Grahame Greene got married here

DURING THE COVID19 ‘lockdowns’, it is often impossible to venture within a church. On several occasions, especially when there are builders at work within a church, we have been lucky enough to be able to enter it. Otherwise, they are usually locked up. Not too long ago, I wrote about General De Gaulle’s brief period of residence in Hampstead and mentioned that he attended mass at Hampstead’s Roman Catholic St Mary’s Church (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/03/22/french-connections/). Oddly, given how often we have visited Hampstead, I had never seen St Mary’s until we visited it in late March 2021. The church is located on Holly Walk about 180 yards north of Hampstead’s Anglican Parish Church.

St Mary’s is set back from the road and its tall narrow façade is wedged between two terraced Georgian houses. The white painted façade with neo-classical ornamentation and a niche containing a large sculpture of the Virgin and Child, and a belfry with a single bell, has a Mediterranean or southern European look to it. It adds an exotic touch to its otherwise British surroundings. The façade was designed by the architect William Wardell (1823-1899), many of whose creations are in Australia. Born a Protestant, he was influenced by his friend the great Victorian architect Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who converted to Roman Catholicism. Wardell followed in Pugin’s footsteps and became a Catholic, building several Catholic churches in England, including St Mary’s in Hampstead, before he moved to Australia in about 1858 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wardell). In the 1840s, after becoming a Catholic, he became a parishioner at St Mary’s.

Prior to the construction of St Mary’s, the Roman Catholics in Hampstead worshipped in Oriel House in Little Church Row. When this became too small to accommodate the congregation, the present church was constructed in under a year and was ready for use in August 1816. At that time, the congregation was led by a French refugee, the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel, whom I described in the article to which I referred above. While he was still officiating at St Marys, a Papal Bull, the “Restoration of the Hierarchy to England and Wales”, was issued in 1850. Included in this document was permission for bells to be rung from Catholic churches in England for the first time since the Reformation. It was this that led to the creation of the façade, designed by Wardell, which we see today.

Fortunately for us the door to the church was open when we arrived. A couple of workmen were doing some repairs and did not mind us entering the small church. According to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry in their “London 4: North” architectural guide, the interior was altered in 1878, and a sanctuary as well as two side chapels were added in 1907. The nave faces a baldachino supported by four pillars coloured black with gold-coloured decoration. The baldachino was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963) in 1935. His family were parishioners of St Mary’s. Adrian lived in Frognal Way in a neo-Georgian house called Shepherd’s Well. Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1872), Adrian’s grandfather, also lived in Hampstead, at Admirals House close to Fenton House. There is a painting above the high altar that depicts the Assumption of the Virgin. This was painted by a student of Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682) and presented to the church by one of its founders Mr George Armstrong.

There is a stone effigy in the northern side chapel, the Lady Chapel. It depicts a figure with hands together as in prayer, with a lion at his feet. Although Abbé Morel had requested to be buried under a simple marble slab, this effigy of him was commissioned by the architect Wardell. The lion at the feet of the cleric indicates that he died outside the country of his birth.

Although the interior of the church is not so old, it evokes the feeling of much older churches I have seen in Italy. As with the façade, the inside of St Mary’s feels as if it is in a country close to the Mediterranean. While visiting its interior, I popped a donation into a box in exchange for a copy of a booklet about the church, from which much of my information has been gleaned. The booklet includes information about some notable members of the church’s congregation, including General De Gaulle, the Duchess of Angouleme, William Wardell, the Gilbert-Scott family, the landscape artist Thomas Clarkson Stansfield (who lived on Hampstead High Street), the novelist Grahame Greene (1904-1991), and Baron Friedrich Von Hugel (1852-1925).

Greene, an agnostic, became converted to Catholicism and was baptised in February 1926, partly because of the influence of Vivien Dayrell-Browning, whom he married in October 1927 in the Church of St Mary’s in Hampstead.  

Von Hugel, who lived in Holford Road, which runs east of Heath Street, was, like Greene, a convert to Catholicism. He was born in Florence, Italy, and moved to England when he was 15 years old. He was an influential religious historian and philosopher both inside and beyond the Roman Catholic Church. He was a leading proponent of Catholic Modernism, which:

“…is neither a system, school, or doctrine, but refers to a number of individual attempts to reconcile Roman Catholicism with modern culture.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernism_in_the_Catholic_Church).

Less cerebral than Von Hugel, but greatly skilled was Gino Masera (1915-1996), who worshipped at St Mary’s. The booklet describing the church notes that when working at London’s Savoy Hotel:

“His artistic talent was revealed when he was asked to carve a block of salt for table decoration. He regarded the commission to carve the Stations of the Cross [in St Mary’s] as a turning point in his career and went on to carve the statue of Christ the King which stands above the High Altar in St Paul’s Cathedral.”

St Mary’s Church stands above a large burial ground that lines the east side of most of Holly Walk. Less picturesque than St Mary’s, this cemetery contains some interesting gravestones including those of the actor Anton Wohlbrueck (Walbrook) who died in Germany but whose ashes are buried in Hampstead; the cartoonist George du Maurier; and the Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell.

Once again, visiting Hampstead, a district with a rich history has proved interesting. Each time we make a trip to the area, we see things we had not noticed before and this has resulted in gradually expanding our knowledge of a place that has attracted fascinating people as residents over several centuries.

Huguenots and Catholics in London’s Soho

SOHO SQUARE IN London’s West End contains two places for Christian worship: St Patricks Church (Roman Catholic); and The French Protestant Church. After Henry VIII came to the throne, life in Britain began to become awkward and sometimes dangerous for Roman Catholics. At around the same time, the same was the case for French Protestants (the Huguenots) across the English Channel in France. Life for the Huguenots was perilous in their native land. For example, in 1545 several hundred Waldensians, people who questioned the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church, were massacred in Provence, and about ten years before that, more than 35 Lutherans were burnt elsewhere in France. Things got worse for the French Protestants during The Eight Wars of Religion (1562-1598; https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-eight-wars-of-religion-1562-1598/). Even before the war broke out, Huguenots began fleeing to places where Protestantism was either tolerated or encouraged. England was one of these. Under the Tudors, the country became home to Huguenot refugees from France and Holland.

When the Huguenots began arriving in London, that is during the 16th century, the metropolis covered mainly what is now the City of London and areas just east of it such as Spitalfields. So, it was in what is now the City and East End that the Huguenots settled and added significantly to the richness of London life. Fournier Street in Spitalfields is one of several streets where they worked and lived. As the centuries passed, London expanded westwards and what some now call the West End began to be developed. Soho Square was built in the 1670s. As increasing numbers of Protestant refugees arrived in England, some of them settled in the newly developed western parts of London. Writing in his “Huguenot Heritage” Robin D Gwynn noted:


“If Huguenot taste made an impression in the cramped quarters of Spitalfields, it was stamped more deeply on the life of the nation through the work of the refugee settlement in Westminster and Soho. Here was the centre of French fashion, cuisine and high society in England, located conveniently near Court and Parliament.”

The churches used by the Huguenots in London were mainly in Spitalfields before the West End was built. By the 18th century, there about 14 in Westminster and Soho. By the 18th century, there were 31 Huguenot churches and their number increased to such an extent that the Anglican Church began to feel that its churches were becoming outnumbered in London. A version of the Marriage Act that was in force between 1753 and 1856:

“…required marriages other than those of Jews and Quakers to take place in a Church of England church, and led to the demise of some French churches. Some Huguenots of Spitalfields chose Christ Church as their place of worship. It was also the case that Huguenots gradually assimilated and intermarried into English society during the century since their arrival, eliminating the need for separate French churches.” (www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/huguenots/2/)

By the latter part of the 19th century:

“Soho was London’s major French neighbourhood and was therefore the obvious setting to build a new church …” (www.egliseprotestantelondres.org.uk/en/heritage/history-2/huguenot-refuge-england/)

The church that was constructed is that which is located on the west side of the northern edge of Soho Square and was completed in 1893. It was designed by Aston Webb (1849-1930), who also designed a façade on the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.  The ornamental details on the mainly red stone façade were created by William Aumonier (1841-1914), a sculptor with some Huguenot ancestry. A bas-relief in the demi-lune above the main entrance attracted my attention. On the left, there is a depiction of a crowded sailing ship. On the right, there is a man holding a document, which is being signed by a man (a king) holding a quill pen. Both panels are surmounted by angels. The base of the sculpted demi-lune has the following inscription:

“To the glory of God & in grateful memory of HM King Edward VI who by his charter of 1550 granted asylum to the Huguenots of France.”

Edward the Sixth (lived 1537-1553) was only nine years old when he succeeded his father King Henry VIII, yet even at this tender age he was an ardent promoter of Protestantism as the state religion. Following the visits to London by Protestant leaders such as John Laski (Jan Łaski or Johannes à Lasco (1499 – 1560), King Edward VI issued Letters Patent, which permitted the establishment of the (protestant) Dutch and French churches of London. Robin Gwynn wrote that:

“The nature of the letters patent was most unusual. In an age which set great store on stringent religious conformity, they allowed foreigners in London to worship … freed even from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.”

A reason that Edward VI might well have sanctioned these foreign Protestant churches was because he hoped that they would be, to quote Gwynn:

“… the model, the blueprint, for a pure, reformed Church of England. The twin refugee churches [i.e. French and Dutch*] offer us a window into the future envisaged by Edward, a future in which there might be superintendents but not bishops.”

Laski had been a superintendent in Emden before he came to England. As such, he:

“… instituted the first example in England of fully-fledged reformed Protestant discipline, based on elected, ordained ‘elders’.”

At the end of Edward’s short reign and his successor Lady Jane Grey’s even shorter one, Queen Mary, a committed Catholic, temporarily put the brakes on the advancement of Protestantism in Britain, and Laski fled to the European mainland with some of his congregation.

The Roman Catholic Church of St Patricks that stands close to the French church was designed by John Kelly (1840-1904) and built between 1891 and 1893 on the site of one of the first Catholic buildings to be allowed in England after the Reformation (which countered Catholicism). It is interesting to note that many of the Catholics who came to London (from, for example Italy and Ireland) over the centuries were economic refugees rather than religious fugitives, as were the Huguenots. 

Despite the passage of time, Soho remains a richly cosmopolitan district of London. Although there are fewer than in than in the past, the area is still home to some fine purveyors of imported foods, notably delicious ingredients from Italy. Back in the 1960s, when I was a child, my mother used to do much our food shopping in these stores as well as in French and Belgian shops, which have long since closed. The disappearance of shops such as these is probably partly a reflection of the migration of members of communities such as the Huguenots out from the centre of town to the suburbs.

*Note: the Dutch Church is currently in Austin Friars in the City. It was first established in 1550.