Monday, 28 March 2022

Saint Mary the Virgin: a former
Gothic Revival church by
Scott in Stony Stratford

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on London Road, Stony Stratford … designed in the 1860s by Sir George Gilbert Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Although Saint Mary and Saint Giles is the Church of England parish church in Stony Stratford, the town had two parish churches for about a century. The ‘Saint Mary’ in the name of Saint Mary and Saint Giles is a reminder of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, built as a new church on London Road in 1864.

The part of the toen in the parish of Wolverton was left without a church after the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene burnt down in the Great Fire in Stony Stratford in 1742. For over a century, Saint Giles’ Church in Stony Stratford was the only church serving the parishes of both Wolverton and Calverton.

A new church on London Road was designed in 1863-1865 in the Gothic style by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), a prolific architect of the Gothic Revival. When the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin was built, it was still within Wolverton parish. The church was commissioned by the Revd William Pitt Trevelyan (1812-1905), Rector of Calverton, and his cousin, Mary Perceval of Calverton, later Lady Mary Russell.

Her father, the Revd Charles George Perceval (1796-1858), was the Rector of Calverton. Her brother, Charles Perceval (1845-1897), 7th Earl of Egmont, sold their family’s extensive estates in Co Cork in 1889, including Lohort Castle and Liscarroll Castle near Buttevant, once reputed to be the third largest castle in Ireland but now in ruins; his widow donated Kanturk Castle, Co Cork, to the National Trust in 1900.

The architect Sir Gilbert Scott is chiefly associated with the design and renovation of churches and cathedrals. He was inspired by Augustus Pugin to take part in the Gothic Revival, and one of his early works was the Martyrs’ Memorial on St Giles’, Oxford (1841).

Scott designed over 800 buildings, including the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, and King’s College Chapel, London.

While Scott was working on the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Stony Stratford, he was extensively renovating the ornate West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (1855-1878). He restored the cathedral to the form he believed it took in the Middle Ages, working with original materials where possible and creating imitations when the originals were not available.

Scott’s church in Stony Stratford was built in stone in the Early English style, with lancet windows, an apse, south porch, nave, aisles and a bellcote. However, some commentators described the church as ‘dullish’.

Scott also built a parish room and a vicarage in 1864. Initially, they were detached but were later joined to the church. The vicarage was an asymmetrical design built in stone, with a window by Farmer to which a later bay was added along with other alterations.

After the church was built, the new parish of Wolverton Saint Mary was formed in 1870, covering that end of Stony Stratford. A Vicarage was built opposite the church, as well as two curates’ houses, now known as ‘Jesuan House,’ and a parish hall.

The priests in the new church were supporters of the Tractarian Movement and the Oxford Movement, and faced vigorous opposition from strong evangelicals. Some of its priests were persecuted for what were regarded as ‘ritual offences’ and one was deprived of his living for these practices.

For a century, the church served the Wolverton Road and London Road area to the south and east of the historic core of Stony Stratford. Many of the houses in this area are terraced housing built in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Most of the housing in the Wolverton Road, Queen Street, King Street and Clarence Road area was built for employees of the Wolverton railway works nearby. A tram was built to take workers to and from the factory, and a track was built along Wolverton Road with the terminus at Russell Street. However, by 1926 the tram was outmoded and closed.

After a fire severely damaged Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford on 26 December 1964, many thought Saint Giles would be closed and Saint Mary the Virgin would become the sole parish church in the town. However, the Diocese of Oxford decided to restore Saint Giles and the congregation of Saint Mary’s were not happy to lose their church with their High Church traditions.

The Diocese of Oxford amalgamated the two parishes, the altar, the reredos by Sir Ninian Comper, and other furnishings were moved from Saint Mary’s Church to Saint Giles, and Saint Giles was re-dedicated as the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles on Palm Sunday, 7 April 1968. Saint Mary the Virgin then ceased to be a church and became a community centre.

The Swinfen Harris Church Hall is the former parish hall beside the former church. The hall was built in 1892 by the local architect Edward Swinfen Harris, and is a beautiful listed building on London Road.

The former church and hall were acquired by the Greek Orthodox Community of Milton Keynes in 2010. The two buildings have been has been restored extensively and are used by the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos, the Greek community and the Greek school. The hall is surrounded by extensive grounds and gardens and is available for hire.

A church school was built on the corner of Wolverton Road and London Road for Saint Mary’s Parish. The school was also designed by Edward Swinfen Harris in 1867-1873. The limestone walls are laced with patterns in red brick. When the school closed, the building was converted to the Plough Inn in 1937, and it is now being renovated as a gastropub.

The Swinfen Harris Church Hall, the former parish hall, was designed by Edward Swinfen Harris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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