A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.
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THE PARISH CHURCH
St. Dunstan's church, Stepney, served Bethnal Green until 1743. A domestic chapel existed from 1243 at Bishop's Hall, where a marriage was licensed in 1593. (fn. 1) There may have been a hermitage associated with the Austin Friars, who were granted land and a spring at Cambridge Heath in 1394, (fn. 2) and a chaplain dated his will from Bethnal Green in 1432. (fn. 3) He may have served St. George's chapel, which existed by 1512 (fn. 4) and which, with its attached house, may have been the hermitage that stood near Bishop's Hall in the 1520s, (fn. 5) though bequests suggest that the chapel was used by villagers in the early 16th century. (fn. 6) In 1547 the bishop of London leased the 'chapel and messuage under one roof' on Bethnal green to Sir Ralph Warren for 99 years. (fn. 7) When the term expired the inhabitants used the chapel: sermons were preached there twice on Sunday and once on Tuesday. In 1652 the copyholders, with the steward's permission, had lately inclosed it and they asked for it to be settled 'to the same pious use'. (fn. 8) At the Restoration the owners of the manor appear to have reasserted their claim to it. In 1670 the lady of the manor leased to John Bumpstead the house with the adjoining chapel, 'anciently used for a preaching place'. (fn. 9) In the 1680s it was used as a school. (fn. 10) When the Poor's Land was set up in the 1690s the trustees were to meet at the chapel or chapel-house. (fn. 11) It was depicted in 1703 (fn. 12) and Edward Barsham, a London goldsmith, in 1713 mortgaged what was still called St. George's chapel and house, (fn. 13) but it was decayed in 1716 and 'turned into houses' by 1720. (fn. 14)
A plaque dated 1553 on the house and extant Tudor brickwork in the cellar suggest that it was rebuilt by Sir Ralph Warren, his widow, or tenants. (fn. 15) Probably after 1647 the inhabitants repaired the chapel, to which a cottage was attached at the western end. The house was repaired either shortly before 1670, or by John Bumpstead before 1693. (fn. 16) That reconstruction is probably responsible for most of the existing building, which is either of the mid (fn. 17) or the later 17th century. (fn. 18) Edward Barsham may have carried out alterations dated by plaque to 1705 and possibly including new windows, stairs, and attic doors. (fn. 19) In the 1990s the building was known as Netteswell House.
Plate dating from 1635 and 1681 and given to the new church in 1746 may have come from St. George's chapel. (fn. 20)
In 1650 it was proposed to divide Stepney into four parishes, one of them to include Bethnal Green and another Cock Lane and Stepney Rents. (fn. 21) In 1711, after a petition by 36 leading inhabitants, the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches agreed that Bethnal Green should be a parish with its own church. A site was found in the most populated part, in Harefield east of Brick lane, and plans were drawn up for a church in the style of the 4th century, 'the purest times of Christianity', with room for the charity school and a parsonage, but negotiations with Thomas Sclater, the putative owner, lapsed in 1716. (fn. 22) Another petition in 1724 complained that inhabitants had to attend Shoreditch parish church or Sir George Wheler's tabernacle in Spitalfields, 'an annual charge' and an incitement to dissent. (fn. 23) The commissioners purchased 2+ a. east of the Harefields site from Charles White in 1725 but again nothing was done, in spite of five petitions between 1725 and 1738, (fn. 24) possibly because Stepney resisted the loss of offerings and garden pennies, estimated in 1727 at £169 a year from 4,219 communicants in Bethnal Green and Mile End New Town. (fn. 25) Presumably convinced that the lack of a church had led to dissoluteness among the young and poor and to an exodus of 'the better sort', the commissioners finally agreed to a Bill; yet more convincing was the inhabitants' readiness to pay for the building. In 1743 an Act made Bethnal Green a separate rectory, the advowson and great tithes to remain with Brasenose College, Oxford, the surplice fees to go to the new rector, and small tithes, garden pennies, Easter offerings, and burial fees to the churchwardens, who were to pay the rector £130 a year. (fn. 26)
In 1843 the advowson was exchanged by Brasenose for that of Weeley (Essex), the property of the bishop of London, by that time patron of most of the district churches in Bethnal Green. He first exercised it on the death of the incumbent rector in 1861 and remained the patron in 1995. (fn. 27)
In 1812 the rector sought an increase in salary, commensurate with the dues raised in his name. (fn. 28) King's remuneration became an issue in his struggle with Joseph Merceron, some of whose supporters for long refused on principle to pay the rector's salary, (fn. 29) despite the passing in 1813 of an Act which secured £400 a year for the rector from dues such as those for tolling bells or for burials but not from the poor rates. (fn. 30) In 1845 a further Act (fn. 31) replaced small tithes, garden pennies, and Easter offerings by a fixed composition rate, of which £400 a year was for the rector and the rest for maintaining worship and repairing the churches of St. Matthew and St. John. The composition was abolished in 1898 when the vestry agreed to pay £20,000 to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who would pay £2,000 to the Incorporated Church Building Society for the fabric of the two churches and, from the rest, pay £350 a year to the rector and £190 for the salaries of church officials. (fn. 32)
A 'house for the minister' was planned in 1746 (fn. 33) and, although not marked on maps until the 1790s, (fn. 34) existed by 1767; (fn. 35) its repair was discussed in 1789. (fn. 36) The Rectory was east of the churchyard and in 1823 the rector Joshua King purchased a strip to the east to prevent those 'wanting to incommode the incumbent' from building cottages and privies up to the garden wall. (fn. 37) A new Rectory was built in 1905, a plain but substantial building of red brick. (fn. 38)
All the rectors appointed by Brasenose were fellows of the college, mostly absentees and pluralists who retained the benefice for life. (fn. 39) The second rector was present for part of the 1750s. (fn. 40) Almost a century was covered by the incumbencies of William Loxham, 1766-1809 and Joshua King, 1809-61. Loxham, thought never to have set foot in the parish, was, according to King, driven out after less than six months by the aggressive system which dominated Bethnal Green. (fn. 41) King, a 'fine portly man', 'strong Tory', and sportsman, (fn. 42) started as a young campaigner against Merceron's faction (fn. 43) but in 1821 he became rector of Woodchurch (Ches.), a wealthier and less populous parish, (fn. 44) where he decided to reside from 1823. (fn. 45) For a few years he returned in May or June, possibly to chair vestry meetings, (fn. 46) but his interest in Bethnal Green narrowed to the rights, mostly financial, of the rectory and his letters became increasingly intemperate, both with regard to the bishop and to the young curates of the new district churches, whose insubordination he attributed to the philanthropist William Cotton (d.1866). (fn. 47)
Timothy Gibson (d. 1864), assistant curate from 1842, (fn. 48) was presented as rector in 1861 in response to popular demand. A non-graduate who was awarded a Lambeth D.D., Gibson had presided over the creation of the ten district churches and shown sympathy for the poor. (fn. 49) He was followed by Septimus Cox Holmes Hansard, 1864-95, an Oxford M.A. and High Church Socialist, a friend of F. D. Maurice and active in attending the cholera victims in 1866, when he was assisted by Edward Pusey. Hansard introduced a daily Eucharist and the reservation of the sacrament, campaigned for Bethnal Green Museum and a free library, and was sympathetic to trade unions. He was, however, autocratic, lived in some style and, like King, aroused hostility in local church and education officials. (fn. 50) Such hostility probably explains why in 1898 St. Matthew's was said to have been neglected for a long time before the incumbency of Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, 1895-7. (fn. 51) Winnington-Ingram (d. 1946), later bishop of Stepney and then of London, had been head of Oxford House since 1888 and stimulated mission and social activities. (fn. 52) Attendances increased dramatically and the High Church tradition was intensified under Christopher Bedford (from 1981), to such an extent that wholesale conversion to Roman Catholicism was initiated after the passing of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure in 1993. The church was used for both Anglican and Roman Catholic services in 1996. (fn. 53)
Curates assumed importance from the rector's absenteeism. There was probably a lecturer and assistant curate from the foundation of the parish. An unendowed lecturer, Joseph Cookson from 1749 to 1791, gave the afternoon sermon on Sundays. (fn. 54) Appointment by the parish rather than by the rector was one of King's grievances. (fn. 55) An assistant curate, recorded in 1766, (fn. 56) was paid £45 a year in 1773 (fn. 57) and £60 a year in 1810, and lived in the parsonage, (fn. 58) although in 1785 the vestry protested that it had no resident clergy. (fn. 59) In 1789 there was a conflict between churchgoers and allegedly more casual attenders over the appointment of a curate, the rector having promised to consult the parish. (fn. 60) King paid £40 a year for an occasional assistant in 1812 (fn. 61) and in his later absence the curates John Mayne and Timothy Gibson occupied the parsonage. (fn. 62) Bishop Blomfield, who objected to non-residence, wished for a second assistant curate in 1832 but King maintained that Mayne was not overworked. The curate had accepted additional posts as afternoon lecturer, chaplain at the asylum, and private schoolmaster, (fn. 63) probably needing to supplement his pittance from the rector. Gibson, senior curate and lecturer from 1842, made appeals for the destitute, earning their affection and the wrath of other local ministers. (fn. 64) The most notable curate was Stewart Headlam, 1873-8, who shared S.C.H. Hansard's Christian Socialism, lived in working men's flats, joined radical clubs, and in 1877 started the parish guild of St. Matthew. He also organized debates, one with Charles Bradlaugh, and later became a member of the School Board for London and afterwards of the L.C.C. An associate of Bernard Shaw and the Fabians, his views proved too strong even for Hansard, who in 1877 dismissed him after the bishop's wrath was aroused by the publication of Headlam's lecture supporting the theatre. (fn. 65) From 1873 there were usually two assistant curates and from the 1890s to 1939 often three or four, especially during the period of close association with Oxford House. (fn. 66) Their duties, running clubs and dealing with applications for material help, were largely those of social workers. (fn. 67) In 1962 the curate, a declared anti-capitalist, was actively involved in a campaign against increased rent. (fn. 68)
By 1767 services were held twice on Sundays, twice on weekdays, and on all holidays; the sacrament was given once a month, (fn. 69) to c. 50 communicants between 1778 and 1810. (fn. 70) The organ was provided with a blower by the workhouse at 2s. 6d. a quarter. (fn. 71) In 1827 there were prayers and two sermons on Sunday and prayers on Wednesday and Friday. The sacrament was administered on the first Sunday in the month and at the great festivals. (fn. 72) Morning and evening Sunday services were fully choral by 1866, with the litany and a sermon on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings and at the great festivals. Holy Communion twice on Sunday mornings and on saints' days had been added by 1881. (fn. 73)
The church accommodated 1,200 in 1816, when it and was 'overflowing', (fn. 74) and 2,000 by 1838. (fn. 75) All sittings were free in 1851, when 560 adults and 400 children attended in the morning and 650 adults and 380 children in the afternoon. There was no evening service and Gibson explained that, while attendance had suffered from the building of the district churches, it had improved since 1842. (fn. 76) In 1886 worshippers numbered 378 in the morning and 896 in the evening, (fn. 77) making St. Matthew's the best attended church in Bethnal Green. It was no longer so in 1903, with 421 in the morning and 261 in the evening. (fn. 78)
The parish guild of St. Matthew, founded by Stewart Headlam in 1877, promoted the Eucharist and by 1890 had 200 members, 70 of them clergy. Its other aims being political and social, its battles with secularists made it a pioneer of Christian Socialism. Membership reached 364 in the 1890s but by 1909 Headlam thought that the guild had become only another socialist debating society and dissolved it. (fn. 79) St. Matthew's mission at no. 203 Bethnal Green Road, formerly the nonconformist Hope Town mission, existed by c. 1898 and was taken over by Oxford House in 1924. (fn. 80) A parish hall, built south of the Rectory in 1904, housed St. Matthew's club, formed c. 1901, by the 1920s. (fn. 81)
The church of ST. MATTHEW, in St. Matthew's (formerly Church) Row, was begun in 1743 and consecrated in 1746. (fn. 82) George Dance the elder designed a 'neat, commodious edifice' of brick with stone dressings, (fn. 83) with two tiers of roundheaded windows and a short, square, western tower. (fn. 84) Substantial repairs, largely to the roof, were undertaken in 1787 (fn. 85) and in 1795 the communion table was within a recess at the east end, with galleries on the other three sides. (fn. 86) The Society for Promoting the Building of Churches granted £350, which was unspent in 1824 when a faculty was granted for an iron gallery on three sides. (fn. 87) Fire destroyed the interior in 1859, although the books and plate were saved. (fn. 88) A rate was levied to rebuild but, after strikes and arguments between the architect T. E. Knightley and the local committee, it was not until 1861 that the church was reopened with a cupola added to the tower. (fn. 89) An elaborate choir-screen was among High Church furnishings added from the later 19th century. (fn. 90) The interior was severely damaged by bombing in 1940 and a temporary church, built within the old one and designed by A. Wontner Smith and Harold Jones, was dedicated in 1954, when the Tuscan portal of the west end was restored and the cupola removed. In 1957 Antony Lewis of Tapper & Lewis reconstructed the church according to Dance's designs except for the east window and the arrangement of the interior. The altar was placed in the body of the church with vestries and a Lady chapel in a gallery at the east end. A striking boat-shaped font by Lewis was placed at the west end and stained glass from St. Philip's was installed in the south-west crèche. The church was reconsecrated in 1961 and renovated in 1984. (fn. 91) Its fittings in 1996 included some introduced for Roman Catholic worship. (fn. 92)
Most plate was given in 1746 and included a silver flagon and cup of 1635, a cover paten datemarked 1681, and a beadle's staff dated 1690. A large silver paten on a foot dated from 1717 and mid 18th-century plate included a paten, a cup and cover, and six pewter plates. (fn. 93)
Apart perhaps from the French Protestant church, classified as Anglican in 1778 and 1810, (fn. 94) St. Matthew's remained the only Church of England place of worship until 1814, when the Episcopal Jews' chapel opened. Although the Church Building Commissioners had £1,000,000 to spend in populous parishes, (fn. 95) the vestry in 1819 expressed alarm at the possible cost of two intended churches, in north-west and east Bethnal Green. (fn. 96) By 1822 the commissioners had decided on a single church but it was not until 1828 that St. John's was consecrated and 1837 that a district was assigned to it after opposition from Joshua King. (fn. 97)
In 1836 Bishop Blomfield launched his scheme for 50 new churches but by 1839 he had raised much less than he had hoped. Persuaded either by William Cotton or Bryan King, incumbent of St. John's, he decided to concentrate on Bethnal Green. (fn. 98) A committee, with Bryan King as secretary and Cotton as treasurer, issued appeals pleading the parish's spiritual destitution and planned ten churches, dedicated to the apostles, each with its parsonage and school. Landowners including Capt. Sotheby gave sites and money was solicited from such local figures as the Mercerons, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, and Robert Hanbury and from City businessmen and institutions, largely through sermons given by the bishop. Meanwhile two or three houses in the centre of the parish were hired for curates and the old French Protestant church in St. John Street and Friar's Mount school in the Nichol were fitted up as temporary churches in 1840. (fn. 99)
The foundation stone of the first church, St. Peter's, was laid in 1840, when jeering crowds loosed an ox at the ceremony. (fn. 100) By 1843 four churches (St. Peter's, St. Andrew's, St. Philip's, and St. James the Less's) had been consecrated and assigned chapelry districts under curates nominated by the rector and paid by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. (fn. 101) Districts were assigned to the remaining six churches in 1844, (fn. 102) although the last, St. Thomas's, was not consecrated until 1850. By 1853 Bethnal Green had 12 churches with 11 parsonages, 10 schools, 22 clergymen, 129 district visitors, and 244 Sunday school teachers. (fn. 103) Accommodation for Anglicans increased from 4,900 seats in 1838 (fn. 104) to 14,851 by 1851, when 11,751 attendances were recorded, compared with 11,799 at nonconformist chapels. (fn. 105)
Local anti-clericalism, compounded of radicalism, dissent, and 'infidelity', softened. In 1841 it had been difficult to find a single communicant to act as churchwarden of Blomfield's first church but by 1846 there were 100 communicants in each district. When the last foundation stone was laid in 1849, the procession was received by a sympathetic crowd and within a decade congregations were numbered in hundreds, if not thousands. Dissenting tradition, however, probably lay behind a continuing distrust of such Puseyite practices as preaching in surplices. (fn. 106) By 1851 clothing clubs, maternity charities, provident institutions, and a dispensary had been established (fn. 107) and by 1858 moral conditions in St. Peter's were said to be better than 10 years earlier. (fn. 108) The new churches brought educated leadership, schools, and some social relief, although Blomfield's vision of civilizing the slums failed. (fn. 109) It was later admitted that larger, better endowed parishes with chapels of ease would have been more effective than the numerous districts, (fn. 110) for which it proved hard to find suitable incumbents, partly because local hoped-for funds failed to materialize and the clergy spent too much time on appeals. (fn. 111) By 1858 it was clear that the schools would not produce a generation of churchgoers. (fn. 112) Local clergy despaired at the poverty and irreligion, even if the 'mental torture' and fear of 'Christianity's dissolution' expressed by the incumbent of St. Andrew's, was extreme. (fn. 113)
The clergy became almost exclusively missioners and social workers, who were overwhelmed by work despite the help of visitors, usually middle-class women from outside the parish. New districts were formed: St. Paul's (1865) and Holy Trinity (1866) in the overcrowded west and St. Barnabas's (1870) in the most recently settled east. The principal benefactor, William Cotton, died in 1866. (fn. 114) There was some absenteeism among the clergy, debate about how to combat pauperism, (fn. 115) and notoriety at the 'Red church' (St. James the Great), where waival of marriage fees led to farcical scenes. In 1883 the curate-in-charge of St. Peter's attributed the 'deadness' in the church to incumbents being 'broken down'. (fn. 116)
In the later 19th century and up to 1914 energetic clergymen, beginning with Hansard and Headlam at St. Matthew's, were aided by a nationwide interest in the East End in bringing about a revival. It was manifested in ritualism, in more numerous curates, and in the opening of institutes, missions, and university settlements. Communicants so multiplied that in 1909 Winnington-Ingram, then bishop of London, contrasted the emptiness of all but two churches 20 years ago with the present where 'the nets were breaking' with the numbers. (fn. 117) Census figures concealed the increase by omitting afternoon services, some of the most successful, whereas 1886 figures were taken on Harvest Sunday. (fn. 118) Anglican attendances for 1886 were 7,399 (fn. 119) and for 1903 7,992. (fn. 120) From 13 per cent of the population in 1851 Anglican congregations fell to 5.8 per cent in 1886 and rose to 6.0 per cent in 1903.
Thereafter, with few exceptions, there was a decline in activities and congregations, hastened by rival social attractions, a falling population, and non-Christian immigration. The Episcopal Jews' chapel closed in 1895 and Holy Trinity in 1926. Most churches suffered bomb damage and in 1951 the Church Commissioners drew up a Scheme to reduce Bethnal Green's parishes from 14 to eight. St. Philip's, St. Paul's, and St. Matthias's, small western parishes which had been cleared of slums, were united with St. Matthew's; St. Thomas's was united with St. Peter's, St. James the Great's with St. Jude's, and St. Simon Zelotes's (already united with St. Anthony's, Globe Rd.) with St. John's; adjustmestments were made to other parish boundaries. (fn. 121) Supplementary Schemes confirmed the plans for the first group, delayed by the restoration of St. Matthew's church in 1954, (fn. 122) and added St. Andrew's to St. Matthew's in 1958. (fn. 123) St. Bartholomew's was added to St. John's in 1978 (fn. 124) and St. James the Great's with St. Jude's to St. Matthew's in 1984. (fn. 125)