St Mary's Churchyard and Willesden Old Burial Ground (Brent)
St Mary's Church and churchyard are lonely survivors of the old village, otherwise obliterated by development. Founded c.938, St Mary's is the oldest parish church in north-west London. It was famous as a place of pilgrimage from the C13th onwards for its image of the Virgin Mary. By the C19th the churchyard was full and in 1865 the newly established Willesden Burial Board purchased a 4-acre site, which became known as the 'new section', opening in 1868. Many well-known local people have been buried here although few pre-C19th gravestones remain. The churchyard is walled with some good horse chestnuts and lime trees. Large-scale development has taken place around the Old Burial Ground, and extensive repairs and new paths are also being created in both churchyard and burial ground.
- Previous / Other name:
- Willesden Parish Church
- Site location:
- Neasden Lane/High Road, Willesden
- NW10 9JA
- What 3 Words:
- Type of site:
- Open to public?
- Opening times:
- Special conditions:
- Public transport:
- Tube: Dollis Hill (Jubilee), Neasden. Bus: 260, 266, 297.
- Research updated:
- Last minor changes:
Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.brent.gov.uk; www.stmarywillesden.org.uk
Full Site Description
St Mary's Church and churchyard are lonely survivors of the old village, otherwise obliterated by development and busy roads. St Mary's Church was founded c.938 and is the oldest parish church in north-west London. The oldest part of the present building is the C13th south arcade of the nave with numerous further additions in the ensuing centuries and it was subject to major restoration in 1960-64. It was famous as a place of pilgrimage from the C13th onwards for its image of the Virgin Mary, 'the Black Virgin of Willesden' which had miraculous powers. This was described in the C16th by Richard Mores as 'robed in sarcenet, and with stones, with a vale withal of lace embroidered with pearles and other precious jewelles and golde and silver' surrounded by a metal grille, and a canopy with hangings. Like other such images it was condemned as idolatrous, taken away and destroyed under the orders of Thomas Cromwell in 1538. However later figures representing the Black Virgin replaced it, most recently in 1972 when a new statue was carved by Catharni Stern. The church has a fine collection of memorial brasses from late C15th onwards and among the numerous wall tablets is a memorial to William Gladstone who worshipped here between 1882 and 1894.
Reputedly there were burials in the churchyard from the C10th and definitely from the C13th; prints of the C18th show wooden grave headstones here, common in Middlesex in early times, but none survive; it also may have been the site of a C17th plague pit. By the C19th the churchyard was full and in 1865 the newly established Willesden Burial Board purchased a 4-acre site from John Prout, between Church Path and the railway which became known as the 'new section', opening in 1868. Between 1868 and 1884 over 4,000 burials took place in the consecrated section, a further 300 in the unconsecrated area. Many well-known local families were buried at St Mary's including that of Sir Henry Holland whose family vault was here. The novelist and playwright Charles Reade, famous for 'The Cloister and the Hearth', was buried here in 1884, next to his lady friend Laura Seymour (d.1879) who left her whole estate to Reade, part of which he made over to the Charity commissioners to be distributed to 'fatherless children and widows in Willesden'. George Furness, owner of Roundwood House, a church warden here and first Chairman of the Willesden Board in 1857 was buried here in 1900, as was his son George James Furness (d.1936), who was MP for Willesden West in 1922/23. Other local families with tombs in the churchyard include the Kilbys, many of them bellringers in the C19th and C20th. A tomb with a broken mast and anchor on a coil of rope commemorates Captain Brook (d.1893). There is also the grave of F A Wood (d.1904) and his wife Mary (d.1898); Wood was a well known local politician, JP and Willesden historian. Near the south-east exit of the churchyard is a War Memorial in remembrance of workers from the British Thomas Houston Factory in Neasden Lane who died in the two world wars. Local folklore has it that the cemetery is haunted by a monk in white.
The churchyard is walled with some good horse chestnuts and limes; few pre-C19th gravestones remain and the churchyard has suffered from vandalism, but there are some good monuments particularly along the central north/south path, with a vicars' plot adjacent to the church where former incumbents of St Mary's are buried. West of the church there is less planting and fewer monuments. Sir John Betjeman knew the church and churchyard well, and he wrote about it in his poem ‘In Willesden Churchyard’.
A wildlife area has been developed as a natural woodland area in conjunction with the London Wildlife Trust. In recent years large-scale development has been taking place around the old burial ground. St Mary’s School has extended onto the site where an all-weather sports pitch has been created and the rest of that section is to form a new park. Extensive repairs and new paths have been completed in the churchyard, and the old burial ground has a new public footpath from new housing to Neasden Lane, the project due to be completed by September 2009.
Cliff Wadsworth 'The Church of St Mary Willesden, A History and Guide', Willesden Local History Society, 1996; Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England London 3: North West' (Penguin, 1999 ed); Len Snow 'Willesden Past' (Phillimore) 1994; Ian Yarham, Meg Game 'Nature Conservation in Brent, Ecology Handbook 31', London Ecology Unit, 2000; LB Brent Cemeteries web page.
Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
- Grid ref:
- TQ214848 (521395,184806)
- Size in hectares:
- Site ownership:
- Churchyard - LB Brent (Church: Diocese of London)
- Site management:
- Cemeteries and Mortuaries Dept.
- churchyard medieval; Willesden Old Cemetery 1868
- Listed structures:
- LBII*: St Mary's Church
- On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:
- Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:
- Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:
Local Authority Data
The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.
- On Local List:
- In Conservation Area:
- Tree Preservation Order:
- Not known
- Nature Conservation Area:
- Yes - Borough Importance II
- Green Belt:
- Metropolitan Open Land:
- Special Policy Area:
- Other LA designation:
Please note the Inventory and its content are provided for your general information only and are subject to change. It is your responsibility to check the accuracy.