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A church dedicated to St Mary has existed on this site from at least 1231. [It is not dedicated just to ‘St Mary’ but to ‘St Mary of the visitation’ – i.e. the Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1.39)]. The names of the Rectors of St Mary’s are displayed on a board in the church: the first one shown is 'Walter'.
The original church was rebuilt and altered several times over the centuries. Acton's parish church was the scene of turbulence in 1642 at the onset of the English Civil War, when it was damaged by Roundhead soldiers. The font was defaced, windows smashed and the chancel rails taken into the street to be burnt and the majority of the memorial brasses were destroyed. Later that year two Roundhead soldiers were buried in the churchyard, probably having died of wounds from the fighting at nearby Brentford.
The last major rebuild before the present church was built was in 1837. The result, according to the then Bishop of London, was the ugliest church in the diocese! Under the present floor lie the vaults and foundations of that church which, except for the tower, was demolished in 1865. The present church was built over it in 1866 for a larger congregation when the old country village gave place to the present town. The church cost about £8,000 to build. The tower was replaced in 1876.
Inside the nave each sandstone pillar has a different capital carved with birds, animals, foliage and flowers. They cost five pounds each to carve in 1866! To the left of the pillar by the lectern there is a small plate on the wall that gives the dimensions of the chancel of the pre-1837 church as 32’9” by 22’7”. In St Andrew’s Chapel the altar stone of Black Derbyshire marble is thought to date from the fifteenth century. On the wall is a brass to Humphrey Cavell, an Acton lawyer who died in 1558. His is the only old brass remaining in church and one of the few that survived the vandalism of 1642.
At the west end of the church is a monument to the Crayle family. Sarah and Anne Crayle were sisters who left money to charity and each year there is a Crayle Sermon preached in St Mary’s Church. The wooden font was carved by Maoris for the Wembley Exhibition of 1924-1925 but was never claimed by the New Zealand church for which it was intended. On the wall is a black memorial, beautifully restored by the Goldsmiths’ Company, to John Perryn, goldsmith, who died in 1657 in East Acton Manor House. He left a great many bequests including £10 a year for the poor of Acton. To pay for these he left all his lands in East Acton to the Company, who erected the Goldsmiths’ Almshouses in East Churchfield Road in 1811.
High above this is a monument to Elizabeth Barry, one of the most famous actresses of her time. She was the mistress of the Earl of Rochester and is said to have had a child by him. She was buried here in 1713. Below the windowsill is an inscription saying that charity bread was placed there between the gilded sheaves that are on display in the north aisle.
In the corner is another black memorial stone to Mary Skippon, wife of Major-General Skippon, one of Cromwell’s generals. He remained in the army but took no part in politics, preferring a quiet life in Acton House. This did not prevent him being called a ‘Traytor’ in the parish registers after 1660.
In the sanctuary are memorials to other rectors: William Antrobus (1797-1853), John Smith (1853-1859), Charles M. Harvey (1869-1896), G.S. Sausmarez (1896-1924) and Percival Gough (1928-1955). In 1819 William Antrobus paid for a pump to be provided in Acton High Street so that fresh water would be available. The pump is now located outside the west end of the church.
The clock in the tower was installed when the tower was built in 1876. There are eight bells, two of which are dated 1637. The old church had a peal of six bells and a separate bell in the cupola on top of the tower, for striking the hour, dating from 1583. The bell of 1583 was recast in 1877 and together with another new bell was added to make the current peal of eight.
When the church was rebuilt generous gifts both in money and kind were made. Among them were the seven stained glass windows that were already in position when the church was consecrated in 1866. Between then and 1882 eight other windows were added. Each window tells two stories, that shown in the glass and also that of the person who gave it or in whose memory it stands. We are very fortunate that these fine windows survived WWII without damage.
Surrounding the church is a small graveyard, long closed for burials and containing a few old gravestones and memorials. About half a mile away is the Churchfield Road Burial Ground; the latest interment there was in the 1960s. These days local burials are in Acton Cemetery in Park Royal Road, north of central Acton, which opened in 1895. Details of some burials in the Churchfield Road Burial Ground are held in the parish office, but most records are now held in the London Metropolitan Archives. www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/lma
More information on St Mary’s, and other Acton churches, can be found on the Acton History Group website www.actonhistory.co.uk
[Line drawings by A.McCallum]