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.

 

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.

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).

 

There’s pleasure in Vauxhall

St Peter’s, Vauxhall, London SE11

St Peter’s church (1864) on Kennington Lane in Vauxhall, south London, is a very nice unadulterated example of work by the English architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817–97). What a pleasure to discover it this week.

From the late seventeenth century and all through the eighteenth this place was the location of the celebrated New Spring Gardens or Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a place of fantasy and fun on the south bank of the Thames for leisured Londoners. By the mid-nineteenth century the gardens were closed and the area was fast becoming a densely populated and semi-industrial working-class suburb with almost none of the gardens remaining, indeed the church is built on the south-west corner of the gardens’ site. The 1794 house next door to St Peter’s church is now the vicarage but it was originally the home of the widow of Jonathan Tyers II, a former owner of the Vauxhall Gardens.

While the outside of this well-maintained church has some nice decorative flourishes here and there, the inside brims with finely wrought design such as the fine carving and decoration on the font and the elaborate carved capitals of the nave, the decoration of the chancel, and the lofty brick vaulting.

The organ (1870) by T.C. Lewis sits at the east end of the south aisle, next to the chancel. It was initially rented from Lewis as a temporary instrument but was eventually purchased outright by the parish in about 1873. It is rather too modest for the building and it is to be regretted that Lewis did not get the chance to provide this fine building with a more substantial permanent instrument. But as with all organs by Lewis the tone is lovely; each stop sounds remarkably fine in its own right, crisp and articulate, and yet is able to blend wonderfully well with its neighbours. Now, after almost 150 years of service the mechanism is rather tired and rackety, and at the time of writing an organ-restoration appeal is underway.

Old Edmonton …

All Saints, Edmonton, London N9

Back in June I made a visit to All Saints, Edmonton, north London.

Edmonton is an ancient settlement, rural and well-to-do and genteel in tone until the coming of the railway and London’s massive c19 expansion. I was born in the area at a time when the population was largely blue-collar lower-middle and working class.

All Saints is where, as a schoolboy in the 1970s, I learned to play the organ and sang in the choir. It was interesting to return after 40 years, and even to be remembered by some of the old ‘uns I bumped into.

The organ dates back to 1772, the gift of a City businessman called Samuel Spragg who had his country house in the parish. The organ was originally the work of George England (fl. 1740–88). Over the years and as the building has been altered much of the original work by George England  has been removed. A recent renovation of the organ has restored the organ to the condition of its last major rebuilding in 1927, but in doing so it seems to me that quite a bit of the tonal vivacity that had been covertly added since 1927  – and which I remember from my school days – has been lost.

However, the church itself is most attractive, with fine nineteenth-century painting on the east wall. With its pleasant churchyard, sadly cleared of the majority of ancient tombs, the church is worth a visit, especially on a fine summer evening when the bellringers are practising.

The essayist Charles Lamb (1775–1834) and and his sister, the writer Mary Lamb (1764–1847) are buried in the churchyard, and their house survives opposite the church on Church Street.

The poet John Keats (1795–1821) was a trainee pharmacist in a shop nearby. A more recent building on the same site in Church Street was still a pharmacy when I was a teenager, but it is currently a betting shop; a blue plaque notes the facts.

It was pleasing to see still remaining on Church Street the late eighteenth–century building that was formerly home to a Blue Coat Charity School for Girls and the original teacher’s cottage next door.

It’s been quite a while …

The Five Precious Wounds, Stonebridge, London NW10

It’s been quite a while since I played the Norman & Beard (1911) pipe-organ in the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, London; I was a post-graduate student there some thirty-six years ago.

So it was with a real sense of pleasure that this week I snapped up the chance to play this instrument once again, in its new home in the Catholic church of The Five Precious Wounds in Stonebridge, north-west London. As the pictures indicate, this is a rather fine Catholic building of 1968.

The instrument was transplanted here in 1988, when the Royal Academy of Music acquired a new organ for the Duke’s Hall. In being moved the instrument has been only slightly altered by the addition of a couple of stops (see specifications, below) – and, I might add, some enitrely unnecessary electronic playing aids (gadgets!) that didn’t work for me – but all  without compromising the organ’s structural or tonal integrity as originally conceived.

The acoustic of this well-maintained church is pleasantly reverberant and the organ sounds very good in its gallery location, speaking directly down into and along the high-ceilinged nave. Thus it is well placed and well designed not only to support the liturgy,  congregational hymns and even plainsong, but also – as the opportunity demands – to raise the roof with some clever showing-off!

I could find no details of which company transplanted the organ or any details of the company that currently maintains the instrument.

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.