Dissenter and builder

Mary Wallis
Image Courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum


This is the tale of an extraordinary woman who brought a different brand of Christianity to Ewell and thus established a platform for what is now the United Reform Church in London Road. Indeed, the Church's website includes a short biography of Miss Wallis and gives her due credit for her role. Both Cloudesley S Willis (in 'A Short History of Ewell and Nonsuch') and Charles Abdy (in 'Ewell Past') have written about her, and the main source of information is 'The True Story of Mary Wallis of Ewell' (published 1915) by the Reverend Thomas George Crippen, Secretary of the Congregational Historical Society. The book was based on Mary's own reminiscences.

Early life

Mary Wallis was born in Northfleet, Kent in 1788; she came from a large, poor family and her mother worked as a charwoman. It is not recorded how the Wallises came to be in touch with Mr George Brooker Stone of Ewell, but the Stone family took in Mary when she was nine years old, providing bed, board and clothing in return for some domestic duties. Mr Crippen records that the population of Ewell parish at that time was about 1,400.

The child was of good character and worked hard, to the extent that now and again she was given small presents as an appreciation; she was notably pious and annexed a bible that was in the Stones' house. Perhaps unusually for a child of those days she wrestled with spiritual issues, believing herself too sinful to read the scriptures. However, some time later she effectively conducted a test by praying for a bible of her own and, sure enough, a businessman who visited Mr Stone brought her one as a gift.

Religious life in Ewell

Mary is now around 16, so it is about 1804. The only place of worship in Ewell is the old parish church of St Mary and the vicar is the Reverend James Maggs, who is mentioned elsewhere on this website. Cloudesley Willis said of Maggs that he was alleged to have a book of sermons, one for each Sunday in the year, and he went through these sermons Sunday by Sunday, and year after year. One of the sermons was said to contain the assertion that 'swearing may be gentlemanly, but it is not the language of a Christian'. To Mary this was like being forced to patronise the only shop in the village and not liking the produce: In her view, Mr Maggs was not doing much for the spirit. The Rev F G Crossman of Kennington, an Evangelical, described the situation thus: 'Gospel preaching was unknown. The church service was read twice on the Sabbath, the ordinances were formally dispensed, and the duties of morality pressed upon the profligate, the swearer and the drunkard; but the broken in heart, the distressed in spirit, the weary and heavy-laden, were sent empty away'.

One day young Mary trotted along to Epsom to hear a visiting preacher at a small chapel there. This could have been the Old Dissenters' Chapel in Church Street or the Bugby Chapel in Prospect Place; Mr Crippen thinks it was most probably the latter, then under the stewardship of the Rev Richard Trott. Mary liked what she heard and began to attend regularly. It worked for her, as they say: after suffering a spiritual crisis she determined to find a way to promote the advancement of the Saviour's kingdom and to do it by self-denial.

Mary takes steps

I have just mentioned self-denial and it may have been possible for the self-indulgent rich but Mary had nothing beyond a lump sum of 6, which she had saved up over many years from little presents (remembering that she had been unpaid when younger) and lodged with Mr Stone for safekeeping, and her current wages of 8 a year (later to rise to a whopping 10). Even had she been the type, which she certainly wasn't, there were no funds for riotous entertainment and a flashy wardrobe. What could she deny herself?

She denied herself her savings and wages. It seems that one evening in about 1812/13 she had a brainwave whilst walking home from Epsom and resolved to build a little chapel in Ewell. Mr Stone, a pillar of St Mary's, and her own family boggled in disbelief; she got no encouragement but plenty of ridicule.

At that time there were itinerant non-conformist preachers who held meetings in whatever buildings were available: Ewell was not on the itinerary because it did not have such a building. Then, one day, Mary heard that there was such a preacher in the parish and set about finding him a venue. What she came up with was a 'wretched hovel' which had been used as a slaughter-house. She cleaned it up, whitewashed the walls, installed some rough seating and preaching took place regularly for a year. Mr Crippen says that, despite extensive research, he cannot find out which mission society or other organisation might have collaborated in this enterprise but Mary was definitely in charge! The congregation was small but keen.

When the 'wretched hovel' was repossessed by its owner she rented a room, which hosted services for a further five years: however, she still had the dream of a proper chapel and handed over every penny she could spare to Mr Stone, who invested it for her, although he was completely unsympathetic to what she had in mind. Mary had no idea what this nest-egg amounted to, but she trusted Mr Stone unreservedly and he in turn acted entirely honourably towards her, despite his views on the chapel subject.

Mr Crippen's account is not good on dates, the reason being that by the time Mary told her story for posterity she was getting on in age and could not recall the finer details. I suppose we are now in the early 1820s, by which point her savings in the Bank of Stone have swollen to 100 and she is earning 10 a year in wages. The tenancy on the room then terminates and she decides that the time has come to build her permanent chapel.

The chapel is built

As before, the great and good of Ewell scoffed and someone told Mary that she should be supporting her impoverished and infirm mother rather than indulging a fancy, so she had Mr Stone draw up a document whereby she agreed to pay her mother half a crown per week for the rest of the latter's life, which she did: this was 6.50 a year at a time when her annual wage was 10.

Mr Crippen points out that Mary was not very worldly or she would have thought long and hard about what she did next - she took a 21 year lease on a small piece of land which belonged to a Kingston family named Fuller, Ewell landowners not being disposed to assist her. The site was in West Street. Mr Stone commented that the scheme was 'utter folly in the eyes of all sensible people'.

The building material was timber and construction began. Her savings were soon gone and at one point the builder downed tools because he required a further 20. Much troubled, she told Mr Stone, who said, 'Mary, you will be ruined; they will strip you to your last gown'. Mary would have none of it, did a lot of praying and in a few days a parcel was delivered containing a new gown and twenty guineas. Obviously Mr Stone must have had a hand in all this.

With building near to completion Mary set about finding a preacher for the opening service and went to see the Reverend Rowland Hill. Hill was an Evangelical who built the Surrey Chapel in Blackfriars Road, London and he was a superstar of the non-conformist firmament. He thought she was barmy and Mary went home in a state of distress. Once again the Stones came to the rescue, with one of the sons going to see Hill and extracting a promise that he would attend.

No representation of the original wooden chapel seems to exist but we can imagine that it was small and simple. I am thinking it was little more than a glorified shed. Anyway, it opened for business in 1825, Mr Hill came and did his stuff, liked Mary's egg-flip and the place was packed.

Mary ran the chapel for 8 years and even established a Sunday School; she was still in service with the Stones. This must have been the most fulfilling period of her long life, but dark clouds were on the horizon and they came in battalions.


The chapel had other trustees besides Mary, although we do not know their identity, and in 1833 some kind of dispute arose: Mr Crippen believes that they disagreed on the choice of preachers. Whatever the cause, Mary was pushed out, which was outrageous in view of the fact that she had established the place and used up all her savings on the building. The new regime apparently didn't do a particularly good job and Mary was so upset about the whole thing that she would not even walk down West Street. But worse was to come.

Mr Stone's little daughter, Emma, then about 5/6, had been sick throughout her life and Mary nursed her diligently, scarcely daring to sleep. Then, on 4 July 1834, Mr Stone died, followed four months later by little Emma, who died in Mary's arms. Mary went into shock and became seriously ill; she even sorted herself out conscience-wise, in anticipation of death, deciding that she did not bear any animosity towards the people who had ousted her from the chapel.

But she didn't die. She was advised to go away for recuperation and to work less hard. Friends invited her to go on visits and the Stones once again sorted her out on the home front. George Brooker Stone had left her 25 in his will and, when she retired from the family's service in about 1839, his son John gave her an allowance of 6 shillings a week (30 pence) and George Stone Junior provided a cottage, where she lived until her death.

George Stone
George Stone.
Image Courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

What came next

I have got a little ahead of myself here (as did Mr Crippen), so we need to wind back and see what had happened to the chapel in the years after Mary's disconnection. Mr Crippen says that the Surrey Mission had taken charge of it in 1836 and a Reverend T B Barker became the minister, reporting that it had a congregation of 60 or more, a Sunday School attended by 28 children and an evening Adult School with 26 customers.

In the meantime Mary had looked after a couple of children and took in lodgers. In the 1841 census she had a lodger called Lydia Hurley, who was semi-permanent (still being there in 1851, after which she ended up as a seemingly permanent resident of Greenwich Workhouse). In 1851, as well as Miss Hurley, Mary had a preacher called John Butler staying with her.

There had been a problem with the chapel lease in 1845 (tardy payment of ground rent) and the freeholders asked Mary, who was still a trustee although apparently not taking any active part, if she would join the other trustees in signing a deed of surrender. The local vicar, Sir George Lewen Glyn, was looking for some temporary church accommodation, since the old St Mary's was falling apart and the new one was still being built; Mary approved of him, so she agreed that he should take a new lease on the premises.

Sir George Lewen Glyn.
Sir George Lewen Glyn.
Image Courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

I am not sure what was in Mary's mind at this point. She had given up the premises to Sir George, who was the incumbent of St Mary's (although considerably more enlightened and caring than Parson Maggs had been), and, therefore, knew that there was not going to be an independent non-conformist chapel any more. Where had the dream gone?

Things were not as bad as they may have seemed. Sir George had the building licensed, holding services there for nearly five years, and there were meetings of the Church Missionary Society, for which Mary became a collector, She went into the chapel one evening to present her account and it was the first time she had set foot in the place for 10 years, which nearly overcame her.

Call me sentimental if you will (and I am), but I feel so sorry for this woman. She battled against opinion and spent nearly everything she had to establish the chapel, was the victim of some sort of management coup and then saw it turned into a mainly C of E establishment.

And, with the opening of the new St Mary's in 1848, there was no more use for Mary's chapel and it was closed.

Mary fights back

In about 1853 Mary was thrown from a pony-chaise which, Mr Crippen says, affected her memory and accounts for many missing details in the narrative. It was while recovering from the accident that she heard her chapel had been dismantled, the fittings sold and timber taken for firewood. However, the big issue was the pulpit, which was up for sale (there was talk of using it as a stand from which race cards could be sold). Mary remonstrated with Sir George Glyn about the fixtures and fittings and particularly about the pulpit. He was not very bothered, but it preyed on Mary's mind and before long she was soliciting sixpences from friends to meet the purchase price. Once she had bought it she didn't know what to do with it!

The vicar tries to do a deal

Lest we feel that Sir George had been somewhat cavalier in the matter of Mary's chapel, I should balance that by saying that he used to call on her and was up for discussions. Mary, who had nowhere to put the newly purchased pulpit, came up with another outrageous idea. She would hire a room somewhere and set up a day school, with the pulpit in the corner...and preachers would be invited. Well, here we go again!

You could have forgiven Sir George if he had fallen about laughing, but apparently he didn't: instead he proposed a deal whereby he would help her to find a schoolroom and she would let him have the pulpit for use in the tower of the old church (now being used as a mortuary chapel).

St Mary's tower
The foot of the old St Mary's tower
(still standing today), with a Glyn tomb.
Image ©Linda Jackson 2013

Mary was having none of it; she intended to have both the room and the pulpit and said that 'it seemed like the Ark being restored to David after the Philistines had had it so long'.

Back in business

About a year later the school was up and running and services were held on Sundays, the first one having an attendance of 70 people. Mary was back in business and this continued for around 5 years. We do not know what the quality of schoolteaching was like, but Mary had received very little education herself and Mr Crippen says that her spelling and grammar left much to be desired: however, in the context of the times even imperfect schooling was better than none at all.


Mary was getting on in years now and not in good health: there came a time when she had to give up her personal involvement with the school and 'chapel' and a nearby minister came to help out. That was really the end of her endeavours to establish a non-conformist venue, but they had not been in vain. There was obviously a market for Congregationalism in Ewell (the total population of the village now numbered about 2,000) and in 1864 the English Chapel Building Society procured a site; the Congregational Church opened in February 1865 and moved to its present London Road site in 1938.

The old Congregational Church and Lecture Hall, pre-1938
The old Congregational Church and Lecture Hall, pre-1938.
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre Collection (Links open in new windows)

Despite her increasing infirmity, Mary attended the new church and, when she was no longer able to go, the Reverend Joseph Shaw would visit her. In 1879, on her deathbed, she gave him the bible that Mr Hill had used on the opening day of her original chapel. George Stone Junior also visited her at the end, by which time her hearing and eyesight had all but failed. She felt his face and exclaimed, 'Why, it's Georgie!'.

Mary died in February 1879, aged 90, in a house belonging to the Stones, next door to her little chapel; she was buried in St Mary's on 4 March 1879 and I hope there was a good turn-out. Sir George Glyn was still the vicar and I would hope also that he conducted the service personally.

The Mary Wallis Hall

The Mary Wallis Hall
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

After it was no longer used for religious purposes the little chapel became a carpenter's shop and was then purchased by a Mr Henderson and a Mr Tyler, who had it restored, using timbers from sturdy old English warships. This happened at some point soon after 1906. When Mr Crippen wrote his book (1915) the building was in the hands of the Ewell Congregational Church: it was demolished in about 1939.

A personal observation

I am not a local resident, am not remotely religious and don't pay my council tax to Epsom and Ewell but, nevertheless, I am asking why this lady does not have some sort of plaque, public memorial or monument in Ewell (I assume that she doesn't but would be pleased to hear that I am wrong). Given the male-dominated society in which she lived and her status therein, what she sacrificed and achieved was incredible and deserving of rather more recognition. Nothing grand - she wouldn't have liked that.

Linda Jackson

July 2013
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