A brief history of our Church
The Church


The first stirring of interest in a church at the bottom of St.Mary’s Road followed the death of novelist Charles Reade, author of ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’, on 11/4/1884. In the year after his burial at St.Mary’s, Willesden, Reade’s friends planned to build a church dedicated to St.Peter in his memory. They would find the money and his nephew the Rev. Compton Reade, then a north-country rector, would be its first incumbent.

Although a new district, formed from parts of St.Mary’s and All Souls parishes was agreed provisionally, and referred to officially as the ‘Reade Memorial District’, that scheme fell through. But the idea of the church was kept up by the Rev. J.T.Brown curate of St.Mary’s and his supporters. Unfortunately for them, another curate, Rev.W.Irwin, was at the time striving to develop St.Michael & All Angels, Stonebridge. Eventually the whole business of St.Peters fell through because the Bishop of London, on being applied to, said that the proposed site in St.Mary’s Road was not suitable, the proposed parish was too small, the population too sparse, and that the district could not carry on the two schemes of St. Peters and St. Michaels at the same time. Sadly, bad feeling over the rival schemes led to the breakaway dissenting C of E church of Christ Church, St.Albans Road, whilst a new brick temporary church at Stonebridge rose up in late 1886.

However, a site for a church at the lower end of St.Mary’s Road was purchased by the Bishop of London’s Fund, but permission to develop the new District had to wait until 1/12/1894 when, with the consent of the Vicars of Willesden and All Souls, Harlesden, the London Diocesan Home Missions Committee appointed the Rev.George Herbert Newton, M.A., as missioner in charge of the area. Fr.Newton set about his task with enthusiasm visiting every house in the locality to make the venture known. It was he who chose to dedicate the proposed church to St.Matthew in memory of his late brother who had once built a church similarly named.


A local builder, J.P.Humphrey of 38, Manor Park Road, who called himself a ‘corrugated iron builder’ was chosen to erect a temporary mission hall on the chosen site. Plans were approved by the District Council on 26/2/1895 and the work quickly completed by 5/4/1895. Fr.Newton must have been excited when the Mission Church was dedicated by the Bishop of Marlborough, Bishop Suffragan for the Diocese of London, on 6/4/1895. The temporary mission church, which originally stood facing east in a position eventually to be covered by the Institute and west end of the church nave, was subsequently moved more than once, finally to the site of the present Vicarage. There it served the parish well as a hall (despite becoming leaky with age), until being removed soon after 1950 to make way for the erection of our Vicarage. But the old building was not yet finished, it survived for another 30 years or so after being re-erected in Goodson Road for industrial use.


From the start it was recognised that the church could not be built without outside help. Grants were promised by the Bishop of London’s Fund; The Incorporated Church Building Society; Marshall’s Charity; The Parochial Charities Fund; and The London Diocesan Church Building Society and the Bishop of Marlborough. Thus a total of £2270 was promised. By means of collecting boxes, sales of work, entertainments and various other events, the residents worked strenuously to raise money.

The Building Committee invited William Douglas Caröe FRIBA (1857-1938), architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, to design their new church. Caröe was born in Liverpool, the son of a Danish Consul. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and articled to J.L.Pearson who was to build the magnificent St.Augustine’s Kilburn. His original plans for a red brick building with stone facings in mixed style, seating 878, are dated ‘Xmas 1898’. But all sorts of difficulties arose to delay the building work. It was obvious that the church could not be built in one go; sections would have to be erected as finance permitted. Plans, modified to limit the first stage to chancel and two bays of the nave, were eventually approved on 24/7/1900.

The committee accepted the tender of Mr George Neal of Tennyson Works, Willesden Lane, for the erection of the first portion of the church at a cost of £5908 10s 6d. The following Nov. 3rd saw the placing of the foundation stone on the outside wall of the east end of the church by Alderman and Sheriff Walter Vaughan Morgan. A dedication service was conducted by the Missioner-in-Charge, the Archdeacon of Middlesex and the Vicar of Willesden.


After 6 ½ years of effort on the part of the congregation, their plans were partly fulfilled on 12/10/1901 when the first portion of the permanent church was consecrated by the Rt.Rev. and Rt.Hon.Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, Lord Bishop of London. The Bishop, who had patronage of St.Matthew’s, nominated Fr.Newton to be its first incumbent in early 1902. Just before this the formal parish boundary, taken from parts of St.Mary’s and All Souls, had been agreed:- Craven Park; Church Road; Essex Road; Roundwood Road; Drayton Road; Sellons Avenue; Crownhill Road; Manor Park Road; Craven Park Road and back to Craven Road.


It might be imagined, having achieved so much, that the Building Committee and congregation would have somewhat relaxed their efforts after the consecration of the first half of the church free from debt. But not so; the next section, comprising the vestries and northeast corner, started almost immediately. Rev B.T.Atlay, Vicar of Willesden, laid the commemoration stone on 29/8/1903 and the Archdeacon of Middlesex conducted a dedication service on completion of the work on 25/2/1904.

The organ project followed. Its specification was drawn up by the Rev.Noel Aubrey Bonavia-Hunt (assistant priest 1905-1912) and the builders were Messrs Vincent & Co of Sunderland. The instrument was dedicated by the Archdeacon of Middlesex on Saturday, 27/1/1906.

Focus moved quickly to the completion of the church building. Soon afterwards, W.D.Caröe was negotiating with the District Council. His plans were approved on 6/3/1906 and G.Godson & Sons of Kilburn Lane were chosen to complete the work.

The dedication stone of the completion of the nave (on the inside wall at the west end) was to be laid by the Right Hon., the Lord Mayor of London, Walter Vaughan Morgan on 12/5/1906. Unfortunately, he was taken ill and it was the Lady Mayoress, who presided in his absence.

The nave was completed on 11/10/1906 and consecrated on 13/10/1906; Dr. Winnington-Ingram again officiating.

The church supported a mission hall in St.Thomas’s Road which from 1896 was called a Gospel Hall whilst from about 1910, it was known as the Parish Room and Day Nursery. It had become Willesden & District Social Club by 1913/4. Another mission, in Roundwood Road, was to be operational by 1915/16.


Four years later, on 16/7/1910 the foundation stone of a Parish Hall designed by churchwarden Joseph Fry, FSI. was laid. Again a local builder was employed, J.C.Tennent & Co. of Grange Road, and he completed the work by 6/1/1911 at cost of £3076. At this date not only had the debt on the completed church been cleared, but only a mere £400 was required to pay for the Institute. Towards the end of 1914 the building was used as a 40-bed hospital for the first world war wounded.

The building served the parish between the wars, but, on 28/9/1940, it received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb. Tragically seven people sheltering in the boiler house were trapped and drowned because of a broken water main. A large crater was left on the site of the caretakers flat and the church damaged. The hall remained derelict until 1951 when it was restored and modernised at a cost of £12000 provided by the War Damage Reinstatement Scheme. Architect Mr Ernest Glanfield FRIBA controlled the work by builder James Shackell & Co.Ltd of 182 Finchley Road. The hall was completed on 27/6/1952 and formally opened on 15/11/1952 by the Mayor of Willesden, Mrs Elizabeth Williams.


St.Matthews moved into its second half century with extensive work following wartime bomb damage. The hall had been repaired by 1952, and reparations to the church followed soon afterwards.

Riley & Glanfield designed a fine new Vicarage, which was built by H.T.Swaffer of Forest Gate to the west of the hall. Fr.Pearson, living in the temporary Vicarage in Harlesden Gardens, watched the work progress through 1953, but it was his successor Fr.Foizey who first moved in during March 1954. Simultaneously, H.T.Swaffer was employed to reconstruct the bell tower during the winter of 1953/54.


The Catholic Faith as the Church of England has received it was taught from the outset at St.Matthews in a setting of Sarum-type ceremonial. Certainly Caroe's church design encourages focus on the high altar, so perhaps it was founded in the Anglo-Catholic Revival. Plainsong was introduced by choirmaster R.F.C.Holloway soon after 1918. Many masses and canticles were sung to classical polyphonic music, the west gallery often being used for semi-chorus work. With the arrival of Fr.Percy in 1935 St.Matthews saw the introduction of use of the English Missal and the full Western Rites of Holy Week etc. For a short time under Fr.Kee (1960-63) a parish communion at 9.30am became the main service of the day, replacing the 11am Solemn Mass. But under Fr. Thornhill, St.Matthews reverted to the Solemn Mass, now at 11 am.

Possibly the most extreme high church ritual took place under Fr. Francis W.P.Thornhill (1962-1974) and his successor Fr.Leslie J.Whiting (1974-1992). Since then changes have been made to the physical layout of the church furniture and a more modern liturgy introduced. Nevertheless, the links with St.Matthews Anglo-Catholic traditions remain.


From earliest times St.Matthews has worked closely with local schools. In the early 1900’s, Sunday Schools were held in both Leopold Road and Oldfield Road schools. Keble Memorial school in Crownhill Road was completed on 25/6/1889, for Miss Ayckbourn, of the Orphanage of Mercy, Kilburn, long before St.Matthews was built, so its early link was with All Souls, Harlesden. But in modern times responsibility for the school children has been shared between All Souls and St.Matthews.

Willesden Local History Society

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