Below the foundations of the church are traces of Roman, Saxon and Medieval London, when the Strand was a vital link between the City of London and the Royal and monastic settlement at Westminster. In the later Middle Ages and Tudor times the Strand was lined with the sumptuous town houses of bishops and nobles, many of whose names are preserved in side roads and alleys. The original parish church stood to the south of the present building and was demolished in 1549 when Edward, Duke of Somerset, built his new palace (the first Somerset House). Somehow, a congregation kept going without its own church for over 150 years.
Then, in 1711, an Act of Parliament was passed for the building of 50 new churches around London and the opportunity was taken to rebuild St Mary’s church on the present site. The architect, James Gibbs (1682 1754), was a Scottish Roman Catholic who had studied in Rome. The church has survived both the London Blitz and major redevelopment schemes in the area.
Things to notice
Look at the fine carvings on the exterior – swags and cherubs under the window hoods, foliage, fruit and books around the apse and ribbons with tassels on the churchyard gateposts.
Inside, the ornate ceiling, executed by John and Chrysostom Wilkins, and the richly-decorated apse dominate; but look also at the George I coat of arms, the handsome carvings on the pulpit and doorcases and the original marble font. The two paintings in the sanctuary were completed in 1785 and are by the American artist Mather Brown, who was brought up in Boston, Massachusetts but who spent most of his life in London.
The Association of Wrens
The church became the official church of the former Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1984. The Book of Remembrance in the glass case at the back records the names of those Wrens who died in the Service from the First World War onwards. Gifts from the Association of Wrens include the blue kneelers, the carved Paschal candlestick and a green altar frontal.
The restoration programme
Although the church miraculously survived the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars, the inevitable effects of wear and tear have necessitated a major restoration programme. In 1984 the spire was completely rebuilt and, since then, award-winning new steps and railings have been erected at the east end, the western gateposts and gates have been cleaned and conserved and the paintings by Mather Brown have been expertly restored. More recently, the nineteenth century railings and walls around the churchyard have been completely restored, the ten nave windows have been beautifully reglazed with 1 century style glass and the churchyard has been repaved. The much-loved blue glass in the sanctuary was the work of the parish’s then architect, Sidney Toy FRIBA, and dates from 1946, after the windows were destroyed by bombing raids.
But a great deal more needs to be done and some of it is urgent. The list includes the stonework on the roof, the electrical and heating systems, the western vestibule and steps, the redecoration of the interior and the cleaning of the exterior. All this could cost well over El million. Donations are needed if all the work is to proceed. Churches do not generally receive funding from either central or local government.
Worship and Mission
The church is an Anglican parish church in the diocese of London. The form of worship is broadly traditional with congregational participation and a welcoming atmosphere. The Eucharist is celebrated twice a week and for special festivals and the church is open several days a week for quiet prayer and meditation. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the church.
The church is also an ideal setting for recitals and carol services.
The parish has a Church primary school in Drury Lane (St Clement Danes JMI School) and the children, staff and parents are always welcome.
Lovers of the works of Charles Dickens will be interested to know that his parents, John and Elizabeth, were married at St Mary le Strand on 13 June 1809.