History of St Mary’s

Introit bell
Introit bell

The rapid development of Belgravia and Pimlico during the 19th century was accompanied by the building of many new churches, from St Peter's Eaton Square in 1824 to Holy Trinity, Sloane Street in 1890.  St Paul's Wilton Place was consecrated in 1843 for the newly created Knightsbridge parish, which included large tracts of Pimlico and its slums. The first parish priest was the Tractarian, the Rev WJE  Bennett, who was particularly concerned for the poor and the lack of provision for them in parish churches of the time. He determined to found daughter churches in his new parish to serve their needs. In 1844 he wrote to his parishioners appealing for funds to build the first of these churches:

Belgrave Square, Eaton Place, Chesham Place and Lowndes Street are the cause of Ebury Street and Queen Street and Clifford's Row and New Grosvenor Place being filled with a population of poor men, women and children. Come with me into the lanes and streets of this great city. Come with me and visit the dens of infamy, and the haunts of vice, ignorance, filth and atheism with which it abounds. Then look at your noble houses, the gold that glitters on your sideboard, and the jewels that gleam on your bosoms, and say within your secret conscience, as standing before the great and terrible God at the day of Judgment, 'What shall I do, if I give not of the one to relieve the other?'

The appeal was successful and the foundation stone of St Barnabas, Pimlico was laid in 1847. Fr Bennett, worn down by the ritual controversies, resigned in 1851 but his successor, the Rev the Hon Robert Liddell continued his policy and the bosoms of Knightsbridge must have been dull indeed as three more daughter churches were consecrated: St Gabriel's, Warwick Square (1853), St Saviour's, St George's Square (1864) and St Mary's, Graham Street (1874), which was built over the underground railway on land where houses had been demolished as part of the 'cut and cover' works.

The Church Times reported that Thursday, 2 July 1874:

...being the festival of the Visitation of the BVM, a mission chapel in Graham Street, Pimlico, a portion of the parish of St Paul's Knightsbridge, far distant from the church in Wilton Place, was opened for service under the licence of the Bishop of London. The service at eleven o'clock was well attended by people from the neighbourhood, and we were glad to notice a good sprinkling of poor women. Mr Eyton, the Curate-in-Charge, was the celebrant, and an unconscionably long sermon was preached by Mr Knox-Little [curate of St Thomas, Regent Street], which, considering the broiling weather, was little better than cruelty.

The great and the good of Knightsbridge and Belgravia were encouraged to support the new churches and some now moved from the well-established St Barnabas to St Mary's, which had the virtue of proximity to the houses of Eaton Square. Others came to hear Fr Eyton, whose sermons at 11.30am Choral Matins attracted a strong following. The mission chapel in Graham Street flourished.

In 1909 St Mary's became a separate parish; extending from the north side of Graham Street (now Graham Terrace) to Cliveden Place and bounded by Eaton Terrace to the east and the River Bourne (which is carried by conduit over Sloane Square station) to the west, it is one of the smallest in the Diocese of London.

The first Vicar, Fr Howell, died in 1916 and was succeeded by Fr Whitby. He was generous with his personal wealth and after the Great War used it to help St Mary's acquire neighbouring property, including The Pineapple public house. This enabled the church to be extended northwards in the 1920s with the construction of the Seven Sorrows chapel and a new entrance in Westbourne Street (now Bourne Street). The Pineapple was developed into a Presbytery.

St Mary's was very much a parish church and played an important part in the local community, but it also continued to attract a more eclectic congregation from further afield. This dual role enabled it to survive changes in the parish that began with the Second World War.

The war deprived St Marys of most of its younger parishioners, who were either evacuated or enlisted into the forces, and youth groups and other social activities ceased. There was some devastating bombing around the church, but St Mary’s survived with the loss only of the stained glass windows in the chancel.

After the war and with support for the Church falling generally, the demolition of a large block of poorer housing to make way for a school and increasing gentrification elsewhere meant St Mary’s failed to re-establish its role in the geographical parish. However, it continued to draw a congregation from far outside the parish and became once more a mission church, but with a wider mission to all drawn to the Catholic faith, a mission continued to this day.