Tales from the crypt… and churchyard… of St Mary Magdalene, Holloway Road

Jennifer Watson-Bore takes a wander around the Islington’s second parish church. 

St Mary Magdalene Church on Holloway Road

As you walk down Holloway Road from Highbury Corner, you will discover the church of St Mary Magdalene, with a small part of its churchyard opposite the façade of Islington Central Library.

St Mary Magdalene began life in 1814 as a chapel-of-ease for St Mary’s Islington, on Upper Street, when the parish was becoming overcrowded due to an increase in population.  

The church, with its square tower, has been unflatteringly described as being like “a cow getting up.” It has always been a community church and is now being used by the Hope Church. In the 1970s and 80s, the large crypt was occasionally used as the location for the Christmas bazaar, and it was in this same crypt that a tombstone was discovered in 2010, belonging to Robert Seymour, one of the most prominent illustrators of the 19th century. 

It was Seymour who had the idea of a new monthly serial publication, The Nimrod Club.  However, Charles Dickens insisted on taking charge of the project – the Nimrod Club became the Pickwick Club and Dickens became famous.  Seymour was distraught and shot himself in his Islington summer house in April 1836; Seymour’s widow claimed that Dickens had murdered her husband. Seymour’s tombstone is now housed in the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street.

Most of the burials in the churchyard are close to the church and along the processional way leading from the Liverpool Road entrance; many of them are undecipherable due to time and the action of the elements. 

Some which can be read throw light on child mortality in Holloway in Victorian times.  The Collins family lost three children – Susanna in 1842 aged 2 years and 7 months, John Utting Collins aged 3 years and 7 months in 1858 and 20-year-old Eliza who died on a date which is difficult to decipher.  

A small tombstone close to the current church entrance may indicate a family’s loss of seven children who died in 1816, 1811, 1812, 1817 and 1818.  There are also a few where occupations are mentioned, the most notable being Robert Thorne of Holloway who was “an eminent letter founder in Fann Street, Aldersgate” in 1820.

The large churchyard has been a designated  green open space since 1894.  It’s always been  popular with locals taking their dogs for a walk and for taking the air and exercise.  In the churchyard are some magnificent London plane trees of great size and age. Some are over 250 years old.  

The oldest tree is situated close to Liverpool Road on what was once known as the ‘Plague Hill’, believed to be the resting place of victims of the Great Plague of 1665 – possibly one of the fables of Holloway!

Find out more about upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.