One of the best furnished churches in London

St Augustine of Canterbury, Langdon Park Road, London N6 5QG

“One of the best furnished churches in London”, said the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman (1906–84) about the north-London Anglican church of St. Augustine of Canterbury. The church is a Grade-II-listed building that faces the Archway Road, just north of the distinctive bridge spanning that road – created in 1813 by John Nash (1752-1835) – and from which the name of the road and the surrounding district is derived.

The church as we see it today was created in several stages during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by three architects: John Dando Sedding (1838–91), Henry Wilson (1864–1934), J. Harold Gibbons (1878-1958). It is a distinctive mix of late Victorian Gothic and early twentieth-century Arts and Craft styles.

The foundation stone of the new church was laid in 1887 and the part-finished buidling was consecrated in 1888, the next stage of work being undertaken by Henry Wilson, one of Sedding’s pupils. However, the west front was not completed until Easter 1914, the work of J. Harold Gibbons. The west front is adorned with a life-size stone Calvary, which led to a noisy Protestant demonstration seeking to stop the dedication of the church later that same year; 20 June 1914.

The church of St Augustine of Canterbury, a view of the nave detroyed by fire. (Source: Paul Bell, 2012).
The church of St Augustine of Canterbury, a view of the nave detroyed by fire. (Source: Paul Bell, 2012).

A disastrous fire on the night of 11 January 1924 entirely destroyed the nave and required a major programme of rebuilding, which was undettaken by J. Harold Gibbons. It was at this time he added the 2-bay  organ gallery on the south side of the chancel, and a new Sacristy.

The current pipe organ dates from 1925-6, and was built by the London firm of A. Hunter and Sons of Clapham (London UK). The atractive case – designed by J. H. Gibbons – dominates the south side of the chancel. Although the instrument has remained incomplete for lack of funds it serves well, and sounds impressive in the generous acoustic.

The church contains some fine fittings, artworks and stained glass by – among others – Henry Farmer (fl. early c20), Lawrence King (1907-81), J. Linthout & Co. (Bruges), Margaret A. Rope (1882–1953), Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882–1963), Christopher Whall (1849–1924),  Nathaniel Westlake (1833–1921).

In 1930 Gibbons completed the Lady Chapel, with a decorative scheme by Nathaniel Westlake, Henry Wilson, and Christopher Whall.

On 13 October 1957 St. Augustine’s was the venue for the first liturgical performance of the “Twentieth-century Folk Mass” by Rev. Geoffrey Beaumont CR (1904–71), a product of the once influential Twentieth-century Church Light Music Group. According to Beaumont, the composition was the result of a chance conversation with a priest-colleague in London’s then impoverished East End who was deeply concerned that church music was utterly foreign to the majority of people.

From the first litrgical performance of Geoffrey Beaumont's "A Twentieth-century Folk Mass" Celebrant: Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald. (Source: Church Times Archive).
From the first litrgical performance of Geoffrey Beaumont’s “A Twentieth-century Folk Mass” Celebrant: Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald. (Source: Church Times Archive).

That first liturgical performance of Beaumont’s mass-setting was broadcast live by the BBC and caused quite a stir at the time. The Daily Express declared that “this disturbing racket . . . was one of the most incongruous things ever seen on TV”, while the Musical Times  dismissed it as music suited to the fetid atmosphere of a night club or cabaret.

This recording (below) was made by the original performers in the run up to the performance at St. Augustine’s: Cantor, John Alldis;  Musicians/singers, The Peter Knight Orchestra and Singers; Conductor, Peter Knight;  Organist, William Davis.

References

Joan of Arc: a first for London

St Joan of Arc’s Church, 60 Highbury Park. London N5 2XH

The Catholic parish of St Joan of Arc in north London (UK) achieved a certain prominence during the 1990s when it was the local church of choice for the former British Labour Party leader and later Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family. However, the parish has two rather more interesting claims on posterity.

Firstly, ths buidling is the immediate succesor of the first Catholic church anywhere in the world dedicated to St Joan of Arc. From 1918 local Highbury Catholics had worshipped in the chapel of a convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns but increasing numbers of worshippers required the provision of a separate church.

This new church was opened on 13 October 1920 just five monrths after Joan’s canonisation (16 May 1920). When the Carmelites left Highbury in 1953 the convent site was used for a new and much larger church designed by Stanley Kerr Bate (b.1906–?), which opened on 23 September 1962.

The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower c.1990
The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower, c.1990

Secondly, the new church tower was the first in England to be provided with a radioactive lightning rod. (Taking Stock). The idea behind this device –  Early Streamer Emission theory – was that a small quantity of radioactive isotopes at the tip of the rod greatly increased the lightning capture area. The theory has since been discredited. Worriyingly, with such devices there is always a risk that the effects of weathering and poor maintenance allows radioactive material to be released in an uncontolled way into the environment. I have no idea if this dubious device is still in place on the tower at St Joan’s.

The very nice neo-baroque pipe organ (1963) is by J. W. Walker and Sons Ltd, and is divided either side of the front wall of a spacious choir gallery at the west end of the nave. The largest pedal pipes are in a separate case on the gallery.

References

Piecing together Our Lady of Willesden

St Mary’s Church, Neasden Lane, London NW10 2TS

Willesden is an ancient settlement dating back to at least Anglo-Saxon times. It lies approximately five miles north-west of Charing Cross as the crow flies, a little way west from the main A5 road (the Roman ‘Watling Street’) that runs from the capital and on past Willesden. Until the coming of the railway in the 1870s the area remained largely rural and sparsely populated; around 300 residents in 1086 and only 751 in 1801. (British History Online). The area is now densely built up and largely residential with an ethnically diverse population. A crisis food-bank run by the Trussle Trust operates next door to the church, a reflection of the area’s many deep pockets of deprivation.

According to the UK National Archives the story of the parish dates back to at least 937 when Aethelstan (c.894-939) the first king of England defeated the Danes at the battle of Brunanburh (Bamburgh, Northumberland). As a thank-offering Aethelstan gave the royal manors of Willesden-cum-Neasden to St Paul’s Cathedral, whose clergy (Dean and Chapter) still nominate the parish priest at Willesden.

The present-day church building seems to date from the thirteenth century with additions made in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Notable fittings are the Purbeck-marble font c.1150, the fourteenth-century inner door to the south porch, fourteenth-century nave arcades, some sixteenth-century altar plate, pre- and post-Reformation memorial brasses and a striking ‘Black Madonna’ image of the Virgin Mary (1972) created by the English sculptor Catharni Stern (1925-2015).

From the late-1400s until the English Reformation period (c.1530 onwards) Willesden church was one of a number of well-known pilgrimage destinations for those seeking succour of the Virgin Mary through prayer before her image, which – at Willesden – was placed in the chancel of the church.

Contrary to the fanciful stories about this shrine that have circulated since the nineteenth century, there is no reliable evidence of: – a curative holy well; – appearances of the Virgin; – miracles, – holy relics; – any description of the shrine itself.  While the relatively few primary sources we have are reliable and clear on the place of Willesden in the devotional life of England, it is entirely unclear how the particular tradition of Marian pilgrimage arose at Willesden, given that images of Our Lady then would have been ubiquitous in every place of worship.

Within the church today there is no architectural evidence to indicate the presence of a medieval shrine, indeed the building seems typical of so many formerly rural Middlesex churches of this age.

The earliest reliable mention of devotions to Our Lady of Willesden dates from 1502 when Queen Elizabeth (1466–1503), wife of Henry VII (1457–1509), sent money to Willesden and other Marian shrines across England, perhaps to solicit prayers for the impending birth of her seventh child. Also, in February 1503, shortly after the Queen’s death, an allowance of money was paid:

to a man that went on pilgremage to our lady of Willesden by the quenes commaundement. (Valentine, 8)

Legal records provide more evidence. In 1509 Elizabeth Sampson of Aldermanbury (London) was accused of insulting the statue of Our Lady of Willesden. In 1521  William Dorset of King’s Langley (Hertfordshire) was accused of stopping his wife from making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Willesden on the grounds that it was a waste of money (Valentine, 9)

Memorail brass of William Litchfield (d.1517) in St Mary's church Willesden. ©Andrew Pink 2017
Memorail brass of William Litchfield (d.1517) in St Mary’s church Willesden. ©Andrew Pink 2017

In 1517 William Litchfield (var. Lychfeld, Lichfield &c), Vicar of Willesden and Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral died and was buried in the chancel of Willesden church before the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Litchfield also gave to the church a gilt chalice, ‘the same to remain to the use of the said Church and the honour of the Blessed Virgin for ever.’ (Wadsworth et al, 12) and this chalice is still in regular use. Litchfield’s memorial brass can be seen in the floor of the chancel.

In 1525 the two youngest daughters of the catholic saint Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) – Elizabeth and  Cecily – were married at Willesden, in a chapel (‘oratorio’) at the house of the MP Sir Giles Alington (1499-1586), Alington was the second husband (m.1524) of More’s step-daughter Alice Elrington (nee Middleton, d. before 1564). The house and chapel were 2.5 miles from Willesden church at West Twyford;  property that came to Alington on his martiage to Alice, it having been the property of Alice’s first husband Thomas  Elrington (d.1523). (Places in Brent, 1)

Thomas More made reference to the shrine at Willesden in his Dialogue concerning heresies (1528/9). Later, in An Answer to Thomas More’s Dialogue (1531), the avowedly Protestant William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536) complained of those who endlessly repeat:

Our lady of Walsingham pray for me; Our Lady of Ipswich, pray for me; Our Lady of Wilsdon, pray for me. (Valentine 13)

During 1527 the reform-minded priest Thomas Bilney (c.1495–1531) was arraigned for preaching against pilgrimages, even doing so in Willesden church itself in Whitsun week that year.

'Priests pulling Bilney out of the pulpit, Saint Georges churche in Ipswich', in John Foxe (1653) 'Actes and Monuments (Book of Martyrs)'.
‘Priests pulling Bilney out of the pulpit, Saint Georges churche in Ipswich’, in John Foxe (1653) ‘Actes and Monuments (Book of Martyrs)’.

You do not well to goo on pilgremage to our Lady of Walsinghan, Ipswiche, or Wyllesdon, or to any other place and there to offer for they be nothing but stocke and stones, therefore it were better to tary at home and pray to God there. (Valentine, 11)

Thomas More later stated that the character of his Protestant interlocutor in the Dialogue concerning heresies was actually based on Thomas Bilney.

More’s biographer Thomas Stapleton (1535-98) says that More regularly made pilgrimages on foot to shrines up to seven miles from London, thus encompassing Willesden. One such pilgrimage to Willesden was during the first week of April 1534, with More staying at the home of Giles and Alice Alington just days before his final arrest and eventual execution/martyrdom. (Mitjans, 67)

Pewter pilgrim badge of Our Lady of Willesden. Design of the Virgin and Child within a crescent moon, 1466-1500. Museum of London 001349
Pewter pilgrim badge, Our Lady of Willesden; the Virgin and Child within a crescent moon, 1466-1500. Museum of London 001349

In recent times a distinctive design of medieval pilgrim badge often found in the London area – although not in Willesden – has been attributed to the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. (Spencer)

The end came for Our Lady of Willesden in the autumn of 1538 when:

all the notable Images unto the whiche were made anie speciall Pilgrimages and Offerynges were utterly taken awaye as the Images of Walsingham, Ypswiche, Worcester, the ladie of Wilsdon with many other.  (Edward Hall, d. 1547, cited in Valentine, 15)

There is no record of the value of any items associated with the shrine at the time of its demise, nor is there any record of a revival of the Willesden shrine during the Catholic restoration that took place in the brief reign (1553-8) of Queen  Mary Tudor. Even so, as late as 1563, in the Second Book of Homilies, a newly reformed Church of England was still inclined to warn against idolatrous invocations to: our Lady of Walsingham, our Lady of Ipswich, our Lady of Wilsdon and such other. (Valentine, 15)

Today, all that remains to connect the medieval shrine directly with the present day are the prominent modern statue of Our Lady and the chalice of 1517. But who knows what still waits to be discovered in the archives or under the ground?

The church is well worth a visit if you are ever in the area. The building is open during the day (check parish website) and the people are very friendly. And despite its location on a busy main road, as you walk up the little lane to the church entrance with its vast burial ground beyond, it is not hard briefly to forget the gritty urban location.

The rather fine pipe-organ is the work of J. W. Walker and Sons, and is a two-manual mechanical-action instrument installed in a newly built west gallery in 1983. One third of the cost of the new instrument was met by a generous donation from John Roberts of Virginia, USA, whose antecedents had once lived in Willesden.

References

  • Diane K. Bolton, et al, ‘Willesden‘, in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 7, Acton, Chiswick, Ealing and Brentford, West Twyford, Willesden, ed. T. F. T. Baker and C. R. Elrington (London, 1982). British History Online. Onoline resource, accessed 1 April 2017
    NB the references to the shrine are not up to date and thus not reliable.
  • Bindoff, S. T. (ed.). ‘Alington, Giles (1499-1586)‘, in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558. (London: History of Parliament Trust, 1982). Online resource, accessed 1 April 2017.
    This item also details the marriage of Alice Middleton to Thomas Elrington of Willesden.
  • [Brent Council] Places in Brent: Twyford and Park Royal. Information leaflet. Online resource, accessed 19 April 2017.
  • Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London: Volume 3, County of Middlesex (London, 1795), British History Online. Online resource, accessed 1 April 2017
  • Frank Mitjams (2008) ‘Thomas More’s Veneration of Images, Praying to Saints and Going on Pilgrimages‘, Thomas More Studies 3, 64-69. Online resource accessed 1 April 2017,
  • St Mary’s Willesden: the pipe organ (National Pipe Organ Register). Onine reosurces, accessed 1 April 2017,
  • Parish information (Diocese of London website). Online resource, accessed 1 April 2017
  • Brian Spencer. Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges. Series: ‘Medieval finds from excavations in London’, vol. 7. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press with Museum of London, 2010)
  • Kenneth J. Valentine. Our Lady of Willesdon (London: Willesden Local History Society, 1988; 2nd ed. 2005)
  • Cliff Wadsworh et al. 1000 Years of St. Mary, Willesden (London: Willesden Local History Society, 2006)
  • [Wikipedia] Catharni Stern. Online resource, accessed 1 April 2017
  • Willeseden Local History Society (Society website), Online resource, accessed 1 April 2017

An old thing in Aldgate

St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate High Street, London EC3N 1AB

Last Saturday, at St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate church in central London, I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Organ Club. The church building is home to what is considered to be  England’s oldest parish-church pipe organ still in its original position with most of its original insides still present.

The church building is named after an East Anglian saint who died in 680 and it is located at the site of a former entrance gate to the City of London, the Aldgate (removed 1761). A church building here was already in existence here by 1115. It was substantially rebuilt during the sixteenth century and survived the Great Fire of London (1665).

The present church building dates from 1741-45 and was built to the designs of John Dance the Elder (1695–1768) who re-aligned the building from its former east-west axis to a north-south one.

The area covered by the parish of St Botolph straddles an administrative border that separates the City of London from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

From the later seventeenth century the parish came to be characterised by poverty, disease and poor housing with only a minority of wealthier inhabitants and was in receipt of substantial poor relief and a high level of charitable giving. As the City of London has developed so the resident population of the parish has dwindled significantly and now the parish is dominated by office blocks and riven by busy roads, but even so the church itself retains an air of calm within.

The present-day pipe organ was first installed in the sixteenth-century building in about 1704 by the organ builder Renatus Harris (c.1652-1724). It was transferred into the replacement building in the 1740s by the organ builder John Byfield (1694-1751) and in 2005 it was faithfully restored by the firm of Goetze and Gwynn.

YouTube Video: William Boyce 'Voluntary No. 4' from Ten Voluntaries for Organ or Harpischord (London: Thompson, c.1785) performed by Robert Woolley at St Botolph's Aldgate (June 2011)

References and further reading

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 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.