The church, designed by Gilbert Blount in Gothic style, was opened in 1852. Until the mid-l840s there were very few Catholics in the Mortlake area, apart from Lady Constantia Mostyn and her household at Portobello House where they had a small private chapel. But after 1846 the terrible famine in Ireland caused many Irish workers to seek employment in Mortlake’s well known market gardens. Before the building of the church they worshipped in a room over the stables at Portobello House where Mass could be celebrated by a visiting priest. In 1849 a young priest, Fr John Wenham, was given the responsibility of founding the parish, and land in North Worple Way was soon acquired, How the money for the church was raised remains a mystery. Certainly some of the stonework, such as the tracery in the windows and the carving on the capitals, would have been expensive. Fr Wenham had studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, which may explain why Mary Magdalen was chosen as the patron saint of the new church.
The adjacent cemetery was in use from 1853 and hundreds of names are recorded, but not all graves can be identified. Much visited is the curious mausoleum of Sir Richard Burton the explorer (died 1890) and his wife Isabel which is shaped like an Arab tent. A window in memory of Burton, given by his widow, is in the north aisle of the church near the Lady Chapel.
As far as possible the church is kept open for visitors, but it is wise to inquire about access before a special visit. For further information see St Mary Magdalen's website