A place of worship has existed on the banks of the Thames near the ferry since the seventh century, the only church in Chiswick until 1843. The first written evidence about the church is recorded in a document from St Paul’s Cathedral in 1181 followed by Visitations in 1252, 1297 and 1450 now stored in the Guildhall Library detailing many treasures of the church plate and vestments. The documents reflect the magnificence of worship in mediaeval times and confirm that the church was already well established. The dedication of the church to St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen, endorses the early parishioner’s livelihood when the river was a busy highway for travel and trade. ‘Chesewic’ was first a fishing village with farming and later the development of brewing and shipbuilding.
The Vestry records reveal glimpses of the life in Chiswick in bygone days when the River Thames was the main highway. Royalty, almost certainly travelling by river, visited Corney House, Chiswick House, Grove House and many other great houses on the way to the palaces at Hampton Court, Syon House and Queen Elizabeth’s Palace at Richmond.
St Nicholas was a popular church for fashionable marriages and many couples came from outside the parish. Some examples are; in 1703 – ‘Sir Stephen Fox, Knight of this parish married Christian Hope’ Sir Stephen was one of Chiswick’s most prestigious citizens, who held posts in successive governments. He supported Charles II in exile but later, as a Protestant, he changed his allegiance and became Vice-Treasurer to King William III (who visited his house in Chiswick). He was a benefactor of St Nicholas and Chiswick as a whole. His grandson, who was baptised in St Nicholas, was the Rt. Hon. Charles James Fox, MP a renowned Whig politician, who died in Chiswick House.
In 1799 was married ‘Clementina Eliza Zoffany’, daughter of the famous painter, Johann Zoffany, who lived in Wellesley Road and then at Strand on the Green, where the fishermen served as models for his painting of ‘The Last Supper’ now hanging in St Paul’s Church, Brentford. He painted a picture of David playing the harp as an altarpiece for St Nicholas Church. This was removed to the vestry after the rebuilding of the church in 1882-84 and was sold at Christies in 1904. In 1792, ‘Thomas Wainewright married Ann Griffiths’. He fled from Chiswick after poisoning his uncle, his mother-in-law and sister-in-law hoping to obtain money. However, on returning to this country from abroad he was convicted of bank forgery (not murder) and transported to Tasmania where he died.
More recently, in 1927, Bernard Montgomery, later to become Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamein, was married here by his father Bishop Montgomery.
From 1716 to 1732 the beautiful handwriting of the vicar Thomas Wood recorded many baptisms including ‘Joseph Caesar, a Black Servant to ye right Honble ye Earl of Burlington’ and in 1726 that of another black servant, Richard Tamerland. In 1733 ‘Charles, son of John Holland, a Chiswick Baker’ was baptised. He later became a famous actor and David Garrick composed an epitaph for his memorial in the church tower.
Earlier ‘Burialls’ registers describe how local people earned their living. Trades such as ‘shipwright’, ‘soapboyler’, ‘working-jeweller’ are described, but after 1706 only names are recorded. In 1710 two dukes and four peers acted as pall-bearers from Walpole House on Chiswick Mall at the burial of ‘Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleaveland’ (a former mistress of King Charles II). Causes of death varied from ‘drownings’, ‘endeavouring to go over ye Pales (railings) in ye Night’, ‘Killed by Boxing’, ‘Poor highwayman who fell under the wheels of the Exeter coach’ etc. Thomas Bentley, partner with Josiah Wedgewood, was buried in St. Nicholas in 1780.
The churchwardens’ meticulously written accounts in 1622 speak of payments ‘to the smyth for iorn works about the bells’, ‘to the Carpenter for stuffe for seats in the church’ ‘For mending the howre glasse in the church’, ‘For bread and wine on Easter Day’, ‘For bringing by water the timber and boodes (boards) that mended the churchyard railes and made the beare’(bier), ‘for scouring the church puter (pewter) this year’, ‘For vii pound of lead for the steaple and for nayles’, ‘To the ringer on the fifte of November’, ‘For a sheet to burye a creeple’, ‘For a shroud for a blind child’, ‘For a thousand of brickes’, and a list of those who ‘have not payde Church duties for sundrie years – 1619, 1620, 1621.’
Later records tell of ‘poor wounded Dutch seamen’ ‘Ringing of the bells on the visit of the King’, ‘Waterage (transport by river) for poor Goody Crowe to Bedlam who was distracted’ and an interesting entry – ‘Boat hier to bishopp ye children to Fulham 3s 9d’. (Confirmation).