Our History

The narrative of our parish can be told by elements of our church building, in particular…

  • The Streatham Window at the east end of the church, tells the history of the parish in stained glass.
  • The Rectors’ Board at the back of the nave lists the recorded Rectors of Streatham.

Our Parish Archivist, John W Brown, has a vast knowledge of the history of Streatham. He has written a guide to St Leonard’s, which is available from the church. The book is profusely illustrated with old images, and provides a glimpse into the fascinating history of Streatham as revealed by the church monuments and ancient relics which survived the fire. If you have any queries, he can be contacted via the website manager.

…as told by the Streatham Window

Streatham Window
Streatham Window

The Streatham Window is the leftmost of the three windows at the east end of the church.

In the roundel at the top are symbols representing St Leonard, patron saint of prisoners, plus the arms of the three dioceses of which Streatham has been a part: Winchester, until 1877; Rochester, from 1877-1905; and Southwark, since its formation in 1905.

Our story begins at the top left of the main light with coins found in the locality, indicating a Roman settlement at Streatham. The name means a cluster of houses on the street. The earliest documentary record dates from AD 675 when lands at Totinge cum Stretham were granted to the Abbey of Chertsey. After the Norman conquest, these two manors were given to the Benedictine Abbey of Bec in Normandy and the Domesday Book records that there was a chapel on this site. The window shows the Abbot of Chertsey and St Anselm, Abbot of Bec.

The right hand light depicts Sir John Ward, a friend of the Black Prince with whom he fought at Crécy. He holds a model of the new church that he built for the parish circa 1350. Although most of that church has long since been replaced, the flint tower still stands and is the oldest part of the present building.

In 1394 a certain John Brabourne, having fallen foul of his landlord, claimed sanctuary in the church but was forcibly removed by bailiffs. He appealed to the Bishop of Winchester and Richard II caused him to be released and ordered his three captors to do public penance, as shown here, by walking through the parish in their shirts holding lighted tapers while being horse-whipped by the Rector.

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image

Over the years the Manor of Streatham, and with it the patronage of the church, changed hands many times, passing to Eton College in 1439 and eventually to the Howland family (the coat of arms with lions) in 1599. The memorial to John Howland dominates the west porch. In 1695 the 13 year old Elizabeth Howland married the 14 year old Marquis of Tavistock and thus the patronage passed to the Duke of Bedford (whose coat of arms is surmounted by a goat) with whom it remained until the 20th century.

Edmund Tylney (d. 1610) was Master of the Revels to Elizabeth I and James I, and apparently a rather vain man who went to great lengths to design his own memorial complete with the names and arms of all the nobles to whom he was related. No doubt its maker, a “stone cutter neare unto Charing-crosse” was so relieved at Tylney’s demise that he omitted to add the date of death.

Below Tylney are the Thrales of Streatham Place. Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and MP for Southwark, and his wife Hester entertained many distinguished guests including Dr Samuel Johnson, who was a frequent visitor to this church, and James Boswell. Several of the family are interred in a vault in the crypt. To judge by his coffin, Henry Thrale was a man of impressive proportions. The Thrale memorials for Henry and his mother-in-law, Mrs Salusbury, with Latin epitaphs by Dr Johnson, can be seen on the north wall of the church.

A 19th century engraving shows how the church shows how it looked after rebuilding in 1778 with the addition of a spire. It was altered again in 1831, when the nave was completely rebuilt to the design of J T Parkinson and enlarged with an apse at the east end and a crypt underneath. Hitherto, the Thrales and other local worthies would have been buried beneath the floor. Initially the crypt was prone to flooding, due to shoddy workmanship, until the contractors under threat of legal action carried out the necessary remedial work. Later it became the abode of a tramp known as Black Tommy who even had his mail delivered there.

St Leonard’s was a very fashionable place to worship in the 18th and 19th centuries and a chapel of ease, dedicated to All Saints, was built in Sunnyhill Road. While the gentry attended Matins at St Leonard’s, their servants would go to their own service at All Saints, which began 10 minutes later and finished 10 mins earlier. The chapel is now the Refuge Temple.

Until this time the church had ministered to an extensive parish bordering those of Battersea, Camberwell and Croydon. During the 61 year incumbency of Canon J R Nicholl (1843-1904) the population of Streatham swelled from 8,000 to 100,000 with the coming of the railways and the outward expansion of London. Christ Church, in 1841, was the first of 13 daughter churches seen in the lower left panel.

Also shown here is Dyce’s fountain which originally stood opposite the church and is now on Streatham Green. William Dyce RA was the archetypal Victorian polymath; a fore-runner and teacher of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he painted The Baptism of Ethelbert in the House of Lords and the Madonna and Child which featured on one of the 2007 Christmas stamps, designed the florin coin, composed church music and founded the Motet Society. As churchwarden of St Leonard’s, he was responsible for designing the Chancel when the church was again extended in 1863. His rebus, a pair of dice, could be seen in the old east window. Externally it has changed little since then. A delightful watercolour, painted in 1879 from a vantage point some where near the present junction of Stanthorpe and Bournevale roads, looks across a meadow rich in yarrow and cornflowers towards a row of ancient cottages which stood opposite Streatham Green with the spire of St Leonard’s in the background.

Some old postcards show the interior of St Leonard’s as it was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Note the fine Jacobean pulpit. It may look a little dark and cluttered to modern tastes but it was typical of its time. The oldest picture, dated 1890, shows the church apparently decorated for Harvest Festival.

The only significant alteration to the church in the early 20th century was the erection of a wooden rood screen which was both undistinguished and unpopular. However it did eventually provide us with the Black Madonna.

The bottom of the right hand light of the window shows St Leonard’s engulfed in flames on the evening of 5 May, 1975. The cause of the fire is not known; it may have been a spark from a bonfire, an electrical fault or even arson. The flames were fanned by a strong east wind, and swept through the Nave and up the tower, destroying all the interior woodwork, the roof, the bells and much else.

Thanks to the leadership of the then Rector Michael Hamilton-Sharp (whose kneeling figure is shown on the right), the restoration project was under way by the following morning. The church re-opened for worship within two years, although we had to wait a little longer for the organ, bells and stained glass windows. The restoration was entrusted to the late Douglas Feast RIBA (whose emblem is on the left). His inspired design produced the present light and airy interior within the shell of the 19th century walls.

Now that more than 40 years have elapsed since the fire, some of the facilities are showing their age and are no longer adequate by current standards. We therefore have an ongoing project for further redevelopment of the building.

The Streatham Window was designed by John Hayward.

…as told by the Rectors’ Board

The title ‘Rector of Streatham’ recalls the days when the parish of St Leonard’s and the village of Streatham were one and the same. The term ‘Rector’ denotes a parish priest who possesses the freehold of the church. In the past, Rectors received an income in the form of tithes from the parish and would also have been responsible for maintaining the chancel. A ‘Vicar’, on the other hand, was appointed to run the parish vicariously and was paid a stipend. The distinction between the two is now largely historical.

The Rectors' Board
The Rectors’ Board

At least 59 people have held the title of Rector of Streatham. Most of them are listed on the Rectors’ Board at the back of the nave.

Although the history of St Leonard’s goes back to the Domesday book and beyond, the first recorded Rector was Robert de Rothomago (Rouen) in 1230. As in most parishes, the earlier names on the list have a decidedly French flavour.

Due to a gap in the records, we don’t know who was Rector when Sir John Ward began the building of the present church in 1350. It could have been John Whiteman (appointed 1330). There was a fairly high turnover of incumbents in those days, possibly due to the plague, although Streatham fared rather better than some parishes.

John Elslefeld (1390) was almost certainly the Rector who whipped the bailiffs for breaking sanctuary and is one of three whose memorials can be found in the church; a small tablet in the Chapel of Unity asks the passer-by to pray for his soul. Another is William Mowfurth (1492), commemorated on a brass in the sanctuary.

Michael Rabit (1585) was a noted scholar and one of the translators responsible for the Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611.

The most illustrious Rector of the 18th century was Benjamin Hoadly (1710), although it is unlikely that he spent much time in Streatham. He was simultaneously incumbent of St Peter-le-Poor in the City and was well known as a political animal who preferred to spend most of his time in London, so he probably appointed a vicar to run the parish on a day-to-day basis. He later became successively Bishop of Bangor, Hereford, Salisbury, and Winchester.

James Tattersall (1755) built a splendid house called The Shrubbery (opposite Shrubbery Road), which later became Streatham College for Girls. His two predecessors and immediate successor were all called Bullock, possibly three generations of the same family.

Herbert Hill (1810) is remembered as the founder of St Leonard’s School and his memorial slab can be seen near the pulpit. Our only aristocratic Rector was Lord Wriothesley Russell (1830), presumably a younger son of the Duke of Bedford.

Our longest-serving incumbent was Canon John Richard Nichol, who was Rector from 1843 to 1904. He saw Streatham expand from a quiet Surrey village to a bustling suburb and his parish shrink as new churches were built. He and his wife are buried in the churchyard (the grave with a tall cross near the south door).

When Douglas Salmon arrived in 1931 someone painted a picture which used to hang in the church hall, entitled “A fine catch for St Leonard!” It depicts a man in a monk’s habit landing an enormous fish.

After him we are into the realm of living memory: Percy Hodges; Philip Morrel-Smith; Michael Hamilton Sharp, who was Rector at the time of the fire and subsequent rebuilding; and Canon Jeffry Wilcox, who retired in June 2006 after 24 years as Rector and was awarded the MBE for services to the local community.

In 2007 the Revd Mandy Hodgson became the first woman to hold the office of Rector of Streatham, having previously been Team Vicar of St Luke the Physician, Benchill (Wythenshawe) in the Diocese of Manchester. After nine years of ministry with us she is now Team Rector of Wimbledon.

As of 2017, the Rector is the Revd Canon Anna Norman-Walker.