Gilbert Blount in Bow

Our Lady & St Catherine of Siena, London E3 2SG

Present-day Bow (pr. boh) is a densely populated area of inner London on the west bank of the River Lea just east of the City. From at least the early Middle Ages it was known as Stratford-at-Bow – ‘Bow’ apparently a reference to the elegance of its arched bridge – to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the opposite bank of the River Lea. These days the two places are simply known as Bow and Stratford respectively.

As a result of Bow’s proximity not only to the River Lea and its ready supply of water power and water transport but also to the London docks the area has traditionally relied on industrial production and trade of goods: flour mills, slaughter houses, tanneries, dye factories, and – in the eighteenth century –  fine porcelain. The Bow China Works was one of the earliest centres outside China successfully to produce porcelain-style goods and as a result was sometimes referred to as ‘New Canton’.

Charles Booth's Poverty Map of Bow (1888-9)
Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of Bow (1888-9)

By the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth the area was a by-word for insalubriousness although the social reformer Charles Booth (1840-1916) typified the area’s population as covering a range of of living conditions from “Poor” to “Fairly comfortable”.

Gilbert Robert Blount (1819-76)
Gilbert Robert Blount (1819-76)

Bow’s Catholic church of Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena was designed by Gilbert Robert Blount (1819–76) and opened in 1870 to serve a newly created parish. This new parish was established by a community of Dominican nuns who had previously run (1865-7) the St Mary’s School and Orphanage in Walthamstow, not so far away in north-east London. The Dominicans left Bow in the 1920s (moving to Stone in Staffordshire, where they remain), and the Archdiocese of Westminster became directly responsible for running the parish and its schools.

In addition to the church, Blount’s architectural scheme included a convent connected to the church and school buildings. These buidlings remain to this day. Some are used as the presbytery, parish halls and social facilities while others are home to small and medium-sized enterprises.

According to the National Pipe Organ Register, in 1911 the church possessed a pipe organ by the firm of Bishop and Sons. It must be assumed that this organ was destroyed along with the nave by enemy bombing in the Second World War. The nave was rebuilt after the war and the present west-gallery organ is reputed to have come from one of the chapels in Holloway Prison, north London, supplied by the London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard Ltd (HNB). Since there is no builder’s plate on the instrument it is unclear if HNB made the instrument or merely moved it.

The organ is unassuming and gentle in tone, perhaps not best suited for supporting a sung liturgy even in this modest-sized church, but it is in very good playing condition with a light, responsive mechanical action.

Sir John Soane in Walworth

St Peter’s Church, London SE17 2HH

Walworth (Saxon: Wealawyr, 1006) and Newington (Niwetun, 1212) were once separate hamlets along the road leading south from London Bridge. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the area was noted for its public gardens and commercial small-holdings, especially those cultivating fruit and flowers. The population of the district was – surprisingly – very little affected by its proximity to London until the early nineteenth century,

Late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century maps depict Walworth as a pleasant country neighbourhood with a few newly-formed roads stretching across the gardens and fields. However, the formation of these new roads after 1754 brought an impetus to build well-to-do housing, and in 1808 the Walworth Road was described as being lined with elegant mansions. Between 1800 and 1820  the population of Newington increased from 14,847 to 44,526, although as late as 1853 when the author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) lived there she found it a “charming retreat” with a view from the windows of sheep and lambs grazing in a meadow.

But steadily throughout nineteenth century many of the area’s genteel Georgian-/Regency-era houses were pulled down and replaced by dense blocks of dwellings and three-storey terraced houses. By the end of the centiry the whole area was closely packed with streets of working-class houses, shops and industry.

Large-scale post-war public-sector regeneration of housing resulted in the demolition of much of the earlier developments, replacing them with modernist estates of public housing, which in turn are now being replaced by estates of new private sector housing.

In 1820, faced with a rapidly expanding population, the authorities sanctioned the creation of St Peter’s church (opened 1825) to the design of Sir John Soane (1753–1837), his first church, and it remains his most complete surviving church building. The  parish is a thriving community and the building stands in excellent condition.

The west-gallery pipe-organ facade and gilded pipes belong to the first instrument (1824/5) installed in the west gallery, made by the London firm of Henry Cephas (H. C.) Lincoln (fl.1810-55). The original organ no longer exists. The current instrument by the firm of Harrison of Durham was moved here in 2010 from the chapel of Whitelands College, Putney, where it had first been installed, in 1949.

Joseph Maltby Bignell alone in Walthamstow

St Michael and All Angels, London E17 6PQ

Walthamstow is an ancient settlement on the west bank of the River Lea, for which records date back to the time of King Edward the Confessor (1003-66). It is now absorbed within the north-east London suburbs.

With the coming of the railway in the middle of the nineteenth century the area saw rapid housing development by a variety of independant property speculators building homes for the respectable working and lower-middle classes, and much of the buidling stock dates from this time. Even so, the area around the medieval parish church maintains an air of earlier times, and self-consciously promotes itself as ‘Walthamstow Village’.

Walthamstow’s nineteenth-century population boom brought a need for new churches and by 1903 there were twelve Anglican churches and seven Anglican missions in Walthamstow; in 2017 there are nine Anglican parishes. Among these the church of St Michael and All Angels (1885) is the largest. It was built in an Early English Gothic style using dark brown brick to a design by the little-known Joseph Maltby Bignell  (1827-87) who spent much of his architectural career working as an assistant to Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78). St Michael and All Angel’s is – for now – his only known completed building.

Currently the church has two pipe-organs. One, of indeterminate origin, is in a gallery on the south side of the chancel. It has two manuals and pedal and replaced an earlier one-manual and pedal organ that was situated here. The current instrument was  decommissioned some decades ago when its console was removed and replaced by a now rather tired and unattractive sounding electronic instrument by the Allen Organ Company; our expectations of digital technology have moved on!

The other pipe-organ is a rather nice Victorian, one-manual and pedal instrument in a handsome ‘Gothick’ case placed in the south east corner of the nave. It was built by the firm of G. M. Holdich originally for a church in the Essex countryside, where in 1965 it underwent restoration by the firm of N, P Mander. The instrument seems to have come to Walthamstow in about 2003. It has a bold, bright sound and while it is no masterpiece it is well-suited to congregational accompaniment and is almost contemporary with the building.

We can date this instrument from G. M. Holdich’s business address given on the builder’s plate: ‘Euston Road, Kings Cross, London’ from where the firm traded between 1858 and 1866. This fact contradicts a date of  1844 that is given on a recent donor’s plate on the side of the organ.