The east-London district of Poplar once lay at the heart of Britain’s empire, being the location of London’s mighty East India and West India docks. Between them, during the nineteenth century these docks managed most of the ’empire trade’ coming into Britain.
The East India docks were opened in 1802 by the East India Company, established in 1600 as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, while the West India docks were opened in 1806 by the ‘London Society of West India Planters and Merchants’, established in 1780. The two groups amalgamated their business interests in 1838 in the wake of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. This Act of Parliament had abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”, the “Island of Ceylon” and “the Island of Saint Helena”; these exceptions were nullified in 1843, after which the combined Companies’ domination of the UK’s international trade steadily diminished.
A small chapel had existed on the Isle of Dogs from the middle ages, to serve the sparse population. It was abandoned as a place of worship by the time the Reformation, and any remains of it were swept away by the development of the docks.
As early as 1654 the East India Company provided its burgeoning riverside workforce with a chapel on the north side of Poplar High Street. The area was then in the parish of St Dunstan, Stepney, whose church was considered too far away for employees of the company’s docks to attend. In the later nineteenth century the East India Company chapel became a parish church in its own right; St. Matthias. It still stands today, though now a community asset.
With the opening of the new docks, Poplar became a thriving and densely populated mercantile centre. In 1817 a brand-new parish of All Saints was created out of Stepney parish with its own church (consecrated 1823; patron: Brasenose College, Oxford). All Saints church is an imposing, handsome building designed by Charles Hollis (n.d.), with a 161-foot high steeple; the building costs were underwritten by the West India Dock Company. The organ for the new church was built by the London organ-building firm of Henry Russell; see note below.
During the Second World War aerial bombing severely damaged the west end of the church putting the Russell organ beyond repair. The church was restored and its interior remodelled, providing a new organ and west gallery. The new organ (1953, by N. P. Mander Ltd.) was in fact ‘second-hand’, bought from the Clapham Congregational Church (south London), although with a new case. It had been installed in Clapham in 1902 by the London firm of A. Hunter and Sons. It is a large instrument with a clear and bright yet rich tone, enhanced by a generous clean acoustic. On my visit there to play this organ I found it particularly encouraging of improvisation, and rather well-suited to the European Romantic repertoire.
As a coda, it is worth mentioning that Poplar is the area in which are set two popular BBC TV series: ‘Call the Midwife’, which is based on the work of the real-life nursing nuns of the Anglican Order of St John the Divine; and ‘EasterEnders’, which is entirely spurious.
The ‘Call the Midwife’ mission buildings and nuns chapel (c.1893; patron, Christ Church Oxford) remain on Lodore Street, converted to secular use. The adjacent parish church of St Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford, was destroyed by aerial bombing in the Second World War; the area is now part of All Saints parish.
- Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (British History Online), online resource accessed 25 October 2016
- Organ specification (National Pipe Organ Register), online resource, accessed 25 October 2016
The National Pipe Organ Register listing gives the builder as Timothy Russell, but the Register’s database of organ builders shows that Henry Russell, not Timothy, was in charge of the firm at the time the All Saints organ was installed.
- The Community of St John the Divine, online resource, accessed 1 February 2019
- Parish website, online resource, accessed 29 December 2022.