Joseph Maltby Bignell alone in Walthamstow

St Michael and All Angels, London E17 6PQ

Walthamstow is an ancient settlement on the west bank of the River Lea, for which records date back to the time of King Edward the Confessor (1003-66). It is now absorbed within the north-east London suburbs.

With the coming of the railway in the middle of the nineteenth century the area saw rapid housing development by a variety of independant property speculators building homes for the respectable working and lower-middle classes, and much of the buidling stock dates from this time. Even so, the area around the medieval parish church maintains an air of earlier times, and self-consciously promotes itself as ‘Walthamstow Village’.

Walthamstow’s nineteenth-century population boom brought a need for new churches and by 1903 there were twelve Anglican churches and seven Anglican missions in Walthamstow; in 2017 there are nine Anglican parishes. Among these the church of St Michael and All Angels (1885) is the largest. It was built in an Early English Gothic style using dark brown brick to a design by the little-known Joseph Maltby Bignell  (1827-87) who spent much of his architectural career working as an assistant to Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78). St Michael and All Angel’s is – for now – his only known completed building.

Currently the church has two pipe-organs. One, of indeterminate origin, is in a gallery on the south side of the chancel. It has two manuals and pedal and replaced an earlier one-manual and pedal organ that was situated here. The current instrument was  decommissioned some decades ago when its console was removed and replaced by a now rather tired and unattractive sounding electronic instrument by the Allen Organ Company; our expectations of digital technology have moved on!

The other pipe-organ is a rather nice Victorian, one-manual and pedal instrument in a handsome ‘Gothick’ case placed in the south east corner of the nave. It was built by the firm of G. M. Holdich originally for a church in the Essex countryside, where in 1965 it underwent restoration by the firm of N, P Mander. The instrument seems to have come to Walthamstow in about 2003. It has a bold, bright sound and while it is no masterpiece it is well-suited to congregational accompaniment and is almost contemporary with the building.

We can date this instrument from G. M. Holdich’s business address given on the builder’s plate: ‘Euston Road, Kings Cross, London’ from where the firm traded between 1858 and 1866. This fact contradicts a date of  1844 that is given on a recent donor’s plate on the side of the organ.

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.

 

A Hunter in the London Docks …

All Saints, Poplar, London E14

London

The east-London district of Poplar once lay at the heart of Britain’s empire, being the location of London’s mighty East India and West India docks. Between them, during the nineteenth century these docks managed most of the ’empire trade’ coming into Britain.

The East India docks were opened in 1802 by the East India Company, established in 1600 as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, while the West India docks were opened in 1806 by the ‘London Society of West India Planters and Merchants’, established in 1780. The two groups amalgamated their business interests in 1838 in the wake of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. This Act of Parliament had abolished  slavery throughout the British Empire, with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”, the “Island of Ceylon” and “the Island of Saint Helena”; these exceptions were nullified in 1843, after which the combined Companies’ domination of the UK’s international trade steadily diminished.

A small chapel had existed on the Isle of Dogs from the middle ages, to serve the sparse population. It was abandoned as a place of worship by the time the Reformation, and any remains of it were swept away by the development of the docks.

As early as 1654 the East India Company provided its burgeoning riverside workforce with a chapel on the north side of Poplar High Street. The area was then in the parish of St Dunstan, Stepney, whose church was considered too far away for employees of the company’s docks to attend. In the later nineteenth century the East India Company chapel became a parish church in its own right; St. Matthias. It still stands today, though now a community asset.

With the opening of the new docks, Poplar became a thriving and densely populated mercantile centre. In 1817 a brand-new parish of All Saints was created out of Stepney parish with its own church (consecrated 1823; patron: Brasenose College, Oxford). All Saints church is an imposing, handsome building designed by Charles Hollis (n.d.), with a 161-foot high steeple; the building costs were underwritten by the West India Dock Company. The organ for the new church was built by the London organ-building firm of Henry Russell; see note below.

During the Second World War aerial bombing severely damaged the west end of the church putting the Russell organ beyond repair. The church was restored and its interior remodelled, providing a new organ and west gallery. The new organ (1953, by N. P. Mander Ltd.) was in fact ‘second-hand’, bought from the Clapham Congregational Church (south London), although with a new case. It had been installed in Clapham in 1902 by the London firm of  A. Hunter and Sons. It is a large instrument with a clear and bright yet rich tone, enhanced by a generous clean acoustic. On my visit there to play this organ I found it particularly encouraging of improvisation, and rather well-suited to the European Romantic repertoire.

As a coda, it is worth mentioning that Poplar is the area in which are set two popular BBC TV series: ‘Call the Midwife’, which is based on the work of the real-life nursing nuns of the Anglican Order of St John the Divine; and ‘EasterEnders’, which is entirely spurious.

The ‘Call the Midwife’ mission buildings and nuns chapel (c.1893; patron, Christ Church Oxford) remain on Lodore Street, converted to secular use. The adjacent parish church of St Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford, was destroyed by aerial bombing in the Second World War; the area is now part of All Saints parish.