I recently visited the Richmond Museum where they were celebrating 800 years of St Mary Magdalene Church, which lies in the heart of Richmond.  The exhibition extensively discusses the history of St Mary Magdalene:how life in the church has changed for church attendees throughout time,how services have been altered and how church traditions have been preserved.

St Mary Magdalene stands upon the site of earlier places of worship. Shene, which was what Richmond was known as previously, was first recorded having a chapel in 1211. It is believed that St Mary Magdalene was built some years after this.

The exhibition zooms in on the lives of significant members of the church and how politics impacted their lives. For example, Gilbert Wakefield, a controversial writer who defended the French Revolution and campaigned against war in France attended St Mary Magdalene during his childhood. Wakefield was imprisoned in 1798 and died due to thyroid disease; his funeral was conducted by his brother Thomas Wakefield at St Mary Magdalene.

I found it interesting to learn that St Mary Magdalene (and other churches in England at the time), it was common practice to rent out pews, as a means of raising income. St Mary Magdalene received a significant sum of money through this pew rent system and the income from pews was equivalent to £40,000 today! In 1866, it cost the equivalent of £15-70 to rent a single pew for a year. However, ‘free seats’ were set aside for the poor, school children and domestic servants. Due to the increasing controversiality of pew rents, they were abolished by the 20th century.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about and seeing the variety of objects from 1630-1825 that relate to how services at St Mary were conducted in the past, as you can clearly see how the church has changed throughout time. The church plate was used to serve consecrated bread and wine at Holy Communion and was made of precious metals, but St Mary Magdalene's church plate is no longer regularly used and is displayed in the Museum. Also, before the Reformation, chalices were used by Priests to serve communion wine and Flagons and Patens were used to serve communion bread. In medieval times, wafers were used instead of the bread. St Mary Magdalene's chalice, which is still used in the church, is particularly special because it survived the civil war, when many silver items were melted down to fund the war.

Services the church still holds today that have passed the test of time include ‘Thanksgiving’ sermons, which are given to mark major national events or reflect common attitudes of the time.

I spoke to Liz from the Richmond Museum who told me, ‘It is really important to delve into the local history of such a significant church and I encourage people to visit the exhibition.’

Personally, I found it eye-opening that what seems like a small church has had such a big impact of Richmond as a whole throughout time.

Richmond Museum also offers information on Richmond through the ages with a vast range of artefacts, models and fact boards. I really liked the model replica of Richmond Palace, and another artefact that stood out to me was the Workhouse clock mechanism from 1819 that had been added to Richmond Workhouse. There is also a lot on how Richmond changed throughout the war and developed through the 20th century, and how architecture in Richmond has evolved. 

No matter your interests, there is bound to be something that catches your eye at Richmond Museum and I recommend this hidden gem to anyone, local or not, as you will be surprised by the rich past of this little town.


The St Mary Magdalene exhibition will be running until the 23rd February.


Written by Ariana Mokarrami, St Catherines School Twickenham