From Medieval to Gothick

St Bartholomew the Less, West Smithfield, London EC1

The Smithfield area in the north-west corner of the City of London owes much of its current street plan to the history of its medieval Augustinian priory and hospital, while the historic character of its architecture – some dating back to the Middle Ages– is due in no small part to the fact that the area narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was relatively little damaged by aerial bombing during the Second World War.

St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield, looking east.
St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield, looking east.

The priory church (1123) survives today as the Anglican parish church of St Bartholomew the Great. It is an impressive edifice by any standards although only two-thirds of its former length now survives and most of its priory building have long gone, thanks to the destruction of church property wrought throughou England during the religious battles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

St Bartholomew’s Hospital (1123) – known to most Londoners simply as Barts – was founded as an integral part of the Priory and survives on its original site, although most of its historic buldings date back only as far as the early eighteenth century.

Over many centuries Smithfield’s open central core on the edge of the City of London has made it a site of many notable gatherings, for example:

  • From 1123 Smithfield was the site of the annual Bartholomew Fair originally designed by the Priory to mark St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August. The fair survived the Reformation and the Civil War and by the early 1700s lasted at least two weeks and attracted vast crowds of fun-seeking Londoners. The fair was a regular source of anxiety for various civic-minded groups concerned with public order and public morality but it was not until 1855 that the fair ceased.
  • In 1374 Edward III (1312–77) held a seven-day tournament at Smithfield, for the amusement of his mistress Alice Perrers (1348–1400).
  • On 15 June 1381 Richard III met here the the leaders of the so-called Peasants Revolt. The meeting turned violent and several of the revolutionaries were killed by the London militia, including the peasants’ spokesman, Wat Tyler
  • In 1390 Richard II (1367–1400) hosted a two-day tournament organised by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was then the clerk to the king. The tournament – reported across Europe – was described by Jean Froissart (c.1337–c 1405) in his Chronicles (of the Hundred Years War).
  • Until the late seventeenth century Smithfield was a place of public execution. In 1305 the Scottish rebel William Wallace was executed here. During the sixteenth century it was often religious dissidents who met their deaths on Smithfield, while in the seventeenth century it became a place of execution for swindlers and coin forgers.
  • From as early as 1132 livestock and horses were traded here every Friday, a practice that developed in into the Smithfield meat market that operates today in a splendid Victorian market-hall that covers much of the former Smithfield.

Less well known in the story of Smithfield is the ancient church of St Bartholomew the Less (1184), located within the hospital precinct. It replaced the Chapel of the Holy Cross (1123).

Although the ground-plan of the present church is Norman, the west-end and tower are largely 13th-century structures;  two of the tower’s three bells date from 1380 and 1420. and are still hung in a medieval–period ‘bell frame’. The architect and theatre-designer Inigo Jones (1573–1652) was baptised here. His father was a Welsh clothworker living in nearby Cloth Fair.

In 1789 the nave and chancel of the church was ‘repaired’ (rebuilt) by the hospital’s surveyor and architect George Dance the younger (1741–1825). Dance chose the modern ‘gothick’ style to create a brand-new, light and airy octagon–shaped nave within the church’s medieval walls. At the same time he removed many of the old tombs and memorials.

There have been several organs in the church supplied by various organ-builders as follows:

  1. Richard Bridge, c.1729
  2. John Byfield jun. with John Byfield III, 1794.
    This organ was an ‘annuity organ’, which meant it was installed gratis by the organ builder but in return he provided the organist – in this case his son – and took the organist’s fee. (Organists of the City of London. Dawe: 1983. 33). As I noted in my blog of 24 September 2016, a similar annuity-organ contract was made in 1790 between William Warrell and the parish of St Mary-le-Strand.
  3. John Gray, 1825
  4. Gray and Davison, 1863
  5. William Hill and Son & Norman and Beard Ltd, 1930
  6. N. P. Mander, 1978

Alas, no images of the earliest organs seem to have survived. The current organ’s pipework is located in somewhat cramped conditions, deep-set under a narrow arch at the west end of the church. The organ’s console is in the  south-east corner. The instrument has no pretensions, being simple in looks and plain in tone; even at full-organ it does not overwhelm. However, since it speaks directly along the main axis of the church it is adequate to accompany congregational singing.

 

Barking with a prelate and a president

Barking Abbey, St Margaret of Antioch, London IG11

Map showing Barking in relation to central London.
Map showing Barking in relation to central London.

This week, and for the second time this year, I have travelled to the pre-Saxon Thames-side town of Barking, eight miles east of Westminster and now the civic heart of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. My destination was once again the pipe organ of the thirteenth-century parish church of St Margaret of Antioch.

Until the 1850s Barking was home to a thriving port, most notable for supplying London with coal, fish and grain.

By the early twentieth century the area had become a rather insalubrious hub for chemical-based industries, a major London sewage works, and a coal-fired power station. Such polluting industry is now a thing of the past, and many former industrial sites have made way for much-needed housing.

Barking Abbey, a reconstruction
Barking Abbey, a reconstruction

Before the Dissolution of the English monasteries under Henry VIII, Barking had been the site of a great convent, Barking Abbey, created in the 7th century by Saint Æthelburh and her brother Saint Earconwald. The parish church of St Margaret of Antioch was sited next to the abbey church.

The importance of Barking Abbey can be glimpsed from the fact that its abbesses held precedence over all other abbesses in England, indeed many of Barking’s abbesses were  former queens and the daughters of kings; three are saints. The site of the abbey ruins is now Abbey Green, a public park within which only the Curfew Tower gate to the abbey and the parish church remain intact.

In medieval times pilgrims were attracted to Barking to view the Holy Rood, a painted stone carving of the crucifixion in the Chapel of the Holy Rood inside the abbey’s Curfew Tower, where it survives to this day albeit in a less than pristine conidtion; history has not been kind to it. It is dated to between 1125 and 1150.  According to Vatican records, on 22 March 1400 Pope Boniface IX granted a Papal licence (indult) to the Abbess of Barking “to have Mass and other services celebrated in the Oratory, in which a certain cross is preserved”.

The parish church itself is almost as wide as it is long and is very well maintained. The parish’s current Rector (and Assistant Bishop of Chelmsford) is Trevor Mwambe. previously the Bishop of Botswana whose intellect, spirit and clear-thinking leadership were not so well appreciated in Africa as they are in England. Also visiting the church when I was there was Sir Quett Masire, the 2nd President of Botswana (1980-98).

The church’s rather nice pipe organ dates from 1770, and was originally made by the London firm of Byfield and Green. Despite several nineteenth-century alterations and relocations within the building by the firm of J. W. Walker and Sons the organ has retained its original facade (now on the organ’ s west side) and its eighteenth-century sweetness of tone (although not so much of its eighteenth century tone-colour).