Survey of London Monograph 6, St Dunstan's Church, Stepney. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1905.
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AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE BY C. R. ASHBEE, M.A. ON THE PRESERVATION OF ST. DUNSTAN'S, STEPNEY, AND THE NEED FOR THE BETTER SAFEGUARDING OF LOCAL REGISTERS & MONUMENTS.
In previous cases we have had to deplore foolish and wanton destruction of beautiful things, as in the Great House, Leyton, the Palace of Bromley, &c.; here at least we may congratulate ourselves that even against the difficulties of a serious fire one of the great points of history in East London has been preserved for us. We owe this to the intelligent care of the Rector, Prebendary Dalton, and his architects.
We now have preserved in East London, in a fairly complete form, at least three of the landmarks of the old time villages of rural England, the Church of St. Dunstan, Stepney, St. Mary, Stratford atte Bow, and the Trinity Hospital, Mile End. If the work of the Committee serves no other purpose than that of pointing occasionally to how a thing can be well done, as it has been done here at St. Dunstan's, it will not have been for naught.
There are two lessons which may, I think, be brought home to the community in reviewing this work of saving and recording the Church. The need for greater care in the preservation of parish registers, & the need for some system whereby the family records, of which our London churches are the guardians, should be better protected.
To take the first. Had it not been for the fireproof safe in the vestry, the whole of the 250 volumes of the Registers—unique of their kind in number and completeness among London church records—would have been destroyed. I know of many cases in which these most valuable documents, often the chief data for local history, are kept in a slovenly & untidy manner by the incumbent. The clergy, in these matters, do not sufficiently look upon themselves as custodians of national tradition and history, one might almost say honour.
The fireproof safe is a very inexpensive detail; it is advised by the ecclesiastical authorities, but I think these have no power to compel incumbents to provide it. I remember the late Bishop Creighton—keen historian and fine Churchman that he was—expressing the greatest concern for the safety of these records, often in very doubtful custody. It is to be hoped that the fortunate saving of the Stepney registers may incline other incumbents who have not so far given sufficient thought to the preservation of registers, to exercise more care in regard to them.
The other matter, which on behalf of the Survey Committee I would like to touch on, is the need for some better record of London families. There is, as far as I know, no system or method by which the records of English families, much less London families, are being preserved. Sometimes their only memento is a stray tombstone, monument or inscription in a city church, or the church of what was once an outlying suburb, and is now swallowed up in the great city.
Were we sure that these stones or memorials were left untouched, we might leave their collation to the harmless antiquary of some later date, but it is always to be remembered that these historic records are subject to constant and aggressive attack from powerful bodies. The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, for instance, is a very estimable and admirable institution: it does a great deal of good work, and it is often right and fitting that dreary churchyards should be converted into pleasant playgrounds, but when such a conversion takes place the chances are that numberless records of ancient English families are done away with. More serious enemies still are the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, they who have church property under their special protection, and who appear frequently to conceive their trust as best fulfilled by the sale and realisation of what they have into cash. They are often inclined to treat their property as so much stock, in the phraseology of the business man, to be turned over as profitably as possible within a given period of time.
If any members of the Survey, or any who are interested in the preservation of English historic record, would, before it is too late, catalogue and classify (somewhat in the manner in which Mr. Pepys has treated the tombs in Stepney Church) all the ancient churches of London and the outlying suburbs within the region of the Survey, I think a very valuable piece of history would be accomplished; and I commend it to the readers of this book.