenged. If they have, I would love to know where and by whom.

Until then, I am inclined to believe that, baroque interior notwithstanding, the chapel in Cheam was originally the chancel of the Anglo-Saxon church recorded in the Domesday Book.


Cherry, Bridget & Pevsner, Nikolaus (1994), The Buildings of England: London 2: South, London, pp. 651-2.

Dunk, Herbert (1954), ‘The Lumley Monuments in the ancient church of St. Dunstan, Cheam, Surrey’, Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, new series, volume 2, pp. 93-107.

Malden, H.E. (ed.) (1912), A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 4, London, pp. 194-9. 

Ancient churches: St. Nicholas, Chislehurst

Chislehurst is a prosperous part of the London Borough of Bromley, a district of spacious houses, woodland, a common. It also has a picture-postcard parish church, St. Nicholas, which contains an enticing little mystery.

The Domesday Book makes no mention of Chislehurst or of a church at Chislehurst. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For many centuries the place was closely associated with Dartford, which is mentioned in Domesday, and is credited with no less than four churches. Presumably one of these stood on the site of today’s Dartford parish church, Holy Trinity, but that still leaves three others. Why should St. Nicholas in Chislehurst not be the modern successor to one of these three Saxon churches?

In support of this speculation is a small fragment of church fabric which might, just possibly, be Saxon: a small, rough, blocked-up window, visible high on the outside of the church’s west wall.

The suggestion that this might be a Saxon window is quite recent. The Victorian enthusiasm for all things Anglo-Saxon sometimes led local antiquaries and historians to bend over backwards in the search for Saxon antecedents in their neighbourhoods, but this didn’t happen at Chislehurst. Neither Robertson’s 1880 study of the church; nor Webb, Miller and Beckwith’s 1899 History of Chislehurst: its Church, Manors and Parish; mentions a possible Saxon origin. Both identify the church as a Norman foundation dating from the twelfth century. If this is correct, then the church’s oldest surviving artefact is the Norman font, standing solid on its five pillars, and decorated with a carved representation of a Romanesque arcade. It is a lovely, chunky thing, still doing its job after 800 years, and it alone justifies a visit to the church.    

But in the 1960s, no less an authority than Pevsner (or rather John Newman, one of Pevsner’s team) suggested that the “small blocked window rudely turned in flint may be Saxon”. Which invites the question: why may it be Saxon?

The answer, I suspect, is simply that it is not very good. This little window is a crude piece of work, with a squat rounded arch, its setting off-centre. If it’s Norman it’s a poor Norman, and it certainly isn’t any sort of Gothic. However, someone made it, and I suspect that Newman’s Saxon suggestion reflects the absence of any other identifiable culprit, plus an unspoken assumption that Saxon builders were generally more amateurish than their successors.

But this isn’t good enough: firstly, because if we are ignorant of provenance then we should say so rather than surrender to speculation; and secondly, because in my view there is positive reason to believe that the window cannot be Saxon. That reason is its location.

The mystery window is set high above a large, three-light window in the church’s west wall. When I visited, I didn’t have a ladder and tape measure so I can’t give an accurate figure for its height, but I reckon the mystery window must be thirty feet or more above the ground. This means that if it were Saxon, then the wall in which it is inserted, up to the height of thirty feet, must also be Saxon. And, given that this is the west wall of the nave, this would mean that the Saxon church to which this wall belonged must have been truly impressive, a large and significant building. This would have been no small stone hut, with a tiny nave and chancel a few feet across, like so many other Saxon churches, but many times bigger. A church of this size would have been attached to an estate. It would have housed a community of priests. It would have had status within the diocese. It would have been a major landmark, a recognisable destination. And for all these reasons it would have left an historical trace, a documentary reference, a charter, a passing mention of some sort. And yet there is no record of any Saxon church, let alone a large and impressive Saxon church with a lofty west wall, in Chislehurst.

I therefore conclude that neither the wall nor its mystery window is Saxon, and that the traditional view, that St. Nicholas was founded in the twelfth century, is correct. If this is disappointing, take comfort from the font; it may not be Saxon, but it is lovely.

This still leaves us with an unsolved mystery, however: who did put up that strange, high, ugly little window?

I have no idea.  


Newman, John (1969). The Buildings of England: West Kent and the Weald, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Robertson, W.A.S. (1880). ‘Chislehurst and its church’ in Archaeologia Cantiana volume 13.

Webb E.A., Miller G.W. & Beckwith J. (1899). The History of Chislehurst: its Church, Manors and Parish, George Allen, London.

Ancient churches: Kingston

Kingston was an important place in early medieval times. The name itself says why: it was the King’s Place, the King’s Town, and legend has it that no fewer than seven Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned here.  

However, most of these seven coronations are no more than legends. They are not even ancient legends: the claim that seven kings were crowned at Kingston seems to go back no further than the nineteenth century. The only coronations for which there is contemporary evidence (from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) are those of Athelstan in 925 and Ethelred in 958. Even so, to play host to two coronations is quite impressive, especially when one of them involved a figure as significant as Athelstan.

Whatever the precise number, too much emphasis on these tenth century coronations may understate Kingston’s larger importance, because it was a significant place at least a century earlier. In the early ninth century the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex was gaining the upper hand in its long rivalry with Mercia, and its king Egbert sought to consolidate his position. He convened a ‘great council’ at Kingston in 838, at which he made a pact with the archbishop of Canterbury in which the church effectively aligned itself with Wessex, giving it an enormous ideological advantage. The fact that Kingston was chosen for such an important event means that it was already a significant site – one source refers to it as “that famous place” – and the fact that the event involved an archbishop suggests that it already possessed a considerable church, perhaps a minster church.

It is generally assumed that this Saxon church stood on the site now occupied by All Saints church, on Kingston’s ‘central island’ bounded by the Thames to the west, the Downhall or Latchmere stream to the north, and the Hogsmill to the east and south. And it is also generally assumed that as a place of royal importance, this island must have contained important secular buildings, a ‘royal vill’, in addition to the church. But despite diligent search and excavation, no such vill has yet come to light.

The Domesday Book of 1086 records a church at Kingston, which is what we would expect. We might also expect that the church referred to in Domesday was the same Saxon church as had hosted the great council in the ninth century, and the coronations in the tenth century. But not everyone agrees.

For instance William Finny, local historian and mayor of Kingston, took a different view. In the 1920s he excavated the remains of a building known as St. Mary’s Chapel, which had been built in the eleventh century and collapsed in the eighteenth century. St. Mary’s stood immediately to the south of the site where All Saints church stands today. The location is clearly marked by a series of stones and plaques, a testament to Finny’s work a century ago.

However, in my view, he allowed his enthusiasm for St. Mary’s Chapel to run away with him. Finny insisted that St. Mary’s was the church referred to in the Domesday Book, but this required him to make two large assumptions. Firstly, he had to assume that because St. Mary’s served as a chapel in later years, it must have been intended as a chapel or church when it was first put up. And secondly, he had to assume that the earlier Saxon church, which had hosted the great council and the coronations, no longer existed by 1086; here, he speculated that there must have been a Danish raid in which the Saxon church was destroyed, thus justifying the construction of St. Mary’s as a replacement.   

I’m not convinced. Firstly, Finny’s Danish attack leading to the destruction of the Saxon church is pure conjecture. I suspect that he introduced this notion in order to clear the decks and leave St. Mary’s as the only possible candidate to serve as Kingston’s Domesday church.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that St. Mary’s was built as a church at all. It collapsed in 1730, so all we have to go on are some nineteenth-century copies of eighteenth-century sketches. In these sketches, at first sight, it looks like a church – but that is mainly because of the late medieval windows with their mullions and tracery, installed many centuries after construction. If we ignore the windows, we are left with a small rectangular box, with pitched-roof and gable-ends, simple and functional in design.

Source: Owen Manning & William Bray. 1814. The History & Antiquities of the County of Surrey. London.

It is true that many local Saxon churches, especially early ones, were small and simple in design. But a new foundation in a place as important as Kingston would not have been a small local church. This would have been a significant building, on a prestigious site, possibly erected (according to Finny) by royal decree. What’s more, it was put up in the eleventh century, by which time Saxon church architecture was fairly sophisticated. For all these reasons, if St. Mary’s was indeed built to serve as Kingston’s new church, I would expect it to be far more elaborate: a sizeable building, with side-chapels, and maybe with a tower.

The fact that St. Mary’s shows no such features leads me to believe that it was not originally built as a church at all, but was intended to serve some secular function. This is what Hawkins suggests, and it makes sense to me.

Of course, if this is right, then we have still not answered our original question: where was Kingston’s Domesday church?

The likeliest answer is the one that we started with and that Finny was determined to reject. The church recorded in the Domesday Book was probably the original Saxon church, which had not been destroyed in a speculative Danish raid, but was still standing. However, it did not have many more years left to it. At some point in the first half of the following century this venerable Saxon building was demolished to make way for an entirely new church, which we know today as All Saints.


Cherry, Bridget & Nikolaus Pevsner. 1994. London 2: South, London, pp. 311-312.

Finny, W.E. St. Lawrence. 1943. ‘The Church of the Saxon Coronations at Kingston’ in Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. 48, pp. 1-7

Hawkins, Duncan. 1998. ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingston: a shifting pattern of settlement’ in London Archaeologist, vol. 8, pp. 271-8.

Lewis, Hana. 2009. ‘The elusive vill: in search of Kingston’s late Saxon manor’ in London Archaeologist, vol. 12, pp. 119-26.

Victoria County History. 1911. ‘Kingston-upon-Thames: Introduction and borough’, in A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 3, London, pp. 487-501. 

Ancient churches: All Saints, Orpington

All Saints, Orpington, is the second in our sequence of pre-Conquest South London churches. It occupies a prominent site on Church Hill, rising to the east of Orpington High Street, and most of the site today is taken up by a large church in a modernist Gothic style, dating from the late 1950s. I quite like its airy spaciousness, unlike the Pevsner guide which dismisses the design as “flimsy and unconvincing”. But whatever one’s opinion of the modern church, the focus here is upon the smaller, older structure which now serves as its northern ante-chapel.

This was the original All Saints: a striking west door, a short and narrow nave with chancel, with a tower to the north at the nave’s east end. The tower thus occupies approximately the same place in the overall design as the northern chapel at St. Paulinus, covered in the previous post.

At first sight the west door appears emphatically Norman, with beautifully deep and clear chevron decoration over the entrance. But the arch is pointed, where a Norman arch would be round. Pevsner’s view is that this door, plus the chancel arch, and the north tower with its tiny lancet window, were all part of a “remodelling” which took place around 1200, when early Gothic design was just starting to challenge the Norman/Romanesque hegemony. If this is right, then we might choose to see the west door as transitional: looking back to Norman in its decorative motifs, and forward to Gothic in its overall framing.  

But there are also two other features, one rather obscure and the other in clear view, which confirm that this church has a history stretching back into the Anglo-Saxon period. The obscure feature concerns the delicacy of the nave walls, which lack the breadth and bulk which any Norman builder would have insisted upon, given their height. This is a common difference between Saxon and Norman masonry: the Normans were obsessed with thickness and bulk, pouring vast quantities of rubble into their walls and columns, producing a brute strength which made possible their most spectacular constructions, such as the cathedral at Durham. Saxon churches were smaller and less ambitious.

All Saints’ second Saxon feature is a sundial, missing the top third of its circular face, which was discovered within the nave’s old south wall when it was demolished to make way for the new church in the 1950s. The sundial was then placed on the new south wall where it can still be seen – but it was unfortunately fixed upside down. I have reversed some of the images below so that it is seen as originally intended.

Anglo-Saxon sundials are rare enough, but this one is even more precious because upon its face is writing. Inside its rim run two lines of patterned moulding, between which are inscribed familiar letters from the Latin alphabet, although the language they represent here is Old English. The words describe the sundial’s function.

There are also four Latin characters inside the inner moulding, in the segments formed by lines which radiate from the centre.

These read “OR …. VM” and it has been suggested that they are abbreviations for ORLOGIUM VIATORUM or perhaps ORLOGIUM VIATORIS. Orlogium seems to be an alternative spelling of horologium, the Latin for a timepiece such as a sundial; while viator’s primary meaning is ‘traveller’ but it can also mean ‘messenger’. So overall this may be a declaration that the sundial brings a message or news about the time of day.

Finally, within some of the other inner segments, are characters which are not from our familiar alphabet.

These are Anglo-Saxon runes, and discussion of runes runs a risk of straying into dangerous territory. The fact that runes are associated with various early medieval Germanic cultures in north-west Europe has persuaded some present-day white supremacists to seize upon them as emblems of the ‘white race’ to which they think they belong. This is of course a delusional racist fantasy. But it is important to spell it out, and to distinguish between runes themselves, and the lies which racists tell about them. Runes are not racial markers or emblems of a mythical ‘white race’; they are an important early medieval form of writing, a source of historical information. We cannot allow racists to define their significance; we must preserve a rational space in which to discuss runic writing calmly and sanely in a spirit of historical enquiry.

In the case of the Orpington sundial, we have no idea of the meaning of its runic characters, but we can say something about its context. It was found in a church, which makes it part of a wider pattern. Almost all Anglo-Saxon ‘rune-stones’ have been found in or close to churches, and on some of them, such as the famous Ruthwell cross, the script itself recounts stories from the Bible. Romantic notions that Anglo-Saxons were pagans, so runes must be pagan too, are simply wrong. Anglo-Saxon culture persisted in England for more than five centuries, during which time it was in constant flux and became thoroughly and devoutly Christian; and inevitably, the content of its runic writing reflected these cultural changes.

For those who are absolutely determined to find Christian-pagan conflict, the All Saints sundial might seem to offer encouragement, because when it was found in the 1950s, it was enclosed within the church’s Anglo-Saxon south wall, facing inwards into the fabric of the wall, as if to prevent any possibility of its dial or inscriptions being visible. Could this have been a case of deliberate concealment by the church’s Christian builders, intended to thwart the sundial’s pagan power?

It’s highly unlikely. Both the sundial and the stone church almost certainly date to the late Anglo-Saxon period, the tenth or eleventh centuries, by which time England was a thoroughly Christian society. The sundial’s interment probably has a more mundane explanation: human error perhaps, or personal spite.

And on the upside, the long centuries spent locked inside the wall meant that when it was finally discovered, the sundial was in pristine condition.     

Ancient churches: St. Paulinus, St. Paul’s Cray

In 2016 and 2017 this blog explored the network of roads, built by the Romans, which run through the territory which we know today as South London. Some of these, such as the road to Lewes, have left few traces in the modern townscape; but others, such as Stane Street (a.k.a. the A24) or Watling Street (the A2), have been used continuously for two thousand years and are still in use today,

These Roman roads are an example of long-term continuity of place and use, a direct functional connection between ourselves and people who lived centuries ago. Ancient churches are another example. In Pevsner’s London 2: South guide, Bridget Cherry dismisses outer London as a whole as “one of the least rewarding areas in England” for anyone interested in ancient churches, but our focus here is different from hers. The Pevsner guides are concerned with extant buildings, standing structures whose architecture offers itself for analysis. But we are concerned with historical continuities of place and function, a broader conception which may draw upon the evidence of extant structures but is not limited to them. To explain what I mean, let me refer again to those Roman roads.

The A24 is an entirely modern road, constructed of modern materials. It shares no physical fabric with the original Roman Stane Street. And yet for long stretches the A24 faithfully follows the course of Stane Street, a course mapped out by Roman engineers; and it serves the function envisaged by those engineers in that it is a road, a highway, a ribbon of worked surface intended to facilitate rapid movement. It would simply be perverse to deny this continuity between Roman road and modern road, despite the absence of shared fabric. Continuity of place and function does not require continuity of physical fabric.

So: this is the first in a series of posts about ancient churches in South London; churches whose sites represent a sustained human religious presence over many centuries.

We start with South London churches which are listed in the Domesday Book.

The small church of St. Paulinus stands in St. Paul’s Cray, but is the only viable candidate for the church which the 1086 Domesday Book records at ’North Cray’. St Paulinus was ‘retired’ as a parish church in the 1970s, and over the past 50 years has provided a home for various community organisations, charities, and currently a group of Pentecostalists. Yet it remains a delight: a neat stone church, a stocky western tower, an impressive timber lych-gate, a well-tended graveyard.

Much of the external visible fabric, including the tower, probably dates from the beginning of the thirteenth century, the time of the earliest Gothic, with its experiments in simple pointed arches and tiny lancet windows. But this thirteenth-century work enlarged upon an earlier stone building dating from the eleventh century, almost certainly before the Conquest. Surviving fragments of this eleventh century church can be seen on the north side, on the upper layer of the nave wall, and the north-east corner of the small porticus or chapel. In both of these places ancient fabric survives, incorporating Roman bricks and tiles.

The north wall has had a complex history. The original eleventh-century stone church was a simple structure comprising a nave, a chancel to the east, and a small chapel to the north-east. The external north wall which we see today was the external north wall of this original building. But in the thirteenth century the whole church was broadened, with aisles added both north and south, so that the external north wall now became an internal wall, separating the nave from the new aisle, pierced by arched openings to allow access between them. Some centuries later the north aisle was demolished, thus returning the wall to its original external function, exposed to the outside world once more. Today we can still see the arches of the openings that used to give access to the aisle, now blocked up, and in one place providing a setting for a new window.

And if we look up, above the line of the arches, we see a layer of original eleventh century masonry which carries a scatter of red Roman tiles, still clearly visible.

Red Roman bricks also appear in the north-east external corner (the quoin) of the chapel, grouped to mark its rising line.   

This use of Roman material is not surprising. There are several Roman sites along the Cray valley, and from the fifth century onwards their bricks and tiles and dressed stone would have been looted by local farmers. But the stone church of St. Paulinus was built not in the immediate post-Roman period but in the eleventh century, 600 years after the end of local Roman culture. The historical distance between the builders of St. Paulinus and the Romans, was as great as the historical distance between ourselves and the Wars of the Roses. And it is clear from the way in which Roman materials were incorporated in the church’s fabric, in small quantities in one or two places, that by this time they were valued not as items of practical utility, but rather for purposes of decoration and mystique.

The decorative aspect is still visible today, the rich red of Roman bricks and tiles standing out against grey stone and mortar. As for the mystique: in the eleventh century these Roman fragments were already very old, scraps of antiquity; and what’s more they were Roman, remnants of that fallen empire of which the Roman Catholic Church was the institutional successor. By incorporating Roman material into the fabric of St. Paulinus, the church’s eleventh century builders acknowledged this continuity.

Finally: there is no reason to assume that this eleventh century stone church represents St Paulinus’s first foundation. It is entirely possible that the stone church was the successor to an earlier wooden church on the same site, because across southern England local churches were being founded by local landowners and bishops from the ninth century onwards.

The site of St Paulinus, a few yards from the River Cray, may therefore represent a continuity of Christian worship going far back into the Anglo-Saxon period, when this area was part of the kingdom of Kent, and the kingdom of England was unheard-of.

Model Dwellings 7: Latchmere Estate, Battersea

The Latchmere Estate in Battersea, opened in 1903, has a special place in the history of municipal housing – council housing – in Britain. It was not the first such estate: councils in Glasgow, Liverpool and elsewhere had already put up houses. It was not even the first municipal estate in London: the London County Council (LCC) had already put up blocks near Blackwall Tunnel, and in Shadwell. But the Latchmere was the first estate built by a London Borough, as opposed to the County Council; the first anywhere to be built by direct labour, by building workers directly employed by the council itself; and the first to feature working-class housing at the cutting edge of modernity.

It also has a special place by virtue of its connection with John Burns: trade union organiser; one of the architects of the Progressive coalition on the LCC; MP for Battersea; and a key figure in harnessing public money, as opposed to private philanthropy, to improve working-class housing in London.

John Elliott Burns by John Collier. Oil on canvas 1889. NPG 3170. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons Licence.

Burns, however, was a complicated character. His union background suggests that he should have been a central figure in the creation of the Labour Party – but he stuck with the Liberals, and actively opposed Labour’s formation. His opposition to the Boer War in 1900, in the teeth of rampant jingoism, suggests that he was a brave anti-militarist – but in fact his opposition was rooted in anti-semitism, and he argued that the war had been provoked by Jewish financiers. Burns was both a social reformer and an anti-semite. He genuinely improved the lives of many working-class families, and he was genuinely racist. Both are true. Neither cancels the other.

Burns’s connection with the Latchmere Estate arises from the fact that it was on his patch as MP for Battersea; and from the fact that he personally secured legislation to allow borough councils to build their own estates. No surprise, then, that Battersea Borough Council was quick off the mark to take advantage of its new powers. No surprise either that the estate’s street-names celebrated Burns himself, and the political and trade union tradition to which he belonged. In addition to Burns Road

the Latchmere contains Odger Street (George Odger was a leading nineteenth century trade unionist, secretary of London Trades Council, first President of the ‘First International’, and thus a colleague of Karl Marx who for several years was the International’s de facto secretary),

Freedom Street, Reform Street,

and so on.

The long-running ‘blocks vs. cottages’ conundrum, which divided the different philanthropic housing associations, was also an issue for local councils. In general, blocks tended to get built in densely-populated central areas, while cottages were more common further out in the suburbs, often sited close to railway stations. Battersea was not exactly central, but it was a crowded, poverty-stricken riverside district. In fact the Latchmere estate is located in an area described in the 1890s by Charles Booth as a “poverty trap”.

As a result, we might have expected that the district’s first public housing would take the form of multi-storey blocks, to accommodate as many as possible on the available land. But Battersea Borough Council was committed to a vision of a cottage estate – not dissimilar to the Shaftesbury Estate built by the Artizans’ company thirty years earlier, only a few hundred yards away across the railway line.

In fact the Council was committed not just to cottages, but to cottages equipped with all mod-cons: each home had a bathroom-scullery, a combined range, access to a garden, and electric lighting. Battersea’s radical Council was magnificently unapologetic about the fact that its new working-class homes on the Latchmere Estate had facilities as good as many privately-built middle-class houses elsewhere in London.

Latchmere’s 300-odd houses and flats were built in terraces, originally ranging in size from three to five rooms. These variations can be seen in the different front-door arrangements; in some cases four front-doors are grouped together, while elsewhere they appear in ones or twos.

The basic design was very simple: two-storeys; the brick a mix of yellow London stock and red; the roofs pitched slate; the flat frontages broken only by simple projecting horizontal porches. But the sash-windows bring a nice touch of Arts & Crafts/Queen Anne to the party, each divided into twelve lights, mullions and transoms faithfully whitened.

The Latchmere is a lovely little estate, bearing witness to the ambition and dignity which informed municipal housing in its formative years.

Model Dwellings 6: Tenant Co-operators Ltd.

There are over 800 housing co-ops in Britain today, and co-operative housing is a recognised part of the social housing sector. But everything has to start somewhere, and the first ever housing co-op in the country was a small organisation, based mainly in South London, formed in the 1880s.

At first sight the co-op movement may look like an unlikely partner for the middle-class, moralistic, evangelistic initiators of many of the philanthropic housing ventures already covered in this series. While the co-op movement had its own fair share of middle-class moralists and evangelists – such as the well-heeled ‘Christian socialist’ co-operators of the mid-nineteenth century – the movement was never defined by them. By the end of the century the co-op movement, with a retail operation consisting of hundreds of local societies supported by a central wholesaler, was an engine of working-class pragmatism.

But pragmatism learned in retail may be less effective in a very different area such as housing. The sheer scale of nineteenth-century London’s housing problem, and the financial imperatives of the housing market, made it very difficult to apply co-operative principles in practice.

Tenant Co-operators Ltd. (TCL), Britain’s first housing co-op, was formally established in 1887 with a management committee led by Ben Jones of the London Co-operative Wholesale Society. Others on the committee included the Reverend Gardiner from Toynbee Hall in Spitalfields; and Liberal MPs and businessmen sympathetic to the co-op movement. One of these was Pascoe Fenwick, author of an 1884 pamphlet arguing that city-centre poverty was best tackled by enabling working-class families to move out to the suburbs, using the growing railway network to commute to work.  

TCL’s first move was to buy a few already-existing houses in Terrace Road, Upton Park; followed by a few more in South Esk Road, East Ham. It also bought a run of 25 houses in Hook Road, Epsom, which it named ‘Neale Terrace’ in honour of E.V. Neale, one of the co-op movement’s elder statesmen.

Neale Terrace, Hook Road, Epsom

But Penge was the jewel in TCL’s crown. Here, in 1889, the co-op bought a piece of land close to Penge East Station, right next to the railway line. It laid out a new road, Lucas Road, and it commissioned the architect George Hubbard to design 48 cottages and flats of London stock brick with red brick trimming, and pitched slate roofs. As the first complete road laid out and developed by a registered housing co-op, Lucas Road can justifiably claim to be Britain’s first co-operative street. The houses were even put up by a co-op: the Co-operative Builders of Camberwell.

Lucas Road in 1913

What’s more, Lucas Road is a close neighbour to the Alexandra Cottages, only a few hundred yards away on the other side of the railway line. As we saw in a previous post the Alexandra Cottages, built in the 1860s by the ‘Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes’, pioneered the notion of suburban estates intended for workers using the railway to commute to work. By the late 1880s/early 1890s railway commuting was a mass phenomenon, and it underpinned TCL’s choice of the Lucas Road site.

However, as a co-op, TCL faced a fundamental contradiction. The basic fact which drives a capitalist housing market, as opposed to the retail grocery market in which the co-op movement was based, is the need for a large up-front sum to buy or build a house, which is then repaid (with interest) through rent or mortgage. TCL’s start-up capital was raised from sympathetic private investors and a Government loan, but until this money was repaid, the investors retained control through the management committee. Tenants were nominal shareholders, but in practice they had no say in the running of TCL: in other words, although it called itself a co-op, TCL could not truly function as a co-op until its debts were paid. This was not popular with some of the tenants in Lucas Road, who in 1912 organised a rent strike to protest against their secondary status. The dispute went all the way to the High Court where the judge found in favour of the investors, and against the tenants.

TCL’s problems were inseparable from its laudable ambition to house working-class families with little or no money, as becomes clear when we compare it with the ‘co-partnership’ scheme at Brentham Garden Suburb in Ealing, launched in 1901. Brentham was conceived from the start on a much larger scale: it had over 600 Arts & Crafts houses on one site, compared to TCL with less than 100 cottages and flats scattered across several sites. To live in its desirable houses, Brentham sought tenants from the affluent middle class, who were required to make substantial personal investments as a condition of joining; unlike TCL whose working-class tenants were unable to make any up-front investment. Consequently, because Brentham’s investor-tenants shared the financial risk, they also shared control; whereas in TCL, investors and tenants were two distinct and unequal groups, with investors in control.

TCL was a brave experiment, but it illustrated the difficulty faced by poor people in a capitalist society when they try to apply co-operative principles: other things being equal, they will be defeated by the power of money. The answer is to make sure that other things are not equal, which is what the co-op movement did to protect its retail network. Through the second half of the nineteenth century it argued and lobbied for a legal framework which legitimised and protected its particular model of co-operative retail, without which it would probably have been swamped by its commercial competitors. But this framework was designed for retail, and offered no help in the very different world of housing. Hence TCL’s problems.

Nevertheless, in its own small way, TCL did a worthwhile job. It provided good quality housing, at affordable rents, for many working-class families, over many years. And its physical legacy, above all Hubbard’s neat and unassuming dwellings on Lucas Road in Penge, is with us still.  

Lucas Road today