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

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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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.

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.

Orgelbewegung in north London

Our Lady & St Joseph, Balls Pond Road, London N1

I recently found my way to the church of Our Lady and St Joseph located on the Balls Pond Road in north London. The road is said to have been named after a pond owned by a John Ball who in much earlier times ran the Salutation Tavern (aka the Boarded House), which provided facilities for bull baiting and – on its pond – duck hunting.

The parish was established in 1855 by Fr William Lockhart of the Rosminian Order. The first parish church (1856-c.1960) was located at the corner of Culford Road and Tottenham Street, Hackney. This church was converted from a disused warehouse by W. W. Wardell (1823-99), with further adaptation by E. W. Pugin (1834–75) completed in 1860.

The current buidling is designed by William C Mangen (1884-?) and was opened in 1964.

The pipe organ

The organ here is by J. W. Walker and Sons (1964).

It is a very nice English interpretation of the organ reform movement or orgelbewegung, a twentieth-century organ design tradition that began in Germany. Here no concessions are made to ‘romantic’/’symphonic’ organ design, although the temperament is equal.

The instrument is beautifully crafted and more than 50 years on is still lovely to play. Works by the Baroque masters and Paul Hindemith ‘et al’ suit it very nicely. Sadly, I had no opportunity to record the instrument. Next time maybe.

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