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, establshed with the generous support of the financier and philanthropist Ricahrd Foster (1822-1910). 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.

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Stranded by Kings

St Mary-le-Strand, London WC2

As far as I can remember, until last week  I had not previously stepped inside the London church of St Mary-le-Strand (1714–23), stranded rather splendidly in the middle of the Strand opposite Kings College (University of London) in a sea of traffic.

The site was formerly occupied by a giant maypole, reputedly the largest in England, and part of the original plan for the church was for this maypole to be replaced by a 250-feet-high column topped of by a statue of Queen Anne (1665–1714), but the queen died just as the church foundations were being laid and the stone for the column was used instead to add a steeple (1717) at the west end.

St Mary-le-Strand was the first of the fifty new churches built in London under the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, at a cost of some £16,000. It was the first major building project completed by the Catholic Tory architect James Gibbs (1682–1754) upon his return home to England after studying architecture in Rome, and it reflects the influence of Italian Baroque models; the interior is quite splendid.

It is said that in this church the so-called ‘Young Pretender’ Charles Edward Stuart (1720–88) abjured Catholicism to pronounce his loyalty to the Church of England during a clandestine visit to London in 1750, hoping to accede to the British throne.

An organ never seems to have been part of the original design so far as I can tell. The first known organ dates from 1790. The organologist Henry Leffler (1761–1819) described it as “Not a very good organ being part new & part old”.

The 1790 organ was built by William Warrell, a little-known music-seller and organ-builder whose business was in Bridge Street, Lambeth. The subsequent fate of the Warrell organ is not clear, but by 1863 there was another organ in the building, made by the firm of Hunter & Webb. It too is no longer present.

Warrell’s organ of 1790 was a so-called ‘annuity organ’ i.e. installed at the builder’s expense, the cost repaid to him by the parish by a fixed annuity. Such ‘annuity organ’ schemes are rare but not unheard of at this time, indeed Warrell was involved in another such scheme at St Olave, Jewry in 1814. These schemes often entailed appointing the organ builder as the organist, and this was the case with Warrell both at St Mary-le-Strand and at St Olave Jewry where Warell provided a deputy. (Donovan Dawe (1983) Organs and Organists of the City of London).

Today the liturgy at St Mary-le-Strand is accompanied by a far-from-new Johannes electronic 2-manual organ, an instrument that would once have been considered cutting edge but which – having experienced it – now has little to commend it. To quote Henry Leffler: “Not a very good organ”.

Jerusalem E9

St John of Jerusalem, London E9

 

Back in June of this year I had the chance to visit the rather lovely early Victorian church of St John of Jerusalem in Hackney, east London. The ‘Jerusalem’ in the name relates to the area’s historic links with the Order of St John of Jerusalem, which owned land and property in Hackney before the English Reformation (mid 16th century).

 

The parish dates from about 1810 and the current church was built in 1848. As the pictures show it is a rather lovely building, and the area around the church is much gentrified of late.

 

Sadly the large and imposing west-gallery pipe organ (by the firm of Gray & Davidson c.1873) was removed in the early 1980s; only the facade pipe-display remains. It was replaced with one of the world’s first “dual specification” electronic analogue organs, the Wyvern ST60. Then cutting-edge, but now more than 30 years on a fine example of left-behind technology. In this age of advanced digital sound it does not sound good,  although we can be impressed by the quality of the workmanship that ensures it still works.

Pipeless but not hopeless

St Benet & All Saints, Kentish Town, London NW5

During the summer  of 2016 I had the chance to use the organ at the church of St Benet & All Saints in  Kentish Town, north London, and to attend some Sunday services. While the parish adheres to traditional ‘high’ Anglican principles its worship is very nicely fitted to modern liturgical sensibilities.

St Benet’s is an impressive building perched atop a hill overlooking the valley of the Fleet river. It is built on a site given for this purpose in the late 1870s by St. John’s College, Cambridge, then developing its land-holding in the area for well-to-do housing. The parish was formally established through an ‘Order in Council’ before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 2 March 1881 [LMA].

St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London. Interior, c.1935, facing east. [Source: 'In jubilaeo' (London: 1935)]
St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London. Interior of the ‘tin mission’ church, c.1881, facing east. [Source: ‘In jubilaeo’ (London: 1935)]
The first church building was a temporary ‘tin mission’ building – later used as the church hall- that opened for worship on 17 July 1881

The first permanent building was built to the design of the architect Joseph Peacock (1821–93), opened for worship on 31 October 1885.

Contemporary photographs show how Peacock’s designs were translated into brick and stone. In particular the planned chancel was never realised so that the east end of the nave terminated with a solid wall. For a short period c.1901-05 the east wall was decorated to “give the impression of a stone screen pierced by various openings […] a young local artist, Mr W. Kingsley, painted three huge canvases in tempara to represent stained glass windows glowing in richest colours and a rising Belgian artist very kindly painted in a more than lifelike crucifix.” (In junilaeo, p.16).

St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; parish room and song school, unbuilt (1880). Drawing by Harry Sirr (1860-1945). [Source: RIBA ref. RIBA22108]
St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; parish room and song school, unbuilt (1880). Drawing by Harry Sirr (1860-1945). [Source: RIBA ref. RIBA22108]
A rather stylish seeming parish room and song school was designed (1880) by Harry Sirr (1860-1945) but alas the building was never erected.

In 1906 a spacious and lofty new chancel was added to Peacock’s nave, to the design of Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875–1932). As we see from the images, the organ in the nave, shown in Hare’s proposed design, was moved.

The church by Peacock seems to have been poorly designed and despite several attempts to shore-up the walls Peacock’s work was dismantled and rebuilt (1927-28) to a new design by Cecil Greenwood Hare, incorporating Hare’s 1908 chancel and using much material from Peacock’s  former structure. This is the church we see today.

An often repeated canard about the demolition of Peacock’s church is that it was unknowingly built over underground springs of water that undermined the foundations. However, the Diocesan surveys undertaken prior to the rebuilding by Hare reveal the problem to have been a timbered roof that was too heavy for the walls; that roof is briefly glimpsed in the image on the right. There is no mention anywhere in the surveys of problems caused by underground springs. [LMA]

St Benet's Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.
St Benet’s Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.

The pipe organ

As we see in the 1908 image (above) the organ was originally in a gallery at the north east corner of the 1884 nave. This instrument had been designed as a house organ by the eminent London firm of Gray and Davison and was exhibited at the Great Exhibition (1861). During the construction of the new nave this organ was placed in storage.

After the completion of the nave a new organ gallery was created in the north-west corner of the chancel and in 1933 the rebuilt and somewhat enlarged instrument was installed by the little-known firm of Richards & Matthews of Finchley.  In its elevated chancel position the reinstalled organ struggled to support worship in the nave.  The pipe organ is no longer in use.

In 2000 the parish purchased a large, brand new electronic (pipeless) instrument from Wyvern Organs; more … . The instrument’s specification is large by any standard

Built to an early form of digital technology whose reproduction of organ pipe sound is not uniformly good to our present-day ears, the Wyvern instrument is nonetheless rather nice to play, not only for the well-designed console, keyboard action and powerful amplification but also for the extraordinarily resonant acoustic of the building. Despite my caveats this ‘new’ instrument is perfectly able to support the needs of parish worship in general and congregational singing in particular. The folk of St Benet’s do sing well.

A small confession here is that on my first visit I was a bit disappointed to find  only an electric, pipeless instrument to play on, even though I knew the pipe organ here to be no masterpiece. You see, I had played it before, some 30 years or so ago and rather enjoyed it …  not so much for the instrument but for the crows-nest position of the organist!

But this rather splendid electric, pipeless machine has won me over to the potential of the pipeless organ.

Trivia/l point: according to Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony, the priest in charge, the large crucifix above the high altar was originally part of the set decoration for the 1964 film ‘Becket’. 

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