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.

 

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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.