View of Lambeth Palace and the Museum from the Thames
Detail of the Pentwyn tomb
Doulton altar by George Tinworth in 1905
St Mary-at-Lambeth Church
The Garden Museum is housed in the medieval and Victorian church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. The first church on the site was built before the Norman Conquest and was integral to the religious centre established by the Archbishops of Canterbury in the twelfth century. The structure was deconsecrated in 1972 and rescued from demolition by the founder of the Garden Museum, Rosemary Nicholson. The structure of the church was repaired and the Museum opened in 1977 as the world’s first museum of garden history; the churchyard was re-designed as a garden.
The church is the oldest structure in the Borough of Lambeth, except for the crypt of Lambeth Palace itself, and its burials and monuments are a record of 950 years of community history. But for the Palace it has perhaps the richest historical story of any building in the borough.
In 1062 a wooden church was built on the site by Goda, sister of Edward the Confessor; the Domesday Book records 29 tenancies in her manor. Later in the century it was rebuilt as a stone church and appears to have been at its height of splendour and patronage in the twelfth century, when it functioned as the church to the Archbishop’s London lodgings next door.
The church was a place of burial until the churchyard was closed in 1854, and the level of the site has risen in consequence. It is estimated that there are over 26,000 burials - Lambeth expanded quickly in the nineteenth century, and 15,900 burials are recorded in the two decades after 1790. The continued prestige of the site is reflected in the wills of many citizens who ordered tombs for themselves, particularly in the Chancel. The most significant is the chantry tomb on its north wall to Hugh Peyntwyn (d. 1504), which is the earliest known example of a new design of wall monument associated with the royal workshops. Opposite is a monument of the same type to John Mompesson (d. 1524): St Mary’s is unique in having two monuments of this type.
The plant hunter and gardener John Tradescant the Elder was buried in the church in 1638, his son, also John, in 1662 and Elias Ashmole, the founder of the Ashmolean Museum was buried here in 1692. Later burials include the soprano Nancy Storace in the church, andJohn Sealy of the Coade Stone Manufactory and Captain Bligh of The Bounty in the churchyard. The site is exceptional for having three Grade II* tombs (Tradescant, Sealy and Bligh) in a single small churchyard.
In 1377 the stone tower was built; it was repaired in 1834 – 35 but is otherwise intact. The body of the church was continually rebuilt and enriched over the centuries but, decisively, in 1851 – 2 the aisles and nave were rebuilt by Philip Charles Hardwick (1822 – 92), an architect prominent in the construction of banks and railway stations but not considered to be in the “first rank” of his generation; it was his father, Sir Philip Hardwick, who designed the Euston Arch. Hardwick's work was described by the Museum of London Archaeology Service “as an almost complete rebuilding of the old body of the church”. The most eye-catching survivals are four of eight corbels in the ceiling of the nave. These are a mix of medieval and Victorian construction.
One of the few twentieth-century interventions took place in c. 1900 with the insertion of an immersion font, said to be one of only two examples in Anglican churches in England, and a baptistry at the base of the Tower
In the Second World War the stained glass was badly damaged by bombs, and in the 1950s the stained glass was replaced by plain glass and panels by Francis Stephens (1921 – 2002), including a replica of the “Pedlar’s Window”. The bombs also broke up the altar donated in 1888 by Sir Henry Doulton as a memorial to his wife; Doulton’s factory of ornamental ceramic ware stands 300 metres to the south.
In 1972 the church was made redundant in consequence of its dilapidation and gloom, and also because of changes in the population settlement of the parish: the area by the riverside had become derelict and under-populated, and the Vicar wanted a church closer to where the congregation lived. In 1969 Lambeth Council designated the area around Lambeth Palace as one of the borough’s first conservation areas.
Soon after the Church Commissioners obtained the necessary consents for demolition; the altar, bells, and pews were removed. In 1976 Rosemary Nicholson visited the site to see the tomb of John Tradescant and was shocked to discover the church boarded-up in readiness for demolition. She established the Tradescant Trust, which was awarded a 99-year lease from the Diocese of Southwark, who continue to be our landlords. The Trust’s rescue and repair of the church structure became one of the great architectural conservation causes of its time, and the church was converted into the world’s first Museum of Garden History.
In 2008 galleries and spaces for exhibitions and education were built in the first phase of its transformation into a modern museum of the design, history and culture of gardens. We are now planning a seoncd development phase. Find out more here.