A Mission to Hackney

St Mary-of-Eton, Hackney Wick, London E9 5JA

Hackney Wick is an ancient settlement in the east of London, once owned by the Templars; ‘Wick’ is derived from a Saxon term denoting a small settlement. Hackney Wick is situated at the southern-most edge of Hackney Marshes, on the west bank of the tidal River Lea, close to the point where it empties into the Thames. Even today some large open tracts of land remain, now used mostly for sports and recreation, not least venues for the 2012 London Olympics.

Canalisation of the River Lea began in the late eighteenth century and from then until the later twentieth century the Hackney Wick waterside became an industrial zone taking advantage of the plentiful supplies of water and easy access to the London Docks; smelting works, paper mills paint making, and other chemical-based process were pioneered here. For example the earliest plastics, Parkesine and shellac, were first commercially produced in Hackney Wick, as too the first dry-cleaning agents and a number of synthetic dyes.

With industrialisation came a massive population increase, since in those days workers lived close to where they worked. Six thousand people lived in Hackney Wick by 1879. The nearby Rover Lea was heavily polluted by factory effluent and sewerage. In the 1880s the social reformer Charles Booth mapped Hackney Wick and noted that most of the the inhabitants were very poor and in extreme want.

At about this time Eton School opened an Anglican mission in Hackney Wick, where there had not previously been a church presence. This became the parish of St Mary of Etion and a fine Gothic-revival church was built (1890-92) to the design of  G. F. Bodley (1827–1907) & Thomas Garner (1839–1906), extended in 1911-12 by C. G. Hare (1875–1932).

From 1959 and throughout the 1960s the Eton MIssion developed a thriving youth club (the 59 Club), hosting up-and-coming bands such as such as Cliff Richard and the Shadows, seen here entertaining Princess Margaret when she visited the Eton Mission in 1962. Although the youth club is no more its motorcycle section is still-thriving as the ’59 Club’, as are the Eton Mission Rowing Club and several football and rugby clubs.

Eton School continued active support of the church until the 1970s. At about the same time all heavy industry began to leave the area. After many years of decline and social deprivation Hackney Wick is now experiencing rapid post-industrial regeneration driven by the arrival of high-tech and creative industries that are taking advantage of the former factory sites and now very pleasant waterside situations. A major and much-acclaimed restoration and redevelopment of the church and its adjacent property was concluded in 2015, providing housing and new church facilities, while retaining the original church intact.

In 1965 a fine two-manual organ was installed in the church at a cost of £3,500 by the firm of Grant, Degens and Rippin (1965), their opus 12. This instrument replaced the existing organ (1898) made by the firm of J. W. Walker. Very little of the old instrument was retained, apart from a few bass pipes. The new organ featured in an EMI recording of some of J. S. Bach’s chorale preludes played by the organist Simon Preston accompanied by the English Singers (ref. HQS 1131).

Even today, the instrument has a bold contemporary appearance; its stark  unenclosed pipework sits on a high platform at the south-west end of the nave. The console was originally placed on a platform opposite but following the full restoration of the organ (2015), during the church’s restoration and redevelopment, the console is now on the floor of the church at the south-east,

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.