A Mission to Hackney

St Mary-of-Eton, Hackney Wick, London E9 5JA

Hackney Wick is an ancient settlement in the east of London, once owned by the Templars; ‘Wick’ is derived from a Saxon term denoting a small settlement. Hackney Wick is situated at the southern-most edge of Hackney Marshes, on the west bank of the tidal River Lea, close to the point where it empties into the Thames. Even today some large open tracts of land remain, now used mostly for sports and recreation, not least venues for the 2012 London Olympics.

Canalisation of the River Lea began in the late eighteenth century and from then until the later twentieth century the Hackney Wick waterside became an industrial zone taking advantage of the plentiful supplies of water and easy access to the London Docks; smelting works, paper mills paint making, and other chemical-based process were pioneered here. For example the earliest plastics, Parkesine and shellac, were first commercially produced in Hackney Wick, as too the first dry-cleaning agents and a number of synthetic dyes.

With industrialisation came a massive population increase, since in those days workers lived close to where they worked. Six thousand people lived in Hackney Wick by 1879. The nearby Rover Lea was heavily polluted by factory effluent and sewerage. In the 1880s the social reformer Charles Booth mapped Hackney Wick and noted that most of the the inhabitants were very poor and in extreme want.

At about this time Eton School opened an Anglican mission in Hackney Wick, where there had not previously been a church presence. This became the parish of St Mary of Etion and a fine Gothic-revival church was built (1890-92) to the design of  G. F. Bodley (1827–1907) & Thomas Garner (1839–1906), extended in 1911-12 by C. G. Hare (1875–1932).

From 1959 and throughout the 1960s the Eton MIssion developed a thriving youth club (the 59 Club), hosting up-and-coming bands such as such as Cliff Richard and the Shadows, seen here entertaining Princess Margaret when she visited the Eton Mission in 1962. Although the youth club is no more its motorcycle section is still-thriving as the ’59 Club’, as are the Eton Mission Rowing Club and several football and rugby clubs.

Eton School continued active support of the church until the 1970s. At about the same time all heavy industry began to leave the area. After many years of decline and social deprivation Hackney Wick is now experiencing rapid post-industrial regeneration driven by the arrival of high-tech and creative industries that are taking advantage of the former factory sites and now very pleasant waterside situations. A major and much-acclaimed restoration and redevelopment of the church and its adjacent property was concluded in 2015, providing housing and new church facilities, while retaining the original church intact.

In 1965 a fine two-manual organ was installed in the church at a cost of £3,500 by the firm of Grant, Degens and Rippin (1965), their opus 12. This instrument replaced the existing organ (1898) made by the firm of J. W. Walker. Very little of the old instrument was retained, apart from a few bass pipes. The new organ featured in an EMI recording of some of J. S. Bach’s chorale preludes played by the organist Simon Preston accompanied by the English Singers (ref. HQS 1131).

Even today, the instrument has a bold contemporary appearance; its stark  unenclosed pipework sits on a high platform at the south-west end of the nave. The console was originally placed on a platform opposite but following the full restoration of the organ (2015), during the church’s restoration and redevelopment, the console is now on the floor of the church at the south-east,

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.

 

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.

Old Edmonton …

All Saints, Edmonton, London N9

Back in June I made a visit to All Saints, Edmonton, north London.

Edmonton is an ancient settlement, rural and well-to-do and genteel in tone until the coming of the railway and London’s massive c19 expansion. I was born in the area at a time when the population was largely blue-collar lower-middle and working class.

All Saints is where, as a schoolboy in the 1970s, I learned to play the organ and sang in the choir. It was interesting to return after 40 years, and even to be remembered by some of the old ‘uns I bumped into.

The organ dates back to 1772, the gift of a City businessman called Samuel Spragg who had his country house in the parish. The organ was originally the work of George England (fl. 1740–88). Over the years and as the building has been altered much of the original work by George England  has been removed. A recent renovation of the organ has restored the organ to the condition of its last major rebuilding in 1927, but in doing so it seems to me that quite a bit of the tonal vivacity that had been covertly added since 1927  – and which I remember from my school days – has been lost.

However, the church itself is most attractive, with fine nineteenth-century painting on the east wall. With its pleasant churchyard, sadly cleared of the majority of ancient tombs, the church is worth a visit, especially on a fine summer evening when the bellringers are practising.

The essayist Charles Lamb (1775–1834) and and his sister, the writer Mary Lamb (1764–1847) are buried in the churchyard, and their house survives opposite the church on Church Street.

The poet John Keats (1795–1821) was a trainee pharmacist in a shop nearby. A more recent building on the same site in Church Street was still a pharmacy when I was a teenager, but it is currently a betting shop; a blue plaque notes the facts.

It was pleasing to see still remaining on Church Street the late eighteenth–century building that was formerly home to a Blue Coat Charity School for Girls and the original teacher’s cottage next door.

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].

St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London. Interior, c.1935, facing east. [Source: 'In jubilaeo' (London: 1935)]
St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London. Interior of the ‘tin mission’ church, c.1881, facing east. [Source: ‘In jubilaeo’ (London: 1935)]
The first church building was a temporary ‘tin mission’ building – later used as the church hall- that opened for worship on 17 July 1881

The first permanent building was built to the design of the architect Joseph Peacock (1821–93), opened for worship on 31 October 1885.

Contemporary photographs show how Peacock’s designs were translated into brick and stone. In particular the planned chancel was never realised so that the east end of the nave terminated with a solid wall. For a short period c.1901-05 the east wall was decorated to “give the impression of a stone screen pierced by various openings […] a young local artist, Mr W. Kingsley, painted three huge canvases in tempara to represent stained glass windows glowing in richest colours and a rising Belgian artist very kindly painted in a more than lifelike crucifix.” (In junilaeo, p.16).

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

In 1906 a spacious and lofty new chancel was added to Peacock’s nave, to the design of Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875–1932). As we see from the images, the organ in the nave, shown in Hare’s proposed design, was moved.

The church by Peacock seems to have been poorly designed and despite several attempts to shore-up the walls Peacock’s work was dismantled and rebuilt (1927-28) to a new design by Cecil Greenwood Hare, incorporating Hare’s 1908 chancel and using much material from Peacock’s  former structure. This is the church we see today.

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 images on this page. 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 ro be sited 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 not in the nave but 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