A neo-gothic church with a remarkable ceiling that was falling into ruin, and was recently restored is now open for regular tours.
St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, is a Grade I listed church built in 1867/72 to a design by the architect of the Royal Courts of Justice, George Edmund Street, and is considered to be his masterpiece of church architecture.
It was funded by Fr Richard Temple West, at the time a Curate at All Saints Margaret Street in central London, and he was not just personally wealthy but well connected socially so able to bang the drum for more money. Although funded by the rich, it wasn’t for the rich, and unusually for the time, it had free seats for all instead of pews that could be rented.
It looks conventionally Victorian to our modern eyes, but it was radical when built, as it was one of the earliest of this style, with polychromatic brickwork that was at the time dismissively described as streaky bacon.
Post war clearance in the area obscures the fact that the spire and apse were to be seen from the junction of five local roads, so it would be a substantial landmark in a busy set of Victorian streets lined with shops. Today it’s rather more isolated at the end of a park and surrounded by blocks of flats.
With the decline of the parish and Christianity in general, the church had fallen into disrepair in the past few decades, but after securing funding a number of things happened. Firstly a modern new building was built next to the church, but also the church was restored to its original glory.
In fact, thanks to modern lighting, it’s probably more stunning today than it’s ever been thanks to the clever use of spotlights on the statues that look down on the parishioners.
Although the church is now open during the week, they also offer guided tours, which also include the undercroft.
A tour is an introduction to the building, a walk around the outside (or photos inside if it’s raining), and then pointing out some notable aspects of the architecture, and a tour down in the undercroft.
The undercroft is worth visiting though, as it contains a — currently under restoration — chantry chapel which you can peer at through the stone pillars and looks stunning, but also the undercroft is made with an early form of shuttered concrete ceiling. The columns are brick, but the ceiling is concrete, and it’s obvious once pointed out but could otherwise be too easy to miss this aspect of the church.
In the main church, it’s the restored ceiling that keeps drawing your eyes heavenwards. The huge panels were painted on canvas and then attached to the ceiling, but decades of candle soot and incense meant they were very badly discoloured until the recent restoration work. Now they glow.
To visit the church for a look, it’s open Monday and Wednesday 10am to 4pm. If you prefer the guided tour, they can be booked from here.