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.

Timing is everything …

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Holloway, London N7

On Friday I had the opportunity to play the pipe-organ at the Catholic church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Holloway, north London. The building is a nice example of seemingly little altered, nineteenth-century red-brick Catholic gothic, tucked away in the backstreets of Holloway. More …

At the time of the church’s building in 1869–70 and for much of the twentieth century Holloway has been a largely lower middle class neighbourhood of respectable office clerks and tradesmen, many being first and second generation immigrants from Ireland and eastern Europe. Of course, to literary types Holloway is well-known as the purlieu of the Grossmith brothers’ Mr PooterMore ….

But these days the area is moving helter-skelter into the twenty-first century, with the replacement of old infrastructure and light industry by developments of upscale apartment blocks, high-tech start-up companies, business incubator hubs, the new Arsenal Football Club stadium, and the striking buildings of the London Metropolitan University. An air of youthful enterprise and increasing affluence abounds. This church community also appears to be in good shape judging by its most impressive-looking brand new parish primary school building opposite the church.

For some while I have hankered after playing the pipe organ in this church – an instrument by the firm of J. W. Walker and Sons (1961) –  inspired by pictures I’d seen of its distinctive modern case. From the outward design I imagined a bright and direct sound as produced by the Walker instrument made three years later for the neighbouring Catholic church of Our Lady and St Joseph; discussed here. The reality of the Sacred Heart instrument was rather a disappointment, not least because of its much gentler than expected tone.

The instrument sits in the north aisle of the chancel, quite separate from the main body of the church, and is designed on the ‘extension‘ principle, using just five ranks of pipes to derive 30 stops. Furthermore at Sacred Heart church all the pipework is enclosed in a swell box except for the diapason rank, part of which is in the facade of the case. Such all-enclosed instruments are not uncommon in convent and monastery chapels.

The ‘extension’ organ is an idea that originated in cinema-organ technology and in days gone by it seemed to provide a satisfactory technical solution for squeezing more out of less, but it never really provided a satisfactory musical solution and these days is no longer in favour.

The Walker pipe-organ in the Sacred Heart church was installed when the church was undergoing a decluttering, all at considerable expense. However, the timing of the instrument’s arrival in 1961 could not have been worse because in October that year the Second Vatican Council (Vatican 2) began five years of deliberations that would eventually lead to radical changes in Catholic liturgical practice, spatially as well as theologically.

Thus, even though a substantial west gallery was installed in 1961, where Vatican 2 would later encourage the musicians to be located, the new organ was placed in its traditional pre-Vatican-2 place in the refurnished chancel’s north aisle, somewhat out of sight, along with some new and  equally out-of-sight choir stalls. The new organ’s role was – with trained singers – to support and beautify the canon of the mass, rather than to unite all the people in song. This goes some way to explain the gentler-than-expected quality of the organ’s voicing and its out of the way location.

Some 60 years on, and now isolated in its corner of the building the instrument seems an anachronism, underpowered for accompanying post-Vatican-2’s all-inclusive Catholic worship, for which an amplified electric piano now has pride of place in front of the chancel steps.

In time perhaps, with Holloway’s fast pace of regeneration, the parish will share in enough of the area’s increasing affluence to make possible some consideration of a further re-ordering of the liturgical space to see the organ rebuilt and relocated – maybe to the west gallery where it will serve to best advantage – or even passed on to somewhere else and its fortunes revived.