South London’s Anglican parish of St Agnes Kennington was established in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The church sits alongside the green space of Kennington Park, formerly Kennington Common, which is an ancient site of executions and political rallies. The nearby Kennington Park Road follows the line of the ancient Roman Road of Stane Street that runs for 90 kms from London Bridge to the south-coast port city of Chichester (Roman Noviomagus Reginorum).
The current building (1957-58) was designed by Ralph Covell (1911–88) – also the church organist – and was consecrated by the Bishop of Southwark on 24 May 1958. It replaced an earlier building.
The earlier church building was designed by the great Victorian architect George Gilbert-Scott Jnr. (1839-97) and consecrated by the Bishop of London on 20 January 1877.
The rapidly developing district it served was taken out of the parish of St. Paul Lorrimore Square. Along side the church Gilbert-Scott also designed a vicarage and a school. The site – given by the Church Commissioners – had previously been occupied by a vitriol factory established by a Richard Farmer about 1796 in what were then open fields.
According to British History Online the building was designed in a 14th-century Decorated style, using Bath stone dressings. The unusually lofty nave rose to about 60 feet. A most imposing feature of the church was the six-light chancel window, 40 feet high, with stained glass designed and executed by C. E. Kempe (1837–1907). Over the chancel screen was a loft, intended to be utilized for an orchestra on the occasion of high festivals, surmounted by an arched beam and massive cross.
Many of the internal fittings were completed by Scott’s pupil Temple Moore (1856–1920), some of these were moved to the new church e.g. the chancel screen and loft (1885–89), reredos (1891), font canopy (1893), and choir stalls (1902).
This church was demolished after the Second World War following minor aerial bomb damage. A campaign to save the magnificent building from demolition was one of several heritage ‘causes célèbres’ championed by the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman (1906-84), but in this case to no avail. Writing in The Spectator magazine (30 September 1955, p.14) he said of St Agnes Kennington
Despite representations from famous architects, such as Sir Ninian Comper, from the Central Council for the Care of Churches and from the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Bishop of Southwark is going to pull down St. Agnes, Ken- nington, and build a smaller church on its site. St. Agnes was designed in 1877 by George Gilbert Scott, Jnr., the father of Sir Giles, and it has long been thought the finest work of the Gothic Revival in South London, and one of the finest in England. No financial arguments can really excuse this vandalism, nor is it true that the parish lacks parishioners. Most of the fittings of the church survive, and the architect appointed to repair it after the war, Mr. Stephen Dykes Bower, resigned from his post rather than agree to the destruction of a building which could perfectly well be repaired.
Later, in his Collins guide to the parish churches of England and Wales (Collins: London, 1958) – a book he dedicated to the memory of St Agnes Kennington – Betjeman noted tersely that the building was “destroyed by the diocese of Southwark after some war damage.“
The pipe organ
The earliest mention of an organ in St Agnes Kennington comes from the British Organ Archive (Boa-ref=7656), which names the firm of Gray and Davidson as the builder. The earliest description of what was probably that organ comes from 1886.
In St Agnes Kennington there is a small organ; it is splendidly placed on the loft above the screen. […] Though more diversified effect could be produced with a larger instrument it suffices for its purpose, and no one would believe that it has only an 8ft. pedal stop and about six others on one manual. […] Raise the organ high up on a wooden floor, give it plenty of room to speak, and a comparatively small instrumnet will do a s much duty as a large one. (‘On Church Organs’ by “Church Times” in Musical Opinion 10/111 (1 December 1886) 114-5)
Another description is found in the Proceeedings of the Musical Association 1880-90.
We find ourselves in a good-sized parish church […] high aisles, no chancel arch or break inthe levels between east and west. A shallow transept of the full height of the church projects north and south immediately at the entrance to the chancel. At this point the church is crossed by a high screen, with a loft on it. A small organ stands just in the north transept on the loft, and having plenty of space about it, tells with good effect. It is, indeed, far more effective than most organs three times its size put into the regulation rat hole.” (p.155)
On 5 June 1890 a St Agnes Organ Fund committee was established, the Duke of Newcastle among its members. Its aim was to replace the organ of 7 stops – reportedly acquired second-hand 14 years previously from a neighbouring parish – with a new organ divided between the north and south ends of the chancel screen, in accordance with the architect’s intentions and at a cost estimated to be £1500. [Parish Magazine Xi/7 July 1890]
By September 1893 the new organ was in place above the chancel screen and the specification was published in the Musical Opinion (see image). A descriptive account of the instrument (below) together with a photograph of the console appeared in the May 1899 issue of the St Agnes parish magazine.. (Vol XX/5 36-38) [LMA P92/AGN048]), as follows:
The organ contains twenty [sic] speaking stops, seven couplers, three pneumatic pistons to Great, four pneumatic pistons to Swell, three composition pedals to Great and four to Swell, and, on and off, Great to Pedal and a pedal to bring down Swell reeds onto Choir manual. The diapason work on the Great Organ is on the largest scale. The large Open Diapason is placed on the south side, the lower octaves forming the front, while the small Open Diapason forms the front of the north side.
The Great Organ contains nine stops. The “Rohr Flute” is a very useful stop. It is made of metal, although in tone would lead one to believe that it was a wooden stop. The 4ft “Harmonic Flute”brightens the whole tone of the Great Organ. The “Posaune” is also an effective 8ft reed.
The principle stops of the Peadal Organ are on the south side, viz. the 16 “Bourdon,” 16ft”Open Diapason” (an excellent example of Brindley & Foster’s fine diapason work), and a 16ft “Trombone,” making with the 8ft “Cello”and echo “Bourdon”(which are on the north side) a very fine Pedal Organ.
The Swell Box, of ample proportion, is placed on the north side and is acted upon by vertical venetian shutters. It contains eleven stops and a “Tremulant.” The Solo reed stops, the “Orchestral Clarionet” and the “Orchestral Oboe” are very charming in quality.
The Choir Organ contains four very useful stops.
The whole Organ is built on the “Tubular Pneumatic” principal, upwards of forty miles of metal tubing having been used for the action. Its is blown by hand, two bellows on the screen, and a reservoir high up in the roof of the South Transept. […] All the organ now wants is a handsome case.
In 1901 the organ was cleaned and overhauled by the firm of Brindley and Foster at a cost of £32, chiefly to allow the organ to be used with “much less noise.” (Parish Magazine January 1902, p. 11. [LAMp92/AGN/053]). It is not clear exactly what was the problem.
In 1911 a new case was provided by Temple L. Moore (1856–1920) the designer of the screen on which the organ stood.
There is currently no detail about whose job it was actually to hand-pump the organ but by 1912 the organ was described as “blown by electric motors.” (Dictionary of Organs and Organists by Frederick W. Thornsby. London, 1912).
In 1926 the organ was moved to a west gallery and then was eventually broken up as the church was prepared for demolition after the Second World War.
The pipe organ we find in the church today was newly installed in the west gallery in 1960 by the firm of N. P. Mander Ltd. (now Mander Organs). The opening recital – on Thursday 16 February 1961, 8pm – was given by the then organist of Westminster Abbey Sir William Mckie (1901–84) – formerly assistant organist of St Agnes Kennington, 1921-27. Also performing was Harry Barnes (1909–85) a singer from the Westminster Abbey choir. (Musical Times, Feb 1961, p. 106). The same organ is heard here (2016) played by the composer Matt Geer who is also the resident organist.
- 1880. Choirmaster. Mr Powell. [Parish Magazine, 1/i Jan. 1880]
- 1880-99. Organist and Choirmaster. Willim Hedgecock (1864-1932) [The Musical Times (MT) 73/1075 (1932) 848] / [Thoresby’s Dictionary of Organs and Organists (1912 ) 286] [Parish Magazine, 1/v May1880. Paid in 1882: £71 13s 4d. [Parish Magazine 3/v May1882]. He was also a Professor at Gulldhall School of Music, and Director of Music at Crystal Palace.
- 1899–1905. Cyril G. Church (1871–?) [The Musical Times (MT) 83/1198 (1942) 376] / [Thoresby’s Dictionary of Organs and Organists (1912) 259]. Salary £91. 16s (Annual Statement for 1899. [P92/AGN/050]).
- 1905.1921. Harvey Grace (1874–1944) [MT 71/1048 (1930) 534] Pioneering editor for Novello and Co. of the organ works of J.s. Bach (1685–1750)and the organ works of Jospeh Rheinberger (1839–1901).
- 1921-1927. (Sir) William McKie (idem) [MT 92/1299 (1951) 218], assistant organist at St Agnes Kennington and later organist of Westminster Abbey.
- 1927. Francis J. Kennard [MT 68/1012 (1927) 537]
- 1935. J. E. Arnold [MT 76/1107 (1935) 442]
- [1950s?] Ralph Covell. [See ‘Ralph Covell’ below]
- 1958. M. J. Foley of 8 Wanstead Place, London E11 [MT 99/1385 (1958) 397]
- 2015. Matt Geer
- British Organ Archive. British Institute of Organ Studies. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Charles Earmer Kempe‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Chichester‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Kennington Park St Agnes‘. The Church of England: a church near you. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018.
- ’Kennington Park’. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Ernest Harry Barnes‘. Westminster Abbey website. Online resource accessed 1 August 2018.
- ’John Betjeman’. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Matt Geer, composer‘. Personal website. Online resource accessed 1 August 2018.
- Parish Magazines (1880-). London Mteroplitan Archive. P92/AGN /040 – and following.
- ‘Ralph Covell‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Sir William McKie‘. Westminster Abbey website. Online resource accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Mander Organs‘. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- “St Agnes Church, St Agnes Place and Kennington Park Road and Gardens,” in Survey of London: Volume 25, ed. Ida Darlington (London: London County Council, 1955), 99-100. British History Online. Online resource accessed 12 August 2018.
- ‘Stane Street‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018
- ‘Surrey Kennington, St. Agnes, St. Agnes Place [N16120]‘. The National Pipe Organ Register. Online resource accessed 1 August 2018.\
- ‘Temple Lushington Moore‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 1 August 2018