Streatham’s ancient parish church of St Leonard’s has been selected to host the very first Lambeth Local History Fair on Saturday, September 2.
The day, which runs from 10.30am to 4pm, will offer illustrated talks, exhibitions, tours of the church – including the crypt, belfry and churchyard – and dozens of stalls run by local societies, organisations, friends’ groups and local history publishers from around Lambeth. The selection of Streatham to host this prestigious heritage event highlights the rich history of the town, which dates back to Saxon times.
The name Streatham is Saxon for the “hamlet on the street” – Street-Ham, signifying a small cluster of dwellings which then stood at the junction of Streatham High Road and Mitcham Lane. St Leonard’s Church has stood at the heart of Streatham for more than 1,000 years and Roman coins found in the graveyard, together with a Roman votive figure discovered nearby, suggest the area may once have been the site of a pagan shrine. A chapel is first recorded in Streatham in the Domesday survey of 1086.
This was dedicated to St Leonard, the patron saint of the Abbot of Bec in Normandy, on whose abbey the manors of Streatham and Tooting Bec were endowed by Richard fitz Gilbert, Lord of Clare, who had acquired them by gift of his cousin, William the Conqueror, after the Norman conquest in 1066. The oldest surviving part of the church is the flint tower which dates from the mid-14th century, when the church is believed to have been rebuilt by Sir John Ward, whose mutilated effigy rests beneath the east window of the church. The tower is now the oldest surviving structure standing along the A23, between Lambeth and Croydon Palaces.
St. Leonard’s has been rebuilt on at least three subsequent occasions, the last time in 1975 following a fire which gutted the building leaving only the outer walls and tower standing. Many of the church’s ancient monuments were restored after the fire including brasses dating from 1390; the 15th century font, the church clock made in 1769 and some fine memorials including those to Edmund Tylney, (d. 1610) Master of the Revels to Queen Elizabeth I and King James; the Massingberde family (d. 1653); the Howland family (d. 1686); and Henry Thrale and Hester Salusbury, with epitaphs by Dr Samuel Johnson, and a monument by the famous sculptor John Flaxman to Sophia Hoare, Henry’s daughter. St Leonard’s also has links with the novelist Jane Austen, the bicentenary of whose death is commemorated this year.
Jane made several visits to Streatham to see her friend, Catherine Bigg-Wither, the wife of the then Rector of Streatham, the Revd Herbert Hill. Six months before she died, Jane wrote to Catherine’s sister, Alethea, who was staying at Streatham Rectory, mentioning by name each of the rector’s children. She said: “I hope this will find all the Streatham party well, neither carried away by the floods nor rheumatic through the damps. “Kind love and good wishes for a happy new year to you all, from all our four here. Give our love to the little boys, if they can be persuaded to remember us. We have not at all forgot Herbert’s and Errol’s fine countenances. Georgiana is very pretty I dare say. How does Edward like school? I suppose his holidays are not over yet.”
The rector was the favourite uncle of Poet Laureate Robert Southey, who also occasionally stayed at Streatham Rectory. Southey is said to have written The Three Bears fairy story, to amuse the rector’s children. The Local History Fair will be the public launch event for this year’s Lambeth Heritage Festival which is being held throughout September. The fair is organised by Lambeth council and the Lambeth Local History Forum in association with St Leonard’s Church and the Streatham Society. John W Brown St Leonard’s Church Archivist