The parish was founded in 1865, as a “church plant” from All Saints, Margaret Street. The church was built on a narrow site, already surrounded by poor quality terraced housing, with many of the houses occupied by multiple families. Founder and first vicar, Fr Richard Temple West, and GE Street, the architect, wanted to bring something of beauty into the lives of the people in the area, who were very poor.
Building started in 1867, and was complete in 1872, but a fire destroyed the brand new roof and the reconstruction took a year, so the first Mass in the new building was on St. Mary Magdalene’s Day 1873. The church was consecrated on 21st October 1878, after the decorations were finished.
An introduction to Gothic Revival
St Mary Magdalene’s church is a fine, Grade 1 listed, example of Gothic Revival architecture. It was designed by Street when he was at the height of his powers, with his work at the centre of the movement which revived the Gothic architecture of 1200-1500 in modern materials. Its enthusiasts believed it to be authentic, honest and Christian. There was a ‘battle of the styles’ between Gothic Revival and Neo-Classical in British public architecture in the mid nineteenth century (compare the Neo-Classical National Gallery with the Gothic Revival Houses of Parliament). From about 1850, however, almost all new Anglican churches were Gothic. Medieval architecture was very colourful, and full of symbolic details, and the Gothic Revival is the same. Pointed arches lead the eye upwards, and forms derived from nature celebrate the beauty of God’s creation.
St Mary Magdalene’s is an Anglo-Catholic Church. Anglo-Catholicism emphasises the Catholic heritage and identity of the Church of England. In the mid-nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism was very controversial and provoked riots. Anglo-Catholic churches were often built in very poor areas, and their clergy believed that their services, full of light, colour, music and ritual, were likely to appeal to the poor. Anglo-Catholic parishes have always tried to care for the whole person, and so have often been involved in work for social improvement.
Street was a committed Anglo-Catholic, and the most learned scholar of gothic architecture of his time. He had William Morris and Philip Webb among his pupils. His most famous building, The Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand, was under construction at the same time as St Mary Magdalene’s.