The church and its restorations

Pages 12-19

Survey of London Monograph 6, St Dunstan's Church, Stepney. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1905.

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Description of the church.

The Church of St. Dunstan stands in the churchyard on the east of Stepney High Street. It consists of a clear-storied nave of five bays, with wide aisles, western tower, and a choir of two bays, with a presbytery without aisles projecting eastward. There are also vestries adjoining the presbytery on the north, and north and south porches to the nave.

There is no chancel arch, but the choir is sufficiently defined by the meeting of the open high-pitched roof of the nave with the nearly flat chancel ceiling between the fifth and sixth bays from the west, and the presence of stairs formerly leading to the destroyed rood loft (see plate 4.) The point is also marked on the north side by a heavier pier between the fifth and sixth arches.

The main alley of the church has a pitched roof covered with tiles, and is ceiled internally. The aisle roofs are flat and leaded.


Externally the church has been "restored" with such completeness that scarcely a vestige of old wrought stone work remains visible. The fabric is of various dates, but though the rubble walls in large part are probably much earlier, the bulk of the detail is coarse "Perpendicular" of various dates ranging through the fifteenth century. Of this period—naturally the most prolific in works of architecture—there are many features of similarity to those at St. Dunstan's in the neighbouring churches of Bow, West Ham, Barking, the old Tower of Hackney Church, and many others.


The interior has recently been entirely denuded of plaster, and despite several interesting disclosures made in the process this is in many respects regrettable.

A chronological detailed description of the church being well-nigh impossible owing to the confusing effect of restorative zeal, perhaps the best course is to treat each feature in sequence from west to east.


The Western tower is 92 feet high, and in its lowest stage opens to the nave by a "Perpendicular" arch. Above is the ringing loft, and again the clock chamber, reached by a stone newel stair in the north-west corner, which continues to the tower roof. The stair turret is wholly internal. The large belfry contains ten bells (see p. 51). The tower roof, within modern battlements, has a curious louvred arrangement, which seems to incorporate the base of a former lantern now destroyed.

In the "extra illustrated" copy of Lysons' Environs of London in the Guildhall Library are three engravings of Stepney Church; two of these are dated 1795 and 1809 respectively, the other, apparently earlier, is undated. There is also an original drawing dated 1794. All these illustrations are in remarkable agreement, unusual in such cases, and each shows the tower roof surmounted by an octagonal cupola of pleasing design, ' ogee' in shape, apparently lead covered, and rising above an open arcaded stage standing upon a louvred base (the latter quite possiby that still existent and now hidden from view by the raised parapet). Surmounting the cupola is shown a gilded ball and vane terminating with a crown as finial.


In the 1795 view the roof over the nave is shown to be covered with lead, the chancel has an additional roof—as at present—which is covered with tiles. But it is evident that the chancel roof was also leaded in the first case, and that it was of the usual 15th century character, the lead covering being laid on the rafters and boarding which now appear only as an inner ceiling over the chancel; for we read that at a meeting of the Vestry, held on April 1,1656—

"the Churchwardens and others findeing a dropping downe of Raine in severall places over the Chancell by which the people were disturbed and that there was feare of the decayeing and Rotting the Timbers in that Roofe to ye greate danger & damage of the people they did by themselues & Workemen take a vewe upon the leads ouer the Chancell, which they found very defectiue, The charge of which (in case the Lead bee taken vpp and new cast) is estimated by the said Workemen att £45, otherwise to bee only layde with a new Crowne peece & the two Gutters new layde With sodering and Workemenshipp as itt now lyes will cost £18, And the Timber Worke not valued, The considerac'on of this is left to the vestry." (fn. 1)

The matter was further considered at a meeting held on April 28th following, & the necessary works ordered, for which payment was authorized at a meeting in the following January. The exact nature of these works is not specified, but it may be that instead of the extensive repairs being made to the old lead flat, the additional roof, more steeply pitched and covered with tiles, was constructed. The chancel roof of the Chapel at Stratford Bow, which was of the same style and date, was treated in a similar manner about 1755. (fn. 2)


The nave aisles were, until the 1899 restoration, filled with galleries which have been removed; the present seating of the nave is largely made up of old oak panelling of various 18th century types.

Both the aisle walls have been raised, probably when the present flat roofs were constructed. The character of the masonry changes about two feet below the present wall plates—below, it is random rubble, but the upper portion is partly brickwork and coursed. Externally at this level there are traces of a string course. The south aisle roof has fine carved braces, and the two eastern bays of this aisle were remodelled in the early 15th century period, evidently to form a chantry chapel, the walls being either rebuilt or increased in height and the windows enlarged.

In the north aisle of the nave the windows are of three lights with depressed four-centred untraceried heads, splayed jambs, and segmental rear-arches. Those in the south aisle are three light segmental pointed, also without tracery, in square jambs with through-arches and hollow chamfer. The window in the west wall of this aisle has formerly been similar, but is now reduced.

The clear-storey has small, square-headed, two-light windows beneath segmental arches, & may be of "Decorated" date—Perpendicular clearstories are generally larger. The nave is ceiled in oak with a flat fourcentred barrel vault. Most of this is new, having been destroyed in the fire of 1901, together with the choir roof and organ.


The vaulted north and south porches are modern. The doorways, however, are good examples of fifteenth century date, and must always have been protected by porches of some description, being well preserved. Beside each is a stoup. A highly interesting Norman rood, now fixed on the north wall of the chancel (see plate 8 and description on p. 36), formerly surmounted the south door, and is shown on page 19.

In the engravings of the Guildhall ' Lysons' before-mentioned there are shown north and south porches to the nave, though these can scarcely be the original porches, as they are seemingly constructed of slight wooden framing with hipped roofs. The Norman rood shows clearly above the roof of the south porch. The drawing before referred to, entitled "Stepney before the alterations 1794," also shows the western porch. The northern and southern porches originally had glazed sides, for in the Vestry minutes, June 18, 1619—

"It is ordered that the Porches one upon the South side, the other upon the North side, be repaired—the ffloores made even, and paued and the glasse windows amended."

In a print in 'Maitland' 1755, and also in the view on page 19, the south porch is represented with glazed sides.

In 1610 a western porch beyond the tower was erected in the "Tuscan" style by Mr. Richard Phillips, churchwarden. It is represented in a print (no date) in 'Lysons' published in 1811, and no doubt was demolished because it fitted so ill with the rest of the building. It never can have been required, the base of the tower forming every shelter requisite.


From wall to wall, passing in front of the fifth piers from the west, stood the ancient screen, the aisles continuing two bays beyond and forming chapels. In the south wall still remains the staircase giving access to the loft, and from thence to the roofs. This has been altered to serve the galleries, but the position and extent of the original openings are still visible. In the spandril between the two arches springing from the bulkier pier in the north arcade is a narrow arched opening from nave to aisle. A heavy beam with braces here provides a start for the lower ceiling of the choir and presbytery, and the two remaining bays of arcade are unclearstoried. The first arch eastward from this is depressed and of different outline to the remainder. Traces of a string course are noticeable some distance below the present roof, possibly marking the roof level of the 13th century church.

In the north aisle the second window from the east is the only one remaining in the church with curvilinear tracery. It is a two-light window with splayed jambs and simple flowing tracery of the 14th century or " Decorated " period.

The two choir bays of the south aisle are now fitted as a chapel and divided from the main alley by a screen. The roof here is slightly higher and the three windows have moulded jambs and pointed arches almost equilateral in proportion, filled with Perpendicular tracery. At the east end of the north aisle is a door leading to the vestries and a squint to the high altar discovered during a recent restoration. On the eastern respond is now placed the Norman rood before mentioned.


The north wall of the presbytery is pierced by the squint and by a door to the vestries, which was disclosed during the 1899 restoration (see plate 7).

East of this and to the north of the high altar is the tomb to Sir Henry Collet 1510. Above is an arched window opening containing part of the organ.

The east window of five lights with lean Perpendicular tracery is very broad and low in proportion. Its jamb shafts with their caps are of 14th century date, & indicate the presence of an earlier window in this space. On the south wall are triple sedilia, "Early English " in style, but so exceedingly well preserved as to be objects of suspicion—an old print in the vestry shows these much mutilated. As a liberal coat of whitewash has recently been applied, it is impossible to see how much of the old work remains. The window above is of the date of the early 15th century alterations, it is shown in the view on page 19, but was restored during the last century.

There is no piscina, its usual position being usurped by the tomb, with Greek Doric columns, to Benjamin Kenton. This was taken out by the Rector during the late restoration in the hope of discoveries, but as nothing was found it was replaced. West of the sedilia is a doorway now blocked and used as a cupboard.

Towards the top of the south wall of the presbytery and choir are traces of sharply-pointed arches at a higher level than the present. These would seem to be the rear-arches of earlier windows. Similar traces, not so well defined, exist in the north wall.


The vestries contain no work of architectural interest, but several good engravings and prints of the church in earlier times. Above is the organ loft. The organ destroyed in the recent fire had good Renaissance woodwork, some of which is preserved. In the gallery over the western entrance is also preserved a very fine oak poppy-head bench-end.

Modern Fittings

The present ritual arrangement of the church as shown on the plan does not coincide with the original. There is no screen, and the choir seating occupies one bay of the true choir and part of the presbytery, the nave having encroached one bay on the choir. An oak pulpit is placed on the north side, against the first pier from the east, and the font at the west end of the nave before the tower arch.

Church repairs and restorations.

Early Restorations

In the early days the expenses of church repairs were met by a "landscot" upon acreage, and a rate upon houses in the parish.

In this way extensive repairs were met in 1632, 1676, and 1684, when according to the vestry minute of November 18th, "There shall be a Levie made in the severall Hambletts of this Pish, amounting to the full summe of six hundred Pounds, for and towards the payment of the Debts of the Church, the new building the Vestry house, the new building two Church Porches, and other necessary Repairs of the Church.

And that the proportions in each Hamblett be as followeth, viz—

In Ratcliffe One hundred and fifty Pounds.
In Limehouse One hundred and fifty Pounds.
In Wapping Seventy and five Pounds.
In Popler Seventy and five Pounds.
And in Mile End One hundred and Fifty Pounds.
Bethnall Green

And that the severall Levies be afterwards carried to the Chancellor of the Lord Bishop of London, to be confirmed accordingly."

The 1806 Restoration

Again in 1734 £234 was raised for repairs. In 1806 "The Church was repaired both within side, and without, at the expense of at least £5000, on this occasion all the monuments were repaired, and the inscriptions restored with much care." (Harleian MS. Vol. I. 36). Unfortunately the vestry minutes of this date being lost, no details of this extensive restoration can be given.

The 1828 & 1846-8 Restorations

In 1828 the Church was "thoroughly repaired and beautified" (Lewis' Topogr. Dict.)

In 1846-8 a restoration was recorded in an inscription upon the window over the east end of the nave which was destroyed in the great fire of October 1901 and not replaced.

This restoration was begun in the incumbency of the Rev. Daniel Vawdrey, and finished in that of the Rev. Richard Lee. It was not however until 1852 that the accounts were settled; the total cost was £3610.

It was probably at this restoration that the east wall was refaced, unfortunately of brick instead of rubble, like the rest of the Church, and the galleries much reduced. A notice of this restoration occurs in the Rev. J. H. Sperling's Church Walks in Middlesex, 1849, together with architectural details of the fabric.

In the restoration of 1901 the east wall was refaced with rough stone to correspond with the remainder of the Church.

The 1871-2 Restoration

On the north wall at the west entrance is a brass, which records the restoration of the Church, and the erection of the porches and second vestry in 1871-2, during the incumbency of the Rev. J. Bardsley.

It was at this restoration that the whole of the Church was refaced, a new organ built, and the west window filled with stained glass.

The 1885-6 Restoration

At the restoration during the Rev. J. F. Kitto's incumbency (1885-6), in addition to cleaning and painting, the choir seats, a new pulpit and east window were added, the ground lowered all round the Church, and the main approach widened and deepened so as to bring it down to a level with the Church; before that two steps led down to the west door.

The total expenditure was £3783.

The 1899 Restoration

The restoration of 1899, during the incumbency of the present rector, the Rev. A. E. Dalton, is commemorated on an inscribed brass tablet by the west door of the nave. The work included the removal of the galleries, stripping the plaster from the walls inside the Church, remodelling the seats, rebuilding the organ, rehanging the bells, and placing the altar in the south chapel, at a total cost of £5,600.

The 1901 Fire

The account of the great fire of October 1901 had better be given in the words of the Rector, as published by him in the Parish Report of 1901-2:

"October 12th, 1901, will be a day long remembered in Stepney. At 6.20 a.m. the alarm was given that the Church was on fire, and it was soon found that owing to the morning being very foggy, and the fire being at the east end, right away from the road, it had obtained a strong hold ere it was discovered. How long it had been burning we shall never know. There was no smell of fire when the Church was closed at 9.30 the evening before. It originated from a gas jet in the stoke-hole under the vestry floor, that had been there for thirty years, within a foot of a wooden ceiling, which was protected only by a thin sheet of iron. Probably this had gradually worn thin, and the wood above it become more charred, till at last it ignited. Once through the vestry floor, the fire laid hold on the cupboards of cassocks and surplices, and within ten minutes of the alarm being given the flames were through the roof of the choir vestry. A wooden staircase carried them up to the organ chamber, which was a literal furnace before the first engine arrived, & thence the flames reached the roof, along which they raced with terrific speed. In a very few minutes 18 engines and 120 men of the Fire Brigade were on the spot, & though at first they feared the whole church was doomed, yet their energy and skill were equal to the task, and by cutting through the roof just before the fire reached the tower, they got it under control, and before 8 o'clock it was all out.

Of the vestries only the bare walls remained, their contents being entirely destroyed, except the plate and registers, which were preserved intact by their safes.

The organ was entirely gone, including the fine old front carved by Grinling Gibbons. Of the roof we have preserved only the main beam of the chancel arch, two out of the four big beams of the chancel, & the ten rafters next the tower. One bay of the north aisle roof was also destroyed. The altar was burnt owing to a portion of the organ falling upon it, and the choir stalls were considerably damaged by falling tiles, but otherwise the internal fittings were only damaged by smoke & water, thanks to the excellence of the old roof, none of which fell in.

The east window was three-fourths destroyed, and two other of the stained glass windows considerably damaged."

The subsequent restoration

The repairs rendered necessary by this fire are also detailed in the following account by Mr. Dalton:

"We have endeavoured to replace everything as it was before the fire, putting the roof back timber by timber in good English oak, only boarding it with oak instead of the deal of comparatively recent date. This and the new vestry doors have all been cut from the unburnt portions of the old oak timbers. The timbers of the roof, which were not touched in the restoration of 1899, were found to be very rotten, & before many years much repair must have been undertaken. Thus two corbels, each 12 x 15 inches, on which the centre beam of the nave roof rested, and which had been bedded 12 inches into the wall, were so completely rotten that not two inches of them remained. Now we have a roof sound and solid (the new chancel beams weighed two tons each) & one which we hope may last for another 400 years."

Stepney Church in 1795.

A new altar was provided, and the choir seats restored in the places injured by fire.

The east and south windows in the chancel, and the east window of the north aisle, were replaced.

The two vestries were entirely re-roofed, and fitted with oak and pitchpine presses.

A new organ was supplied by Messrs. Norman & Beard.

The Church was also fitted with electric light.

This was all carried out at a cost of over £7000—a considerable portion of which large sum (£5156. 12s. 3d.) was covered by insurance.

The Church was reopened on the 6th October 1902 by the Bishop of Stepney.


  • 1. Frere, Memorials, p. 217.
  • 2. See Monograph,' The Church of St. Mary Stratford Bow.' 1900.