The name of Willesden derives from the Anglo-Saxon Willesdune, meaning the Hill of the Spring, and a settlement bearing this name dates back to 939 AD at least as far as we can tell.
The Domesday Book of 1086 records it the settlement as being Wellesdone. However, in later 19th century maps of the town (see the Ordnance Survey First Series), the town is shown as Wilsdon.
So we can safely say that there was sufficient water and enough height for it to be settled early in recorded history although there is little evidence of this water now – except in people’s gardens! Several gardens in the Mapesbury area need sump pumps to drain their gardens, evidence of the springs and possibly ponds – again see Ordnance Survey Maps – which are either dew ponds created by farmers or natural spring ponds.
From the 14th to 16th centuries, the town was a place of pilgrimage due to the presence of two ancient statues of the Virgin Mary at the Church of St Mary (Neasden Lane) built in 938 when it was founded by King Athelstan as the original Parish Church of Willesden. It is the oldest parish church in North-West London.
The church and its graveyard are al that remain of the original village – the rest has been re-developed.
In 937 King Athelstan defeated the Danes at the battle of Brunanburh, and as a thank offering gave the Royal Manors of Willesden-cum-Neasden to the Dean and Chapter of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. (Subsequently many of the vicars of Willesden have also been Canons of Saint Paul’s). A church was built, possibly replacing an earlier wooden one. The earliest part of the church as it stands today dates from the thirteenth century with fifteenth and sixteenth century additions and is built of ragstone rubble and flint with freestone dressings . The two Victorian restorations added a north aisle and a new south porch. Two notable fittings are the Purbeck marble font, dating from 1150 and the fourteenth century inner door to the south porch.
There is a fine 14th-century door in the south porch, a piscina in the chancel, an Easter sepulchre in the south-east chapel, and an Elizabethan communion table. Brasses, which were rescued after they had been thrown onto a rubbish heap in the course of the Victorian restoration, include these of Bartholomew Willesden and his wife (1494), the vicar William Lichfield (1517), Margaret wife of Thomas Roberts (1505), Edmund Roberts with his two wives and nine children (1585), Jane Barne and her daughters (1609), and a mid-16th century unidentified woman with six children.
There is a sculptured monument to Richard Paine and his wife (1606) and monuments, mostly in black marble, to John Barne (1615), Richard Franklin (1615), John Franklin (1647), Francis Roberts (1631), his wife Mary (1623), Sir William Roberts, Bt. (1688), his wife Sarah (1682), Sir William Roberts (1698), William Roberts (1700), and Elizabeth wife of Francis Brende (1667).
Willesden had two bells in 1297 and four in 1552. All had been replaced or recast by 1717 when there were five bells, including three dated 1661, 1694, and 1704.
One of the two famous statues is thought to be a Black Madonna – A Visitation report of 1249 mentions the presence of two statues of Our Lady, one of which must have been the ‘Black Madonna’ (This was described in the C16th by Richard Mores as ‘robed in sarcenet, and with stones, with a vale withal of lace embroidered with pearles and other precious jewelles and golde and silver’ surrounded by a metal grille, and a canopy with hangings). This statue was insulted by the Lollards and taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house and burnt in 1538 on a large bonfire of “notable images” including those of Walsingham, Worcester and Ipswich. There is also a “holy well” or water which was thought to possess miraculous qualities, particularly for blindness and other eye disorders, this comes from the Willesden stream flowing under the church and which can still be accessed and people can partake of it.
Thousands of people visited the sanctuary in the heart of leafy Middlesex. It reached its height at the turn of the sixteenth century, when the shrine was frequented by royalty (Queen Elizabeth of York) and future martyrs (St Thomas More), who confidently petitioned the Blessed Virgin under her title of ‘Our Lady of Willesden’. According to a contemporary document, Our Lady appeared to a priest devotee of the shrine, a certain Dr Crewkehorne, in 1537 and said that she wished to be honoured at Willesden. William Gladstone worshipped here between 1882 and 1894.
Our Lady of Willesden’s greatest day came during the Marian Year of 1954, when her statue was crowned by Cardinal Griffin at Wembley Stadium, in front of 94,000 people. According to the Encyclical Letter, Fulgens Corona (1953), Pope Pius XII said that every diocese had a special shrine at which the Virgin Mary received fuller homage. Willesden was made the centre of Westminster’s celebrations for the Marian Year and throughout 1954 some 60,000 pilgrims visited the shrine. Another pilgrim from the 1950s was St Josemaria Escriva, the Founder of Opus Dei, who came to the shrine several times (he re-consecrated Opus Dei to the Name of Mary here on 15 August 1958)
The new statue – carved in 1972 – is paraded through the streets every year in May.
Many well-known local families have been buried at St Mary’s including that of Sir Henry Holland whose family vault is here. The novelist and playwright Charles Reade, famous for ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’, was buried here in 1884, next to his lady friend Laura Seymour (d.1879) who left her whole estate to Reade, part of which he made over to the Charity commissioners to be distributed to ‘fatherless children and widows in Willesden’.
George Furness, owner of Roundwood House, a church warden here and first Chairman of the Willesden Board in 1857 was buried here in 1900, as was his son George James Furness (d.1936), who was MP for Willesden West in 1922/23.
Other local families with tombs in the churchyard include the Kilbys, many of them bellringers in the C19th and C20th. A tomb with a broken mast and anchor on a coil of rope commemorates Captain Brook (d.1893). There is also the grave of F A Wood (d.1904) and his wife Mary (d.1898); Wood was a well known local politician, JP and Willesden historian.
Near the south-east exit of the churchyard is a War Memorial in remembrance of workers from the British Thomas Houston Factory in Neasden Lane who died in the two world wars.
Local folklore has it that the cemetery is haunted by a monk in white.