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

A Hunter in the London Docks …

All Saints, Poplar, London E14

London

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.

A Hunter’s last breath, for now …

St Mellitus, Tollington Park, London N4

At first glance the Catholic church of St Mellitus located on Tollington Park in north London would appear to be an unremarkable nineteenth-century example of a neo-classical Catholic church building, such as can be found throughout the Catholic world.

However looks can be deceiving since the Tollington Park building has only been a Catholic church since 1959.

The building dates from 1871 and was built for the New Court Congregational Church to the design of C. G. Searle (1816–81). The New Court congregation had fist met n 1662 in a building in Bridges Street, Covent Garden, London. In 1696 the congregation moved to a location in Drury Lane and again in 1707 to a location in New Court, Carey Street, Strand. Here they stayed until the 1860s when Carey Street and the area all around it was cleared to make way for the building of the Royal Courts of Justice. Thus the New Court congregation moved to its new building in Tollington Park where it stayed until selling up in the 1950s, due to dwindling numbers. The descendents of the New Court congregation continue to meet today in other premises in the same area under the banner of the Elim Pentecostal Church.

This dissenting-Protestant back-story explains the church building’s interior, which seems to embrace Catholic worship rather reluctantly, although the Catholic congregation here have a genuine affection for the place.

The most obvious changes in converting the building were made at the (liturgical) east end where an altar replaced the large preaching desk (pulpit), and the display pipes of the pipe-organ were replaced by a painted reredos depicting a neo-classical doorway with three windows above; the significance of this decoration is not clear. Sadly I can find no pictures of the interior of the building prior to 1959.

The rather fine and rather large three-manual pipe organ (1920) by the London firm of Alfred Hunter remains in situ, hidden – and rather muted – behind the reredos; its console is at the east end of the south gallery. The instrument was installed as a memorial to those of the New Court congregation who died in the First World War.

I had an opportunity to play the organ during Christmas and New Year 2015-16 when it was abundantly clear that the instrument was in a very poor state, short of wind and with much of it unusable and by March 2016 the organ had stopped working altogether. Undeterred, the parish has immediately set in motion imaginative plans for a restoration of Alfred Hunter’s ‘war memorial’ organ, with help from the UK National Lottery.