St Agnes Kennington

Destroyed by the diocese of Southwark after some war damage.

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.

St Agnes Kennington, London, UK. The nave looking towards the chancel screen (1898). [Source. RIBA 58067]
St Agnes Kennington, London, UK. The nave looking towards the chancel screen (1898). [Source. RIBA 58067]
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). 

Interior of St Agnes Kennington c.1890. [Source: Architectural Review 5 (1898-99) 63]
Interior of St Agnes Kennington c.1890. [Source: Architectural Review 5 (1898-99) 63]
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:

Console of the pipe organ by Brindley and Foster in St Agnes Kennington, London. (UK). [Source: Parish Magazine, May 1899, p. 37)
Console of the pipe organ by Brindley and Foster in St Agnes Kennington, London. (UK). [Source: Parish Magazine, May 1899, p. 37)

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.

Organists

  • 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.
St Agnes Kennington, London. Organist recruitment advert. 'Musical Times' 30/671 (1899) 55
St Agnes Kennington, London. Organist recruitment advert. ‘Musical Times’ 30/671 (1899) 55
  • 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]).
St Agnes Kennington, London. Organist recruitment advert. 'Musical Times' 40/748 (1905) 362
St Agnes Kennington, London. Organist recruitment advert. ‘Musical Times’ 40/748 (1905) 362
  • 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).
St Agnes Kenning London. Recruitment advert for an assistant organist. '[Source: Musical Times'Advert 54/848 (1913) 685]
St Agnes Kenning London. Recruitment advert for an assistant organist. ‘[Source: Musical Times’Advert 54/848 (1913) 685]

  • 1921-1927. (Sir) William McKie (idem) [MT 92/1299 (1951) 218], assistant organist at St Agnes Kennington and later organist of Westminster Abbey.
St Agnes Kennington, London. Advert for organist [Source: Musical Times 61/924 (1920) 78]
St Agnes Kennington, London. Advert for organist ‘Musical Times’ 61/924 (1920) 78.
  • 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

References

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, establshed with the generous support of the financier and philanthropist Ricahrd Foster (1822-1910). 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.

References

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”.

Jerusalem E9

St John of Jerusalem, London E9

 

Back in June of this year I had the chance to visit the rather lovely early Victorian church of St John of Jerusalem in Hackney, east London. The ‘Jerusalem’ in the name relates to the area’s historic links with the Order of St John of Jerusalem, which owned land and property in Hackney before the English Reformation (mid 16th century).

 

The parish dates from about 1810 and the current church was built in 1848. As the pictures show it is a rather lovely building, and the area around the church is much gentrified of late.

 

Sadly the large and imposing west-gallery pipe organ (by the firm of Gray & Davidson c.1873) was removed in the early 1980s; only the facade pipe-display remains. It was replaced with one of the world’s first “dual specification” electronic analogue organs, the Wyvern ST60. Then cutting-edge, but now more than 30 years on a fine example of left-behind technology. In this age of advanced digital sound it does not sound good,  although we can be impressed by the quality of the workmanship that ensures it still works.

Pipeless but not hopeless

St Benet & All Saints, Kentish Town, London NW5

During the summer  of 2016 I had the chance to use the organ at the church of St Benet & All Saints in  Kentish Town, north London, and to attend some Sunday services. While the parish adheres to traditional ‘high’ Anglican principles its worship is very nicely fitted to modern liturgical sensibilities.

St Benet’s is an impressive building perched atop a hill overlooking the valley of the Fleet river. It is built on a site given for this purpose in the late 1870s by St. John’s College, Cambridge, then developing its land-holding in the area for well-to-do housing. The parish was formally established through an ‘Order in Council’ before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 2 March 1881 [LMA].

The first church building opened in 1884-85, built to the design of the architect Joseph Peacock (1821–93), comprising effectively just a nave with aisles.

A rather stylish seeming parish room and song school was designed (1880) by Harry Sirr (1860-1945) but alas the design was never executed.

St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; parish room and song school, unbuilt (1880). Drawing by Harry Sirr (1860-1945). [Source: RIBA ref. RIBA22108]
St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; parish room and song school, unbuilt (1880). Drawing by Harry Sirr (1860-1945). [Source: RIBA ref. RIBA22108]
In 1906 a spacious and lofty chancel was built to the design of Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875–1932).

St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; nave-dedication plaque, stone, c1928. [Source: londonremembers.com]
St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; nave-dedication plaque, stone, c1928. [Source: londonremembers.com]
The church by Peacock seems to have been porrly designed and despite several attempts to shore-up the walls Peacock’s work was dismantled and rebuilt (1927-28) to a new design by C. G. Hare, incorporating Hare’s 1908 chancel and using much material from Peacock’s  former structure. This is the church we see today.

"Proposed New Chancel,. St. Benet's Church, Kentsh Town, CECIL G. HARE, Architect. Builder: Dorey and Co., Ltd., Brentford. Hangings: Watts and Co., 30 Baker Street, W." [Source: Academy Architecture and Architectural Review. Vol. 33 (1908), 13.]
“Proposed New Chancel,. St. Benet’s Church, Kentsh Town, CECIL G. HARE, Architect. Builder: Dorey and Co., Ltd., Brentford. Hangings: Watts and Co., 30 Baker Street, W.” [Source: Academy Architecture and Architectural Review. Vol. 33 (1908), 13.]
An often repeated canard about the demolition of Peacock’s church is that it was unknowingly built over underground springs of water that undermined the foundations. However, the Diocesan surveys undertaken prior to the rebuilding by Hare reveal the problem to have been a timbered roof that was too heavy for the walls; that roof is briefly glimpsed in the image on the right. There is no mention anywhere in the surveys of problems caused by underground springs. [LMA]

St Benet's Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.
St Benet’s Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.

The pipe organ

As we see in the 1908 image (above) the organ was originally in a gallery at the north east corner of the 1884 nave. This instrument had been designed as a house organ by the eminent London firm of Gray and Davison and was exhibited at the Great Exhibition (1861). During the construction of the new nave this organ was placed in storage.

After the completion of the nave a new organ gallery was created in the north-west corner of the chancel and in 1933 the rebuilt and somewhat enlarged instrument was installed by the little-known firm of Richards & Matthews of Finchley.  In its elevated chancel position the reinstalled organ struggled to support worship in the nave.  The pipe organ is no longer in use.

In 2000 the parish purchased a large, brand new electronic (pipeless) instrument from Wyvern Organs; more … . The instrument’s specification is large by any standard

Built to an early form of digital technology whose reproduction of organ pipe sound is not uniformly good to our present-day ears, the Wyvern instrument is nonetheless rather nice to play, not only for the well-designed console, keyboard action and powerful amplification but also for the extraordinarily resonant acoustic of the building. Despite my caveats this ‘new’ instrument is perfectly able to support the needs of parish worship in general and congregational singing in particular. The folk of St Benet’s do sing well.

A small confession here is that on my first visit I was a bit disappointed to find  only an electric, pipeless instrument to play on, even though I knew the pipe organ here to be no masterpiece. You see, I had played it before, some 30 years or so ago and rather enjoyed it …  not so much for the instrument but for the crows-nest position of the organist!

But this rather splendid electric, pipeless machine has won me over to the potential of the pipeless organ.

Trivia/l point: according to Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony, the priest in charge, the large crucifix above the high altar was originally part of the set decoration for the 1964 film ‘Becket’. 

References

  • ——-, In Jubilaeo : a short history of the church and parish of S. Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London. (London: Saint Benet’s and All Saints, Kentish Town, 1935)

  • Cecil Greenwood Hare, Wikipedia. Online resource accessed 1 October 2018
  • Parish website.  Online resource, accessed 1 October 2016
  • Joseph PeacockWikipedia. Online resource accessed 1 October 2018
  • National Pipe Organ Register. Online resource, accessed 1 October 2016
  • St Benet and All Saints Church records, London Metropolitan Archive.