The old church had been sitting on a rise of high land by the river for over 400 years and it was in poor structural repair. The medieval ragstone was pulling apart and some of the interior pillars were on the point of collapse. (The original supporting walls had been removed in 1640 and replaced by pillars to improve the lighting and make more room. That was not a good idea.)
Most of the parishioners knew that the church was going to fall down before long and so did the new vicar, Dr. Samuel Pratt. He refused to preach inside the building. According to Lady Wentworth, “Dr Pratt had insisted that a tabernacle be erected in the churchyard, prior to the collapse. Soe he preached there and exhorted al to giv thanks for their great deliverance for the church not falling when they were in it, it being then standing. The people all laughed at him, and in a week’s time it fell to the ground, soe all the parish contributes to the building of it.”1
And so, as feared – on the night of 9th April 1713 the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham, fell down.
The man who rode to the rescue was local notable, Church Warden and Court Painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller. With the support of other church dignitaries, including the apprehensive Dr. Pratt, a ‘corum" of 9 trustees was formed with the authority to clear away the ruins of the old building and rebuild a larger church on the same site. Money for the reconstruction was raised through a public subscription fund which included the sale of pews in the new church and burial vaults beneath it. Sir Godfrey bought the first pew himself. Years later it was discovered that the sale of these ’faculties’ had no legal value.
With £1300 raised, work started almost immediately and it was completed by the end of 1714. The new church was described in some quarters as a “handsome brick building” and a “beautiful Doric structure” but the cleric and writer R.S Cobbett thought otherwise. In his “Memorials of Twickenham” he wrote..
‘A word or two may be said in defence of those who originated and carried out the work, deplorable as its style may seem to us… It cannot be denied that ’of its kind’ the edifice is excellent much as we dislike the kind. As a specimen of brickwork it is confessedly inimitable; a repetition of the accident which had deprived Twickenham of one church was at least amply provided against for the future. The walls are of prodigious thickness, every detail is carried out conscientiously and thoroughly, and in such respects it puts to shame many more pretentious modern structures.’…
…which is as fine an example of a back handed compliment as one could wish for.
Cobbett, who was a junior curate at the church in the 1860’s, was particularly upset by the way the new building sat alongside the original 15th century ragstone tower which had been allowed to stand….
‘The tower of Twickenham Church is infinitely superior to any of its neighbours . …it is hard for us to conceive in the present day of improved architectural taste how so utterly incongruous a body could ever have been united to it.’
Further changes were made to the new church over the years – an interior gallery was taken out, the pulpit was moved and in 1789 a cupola added only to be removed during the 19th century. None of this was of any interest to local notable, Church Warden and Court Painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller. In October 1723 he fell sick with a fever. Knowing that he was dying he sent for his friend, the Twickenham poet Alexander Pope. Never one for beating about the bush, Pope asked him if he had any thoughts about where he would like to be buried. “My God!” replied Kneller, “I will not be buried in Westminister! They do bury fools there!” Kneller then asked Pope where he would like to be buried. “Wherever I drop. Very likely in Twickenham.” Pope said. “So will I.” Kneller replied. He then asked the poet to write his epitaph which he later described as “The worst thing I have ever written.”…
Kneller by heaven and not by master taught
Whose art was nature and whose pictures thought;
When now two ages he had snatched from fate
Whate’er was beauteous and whate’er was great
Rests crown crown’d with Prince’s honours, Poets’ lays,
Due to his merit, and brave thirst of praise,
Living, Great Nature fear’d he might outvie
Her works; and dying fears herself might die.
Sir Godfrey Kneller died on 26th October 1723. He now rests in St. Mary’s the Virgin in Twickenham in a vault he had reserved for the purpose, confident that the church he had helped to build would not collapse around his ears.2
1 In the name of clarity I have taken the liberty of tidying up some of Isabelle Wentworth’s more bizarre spelling.
fn2. Some records state that Sir Godfrey died on the 19th October 1723 but on his memorial, which is now among the fools in Westminster Abbey, it states ’OBIT XXVI OCT, AN MDCCXXIII (Died 26th October 1723)
CREDIT: The photograph of the Church Tower was taken by Stephen Harris
— from Martyn Day