What is now Ealing was once rural farmland with a few small villages scattered about. It is thought the first settlement dated from Saxon times, with the name Ealing being derived from Gillingas, meaning ‘the people of Gilla’. There is a record of the king Mercia, Ethelred, giving land at Ealing to the bishop of London, Wealdhere (bishop 693-704), for ‘the increase of monastic life in London’. Whether this was for an existing monastery or a new one, and where any monastery was, is unknown. (See English Historical Documents, 500-1042, edited by Dorothy Whitelock (London:Routledge, 1979) p. 488.)
Ealing remained rural until the 19th century, although it had a major road running through it, connecting London and Oxford. The Anglican parish church, St Mary’s, dates from the 12th century. In 1838 Ealing railway station opened, part of the Great Western Railway. This helped the area develop into a town during the Victorian period. Around this time, a monastery opened at Ealing Broadway, the monastery of Ss Adrian and Denis, founded by Scottish monks returning from Germany. This was the time when many of the British monasteries were returning to Britain. These monasteries went into exile after the Reformation at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. St Gregory’s, our mother house, returned to England in 1795, moving to Downside in 1814. The monastery of Ss Adrian and Denis at Ealing Broadway had closed by the end of the 19th century.
With the restoration of the Catholic heirarchy in 1849 the diocese of Westminster was formed, with its first archbishop, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman. It was not until the third archbishop, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, that the foundations were laid for a cathedral for the archdiocese, in 1895. Cardinal Vaughan’s brother was a monk at Downside Abbey (St Gregory’s) and it was agreed that Downside would set up a priory in Ealing to supply monks to sing the liturgy at the cathedral. The extension of the District Line to Ealing in 1879 suggested a ready transport link between the monastery and the cathedral. There had already been Downside monks in the area; there was a mission at Acton from 1825 to 1850.
Prior (later Abbot) Edmund Ford of Downside, who was involved in the negotiations with Cardinal Vaughan for the founding of the monastery at Ealing, insisted on the need for the community also to have a parish and a school, both regular aspects of English Benedictine life. There was opposition to both of these including, as regards the parish, from the diocesan parish priest of the area. Nonetheless, Ealing was founded in 1897 as a mission from Downside. In 1899 the newly-built church was registered for Catholic worship, and St Benedict’s School opened in 1902. Liturgical services at Westminster Cathedral, however, never became a part of the monastic apostolate.
From small beginnings, both church congregation and school pupil numbers expanded in the first decades of the 20th century. The church building was expanded in 1914 and the school moved to larger premises and bought playing fields in 1906. A major change was the establishment of the Ealing mission as a dependent priory in 1916. This gave it the status of a monastery rather than a mission staffed by monks. The monastery accommodation was expanded in 1929, and further building work was carried out on the church and school in the 1930s.
The Second World War caused major disruption, with four monks volunteering as army chaplains. One of them, Dom Gervase Hobson-Matthews, was killed at Dunkirk, after choosing to remain behind with the troops. Later the same year (1940), the church itself was badly damaged by enemy bombs. Within a few months, a temporary repair allowed services to resume. Despite the monks sleeping in the basement rather than their rooms, and despite the disruption of air raids, the monks continued the monastic regime of prayer and silence. Additionally, they administered to the needs of the parishioners. These now included people who had fled central London for the relative quiet of Ealing.
After the war, with parish numbers increasing and the school having passed a Board of Education inspection, there was pressure for independence from Downside. The monks had been in Ealing for fifty years, which is a long time for a priory to be dependent on its mother house.
In early 1947 Downside voted to grant Ealing its independence. The English Benedictine Congregation agreed to this in October of that year, and the Holy See approved it on 15th October 1947, taking effect on 19th December.
Before independence, all monks at Ealing, including the Prior, were sent from Downside. This meant that no one could apply to Ealing to become a monk. A man would have to apply to Downside and hope the Abbot sent him to Ealing. Downside could also take monks back at any time. Independence meant that the monastery had its own novices and chose its own Prior.
The first Prior, Charles Pontifex, and thirteen other monks transferred their stability to Ealing. The first four novices were clothed on 13th September 1948; one of them did not persevere but the other three, Peter Flood (died 1978), Gregory Chillman (died 2020), and Stanislaus Hobbs (died 2021), remained for life in the monastery.
Eight years later, on 26th May 1955 (the Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, the monk who brought Christianity back to England after the Romans left), the Holy See granted Ealing the status of Abbey. Although in practical terms there is little difference between a priory and an abbey, an abbey and abbot have higher status than a priory and prior, which is helpful sometimes when dealing with outside agencies.
In the late 1950s and into the early 1960s the church was extended again, including a more permanent repair to the wartime bomb damage. As well as extending the nave, the two transepts (now the Blessed Sacrament and Lady chapels) were added.
After the Second Vatican Council
The 1970s saw an extension to the monastery to accommodate the increasing numbers of monks. At the same time, the altar was moved forward in line with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. At the end of the century more building took place in both the monastery and the church. This included the New Chapel for the church, later renamed the Newman Chapel, a new sacristy, the extension behind the altar for the choir, and a new cloister. Additionally, there was a new front door for the monastery , including a ramp for wheelchair access.
Monastic works are not restricted to schools and parishes. We also provide education to adults in the Benedictine Institure. This started in 1992 as the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre. It provides courses on, among other things, icon painting, spirituality, liturgy, Latin, and Syriac. In 1993 we started the Ealing Abbey Counselling Service to provide advice and counselling to people regardless of religion or race.
In 20212 the school separated from the Abbey. This marked a new phase in the development both of the Abbey and of the school. Fewer monks means there are fewer available for teaching; it also enables the school to focus on getting the best teachers. Pupils at the school continue to compose the Abbey Choir and two monks are involved in chaplaincy at the school.
Ealing Abbey continues to play an important part in Catholic life in West London and more widely. As well as the parish and the Benedictine Institute, we provide pastoral services to a number of convents in the area. We also participate in inter-faith and interdenominational activities.
English Historical Documents, 500-1042, edited by Dorothy Whitelock (London:Routledge, 1979). A scholarly work intended for the specialist.
The Return of the Benedictines to London – Ealing Abbey: 1896 to Independence, Rene Kollar (Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1989). A detailed look at the issues and personalities involved in the first 50 years of Ealing Priory.