Strangely Moorish …

St Paul the Apostle, Station Road, Wood Green, London N22 7SY

The north-London catholic church of St Paul the Apostle in Wood Green has perhaps the least kerb-appeal of any church I know. The forbidding (unforgiving) single-storey facade of plain, repeating concrete arches facing onto a busy traffic route gives the building a rather Moorish appearance, there being no obviously Christian signifiers except for a tiny cross high a-top a towering narrow pylon. Indeed I supsect many people driving past might even mistake the place for a mosque in this typically multi-cultural London borough.

 

A Catholic presence was first established in Wood Green in 1884 with a new church in Romanesque-style (1904) designed by Edward Goldie (1856–1921). Alas, I can find no images of this building.  In 1971 Goldie’s church was replaced by a new church with hall, school and presbytry attached, all designed by John Rochford and Partner of Sheffield.

 

The shape of the church is a pentagon, with the sanctuary at the apex. The interior is plain, even austere, all of brick and concrete, lit from above by clerestory windows. Colour is priovided by a series of stained-glass windows, a number brought from the previous church. Most striking are the huge panels of modern stained-glass that almost completely fill the top half of the wall facing the altar. They were commisioned in 1982 from the Maltese artist Carmel Cauchi on the theme ‘Pilgrim Church’. The interior of the church is larger and loftier than one might have imagined before entering, seating over 600, and yet despite its scale it conjours a quiet and prayerful aura.

The Organ

The pipe organ was built (1975) by the now defunct local firm of Monk and Gunther. The pipework on the cantilevered gallery – with console at ground level – makes an impressive visual impact in the buidling. This is not matched by its tonal impact because of its poorly conceived ‘extension’ design, which provides little variety in terms of colour or power, being weak and barely sufficient for accompanying the liturgy in this bustling, well-attended church. Sadly, the instrument seems to have been well built and well maintained, with no signs of needing replacement any time soon.

References

Joan of Arc: a first for London

St Joan of Arc’s Church, 60 Highbury Park. London N5 2XH

The Catholic parish of St Joan of Arc in north London (UK) achieved a certain prominence during the 1990s when it was the local church of choice for the former British Labour Party leader and later Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family. However, the parish has two rather more interesting claims on posterity.

Firstly, ths buidling is the immediate succesor of the first Catholic church anywhere in the world dedicated to St Joan of Arc. From 1918 local Highbury Catholics had worshipped in the chapel of a convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns but increasing numbers of worshippers required the provision of a separate church.

This new church was opened on 13 October 1920 just five monrths after Joan’s canonisation (16 May 1920). When the Carmelites left Highbury in 1953 the convent site was used for a new and much larger church designed by Stanley Kerr Bate (b.1906–?), which opened on 23 September 1962.

The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower c.1990
The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower, c.1990

Secondly, the new church tower was the first in England to be provided with a radioactive lightning rod. (Taking Stock). The idea behind this device –  Early Streamer Emission theory – was that a small quantity of radioactive isotopes at the tip of the rod greatly increased the lightning capture area. The theory has since been discredited. Worriyingly, with such devices there is always a risk that the effects of weathering and poor maintenance allows radioactive material to be released in an uncontolled way into the environment. I have no idea if this dubious device is still in place on the tower at St Joan’s.

The very nice neo-baroque pipe organ (1963) is by J. W. Walker and Sons Ltd, and is divided either side of the front wall of a spacious choir gallery at the west end of the nave. The largest pedal pipes are in a separate case on the gallery.

References

Gilbert Blount in Bow

Our Lady & St Catherine of Siena, London E3 2SG

Present-day Bow (pr. boh) is a densely populated area of inner London on the west bank of the River Lea just east of the City. From at least the early Middle Ages it was known as Stratford-at-Bow – ‘Bow’ apparently a reference to the elegance of its arched bridge – to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the opposite bank of the River Lea. These days the two places are simply known as Bow and Stratford respectively.

As a result of Bow’s proximity not only to the River Lea and its ready supply of water power and water transport but also to the London docks the area has traditionally relied on industrial production and trade of goods: flour mills, slaughter houses, tanneries, dye factories, and – in the eighteenth century –  fine porcelain. The Bow China Works was one of the earliest centres outside China successfully to produce porcelain-style goods and as a result was sometimes referred to as ‘New Canton’.

Charles Booth's Poverty Map of Bow (1888-9)
Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of Bow (1888-9)

By the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth the area was a by-word for insalubriousness although the social reformer Charles Booth (1840-1916) typified the area’s population as covering a range of of living conditions from “Poor” to “Fairly comfortable”.

Gilbert Robert Blount (1819-76)
Gilbert Robert Blount (1819-76)

Bow’s Catholic church of Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena was designed by Gilbert Robert Blount (1819–76) and opened in 1870 to serve a newly created parish. This new parish was established by a community of Dominican nuns who had previously run (1865-7) the St Mary’s School and Orphanage in Walthamstow, not so far away in north-east London. The Dominicans left Bow in the 1920s (moving to Stone in Staffordshire, where they remain), and the Archdiocese of Westminster became directly responsible for running the parish and its schools.

In addition to the church, Blount’s architectural scheme included a convent connected to the church and school buildings. These buidlings remain to this day. Some are used as the presbytery, parish halls and social facilities while others are home to small and medium-sized enterprises.

According to the National Pipe Organ Register, in 1911 the church possessed a pipe organ by the firm of Bishop and Sons. It must be assumed that this organ was destroyed along with the nave by enemy bombing in the Second World War. The nave was rebuilt after the war and the present west-gallery organ is reputed to have come from one of the chapels in Holloway Prison, north London, supplied by the London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard Ltd (HNB). Since there is no builder’s plate on the instrument it is unclear if HNB made the instrument or merely moved it.

The organ is unassuming and gentle in tone, perhaps not best suited for supporting a sung liturgy even in this modest-sized church, but it is in very good playing condition with a light, responsive mechanical action.

Hippo and Hoxton

The Augustinian Priory of St Monica, Hoxton Square, London N1

I recently had a chance to play the pipe-organ at the Augustinians’ priory in Hoxton Square, just north of the City of London. Who knew that the  Augustinians continue a 150-year presence in Hoxton, or that the Hoxton Priory was the first Augustinian house to have been established in England since Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries?

Hoxton Square was built up by London merchants during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. By the time of the Augustinians’ arrival in the 1860s the area was – as Charles Booth’s ‘poverty maps’ (1889) indicate – a socially very mixed area with the comfortably off living side by side with the very poorest. At this time the area was largely given over to trade and manufacture, especially the furniture trade. It was also home to alms-houses and private mad-houses (lunatic asylums).

Just thirteen years later, Charles Booth in his Life and Labour of the People in London (1902) gave a bleak assessment of the population:

The character of the whole locality is working-class. Poverty is everywhere, with a considerable admixture of the very poor and vicious … Large numbers have been and are still being displaced by the encroachment of warehouses and factories … Hoxton is known for its costers and Curtain criminals, for its furniture trade … No servants are kept except in the main Road shopping streets and in a few remaining middle class squares in the west.

This area is now seeing much better days, and is best-known for its trend-setting creative industries and galleries, popularly satirised of late for its population of so-called ‘hipsters’, or should that now be ‘yuccies’?

The Augustinians’ priory buildings (1864-66) – church, priory house and school – were designed by E. W. Pugin (1834-75). The church is dedicated to St Monica, the mother of the Order’s patron, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430); the town of Hippo is now present-day Annaba in Algeria. The elaborate decoration of the church’s chancel has recently been restored and is splendid.

The pipe-organ (1866) is on a gallery at the west end of the church made by the London firm of Bishop and Sons, probably for this church. The handsome case however, belies an incomplete and dull instrument. My guess is that it arrived incomplete for want of funds and was never finished.

Nowadays it is in a sorry condition and scarcely passes muster. The poor-sounding pipework and the worn-out mechanics are probably not special enough to warrant restoration, but  even if restored this pipe-organ would not be particularly useful. I suspect that the case and visible pipework will always have to remain, being part of the historic fabric. Meanwhile, we can only hope for a generous benefaction finally to allow the commissioning of  a new instrument for the old case that is worthy of the location and its traditions.

Lamb’s Buildings

St Joseph’s Church, Lamb’s Buildings, London EC1Y 8LE

The small London throughfare known as Lamb’s Buildings is named after a tenement built there about 1770 by a local businessman called Thomas Lamb (1752-1813), a cloth dyer and a manufacturer of buckram – a fabric of coarse linen stiffened with gum used both by tailors and bookbinders. The buildings currently at the junction of Lamb’s Buildings and Errol Street (shown below) also date from about 1770 but no direct connection with Lamb is known.

Mr Lamb’s business was just around the corner in Sword Bearer Alley, that name perhaps deriving from the nearby premises of the Honourable Artillery Company (est. 1537). By the 1790s Sword Bearer Alley had become known as Lamb’s Passage (Sun Insurance Records CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/400/639811), and so it is today. The brewer Samuel Whitbread (1720-96) lived here for a while in the mid 1700s while setting up his famous brewery in the adjacent Chiswell Street.

Even in the late nineteenth centry the area was inhabited mainly by the well-to-do middle classes, which is clearly shown on Charles Booth’s “poverty map” (above), indicated by the red blocks.

Lamb's Buildings, London EC1: St Joseph's School (1901), and late eighteenth-century building at the junction with Errol Street. (Google Streetview)
Lamb’s Buildings, London EC1: St Joseph’s School (1901), and late eighteenth-century building at the junction with Errol Street. (Google Streetview)

In 1815 a plot of land on Lamb’s Buildings was bought by the Associated Catholic Charities to establish an orphanage and schools. A school chapel dedicated to St Joseph was listed in the Catholic Directory from 1850, doubling as a public place of worship. The present St Joseph’s School building was erected in 1901 with a chapel in the basement.

The school closed in 1977.

While the upper floors of the school building are now home to the offices of the Catholic Herald newspaper, the basement chapel is now known as St Joseph’s Church. It is accessed from Lamb’s Buildings via a rather splendid gateway framed by Doric pilasters with the Papal tiara in the pediment.  The church contains two large, stained-glass windows from the old St Mary Moorfields church, and some distinctive neo-coptic icons by Stéphane René (b.1954)

At the west end of the church, against the south wall, sits an attractive  one-manual organ. A small builders’ plate on the organ declares the instrument to be by the firm of Nicholson, but it gives no date.

A chance conversation with the organologist Philip J. Wells, shortly after my visit, led him to make the following observations:

This looks to me like it might be a Nicholson & Co (Worcester) Ltd organ which was built in 1973 as an exhibition organ for the St Albans organ festival of that year. It had a Mahogany case with provision for one extra stop (it appears a Dulciana has been added) but I remember it for the 2ft conical flute and Quartane. It was for sale for £3,000 (plus vat if applicable) and was described as a one manual tracker action traditional English organ.

A correspondence with the administrator of the St Albans International Organ Festival has added some further detail:

 I can tell you that a Nicholson organ was exhibited [in 1973]. It’s specification was : Gedeckt 8; Principal 4; Block Flute 2; Quartane 19.22; 
Compass C-f3; 66″ x 30″ x ?”.

Thus armed, I made contact with Nicholson and Company Limited and folk there were able to shed further light. Specifically, that following the organ’s appearance at St Albans in 1973 it eventually returned to the factory until c.1980 when it was supplied to the church of St Mary the Virgin, Warwick, during work on the organ there. After this it found another home at the church of St John the Baptist, Fekenham, near Redditch. It was then sold to a church ‘down south’ around 2001, presumably to St Joseph’s.

It would seem that some minor tonal alterations (stop-name changes) were made between 1973 and now, with the addition – at some point – of a pedal organ. The current specification is:

Manual : 54 notes C to F
– Dulciana 8′ : to tenor C, no bottom octave
– Stopped Bass 8′ : from botom C to tenor C, one octave only
– Stopped Flute 8′ : from tenor C, no bottom octave
– Principal 4′
– Mixture 2 ranks
– Conical Flute 2′
Pedal : 30 notes C to F
– [Bourdon] 16′  : separate rank; on/off controlled by right-hand pedal lever
Coupler
– manual to pedal controlled by left-hand pedal lever
Additional information
– Mechanical action throughout, with equal temperament tuning; electric-powered wind supply

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.

It’s been quite a while …

The Five Precious Wounds, Stonebridge, London NW10

It’s been quite a while since I played the Norman & Beard (1911) pipe-organ in the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, London; I was a post-graduate student there some thirty-six years ago.

So it was with a real sense of pleasure that this week I snapped up the chance to play this instrument once again, in its new home in the Catholic church of The Five Precious Wounds in Stonebridge, north-west London. As the pictures indicate, this is a rather fine Catholic building of 1968.

The instrument was transplanted here in 1988, when the Royal Academy of Music acquired a new organ for the Duke’s Hall. In being moved the instrument has been only slightly altered by the addition of a couple of stops (see specifications, below) – and, I might add, some enitrely unnecessary electronic playing aids (gadgets!) that didn’t work for me – but all  without compromising the organ’s structural or tonal integrity as originally conceived.

The acoustic of this well-maintained church is pleasantly reverberant and the organ sounds very good in its gallery location, speaking directly down into and along the high-ceilinged nave. Thus it is well placed and well designed not only to support the liturgy,  congregational hymns and even plainsong, but also – as the opportunity demands – to raise the roof with some clever showing-off!

I could find no details of which company transplanted the organ or any details of the company that currently maintains the instrument.