The story of Potters Bar and its church

by Kenneth Rutherford Davis and Bertram Betts with additional material from Richard Osborn

Early history - until 1835
1835 - 1915
1915 - 1956
1956 - 1980
1980 - 1995
1995 onwards
Vicars of Potters Bar

Early history - until 1835

The building of our magnificent Church of St Mary and All Saints was the culmination of a long period of development. Potters Bar has a much longer history than most people realise, for although its name is not recorded until 1387, the place must have been settled nearly two centuries earlier, when we can trace property under cultivation there.

The site of what became Potters Par was colonised by people from the thriving village of South Mymms, which had been founded by pioneers from Edmonton by the 11th century. Somewhere about the year 1200 the little Priory of Cathale (whence the name Cattlegate, near its site) in Northaw was endowed with newly cleared land, near where the bus garage stands today, and early deeds about that date mention our first-known residents - Peter Hunilade and Adam the Forester.

By 1346 Wyllyotts Manor was in existence and probably Darkes, too, and documentary evidence proves or suggests that Darkes Lane, Quakers Lane and Billy Lows Lane were not much later. The Jurisdiction of Wyllyotts Manor, which broadly covered the present extent of Potters Bar, lasted until the eighteenth century, but was more or less confined to land management and property matters, for both civil and ecclesiastical authority rested with South Mymms until the nineteenth century. The whole district remained almost entirely agricultural until modern times, and Potters Bar was a quiet backwater.

Change was slow but inevitable. No main road served Potters Bar until 1730, when the old Great North Road (replacing Ermine Street) was turnpiked and properly maintained out of tolls; its course ran along Barnet Road and High Street to Morven where it turned right along The Causeway and eventually swerved left at the Turnpike Oak to make its way across the fields to the foot of Little Heath Hill. Before the turnpike era there was an inn - the Swan with Two Necks - in the High Street, and the small nucleus of houses and inns for travellers no doubt then increased. In 1777 the ancient hunting ground of Enfield Chase was broken up and over 1,000 acres were transferred to South Mymms parish, covering roughly the Tottenham and Tiverton Estates; before then the Chase boundary ran close to the High Street and cramped its expansion.

Potters Bar was ceasing to be a tranquil haven. Some development had certainly taken place by 1801, when the vestry government of South Mymms met with resistance in imposing its will on what it described as the "bad and disorderly" people of Potters Bar - who had the temerity to throw down the stocks just erected for their benefit, and in 1816 created a serious riot. Potters Bar was becoming independently minded, and not without reason, for what was once scarcely a hamlet had grown to rival the parent village to which it was still harnessed.

Domination from South Mymms was not its only grievance. Nearly all this time Potters Bar lacked any place of worship, and the three-mile journey to St Giles' Church in South Mymms must have been a nuisance to a growing population. This comparative isolation and the eighteenth-century trend to non-conformity, given impetus by Methodism, resulted in a Baptist chapel being built on Barnet Road in 1789. An Anglican church in Potters Bar became a necessity if the Church of England was to retain its membership and influence in the locality.

1835 - 1915

On 4th November 1835, Potters Bar achieved its ambition when the new Church of St John the Baptist (on the present site of the War Memorial in the High Street) was consecrated. It was designed in a simple, neo-Norman style by Edward Blore, an architect most notable for his completion of John Nash's design of Buckingham Palace, and built at a cost of about £3,000 of "Ranger's Patent Stone" which was a genteel term for concrete blocks. Thus the ecclesiastical parish of Potters Bar, containing about 600 souls and under the patronage of the Bishop of London, was hewn at last out of its mother parish of St Giles', although for civil purposes it remained part of South Mymms parish, and subsequently of the Rural District formed in 1894.

St John's was a plain, whitewashed, rectangular-shaped building, with a flat ceiling, plain glass, box-pews, three-decker pulpit, and in a tiny apsidal recess a small altar with a wooden cross between two flower vases. An enormous iron stove in the middle provided the usual heating, and the west end was occupied by a gallery for a mixed choir. Not until 1885 was an organ installed; monthly collections began in 1887, and at the same time the box-pews were removed and new seating provided.

The first Vicar appointed was the Revd Henry Watkins, who held his charge until his death almost 54 years later, and devoted his great energies to his people. Potters Bar was not his only responsibility, as he was Governor of five London hospitals. And it was owing to him that the original Vicarage was built in 1846 on land adjoining the present church, to the south. It was replaced in 1935 by a more modern building which was sold, with the plot, in 1981.

The population of Potters Bar grew as a result of the coming of the railway in 1850. The first National School was erected on a very eligible site on the high road to Barnet and nearly in the centre of Potters Bar. The land was given by George Byng Esq. M.P. of Wrotham Park, and he also liberally defrayed the cost of the building. In 1861, the Infants School with teacher's residence was erected on land belonging to Mr Watkins and at the sole cost of himself and Mrs Watkins. The school was supported by Mr Watkins until his death in 1889 when it was placed under the same management as St John's Church of England School in Southgate Road and both were transferred to the County Council in 1920.

Mr Watkins made an enormous contribution to the parish and this has been recognized by the naming of the road off The Walk (leading to Mayfair Lodge and the new Ladbrooke School) after him. After his death in 1889, he was succeeded by the Revd Francis Deane, who, in addition to the inevitable difficulty of following his predecessor's example, suffered the handicap of poor health. Yet he was not inactive, and, although thwarted in an effort to extend St John's by the obstructive owners of family vaults, was able to see the new churchyard on Mutton Lane consecrated in 1896. During Mr Deane's incumbency Holy Communion was celebrated every Sunday, a custom which in early Victorian times would have seemed strange or even idolatrous.

In 1900 the Mr Deane resigned through illness and the Revd Jacob Forrest was instituted to the benefice. He, too, had unsuccessful building plans, this time for a brick church. In January 1911, a faulty gas lamp set fire to the roof of St John's Church, with the result that for some months the building was closed and services held in the Village Hall. The old church - St John's was then 75 years old - was doomed. It was small and ugly, decaying badly and incapable of expansion, and now the damage made a new church imperative. The diocese granted £2,000 and by 1913 about £1,700 had been raised locally.

In June of that year Fr George Preston was inducted as Vicar. He came to Potters Bar from St Michael and All Angels, Bromley by Bow, in the heart of the East End, which was a strong Anglo-Catholic citadel as well as a mission field, and his reputation as an upholder of that tradition preceded him. Even before his arrival, the ultra-Protestant Kensitites proclaimed loud dissent at the High Street crossroads, and a bitterly hostile reception was prepared for him.

But he concentrated on getting a new church built, and by 1914 £3,000 had been raised besides the grant. The foundation stone was laid by Her Highness Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig Holstein on 15th June 1914.

1915 - 1956

Just one year later, on 12th June 1915, the new Church of St Mary the Virgin and All Saints, Potters Bar, was consecrated. Faced with fine grey stone, it was designed by Mr J.S. Alder, in partnership with Fr Preston, who insisted on the organ loft and a proper vestry and choir-room. It was tall and wide, light with great windows, a raised sanctuary with marble paving, a stone altar under a baldacchino, and a chapel of Our Lady for the reservation of the Holy Sacrament. From St John's were brought the font, the fine stone pulpit and the organ.

The church hall was built at the same time as the church at a cost of around £2,000. After the consecration of the church on 12th June 1915, a lunch was held in the hall for over 100 people with music provided by the village band augmented by Barnet Town Band. The local press at that time reported that "the hall was proving a great boon to the village. It is a spacious building, well ventilated and heated, and suitable for all kinds of gatherings".

In 1920, Fr Preston exchanged the living for Kirkley in Lowestoft with the Revd Arthur Webb, who stayed here only two years. He was succeeded by another priest from the East End, Fr Andrew Robinson. Potters Bar was growing fast, now famed by the Zeppelin shot down in Oakmere in 1916, and despite Fr Preston's success there were still some parishioners unreconciled to the complexion of St Mary's. Fr Robinson had other difficulties, too, for he was faced with a debt of £3,000 on the church and £1,500 on the church hall, and so decided to leave the west end of St Mary's unfinished.

Fr Robinson devoted himself and his parish wholeheartedly to the worship of God for 34 years, to the use of liturgy, symbolism and music for the honouring of his Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. To him, that was all in all. Sadly, he died only a few months after his retirement in 1956. Fr Robinson's years in the parish included the challenging period of the Second World War, when he kept pigs in the Vicarage garden to help the war effort. The war years also saw the destruction by fire of St Michael's Church in Church Road, on the borders of Little Heath parish. This "Iron Church" had originally been erected in 1876, at Mr Watkins' expense, to meet the spiritual needs of the northern end of the parish. It held 170 persons and was lined throughout with wood. In 1899 the Iron Church (which had been closed for some time) re-opened as St Michael's Chapel. Later, the church was enlarged through the generosity of John Hart Esq. of Lochinver and the Bishop of Willesden consecrated the new east end on April 4th 1914. The church remained in use until 1942 and is recalled by the naming of one of the narthex rooms in St Mary's as "St Michael's Chapel", containing the processional cross from the old church.

1956 - 1980

In 1956, Fr Cecil Charlton came to St Mary's from Kentish Town. He determined that the church should be completed in a fitting manner, and the magnificent result of his vision is a worthy reward of his efforts and those of church members, and will always be linked with his name. The building was in fact an extension to the church rather than mere completion of the West front for it incorporated two downstairs and two upstairs rooms, a cloakroom and a balcony, beneath which was a vestibule, or narthex. This extension brought the total length of the church to 108 feet (33 metres), with another 8 feet (2.4 metres) both sides of the narthex taken up by the rooms. A unique feature of the great West window was its construction in slim, reinforced concrete columns containing clear glass, lighting up the whole of the nave from the West and appearing especially beautiful in the rays of the setting sun.

Two years after building began, the new West end was consecrated on 1st July 1967. The final cost of the extension was some £50,000. Two sales to Potters Bar Urban District Council produced £34,000 - land in Mutton Lane for a housing estate had previously been sold for £25,000 and had accumulated interest of £4,000, and a compulsory purchase order on the old St John's site produced £5,000. This left St Mary's congregation to find £16,000: an obligation which was successfully met.

Such an effort strained St Mary's financial resources to the limit. Fr Charlton had been greatly assisted in the work of his large parish by two successive full-time curates, Fr Alec Brown 1960-1963, and Fr William Kentigern-Fox, 1963-1967. When the latter moved from Potters Bar to a parish of his own, the PCC decided not to appoint a successor, in order to ease their financial commitments. The decision was taken with Fr Charlton's agreement but it meant an increasing burden upon him, at a time when changes were taking place in attitudes towards church-going.

During the so-called 'swinging sixties', and on into the seventies, there was a general decline in church attendance and St Mary's was no exception. Fr Charlton's burden was not eased by the church authorities, who appeared to many to have adopted a general policy towards the preservation or closure of churches that was unduly hard. There was more than one hint from the diocese of the possibility of closure.

St Mary's tradition of splendid music flourished with a succession of talented young organists: the music was especially notable in 1973, when the organist was Mr Alan Wilson, later organist at the London University Church of Christ the King, Gordon Square. The adoption of Series III for the Parish Mass meant that new music had to be composed for the changed wording. Mr Wilson wrote his own music for the choir and congregation and when Series III was confirmed in the Alternative Service Book, the music was published for general use, dedicated to "the Church of St Mary & All Saints, Potters Bar". In the latter seventies, Mrs Sylvia Fancy, who was organist from 1974-1989, introduced a series of concerts under the title "Music at St. Mary's", originally on occasional Saturday evenings, but, later on, regularly every month at lunch-time. This monthly series continues to this day, with each recital preceded by a light lunch.

However, some of the steam seemed to go out of St Mary's drive and influence in the town. This was not helped by changes in Potters Bar itself. The town is an attractive place in which to live, being on the edge of the pleasant Hertfordshire countryside but only 13 miles from central London. It is protected by the Green Belt and this has meant a limit to the number of new houses that can be built within its boundaries. House prices have accordingly risen well above the average and any new houses have tended to be large, so that young people have had little chance of settling in Potters Bar. St Mary's lost many of its young members as they married and had to move outside the district. Towards the end of the seventies, the congregation had diminished from the encouraging level some ten years earlier and the average age of its membership had risen.

One result of this was St. Mary's inability to keep its large churchyard in Mutton Lane in good order, a situation made worse by changes in the ground levels of the adjacent fields, which caused the churchyard to become waterlogged and made further burials impossible without expensive drainage work. The main part of the churchyard was formally closed in 1979 and adopted by Hertsmere Borough Council, which undertook responsibility for upkeep.

In 1973, Fr Charlton achieved a long-cherished ambition by persuading the local authority to move the War Memorial from the junction of Hatfield Road and The Causeway to its present site in the grounds of the old St John's Church which was finally demolished in 1970.

1980 - 1995

Fr Charlton retired in December 1980, after 24 years of devout, selfless service to St Mary's. The ensuing interregnum turned out to be unusually lengthy and the church was indeed fortunate in that it was cared for during that period by Fr Frederick Perkins, OGS. Fr Perkins had served St Mary's as Curate to Fr Robinson from 1939 to 1943, and had returned to live in Potters Bar in 1967 continuing his career as a Lecturer in Divinity at London University.

When Fr Charlton retired, Fr Perkins gave his whole time to St Mary's. During the interregnum the Alternative Service Book was introduced mainly for use at the Eucharist, the Book of Common Prayer being retained for Evensong.

After a number of prospective vicars had declined to come to St Mary's, chiefly on the ground that it would not be possible to manage both a large parish and a large Vicarage with a sizeable garden, it was decided to sell the Vicarage and to buy a smaller house, with a much smaller garden. As it turned out, the property chosen out of the few available at that time did not prove to be particularly well-sited (in The Causeway) and the new incumbent, after experiencing for some years the difficulties of distance and comparative remoteness, began a search for a more convenient site. This was found in The Walk in 1989 and the new purpose-built vicarage at 15 The Walk was occupied in 1990.

The new incumbent was Fr John Jefferies Stratton, who was inducted on 23rd April 1982. Fr Stratton came to St Mary's from the country parish of Cottered, Hertfordshire, where he had been Vicar since 1965; he had also been Rural Dean of Buntingford since 1973 and had felt moved to take on the challenge of an urban parish.

Fr Stratton's immediate aim was to encourage a closer and more obvious partnership between the clergy and laity. He was fortunate in having the continued assistance of Fr Perkins and also, in the same year, in obtaining the help of a young non-stipendiary priest, a member of the mounted division of the Metropolitan Police, Fr David Goodburn, whose energy and popularity did much to achieve this aim.

In 1985 St Mary's moved from the Diocese of London into the Diocese of St Albans. There had been some gentle persuasion in this direction six years earlier, from London Diocese itself; by 1984, changes had occurred in the neighbouring parishes. Both St Giles, South Mymms and King Charles the Martyr, Potters Bar, had decided to transfer from London to St Albans, and Christ Church, Little Heath, had always been linked with that diocese. Had St Mary's not moved, it would have remained an outpost of London in a town otherwise entirely part of St Albans Diocese.

Sadly, St Mary's lost both its honorary assistant priests in 1988. Fr Perkins died suddenly in August and Fr Goodburn, having completed his service in the Metropolitan Police and having been authorised to become a full-time stipendiary priest, decided to join the Royal Navy as a chaplain. Thus within a few months Fr Stratton was left to serve this large parish on his own.

However, St. Mary's had recently been fortunate in realising a substantial sum of money through selling St Mary's Tennis Club courts, land for which had been bought for the church by Fr Robinson in the 1930s. It had earlier been zoned for housing and the church was able, after some difficulty in negotiating an access, to sell it to developers.

One result of this was that the Parochial Church Council felt able to provide a full-time curate for Fr Stratton, with a house, at the parish's expense. So, in April 1989, Fr Paul Reece joined St Mary's, after spending four years as a member of the Team Ministry based on All Saints, Borehamwood. When Fr Reece left St Mary's in 1992 to become Rector of St Lawrence, Little Stanmore, the parish welcomed Fr Andrew Davey as Assistant Priest.

In November 1990, at a special evening Mass on All Saints' Day, the 60-year association of Mr Lawrence Jones, FSA, with St Mary's was celebrated. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards in February 1991. For 40 of those years, Lawrence served as Reader at St Mary's, and for nearly 30 years as Churchwarden. But it was for his love and unsurpassed knowledge of old English churches that Lawrence was best known to a wider audience. He entertained countless people with his lectures and tours and his name lives on in the books he wrote on his beloved subject.

During Fr Stratton's incumbency, St Mary's began to figure more prominently in the town and saw an encouraging increase in church membership. There were improvements to the church building - new lighting, new heating, re-wiring, organ refurbishment, tidying of the church grounds and major roof and stonework repairs - but the challenge of upgrading church hall facilities remained outstanding. Fr Stratton retired in July 1994 and there followed a year long interregnum during which St Mary's was fortunate to have the continued services of Fr Davey.

1995 onwards

Fr Peter Bevan arrived as Vicar of St Mary's in June 1995, having previously served in the Diocese of Wakefield. Fr Davey moved to an Incumbency in the Diocese of Ely shortly afterwards, but since his departure, Fr Bevan has had clerical support from Fr John Williams (1997-1999), Fr Robert Desics (2001-2004) and Fr Gareth Randall (1998-2007), a popular non-stipendiary priest and senior member of staff at Dame Alice Owen's School. Fr Bevan has sought to build closer links with the local community, serving as Mayor's Chaplain on two occasions, inviting schools to use the church for special services and concerts at Christmas, Easter and other times of the year, and working closely with community organizations such as the Town Twinning Association. At a time when society has become more secular, with Sunday trading now firmly established and the discipline of regular churchgoing on the decline, communicant numbers have remained at an encouraging level. A monthly Family Communion service, with more informal music and an accessible liturgy, is proving popular with young families. Improvements have continued to be made to the church and the building is now fully accessible to those with physical disabilities. We have been particularly grateful to the Friends of St Mary's for raising funds for many of these fabric projects. Attention is now turning to the restoration of the church hall and a flourishing programme of fund-raising events has been established. These social events are also helping to improve fellowship among the congregation and are reaching out to the wider community.

This church, sitting in the heart of the town, is a building well fitted to stage the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist, which for many years has been presented here in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. Additionally, it is able to house those other opportunities for meeting which complement its worship - music, drama and the arts. Our hope and prayer, is that this beautiful building will remain here to fulfill this dual role for many generations to come.

Vicars of Potters Bar

Henry George Watkins 1835 - 1889
Francis Henry Deane 1890 - 1900
Jacob Anastasio Forrest 1900 - 1913
George Reginald Preston Preston 1913 - 1920
Arthur Hall Webb 1920 - 1922
Andrew Bowring Crispin Robinson 1922 - 1956
Cecil Eskholme Charlton 1956 - 1980
John Jefferies Stratton 1982 - 1994
Peter John Bevan 1995 - 2015