The parish church of St. Mary the Virgin was built on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church, in 1230. Being the parish church for Watford, the church was built in the middle of the town, towards the centre of the High Street. It is one of the largest churches in Hertfordshire and is also the oldest building in Watford, carrying a Grade I Listed status.
The oldest parts of the church, still remaining, are the Chancel arch, the double piscina in the Chancel, the doorway above the pulpit and the South arcade of the Nave.
The tower was built in the 15th century and stands 24m to the top of the battlements. A narrow 96 step spiral stair forms a turret at the top of the tower, where there is also a Hertfordshire Spike, which is 9m high, in the centre of the roof. The tower has a clock face on the north, east and south sides, but not on its west face. There are many rumours as to why this is so, but no definitive answer. Many believe that as Watford was predominantly just one long street, with more buildings to the east, there was no need for a west clock face. Also, as the Watford Union Workhouse was built to the west of the church, the planners didn’t add a clock face to this side so that the ‘inmates’ wouldn’t keep ‘clock-watching’. The external plaster face of the tower walls were removed, in 1871, to be replaced with flint and dressed stone.
A Church Centre was added to the main building in 1979, to replace the old Church Halls. This space is used for church meetings, group meetings and social events.
St. Mary the Virgin has ten bells which, when rung out, can be heard for many miles around. Eight of the bells were cast in 1919, by Gillett and Johnston, who forged another two bells in 1946. There is also a smaller bell, kept in the tower, which dates from 1704, and is said to be Watford’s old Market bell. The tenor bell weighs a massive 1237kg.
There are also twelve locally and nationally registered Grade Listed tombs, in the adjacent cemetery. One of these is to the memory of George Edward Doney.
George Edward Doney was captured from Gambia and taken to Virginia, as a child, where he was sold into slavery. In 1765 he arrived in Watford, where he worked for 44 years at Cassiobury House, for the 5th Earl of Essex, Church records show that he was baptised on August 1st, 1774. It was while working for the 5th Earl of Essex that George gained his freedom, but continued to work for the Earl. When he died, in 1809, he was listed as a widower, but no records so far give any clue as to whom he married.
Below is the inscription from his tombstone;
Poor Edward blest the pirate bark which bore
His captive infancy from Gambia’s shore
To where in willing servitude he won
Those blest rewards for every duty done –
Kindness and praise, the wages of the heart;
None else to him could joy or pride impart,
And gave him, born a pagan and a slave,
A freeman’s charter and a Christian’s grave.