Holy smoke by the River Thames

THE TOWER CAN BE seen from far away. From a distance, the visitor to Old Isleworth on the River Thames might be fooled into believing that the 14th century stone square church tower topped with four pinnacles, one at each corner, is attached to an equally venerable church, but this is no longer the case. The mediaeval tower is almost all that remains of the mediaeval church of All Saints in Isleworth. It is attached to a twentieth century structure that now serves as the church. When I saw this, I wondered what disaster had befallen the rest of the original pre-20th century church.

The origin of the name Isleworth is unknown. In the Domesday Book, it is listed as ‘Gistelworde’ and Norden, writing in 1591, named it both ‘Thistleworth’ and ‘Istleworth’. Simon de Montfort (c1205-1265), who expelled the Jews from Leicester in 1231, and his barons are known to have camped in Isleworth Park in 1263. To digress, maybe, in view of his anti-Semitism, the authorities of De Montfort University in Leicester, ought to reconsider its name. Getting back to Isleworth, the Domesday Book records that there was Christian worship in Isleworth (https://allsaints-isleworth.org/about-us/church-history/) and a vicarage is mentioned in records compiled in 1290 (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol3/pp122-129). The church, whose tower is still standing, was dedicated to ‘All saints’ in 1485 and was connected to Syon Abbey, a Bridgettine establishment, founded in 1415 in Isleworth, which was disbanded by Henry VIII. Interestingly, it was in the Abbey’s chapel that the body of Henry VIII lay overnight on its journey from Westminster to St Georges Chapel in Windsor (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syon_Abbey). The abbey stood where Syon House stands today.

The church is said to have been ‘very ancient’. Its chancel was rebuilt in 1398-99. By 1701, the church was in a poor condition and needed rebuilding. Christopher Wren, architect of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, was invited to redesign the church. His design was deemed to costly to be carried out and was discarded. Eventually, the churchwardens brought out Wren’s plans and modified them to make the construction of the church more economical. James Thorne, author of “Handbook to the Environs of London” (published 1876), wrote that:

“Apart from its ivy-covered tower, there could not well have been an uglier ch[urch] than that of Isleworth a few years ago…”

However, he added:

“…but it has been transformed, the windows altered, a new roof of higher pitch, and a lofty white-brick Dec. [i.e. gothic revival] chancel added, greatly to the benefit of the general effect.”

He also described many improvements to its interior and noted the existence of a fine organ built by Father Schmidt (Bernard Schmidt: c1630-1708). Alas, none of what Thorne described, apart from the tower, can ever be seen again.

Except for the tower, the church was destroyed by fire in 1943 during WW2. The fire was not the result of military activity but was caused by two young boys. These same two miscreants also set fire to Holy Trinity Church in Hounslow a few days later. This is what happened (https://stmargarets.london/archives/2013/05/fire_starter.html):

“In the early hours of Friday, 28th May 1943, All Saints Church, standing by the Thames in Old Isleworth, was destroyed by fire. The alarm was given at 2.30am by Miss Burrage who lived next door and again by Mr. McDonald, the publican of the “London Apprentice”. Against the darkness of the wartime black-out the glow of the huge fire could be seen for miles.

Three days later, on the afternoon of Tuesday 1st of June 1943, the Parish Church of Hounslow (Holy Trinity) was completely destroyed by fire. Shortly after 5.00pm smoke was reported to be issuing from the church … The police noted that an attempt had been made to open the church safe…”

Two boys, one aged 12 and the other 13, were arrested and tried at Brentford in the old courthouse, which is now home to a restaurant/café called The Verdict. These two youngsters had been in court several times before for crimes of petty theft. In court, they admitted:

“…that they only set fire to the churches out of spite and only if they found no money to steal. They told the chairman Mr. A. J. Chard J.P, how easy it was to break into churches and how easy it was to burn them down. At the Mission Hall they set fire to the curtains. At Broadway Baptist Church they set eight separate fires. At Holy Trinity it was five. The older boy also confessed to burning down a haystack in a coal yard a year earlier.”

The two arsonists were sent to approved schools. The Chairman of the Court recommended:

“…to the Home Office that the two lads should go to separate schools and that the schools should be of the strictest kind; further, that they should be kept there for the full period of three years.”

All Saints Church was rebuilt yet again in 1970 to the designs of architect Michael Blee (1931-1996), who built several churches. From the outside it is quite an attractive structure attached to the mediaeval tower.

While wandering around the church, two things caught my eye. One is a stone placed close to a large yew tree in the churchyard. The stone informs us that the yew tree is growing upon the site where 49 people, who died in the Great Plague of 1665, were buried.  The other feature that interested me was a group of stones set in the wall surrounding the churchyard. Each of these records the level to which water reached when the Thames flooded on various years between 1774 and 1965. The building of The Thames Barrier, completed in 1984, brought an end to these flooding events.  

All Saints Church stands a few yards away from the riverbank from where there are wonderful views of the Thames and Isleworth Ait and a rich selection of waterfowl swimming in the river. Given how close the old part of Isleworth is to suburban west London, it has a remarkably rustic feeling, and is a peaceful place, providing you ignore the low-flying aircraft that pass above every few minutes.

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