Stranded by Kings

St Mary-le-Strand, London WC2

As far as I can remember, until last week  I had not previously stepped inside the London church of St Mary-le-Strand (1714–23), stranded rather splendidly in the middle of the Strand opposite Kings College (University of London) in a sea of traffic.

The site was formerly occupied by a giant maypole, reputedly the largest in England, and part of the original plan for the church was for this maypole to be replaced by a 250-feet-high column topped of by a statue of Queen Anne (1665–1714), but the queen died just as the church foundations were being laid and the stone for the column was used instead to add a steeple (1717) at the west end.

St Mary-le-Strand was the first of the fifty new churches built in London under the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, at a cost of some £16,000. It was the first major building project completed by the Catholic Tory architect James Gibbs (1682–1754) upon his return home to England after studying architecture in Rome, and it reflects the influence of Italian Baroque models; the interior is quite splendid.

It is said that in this church the so-called ‘Young Pretender’ Charles Edward Stuart (1720–88) abjured Catholicism to pronounce his loyalty to the Church of England during a clandestine visit to London in 1750, hoping to accede to the British throne.

An organ never seems to have been part of the original design so far as I can tell. The first known organ dates from 1790. The organologist Henry Leffler (1761–1819) described it as “Not a very good organ being part new & part old”.

The 1790 organ was built by William Warrell, a little-known music-seller and organ-builder whose business was in Bridge Street, Lambeth. The subsequent fate of the Warrell organ is not clear, but by 1863 there was another organ in the building, made by the firm of Hunter & Webb. It too is no longer present.

Warrell’s organ of 1790 was a so-called ‘annuity organ’ i.e. installed at the builder’s expense, the cost repaid to him by the parish by a fixed annuity. Such ‘annuity organ’ schemes are rare but not unheard of at this time, indeed Warrell was involved in another such scheme at St Olave, Jewry in 1814. These schemes often entailed appointing the organ builder as the organist, and this was the case with Warrell both at St Mary-le-Strand and at St Olave Jewry where Warell provided a deputy. (Donovan Dawe (1983) Organs and Organists of the City of London).

Today the liturgy at St Mary-le-Strand is accompanied by a far-from-new Johannes electronic 2-manual organ, an instrument that would once have been considered cutting edge but which – having experienced it – now has little to commend it. To quote Henry Leffler: “Not a very good organ”.

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