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

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

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.

From Friday Street to Finsbury Park

St Thomas the Apostle, Finsbury Park, London N4

Tucked away in an undistinguished later-nineteenth-century suburb of north London is the Anglican parish church of St Thomas the Apostle, Finsbury Park. The areas will be known to many as the home of the Arsenal Football Club whose former Highbury Stadium (1913-2006) was close by the church. The football club’s new Emirates Stadium (2006) is located a little further away to the south west. The former stadium site is now a housing estate named Highbury Square.

The parish of St Thomas the Apostle was formed out of the surrounding Islington parish in 1888 and owes its origin to a decision by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to sell-off a number of churches in the City of London (Union of Benefices Act, 1860).  The reason for the sales was that the burgeoning London suburbs had been rapidly emptying the City of its population and in order to defray the cost of the new suburban churches a number of underused City churches were sold.  St Thomas’s church was paid for by the sale of St Matthew’s Church, Friday Street for £22,005, the advowson of the new parish being held by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The new church building of St Thomas the Apostle cost £7,500 and was the work of Ewan Christian (1814–95), architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. It is built of brick and stone in Christian’s favourite Early English style and was consecrated in 1889. It consists of chancel (with a sedila of Derbyshire marble), nave (with arcades in blue stone), aisles, a chapel at the east end of the south aisle, baptistery, organ chamber, north and south porches and a turret.

The church building is largely unaltered since it was opened in 1889 and despite its small scale and modest appearance is – once inside – quite lovely and spacious in feeling. It is well maintained and well used. In the 1990s the chancel and sanctuary were redecorated in a period style by the English muralist Alan Dodd (b.1944).

The pipe organ is original to the building, installed in 1889 by the (now defunct) local firm of Alfred Monk. Inevitably, after nearly 130 years of constant use the organ is now rather tired and in need of some mechanical refreshment, for which fundraising is underway. Even so, while this is no recital instrument it has a strong clear sound and continues to serve the parish well in accompanying the liturgy.

 

v

From Medieval to Gothick

St Bartholomew the Less, West Smithfield, London EC1

The Smithfield area in the north-west corner of the City of London owes much of its current street plan to the history of its medieval Augustinian priory and hospital, while the historic character of its architecture – some dating back to the Middle Ages– is due in no small part to the fact that the area narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was relatively little damaged by aerial bombing during the Second World War.

St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield, looking east.
St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield, looking east.

The priory church (1123) survives today as the Anglican parish church of St Bartholomew the Great. It is an impressive edifice by any standards although only two-thirds of its former length now survives and most of its priory building have long gone, thanks to the destruction of church property wrought throughou England during the religious battles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

St Bartholomew’s Hospital (1123) – known to most Londoners simply as Barts – was founded as an integral part of the Priory and survives on its original site, although most of its historic buldings date back only as far as the early eighteenth century.

Over many centuries Smithfield’s open central core on the edge of the City of London has made it a site of many notable gatherings, for example:

  • From 1123 Smithfield was the site of the annual Bartholomew Fair originally designed by the Priory to mark St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August. The fair survived the Reformation and the Civil War and by the early 1700s lasted at least two weeks and attracted vast crowds of fun-seeking Londoners. The fair was a regular source of anxiety for various civic-minded groups concerned with public order and public morality but it was not until 1855 that the fair ceased.
  • In 1374 Edward III (1312–77) held a seven-day tournament at Smithfield, for the amusement of his mistress Alice Perrers (1348–1400).
  • On 15 June 1381 Richard III met here the the leaders of the so-called Peasants Revolt. The meeting turned violent and several of the revolutionaries were killed by the London militia, including the peasants’ spokesman, Wat Tyler
  • In 1390 Richard II (1367–1400) hosted a two-day tournament organised by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was then the clerk to the king. The tournament – reported across Europe – was described by Jean Froissart (c.1337–c 1405) in his Chronicles (of the Hundred Years War).
  • Until the late seventeenth century Smithfield was a place of public execution. In 1305 the Scottish rebel William Wallace was executed here. During the sixteenth century it was often religious dissidents who met their deaths on Smithfield, while in the seventeenth century it became a place of execution for swindlers and coin forgers.
  • From as early as 1132 livestock and horses were traded here every Friday, a practice that developed in into the Smithfield meat market that operates today in a splendid Victorian market-hall that covers much of the former Smithfield.

Less well known in the story of Smithfield is the ancient church of St Bartholomew the Less (1184), located within the hospital precinct. It replaced the Chapel of the Holy Cross (1123).

Although the ground-plan of the present church is Norman, the west-end and tower are largely 13th-century structures;  two of the tower’s three bells date from 1380 and 1420. and are still hung in a medieval–period ‘bell frame’. The architect and theatre-designer Inigo Jones (1573–1652) was baptised here. His father was a Welsh clothworker living in nearby Cloth Fair.

In 1789 the nave and chancel of the church was ‘repaired’ (rebuilt) by the hospital’s surveyor and architect George Dance the younger (1741–1825). Dance chose the modern ‘gothick’ style to create a brand-new, light and airy octagon–shaped nave within the church’s medieval walls. At the same time he removed many of the old tombs and memorials.

There have been several organs in the church supplied by various organ-builders as follows:

  1. Richard Bridge, c.1729
  2. John Byfield jun. with John Byfield III, 1794.
    This organ was an ‘annuity organ’, which meant it was installed gratis by the organ builder but in return he provided the organist – in this case his son – and took the organist’s fee. (Organists of the City of London. Dawe: 1983. 33). As I noted in my blog of 24 September 2016, a similar annuity-organ contract was made in 1790 between William Warrell and the parish of St Mary-le-Strand.
  3. John Gray, 1825
  4. Gray and Davison, 1863
  5. William Hill and Son & Norman and Beard Ltd, 1930
  6. N. P. Mander, 1978

Alas, no images of the earliest organs seem to have survived. The current organ’s pipework is located in somewhat cramped conditions, deep-set under a narrow arch at the west end of the church. The organ’s console is in the  south-east corner. The instrument has no pretensions, being simple in looks and plain in tone; even at full-organ it does not overwhelm. However, since it speaks directly along the main axis of the church it is adequate to accompany congregational singing.

 

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.

Barking with a prelate and a president

Barking Abbey, St Margaret of Antioch, London IG11

Map showing Barking in relation to central London.
Map showing Barking in relation to central London.

This week, and for the second time this year, I have travelled to the pre-Saxon Thames-side town of Barking, eight miles east of Westminster and now the civic heart of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. My destination was once again the pipe organ of the thirteenth-century parish church of St Margaret of Antioch.

Until the 1850s Barking was home to a thriving port, most notable for supplying London with coal, fish and grain.

By the early twentieth century the area had become a rather insalubrious hub for chemical-based industries, a major London sewage works, and a coal-fired power station. Such polluting industry is now a thing of the past, and many former industrial sites have made way for much-needed housing.

Barking Abbey, a reconstruction
Barking Abbey, a reconstruction

Before the Dissolution of the English monasteries under Henry VIII, Barking had been the site of a great convent, Barking Abbey, created in the 7th century by Saint Æthelburh and her brother Saint Earconwald. The parish church of St Margaret of Antioch was sited next to the abbey church.

The importance of Barking Abbey can be glimpsed from the fact that its abbesses held precedence over all other abbesses in England, indeed many of Barking’s abbesses were  former queens and the daughters of kings; three are saints. The site of the abbey ruins is now Abbey Green, a public park within which only the Curfew Tower gate to the abbey and the parish church remain intact.

In medieval times pilgrims were attracted to Barking to view the Holy Rood, a painted stone carving of the crucifixion in the Chapel of the Holy Rood inside the abbey’s Curfew Tower, where it survives to this day albeit in a less than pristine conidtion; history has not been kind to it. It is dated to between 1125 and 1150.  According to Vatican records, on 22 March 1400 Pope Boniface IX granted a Papal licence (indult) to the Abbess of Barking “to have Mass and other services celebrated in the Oratory, in which a certain cross is preserved”.

The parish church itself is almost as wide as it is long and is very well maintained. The parish’s current Rector (and Assistant Bishop of Chelmsford) is Trevor Mwambe. previously the Bishop of Botswana whose intellect, spirit and clear-thinking leadership were not so well appreciated in Africa as they are in England. Also visiting the church when I was there was Sir Quett Masire, the 2nd President of Botswana (1980-98).

The church’s rather nice pipe organ dates from 1770, and was originally made by the London firm of Byfield and Green. Despite several nineteenth-century alterations and relocations within the building by the firm of J. W. Walker and Sons the organ has retained its original facade (now on the organ’ s west side) and its eighteenth-century sweetness of tone (although not so much of its eighteenth century tone-colour).