Union Chapel, Islington

I was recently asked to play the organ for a Sunday morning service at the Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington (London, UK). It is an impressive brick building, replacing an earlier chapel (see below). It was built (1876-81) to a design by James Cubitt (1836–1914), loosely inspired by the rather smaller church of Santa Fosca on the Venetian island of Torcello. The result here is a rather heavy, imposing exterior …

… while inside is a lofy and broad uncluttered space with seating for more than a thousand people, each with a clear view of the central stone pulpit.

The origin of the Union Chapel dates back to 1799 with the union of local Unitarians and Anglicans who met together in private, having separated themselves from their respective neighbourhood churches. Initially they used Anglican forms of worship in the morning and Unitarian forms in the evening. They eventually developed thier own forms, and in 1847 joined the Congregational Union, a federation of autonomous congregations, to which the Union Chapel still belongs.

The first purpose-built Union Chapel chapel was completed in 1806 on land leased from Lord Northampton by a property speculator named Henry Leroux who came from nearby Stoke Newington. He added houses on either side of the chapel. The classical-style chapel building was enlarged in 1851 (archtect unknown) and given a new facade. Alas, so far I have found no images of the interior of this former chapel building.

The pipe organ

The organ console in the Union Chapel, Islington, London (UK) c. 2013
The organ console in the Union Chapel, Islington, London (UK) c. 2013

The history of the several organs of the Union Chapel was neatly outlined in 1880 by the Chapel’s  Rev Henry Allon describing the music at the Union Chapel:

“[About 1842] there was a one manual organ which we sold some years later for forty pounds
[…]
In 1852 we had a new organ commissioned from Gray and Davidson, planned by Dr Gauntlett.
[…]
A second organ planned by Dr Gauntlett was built by Holdich under Mr Prout’s direction in 1867. It cost £1,000, inclusive of fitting.

Opening organ recital, Union Chapel, Islington, London UK. [Source: The Musical Times, 13/297 (Nov. 1, 1867)]
Opening organ recital, Union Chapel, Islington, London UK. [Source: The Musical Times, 13/297 (Nov. 1, 1867)]
The old organ was sold to Queen’s Square Chapel, Brighton.
[…]
When the new church was built in 1877 it was found that Holdich’s organ could be made to fit the organ chamber only at an expense that approached the cost of a new instrument. It was therefore decided to sell the organ and Mr Willis built a new one, planned by Prof. W. H. Monk at a cost of £1000.” [‘Studies in Worship Music’]

Pulpit and organ screed (2020). The Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London UK. [Source: iao.org.uk]
Pulpit and organ screed (2020). The Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London UK. [Source: iao.org.uk]
Today’s Union Chapel pipe organ was installed by the London organ-builder Henry Willis in 1877, fronted by an open stone and metal screen placed behind the pulpit.

In order to save the blocking up of a rose window, the instument is built in a concrete chamber below [lower than] the main floor of the building. This position is Mr Willis’s own idea, which he carried out in spite of the evil prognostications of those who considered that he was doing a foolish thing. One great advantage has resulted therefrom. Throughout an oratorio performance, when the building is crowded with people, and the temperature rises very high, the organ is found to be “dead in tune”. [Musical Times (39/663, 1 May 1898)]

In 2012 the Henry Willis organ wa restored by Harrison and Harrison organ builders of Durham (UK) using a grant from the UK National Lottery Fund. The original hydraulic engine that powers the organ  was restored to use, although a modern electric powered bellows system was also installed as a back-up.

Coda

The 1852 Gray and Davison organ moved to the Queen Square Chapel in Brighton has subsequently been broken up and destroyed, the building demolished.  The 1867 Holdich organ was sold for £600 to a Congregational Chapel in Hinckley in Leicestershire where it remains.

Union Chapel Organists [main source: The Musical Times]

  • 1806-52. ?
  • 1852-61. Henry Gauntlett (1805-76)
  • 1861-72. Ebenezer Prout (1835-1909); annual salary £50
  • 1872-80. Charles Forington
  • 1880-1909. Josiah Fountain Meen (1846-1909)
  • 1910-14. Julius Harrison (1885–1963)
  • 1914-?. Herbert Pierce
  • 1946-54. Spencer Shaw (1897-1965)
        • Recording 1: The City Temple, London EC1 (UK)
        • Recording 2: The Kingsway Hall, London WC2 (UK)
  • 1954-56. A. E Pierce
  • 1956. A vacancy is advertised in January 1956; annual salary £75
  • 1957. A vacancy is advertised in August 1957, annual salary £75
  • ? … ?
  • 2004-11. Ian Boakes
  • ?-present. Claire M. Singer

References

St Thomas, Agar Town: gone but not quite forgotten …

In 2019 I found myself helping out with the music at the lovely early nineteenth-century church of St Clement King Square in Islington (London) where – following rebuilding work in the 1950s – a second-hand organ was installed, taken from the newly redundant church of St Thomas Agar Town, near Kings Cross (London). Here is a little post about Agar Town and its church, all now long vanished.

In 1816 William Agar (1767-1838), a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, acquired from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners a 21-year lease on land south of present-day Agar Grove and built there a mansion for himself; Elm Lodge. Extensions were applied to the lease in 1822 and again in 1839 (following Agar’s death) on behalf of his son, also named William (1814–1907).

Agar’s son  began to issue his own 21-year building leases on small strips of his land  and thus developed the neighbourhood known as Agar Town, a shanty of hastily built housing and workshops. While Agar Town survived little more than 21 years, its reputation as a noted place of urban poverty remains.

Housing in Agar Town c.1855
Housing in Agar Town c.1854 [Source: ‘London Shadows’ (1854) George Godwin. (London: G. G. Routledge & Company)]

Time was when the wealthy owner of a large estate had lived here in his mansion; but after his departure the place became a very ’abomination of desolation’ […]  a dreary and unsavoury locality, abandoned to mountains of refuse from the metropolitan dust-bins, strewn with decaying vegetables and foul-smelling fragments of what once had been fish, or occupied by knackers’-yards and manure-making, bone-boiling, and soap-manufacturing works, and smoke-belching potteries and brick-kilns. At the broken doors of multilated houses canaries still sang, and dogs lay basking in the sun […] and from these dwellings came out wretched creatures in rags and dirt, and searched amid the far-extending refuse for the filthy treasure by the aid of which they eked out a miserable livelihood; whilst over the whole neighbourhood the gas-works poured forth their mephitic vapours, and the canal gave forth […] upon the surface of the water […] a thick scum of various and ominous hues. Such was Agar Town before the Midland Railway came into the midst of it.”

Image of Paradise Row, Agar Town.
Paradise Row in Agar Town c.1854 [Source: ‘London Shadows’ (1854) George Godwin. (London: G. G. Routledge & Company)]
A report in 1847 stated that about 5,000 people lived in Agar Town. There was no provision for sewerage or running water, and no proper roads.  With no school, church or chapel to serve the area – other than the Old Saint Pancras church, which was in the process of being restored – a temporary iron church was therefore erected in Agar Town, together with a Ragged School.

St Thomas Agar Town (Engraving: 1858)
Design (c1858) by S. S Teulon, of the never completed church and school of St Thomas Agar Town, London (UK). [Source: London Metropolitan Archive. Saint Pancras HA 13724]
As the Agar’s – and their tenants’ – various 21-year leases expired or were abandoned the Church Commissioners steadily took back ownership of the site and began planning improvements. In 1860 construction began on the first permanent church on Elm Road in Agar Town  (to be dedicated to St Thomas) and a school, both designed by S. S. Teulon (1812–73). However, within just a couple of years the Commissioners sold almost all of its Agar Town land to the Midland Railway “for a considerable sum” to accommodate the Midland Railway’s rapidly expanding infrastructure associated with the new St Pancras station. Within just two months of the sale Agar Town was cleared  – including its incomplete church and school site – all to be replaced with railway sidings; and the remaining Agar Town inhabitants moved to neighbouring districts like Kentish Town.

The second church: Elm Road/Wrotham Road

The  Church Commissioners used some of the money it earned from selling most of its Agar Town land to create on the remainder some new streets of substantial middle-class housing and to build another church of St Thomas – also by Teulon – at the junction of Elm Road and Wrotham Road, 1863-4. This church – damaged by aerial bombing in the Second World War – was demolished after 1953, the parish being absorbed into St Michael’s Camden Town. However, the church’s organ survived, being rebuilt at St Clement King Square, London EC1.

It is somewhat ironic that the railway infrastructure  that swept away Agar Town has itself now been swept away to be replaced by housing, and (high-tech) workplaces. Plus ça change …

Picture of old gasometer and new housing.
Part od the newly (c.2010) redeveloped area of what was once Agar Town and then railway yards.

The pipe organ

The first organ in the church was a loan instrument by the firm of Gray and Davison (NPOR; DBOB). In 1868 a permanent instrument was provided by the firm of T. C. Lewis (Musical Standard, 28 March, 1868).

Musical Standard, 28 March 1868
St Thomas Agar Town, London (UK), specification of the organ by T. C. Lewis (1868)

The third organ in St Thomas Wrotham Road was installed in 1875 by the local firm of Henry Willis; a two-manual mechanical-action, hand-blown  instrument located in the south cnacel aisle (NPOR). It remained unaltered throughout its life there. (Morrell). At the demolition of the church the organ was moved to St Clement, King Square and rebuilt there.

References

 

 

St Matthias in Stoke Newington

The Anglican church of St Matthias in Stoke Newington, London (UK) is an imposing mid-c19 building located in a modest side-street of this densely populated, multicultural district of north London. The parochial area was established in 1849 and the church building was constructed 1851-53 to the designs of the architect William Butterfield (1814–1900).

From its earliest years the church of St Matthias was home to “high-church” ritual, and remains firmly rooted in the Catholic traditions of the Church of England.

The building occupies a surprisingly spacious site – not immediately obvious – comprising  church halls, a post-war  vicarage and recently rebuilt St Matthias primary school, all separated by well-kept tranquil grounds .

In 1954 – following substantial war-damage – a reconstruction of the church (with a new vicarage) was completed to the design of Nugent Cachemaille-Day (1896–1976). Although most of the original fittings and decorative scheme had been irretrievably lost, Cachemaille-Day’s bright, broad and lofty ‘restoration’ has a powerful numinous quality.

The pipe organ

The current four-manual and pedal pipe organ (1952) sits on a fine west gallery and is the work of Noterman & Co of London. It contains some pipework from the church’s former instrument, by Henry Willis & Co. A detailed technical description is online with the National Pipe Organ Register (see References).

‘William Henry Monk (1823–9), Organist and hymn writer’ by W. & A.H. Fry c.1870 [Source: National Portrait Gallery, London. (NPGx21372), with permission]
W. H. Monk

The first organist at St Matthias was W.H. Monk, a pioneer in the reintroduction of plainsong to Anglican worship. He remained in this post for 37 years until his death in 1889. Shortly after arriving at St Matthias Monk was appointed (1857) the first editor of the Church of England’s ubiquitous Hymns Ancient and Modern. He also held posts at the University of London (Bedford College and King’s College) and the Royal College of Music.

Today W. H. Monk’s most-performed work is the music for the hymn Abide With Me (Eventide).

Stephen Jasper – present-day Director of Music at St Matthias Stoke Newington – plays W. H. Monk’s tune ‘Eventide’ (Abide with me).

Sources

  • William Butterfield‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 23 June 2019
  • T. F. Bumpus. London Churches Churches Ancient and Modern (T. Laurie: London, 1908)
  • ‘Nugent Cachemaille-Day‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 23 June 2019
  • ‘N. F. Cachemailled-Day. A search for somwthing more’, by  Anthony Hill. The Thirties Society Journal, No. 7 (1991), pp. 20-27
  • St Matthias Stoke Newington, parish website. Online resource, accessed 21 June 2019
  • St Matthias Stoke Newington‘, A Church Near You. Online resource accessed 21 June 2019
  • ‘St Matthias Stoke Newington, Wordsworth Road, Hackney’; records (1848-1993) in the London Metropolitan Archives, ref. P94/MTS
  • William Henry Monk‘. Wikipedia. Online resource, accessed 23 July 2019.