The Domesday book of 1086 found at Camberwell “22 villagers and 7 small-holders with land for 6 ploughs, … a church, 63 acres of meadow and woodland providing 60 pigs”. Camberwell has obviously changed a lot since 1086. But there has been a church on the same site as the current building for nearly a 1,000 years – and probably for much longer.
The prefix of Camberwell, “Cam” can be translated as “crooked” and it’s likely that the area had natural Springs. There’s a possibility that people suffering from ailments might have sought healing in the Springs because the church is named after St Giles, the patron saint of beggars, poor people and people with physical disabilities. The early church mentioned in the Domesday book is considered by some to have dated from within sixty years of the first landing of St. Augustine, or about the middle of the seventh century. It underwent extensive changes during the reign of King Stephen and was rebuilt in stone by William de Mellent, Earl of Gloucester and Lord of the Manor of Camberwell in 1154. Traces of this building probably survived in major rebuilds of the church in 1346 (according to Bishop Edindon’s Register at Winchester) and during the reign of Henry VIII. Before Henry’s reign, the vicars of the parish were appointed by the Abbey of Bermondsey until its dissolution.
In 1615, Edward Wilson, Vicar of St Giles’ founded Wilson’s Grammar School ‘for the sons of his parishioners’. The school was built next to St Giles’ and some of the later Victorian-era buildings still survive, now used by Camberwell College of Arts, a constituent college of Universtiy of Arts London. Wilson’s Grammar School moved to Sutton in the 1970’s but the school still maintains links with St Giles’ to this day.
As the mother church of an ancient parish containing 4,450 acres, the Church became the resting place of many notable citizens of Camberwell and it contained many tombs and memorials both above ground and in the crypts below. One of the monuments was dedicated to an Agnes Skinner, or Skuner, who died in 1515, at the age of 119, having survived her husband, it is said, no less than ninety two years! There were many other monuments to the Bowyer, Hunt and Scott families, members of which had lived and died in Camberwell for many centuries.
An inscription commemorating Jane Hunt from 1604 read:
“Lo! Muschas stock a fruitfull braunch did bringe, Adornde with vertues fit for ladies brighte;
Sir Thomas Hunt on May day’s pleasaunt spring, Possest the Frowe that was his soules delight:
“His lovely Jane had two sones by Thö Grimes, Esq. and daughters three,
With wealth and vertues meet for their degree.
“When twice seven yeares, six monthes, ten dayes, were spent
In wedlock bands, and loyall love’s delight,
November twelfth daye, then she was content, This world to leave, and give to God his right:
Her sixty-three yeares full, complete and ended,
Her soule to God, to earth her corps commended.”
By 1792, the numerous alterations and extensions had created a church consisting of a nave, chancel, lady chapel and two aisles. At the west end there was a small ’embattled tower’, composed of flints and rough stone. In 1809, philanthropist Priscilla Wakefield, described St Giles’ as “an ancient structure, though its appearance has been much modernised by coats of plaster. The south aisle… has been enlarged and the whole has been repaired and ornamented.”
As the population of a once rural village on the outskirts of London exploded in the early 1800’s, it soon became clear that St Giles’ was too small – the building was also regarded as an ‘architectural mess’. Although the Parish made plans to address this, fate intervened. The following is an extract from ‘Old and New London’, 1878:
”A fire broke out on the night of Sunday, the 7th of February, 1841, by which the building was completely destroyed. Funds were at once raised for its re-erection. The first stone of the new church was laid in September, 1842, and in November, 1844, the new building was consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester. It was erected from the designs of Messrs. George Gilbert Scott and W. B. Moffatt, at an expense, including furniture, &c., of about £24,000. It is one of the finest and largest of the new parish churches in the kingdom. The style of architecture is the transition between the Early English and the Decorated, which prevailed at the close of the thirteenth century. The building is of a cruciform plan, with a central tower and spire, the latter rising to the height of about 210 feet. The walls of the church, which are of considerable thickness, are constructed chiefly of Kentish rag, with dressings of Caen stone. Several of the windows are enriched with stained glass.”
This building is the St Giles’ we see today. Since 1844, Camberwell has continued to change but the church has remained largely unaltered since. The Second World War inflicted damage on St Giles’ when some of the stained glass windows were destroyed by bombs. However, the East Window, designed by John Ruskin remained intact and although the spire began to show cracks in the late 1990’s, the top 72 ft was taken down and rebuilt in 2000.
Find out more
Click on some of the pages below for more on our history. Camberwell has a rich history and there have been lots of books about the area published over the years. British History Online has also digitized several books on London, with lengthy chapters about Camberwell and its church, which are free to view here. The church also has guide books for sale and there are regular talks and presentations throughout the year organised by local groups such as the Camberwell Society.
Here is a published 1841 account of the fire which destroyed St Giles’ Church. Allport’s book went to print before a competition was held to find an architect to design the new church. Collections, Illustrative of the Geology, History Antiquities, and Associations of Camberwell, and the Neighbourhood By Mr Douglas Allport DESTRUCTION OF THE CHURCH OF … Continue reading 1841 Fire
In the early part of the 19th Century, the churchwardens of St Giles’ levied a Church Rate on the Parish. The church rate was a tax formerly levied in each parish in England and Ireland for the benefit of the parish church. Out of these rates were defrayed the expenses of carrying on divine service, repairing the … Continue reading Churchwarden Ledgers
The parish of St Giles’ prior to 1836 covered a vast area including Camberwell, Peckham, Nunhead and Dulwich. The parish was then divided due to extraordinary growth in the 19th Century. Numerous records have survived – but due to the sheer number of people recorded, unless you have very positive evidence that a birth or marriage took place in … Continue reading Researching Ancestors