Joan of Arc: a first for London

St Joan of Arc’s Church, 60 Highbury Park. London N5 2XH

The Catholic parish of St Joan of Arc in north London (UK) achieved a certain prominence during the 1990s when it was the local church of choice for the former British Labour Party leader and later Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family. However, the parish has two rather more interesting claims on posterity.

Firstly, ths buidling is the immediate succesor of the first Catholic church anywhere in the world dedicated to St Joan of Arc. From 1918 local Highbury Catholics had worshipped in the chapel of a convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns but increasing numbers of worshippers required the provision of a separate church.

This new church was opened on 13 October 1920 just five monrths after Joan’s canonisation (16 May 1920). When the Carmelites left Highbury in 1953 the convent site was used for a new and much larger church designed by Stanley Kerr Bate (b.1906–?), which opened on 23 September 1962.

The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower c.1990
The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower, c.1990

Secondly, the new church tower was the first in England to be provided with a radioactive lightning rod. (Taking Stock). The idea behind this device –  Early Streamer Emission theory – was that a small quantity of radioactive isotopes at the tip of the rod greatly increased the lightning capture area. The theory has since been discredited. Worriyingly, with such devices there is always a risk that the effects of weathering and poor maintenance allows radioactive material to be released in an uncontolled way into the environment. I have no idea if this dubious device is still in place on the tower at St Joan’s.

The very nice neo-baroque pipe organ (1963) is by J. W. Walker and Sons Ltd, and is divided either side of the front wall of a spacious choir gallery at the west end of the nave. The largest pedal pipes are in a separate case on the gallery.

References

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,

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).

 

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.