Inventory Site Record

St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Churchyard

St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Churchyard (Richmond)

Brief Description

St Mary Magdalen's RC Church was built in 1852 at a time when the Catholic community in Mortlake was growing, hitherto served by mass held in private houses, such as that of Lady Mostyn in Sheen. The churchyard was opened in 1853 and is particularly important for the mausoleum in the form of an Arab tent of the explorer Sir Richard Burton (d.1890), erected by his wife Isabel, who was buried here in 1896. The small tree-filled churchyard is walled on three sides and abuts St Mary Magdalen RC Primary School, which is contemporary with the church and churchyard.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
Mortlake Catholic Cemetery
Site location:
North Worple Way (corner of Worple Street), Mortlake
SW14 8PR
Type of site:
Open to public?
Opening times:
9am - 5pm (but check to confirm: 020 8876 1326)
Special conditions:
Public transport:
Rail: Mortlake

The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/04/2012
Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news.

Full Site Description

The growth of Catholicism in England and Wales in the mid C19th resulted largely from the Vatican's restoration, after some 300 years, of the Catholic diocesan hierarchy in 1850, as well as the conversion of high profile Anglicans from the 1830s. In Mortlake the growth of Roman Catholicism was also due to the arrival of Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine, who came looking for work in Mortlake's market gardens. At that time mass was held in Portobello House, Lady Constantia Mostyn's home in Sheen, and she may have been the anonymous benefactor who assisted the acquisition of land and building St Mary Magdalen's Church in 1852. It was designed by Gilbert Blount, architect to the Archbishop of Westminster, and was consecrated by the Bishop of Southwark in 1852. St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Primary School opened in 1853 adjacent to the churchyard, which opened the same year.

The churchyard is particularly important for the tomb of the explorer Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), erected at the behest of his wife, Isabel who is also buried here (d.1896); she was a Catholic, and appears to have brought Burton into the Catholic Faith on his deathbed. Notably famous for his search for the source of the River Nile, Burton was a gifted scientist and a prolific writer and translator, speaking 40 languages in all, including dialects. With James Hunt he founded the Anthropological Society of London. In his early career he was one of the foremost swordsmen in Europe and he fought in the Crimean War as Commander of the Turkish irregular cavalry. From then on he travelled widely and in 1856 set out with John Hanning Speke to discover the source of the Nile, Burton reaching Lake Tanganyika, which he erroneously thought was the source while Speke went on to Lake Victoria, which in fact was the source. In 1865 Burton was made British Consul in Brazil, and then in 1869 became Consul at Damascus and later at Trieste where he stayed until he died. His widow unsuccessfully sought for his burial at Westminster Abbey.

Burton had wished to be buried with his wife in a Bedouin tent, and his monument in the churchyard in Mortlake, built with assistance from Lord and Lady Derby, is a life-sized tent carved to look like canvas in Forest of Dean stone. The tent contains the two gilt coffins of Burton and his wife, set with coloured glass ornaments, between which is an altar where Mass was occasionally said. The stone door of the tomb set camel bells ringing when it was opened, and has a tablet with a poem by Justin Huntley McCarthy: "Farewell, dear Friend, dead hero. The great life/ Is ended, the great perils, the great joys;/ And he to whom adventures were as toys,/ Who seemed to bear a charm 'gainst spear or knife/ Or bullet now lies silent from all strife/ Out yonder where the Austrian Eagles poise/ On Istrian hills. But England, at the noise/ Of that dread fall, weeps with the hero's wife./ Oh, last and noblest of the errant knights,/ The English soldier and the Arab Shiek!/ Oh, singer of the East who loved so well/ The deathless wonder of the 'Arabian Nights',/ Who touched Camoen's lute and still would seek/ Ever new deeds until the end! Farewell!".

By 1973 the tomb, the responsibility of his heirs, was much neglected, the entrance having been bricked up in 1951 after it had been broken into by vandals, the stained glass window at the back with the Burton crest shattered and boarded up. An ad hoc committee to restore the tomb was set up by Margaret Ann Lee that included the late Sir Laurence Kirwan, President of the Royal Geographical Society, and Sir David Attenborough as Patron. Funding was raised and the tomb restored by 1975, although full reinstatement to its original state was not possible, and for example the stained glass window was too damaged and now has a glass panel. Metal steps at the rear of the tomb now lead up to this glass panel through which the interior is visible, the entrance remaining sealed, above which is a crucifix. An annual memorial Mass is said for Burton in the church on 22 January, the date of his wedding to Isabel.

There are other historic tombs in the churchyard including that of Sir John Marshall (d.1859), who was Chief Magistrate in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, and encouraged the founding of the first RC church there in the mid C19th; the architects John Bentley (d.1902), who designed Westminster Cathedral and other Catholic churches, and Leonard Stokes (d.1925), winner of the RIBA Gold Medal in 1919 and who probably designed three coffin-shaped tombs of the Stokes family also in the cemetery.

Sources consulted:

Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South (Penguin) 1999; Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons, 'London Cemeteries, An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer', 4th edition (The History Press, 2008); information sheet on Burton available at St Mary Magdalen church, and history on church website.

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
Southwark Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation
Site management:
Listed structures:
LBII*: Mausoleum of Sir Richard and Lady Burton
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:
Conservation Area name:
Tree Preservation Order:
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Other LA designation:

St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Churchyard

Burton Mausoleum, St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Churchyard, 2019. Photograph Sue Williams

Click photo to enlarge.

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