Although it is not known when the parish of Wanstead came into existence, the first mention of the parish was in 1208. An account tells of a dispute between the rector, John of St. Laurence and the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate about tithes. The rector was also canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The names of the subsequent clergy are recorded, but Wanstead did not play an important role in history until Tudor times. The manor of Wanstead and the right to appoint the rector passed into royal hands when it was sold to Henry VII in 1499 for £360. Henry VIII’s son Edward VI passed the manor to Sir Richard Rich, one of the chief accusers of Sir Thomas More. As Lord Chancellor, Rich made Wanstead his country residence and rebuilt the house. When Mary Tudor was proclaimed Queen in Norwich and returned to London to oust Lady Jane Grey, her sister Elizabeth rode out to meet her at Wanstead and they then entered the City in triumph.
Earl of Leicester
Rich died and Wanstead was bought by Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who entertained the queen there from time to time. After Leicester’s death, it passed to his step-son, another favourite of Queen Elizabeth, Robert Deveureux, Earl of Essex.
James I visited Wanstead many times and was regularly in residence at the house. Texts survive of a number of significant sermons preached at Wanstead Church in the presence of the king.
During the Civil War and Commonwealth, Wanstead church was closely involved in the Presbyterian organisation of Essex parishes. Perhaps because of its anti-Royalist associations and various changes of ownership, Wanstead was no longer a fashionable place after the Restoration and it ceased to be closely connected with Court circles.
Josiah Child, a director and eventual governor of the East India Company bought the estate of Wanstead. He spent lavishly on the gardens, planting walnut trees and creating fish ponds. Sir Josiah (as he became) was commemorated in 1699 by the magnificent memorial which dominates the south side of the church of St. Mary’s. It stands in the same place as it did in the medieval building. Whereas Josiah lavished money on the gardens, his son’s half-brother Richard completely re-built the house. It was built in the Palladian style with a façade measuring 260 ft. It was considered one of the major country seats rivalling houses such as Blenheim. The splendour of the house was matched by Richard’s titles as he was created at first, Viscount Castlemaine and then Earl Tylney.
The two gateposts which originally stood at the end of the drive leading to Wanstead House can now be seen by the traffic lights at the junction of Overton Drive and Blake Hall Road. They bear the monogram of Sir Richard Child.
In March 1787 a motion was passed that re-building the church was essential and a petition was laid before Parliament explaining that the church had become “much decayed, and is not sufficient large.” The new building was to be capable of holding 500 people and was to cost £3,100, although, perhaps inevitably, the final costs amounted to £9,150.
The fate of “Wanstead House, the magnificent seat of Earl Tylney” was a sad one. William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the nephew of the Duke of Wellington married the heiress to the estate, Catherine. However in 1822 the contents of the house were auctioned off to pay for his extravagances and to settle his gambling debts. The following year, the house itself was demolished.
All that now remains of this once splendid house is the Temple, (which was not a Temple but a place for banqueting and entertainment) and the formal layout of the gardens which can be seen in some places in Wanstead Park and the Grotto. The Grotto was built in 1761, but in 1884, it was almost destroyed by a fire and only part of the frontage remains. It was once spectacular and was described as having “a domed roof encrusted with pebbles, shells, stalactites, crystals and looking glasses.”
The Church of St. Mary the Virgin
St. Mary’s is one of the finest examples of late 18th century church to be found in Greater London. It is particularly rare because of its virtually unaltered state. The pews used today are the original pews of 1790. It is the only Grade 1 listed building in Redbridge.
The current St. Mary’s is sited 70 ft north of the medieval building, enabling services to continue uninterrupted during the re-building. The site of the medieval church can be identified by the grave slabs running parallel to the present church. The architect Thomas Hardwick also designed St. Mary’s, Marylebone Road and was responsible for the renovation of Inigo Jones’ St. Paul’s, Covent Garden and Wren’s St. James’, Piccadilly.
The foundation stone was laid on 13th July 1787, after which “numerous gentlemen and ladies were elegantly entertained with cold collation at Wanstead House”. It was consecrated by the Rt Revd Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London on 24th June 1790. A committee was set up to organise the consecration and they resolved that men and boys should be directed to the north side of the church and women and girls to the south. Old men and women should sit in the window seats. Maidservants and female housekeepers were to sit in the gallery on the South side and men in livery and other men and boys should sit in the north gallery. To avoid traffic congestion it was order that “Coachmen …set down & take up with the Horses’ Heads towards Wanstead House”.
The front step at the front of the church is of double height to accommodate the gentry alighting from their carriages.
There are a number of items of interest in the three-acre churchyard: 50 of the tombstones date from the 18th century or earlier. The earliest being that of James Waly who died in 1685. There is a gravestone of Thomas Turpin of Whitechapel, who is supposed to be the uncle of Dick Turpin. The stone sentry box, a memorial to the Wilton family, provided shelter for the guard employed to keep watch for body-snatchers. In about 1830 an armed guard was organized to deal with body snatchers active in the church yard. During the 1820s there were a number of grave robbers based in Barking. At this time, it was only permitted to dissect bodies of executed criminals. This meant that only a few bodies were available, and so hospitals and medical schools used to pay sizeable sums of money for corpses for dissection. Some of these corpses were provided by grave robbers who dug up recently buried bodies and sold them.
By 1835 the Snaresbrook end of the parish was becoming fashionable after the demolition of the house: “Snaresbrook..is a delightful village on the confines of the Forest, not far distant from the river Roden… it contains some capital houses, the residences of gentlemen’s families…and selected as a suitable situation for numerous elegant seats and country villas.” There had been 1354 residents in 1821 but by 1856 when the railway arrived at Snaresbrook there were 2207.
The problems of insufficient church accommodation arose again. Also the parish church, which had been very convenient for the now demolished Wanstead House, was isolated at the end of a lane from the new developments of housing, Thus a petition was laid for a chapel of ease It appears to have been the personal project of the Rector, the Revd William Pitt Wigram and the Wigram family appear to have paid a third of the building costs. Other donations and collections were solicited. The architect was George Gilbert Scott, who also designed the nearby Infant Orphan Asylum, now Snaresbrook Crown Court. Christ Church was built at the height of the Gothic revival and the architecture is the geometric style of the late 13th century. The foundation stone was laid on 18th May 1860 by Wigram’s brother, the Bishop of Rochester and it was consecrated on 19th July 1861 by the Bishop of London.
Originally, it was a chancel, with the north aisle and a nave of four bays. In 1867 a south aisle was added and the church lengthened by a bay. A tower and spire were then added in 1869 and vestries in 1889.
As the urban population increased, Wanstead followed the common practice of rapidly expanding into these areas by building iron churches or mission rooms. The first was Holy Trinity, Hermon Hill built in 1882. In 1888 a separate parish was created and a permanent church completed in 1890. A temporary iron church was built at Aldersbrook and then the permanent church of St. Gabriel’s was completed in 1914 and another separate parish was formed. Much of the cost of both churches was borne by Misses Nutter who became patrons of the living in 1898 and are buried in St. Mary’s churchyard. The east window above the altar shows a stained glass window of Christ in majesty surrounded by angels. This window was given by Mary and Gertrude Nutter in memory of their sister Jessie. The maker’s “signature” a wheatsheaf and tower can be seen in the left-hand corner. The angels around the high altar are from Ely Theological College but originated in Nuremburg. The 1920s rood screen comes from Salisbury Teacher Training College with a particularly fine figure of Christ.
Christ Church was reordered in the first years of the 21st century. The vestry and sacristy were renovated and a nave altar installed. The organ was replaced and re-sited at the east end of the northern arcade to allow it to speak directly into the body of the church. The old organ chamber was converted into a parish office.
Further information about the history of the parish and the churches can be found in A Guide to Christ Church and A Guide to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, both by Denis Keeling or The Parish of Wanstead by Graham Dixon and Patricia Wilkinson.