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