The church stands in Church Street on the banks of the River Thames near the former ferry, which was the only means of crossing the river for many years. There is reason to believe that during the time of Mellitus, Bishop of London in the 7th century, a pagan shrine on this site was converted to Christian worship; certainly it existed in the reign of Edward the Confessor.
The first documentary evidence dates from 1181 and records a Visitation of the manors and churches. The record of this and further visits in 1252, 1297 and 1458, detailing the condition of the church and listing many treasures of plate and vestments reflecting the magnificence of worship in mediaeval times, can still be seen in the Guildhall Library.
The name of Chesewic is simply that of “wic” or village, but the derivation of ‘Chis’ is either the old English “cese” or “ciese” meaning cheese, or the village by the “ceosil” or “cesil” a stony beach or landing place which seems appropriate.
The dedication of a church to St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen, was a common practice where the parishioners’ livelihood depended on water.
The connection persisted until recent times in the name of Fisherman’s Place (formerly known as Slut’s Hole), a row of ancient cottages which sheltered against the south wall of the churchyard by the river (seen in the foreground of the picture).
In 1785 the church was described as ‘having a fine walnut hammer-beam roof dated 1460′. It was rediscovered during repairs in 1861 (see right) under a whitewashed ceiling, but sadly at the time it was deemed too expensive to restore and a cheaper pine roof was chosen. A similar roof can still be seen in Westminster Hall.
Apart from the tower, the whole church was completely rebuilt in 1882-1884 to an excellent design by the ecclesiastical architect, John Loughborough Pearson (whose crowning achievement was the building of Truro Cathedral). Because the available site between the tower and Church Street was very restricted, the church was built with a width almost equal to its length. The cost of the rebuilding (£7,850) was defrayed by a churchwarden, Mr. Henry Smith, of the local brewers Fuller, Smith and Turner, except for £1,000 contributed towards the building of the chancel by the Duke of Devonshire.
The mortar joints binding the masonry of the present building are of a reddish colour, as the bricks of the old church were ground down and mixed with the mortar – a visible link with the past.
During the twentieth century the building remained essentially unchanged, with maintenance and restoration where necessary. A fire in 1979, started by vandals, destroyed the organ and choir vestry. After a fundraising appeal a replacement organ was obtained from a church in Islington and installed to maintain the musical tradition at St Nick’s.
After the turn of the millennium a major restoration of the stonework in the tower was followed by a re-lighting of the interior, which has made the grandeur of Pearson’s design apparent. There is now a desire to bring the ancillary facilities into the 21st century, particularly through the provision of lavatories and a small kitchen, and a project is underway to identify the best way to take this forward without damaging our magnificent built heritage.