The Church of St Mary the Virgin is on
Overton Drive, in the centre of the former borough of Wanstead &
Woodford, which is now part of Redbridge. There was a church at Wanstead by 1208. The
rector at that time was John of St Lawrence, a canon of St Paul's.
The advowson of the rectory mostly descended with the manor of
Wanstead until the nineteenth century. In around 1825 the next
presentation was sold, and it finally ended up with the bishop of the
In 1208, after a dispute between the rector and
the priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate (who held St Botolph without
Aldgate), it was agreed that the priory should retain the tithes of
Cann Hall (Leytonstone), paying the rector in grain. This agreement
lasted until the nineteenth century, in spite of occasional attempts
by rectors to overthrow it. Later in the original church's history,
William Smith, rector from 1542, was deprived of his position in
1554 because he was married.
Humphrey Maddison, who was rector when the English
Civil War began, signed the Protestation of 1641 along with his leading
parishioners, headed by Sir Henry Mildmay. The ancient parish church of
which he was in charge stood about twenty-one metres (seventy feet)
south of the present one. Its site is still traceable in the churchyard
by a line of gravestones marking the central aisle and by memorial slabs
marking the chancel.
It was enlarged and renovated in 1709-1710 by Richard
Allison, a Wanstead builder. The walls were raised throughout to the same
height as those of the chancel and the timber west tower was replaced by
one of brick 16.5 metres (54 feet) high. A west gallery was also erected.
The south porch was removed and a west porch formed under the tower.
However, Allison's work proved to be faulty, and in 1714 the parish vestry
compelled him to repair some of it.
A drawing of the church from the south made
in about 1715 shows a north aisle, a tower of three stages, and a box-like
projecting sanctuary with roundheaded east window and roof pediment.
By 1786, when Samuel Glasse became rector, the church had become too
small for its growing parish. Having rebuilt the church in his
previous parish of Hanwell in Middlesex, he immediately launched a
rebuilding scheme at Wanstead. The old church was demolished in 1790.
The site of the present church of St Mary was donated
by Sir James Long, Bt, from his park. Building work was completed between
1787-1790 in a classical style to the design of Thomas Hardwick. The church
has not been substantially altered since it was built, but much of the
stained glass was destroyed in the Second World War and not replaced. St
Mary's was the only Anglican church in Wanstead until 1861 when a chapel of
ease, Christ Church, Wanstead Place, was built.