The first known record of the church of St Mary Magdalen is around 1290, when it was recorded that "Mary Magdalen Chapel is in the hands of the Prior and Convent of Bermondsey".

It is likely that there had been a church on the site for some time before, as the Priory had been built in 1082-1090.  Very little is known of the building although this small sketch (right) from the early 17th C has recently been found on a plan of Bermondsey Abbey.  The old church, although similar to the current church, appears to have been slightly lower, slightly shorter, with different windows and no transept.  [Credit: Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University http://dca.tufts.edu]

In 1680, the old church was deemed unsafe and most of it was pulled down and rebuilt (architect Charles Stanton).  The only surviving remnant of the building from before then is the lower portion (about 25 feet, possibly) of the late mediæval tower, including four gothic arches in the chamber behind the organ, and this is now the oldest building in Bermondsey.  (The upper-most part of the tower is entirely later, now being of wooden frame construction.)  The new building was completed by 1690 and is essentially what is seen today, although a significant difference was the portico at the west end (on pillars, projecting into Bermondsey Street above the present pavement), above which was the school.

Soon after, the North gallery was erected (in about 1705), and in 1794 the South gallery was added, thus blocking the magnificent south doorway. Both galleries are supported on narrow pillars which are in contrast with the stone columns of the 1690 church structure.  Further structural work was done in 1829 (architect George Porter), including removal of the school and portico and the remodelling of the exterior in “playful Gothic” style with mock battlements and external rendering to give a stone effect over the brickwork.  It was about this time that the tower was reduced in height to the present level, probably due to concerns about the weight of the tower and the strength of the building below.  This was followed by “beautification” of the interior in 1852, according to a plaque in the foyer. The last major changes were done in 1882/3 when the chancel was lengthened and the single stained glass window was installed (replacing the former three separate windows), together with the present pews.

The church survived the Blitz of World War II undamaged, despite its location in a very heavily bombed area.  Following the war it was restored by 1952, at a cost of £13,500, of which the War Damage Commission paid £4,000.  The work done was required not only by the deterioration during the hostilities but also by the discovery of death watch beetle in the roof timbers.

Of particular note are the unusual churchwardens’ pew (of uncertain age), the marble font which has a plaque dating from 1808 but has a bowl of completely different style (which is probably much older), and two 18-candle brass chandeliers which date from 1699 and 1703.  The church also contains two carved stone cornices showing various birds and animals in great detail, and a number of smaller carved stones.  These were all found locally, and are believed to have been part of the mediæval Abbey buildings.

The church is the legal owner of a silver alms dish called the “Bermondsey Mazer” which is thought to be the only surviving piece of silver from the Bermondsey Abbey, probably dating from 15th C.  This item is on loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum which reflects the importance of this piece.

The church also possesses several pieces of 17th C silver such as communion dishes and jugs, which are all kept in a bank for security.  It should be mentioned that, although extremely valuable, the Bermondsey Mazer and most of the rest of the silver is actually of no value to the church as the required permission to sell any of it would almost certainly never be granted, due to the local connections of the silver.

In 1971 a fire damaged the internal area at the western end including the organ case and some of the north gallery.  Much of the woodwork there is modern replacement in similar style, and in the course of the repairs the whole church was redecorated.  The exterior was re-rendered in 1993, at about the same time that the roof was re-covered.

It is essential to keep on top of the repair and maintenance task for all such old buildings.  Since 2006 the external doors have been stripped and repainted, the wooden pillars supporting the galleries have been repainted, and the 5 dormer doors and 6 clerestory windows on the roof have been repaired and re-painted (although these can hardly be seen from the ground).  A number of other repairs have been undertaken such as replacement of the north transept window, other glazing repairs and repairs to the slate roof, as well as more mundane improvements such as pigeon netting in the tower and a replacement lightning conductor.