St Mary’s is the ancient parish church of Walthamstow and its oldest building, with foundations dating to the 12th century. It is possible a ‘preaching cross’ existed on the site before the church was built.
Ralph de Toni, said to be the son of the standard-bearer of William the Conqueror, was ‘holder of the manor’ of Walthamstow, or Wilcumestouue as it was then known (literally translated as, ‘Welcome-place’).
Ralph de Toni built St Mary’s – then a manorial church (and, before Henry VIII, a Catholic one) – sometime between 1103-1126. The church was later ‘granted’ to Holy Trinity Priory in Aldgate by de Toni’s widow, Alice, who was the niece of William the Conqueror. She did this ‘for the salvation of the soul’ of her deceased husband. The first vicar (priest) of St Mary’s was a monk from Holy Trinity Priory in Aldgate; later vicars were appointed by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, both patrons of St Mary’s Walthamstow.
The church has been associated with other notable people throughout its history – the renowned 19th century artist William Morris was baptised in St Mary’s (you can still see the font Morris was baptised in), the Tudor merchant Sir George Monoux (who had been Lord Mayor of London) was a member of the church, and diarist Samuel Peyps used to visit friends near the church and once attended a service at St Mary’s that he found so boring he pulled out a pocket-sized book of Latin plays to read instead!
The church has changed as Walthamstow has changed and it has been expanded and altered throughout the centuries. There was first mention of a bell tower in 1431, though we know Sir George Monoux rebuilt the tower in 1535 and also extended the North Aisle for his chantry chapel around 1544. The galleries – which were added in the 18th century – only travel two-thirds of the way around the church; this is because the south roof was hit by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War, and the gallery on that side was dismantled with the wood used to repair the roof.
St Mary’s is associated with a number of social improvement projects, including the country’s first purpose-built Church of England infants’ school (this building is now the church hall, located across the churchyard from St Mary’s) which was constructed in 1828 and initiated by Revd William Wilson, who was the then-vicar of St Mary’s. The school took 150 children, ages 2-7, and served as a preparatory school for poor children who later went to St Mary’s National School in Vestry Road. Centuries earlier, in 1527, the same impulse to help those in need led Sir George Monoux, the great benefactor of St Mary’s, to build the almshouses to the north of the church; these included a schoolroom, the forerunner to Sir George Monoux Grammar School, which would later become Sir George Monoux College which still exists.