Poplar High Street: The church of St Matthias

Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.

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'Poplar High Street: The church of St Matthias', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse( London, 1994), British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp98-107 [accessed 14 July 2024].

'Poplar High Street: The church of St Matthias', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Edited by Hermione Hobhouse( London, 1994), British History Online, accessed July 14, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp98-107.

"Poplar High Street: The church of St Matthias". Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Ed. Hermione Hobhouse(London, 1994), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp98-107.

In this section

CHAPTER IV The Church of St Matthias and the East India Company's Almshouses

The Church of St Matthias was built in 1652–4 as a chapel for the hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall and is the only church from the Interregnum still standing in London. It was erected in the grounds of the East India Company's almshouse, which had been founded in 1628 in Poplar High Street. Poplar Chapel, as it was known, was closely modelled on the Broadway Chapel, Westminster (1635 8), mixing an exceptionally pure Palladian interior with an exterior which combined Gothic and Classical elements. Control of Poplar Chapel eventually passed from the hamlet to the East India Company. The almshouse was rebuilt in 1798–1806 as separate groups of buildings. In 1866–7, following the winding up of the company, the almshouses were demolished and the church was transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, consecrated as St Matthias and given its own district within the parish of All Saints. An extensive programme of restoration followed. The church closed in 1976 and remained unused until 1993, when it was converted for use as a community centre.

The Church of St Matthias

Background and Foundations

Upon the acquisition in 1627 of the house that became the East India Company's almshouse, Captain Thomas Styles, a company 'Committee' or Director involved in work at Blackwall Yard, reported that 'behind the house there is a faire field, and a dainty rowe of Elmes, and a private garden, wherein a Chapple may be built of 90 foote in length and 32 foote in breadth'. (fn. 11) There was, in fact, a chapel within the house, so a separate building was not needed. The inhabitants of Poplar and Blackwall, though, had no place of worship nearer than Stepney parish church, and in 1633 they asked the company to build a chapel near the almshouse. The merchants, who were not enjoying the great profits of earlier years, decided not to spend money in this way, preferring instead to use available funds to buy land to endow the company's pensioners. (fn. 12)

The effective impulse for the building of the chapel came from Gilbert Dethick, lord of the Manor of Poplar and a member of the Stepney vestry in the 1630s. He died in 1639, bequeathing £100 towards the cost, provided that 'the foundation … be laid within three years after my death'. (fn. 13) The inhabitants again petitioned the company in 1642, asking only for the ground for a church and churchyard, and a house for a minister. A specially convened General Court of the company's 'Adventurers', meeting on 6 May 1642, approved the grant of half an acre to the rear of the almshouse as 'it cost the Companie nothing', and gave 60 loads of stones 'towards the foundation of the said church'. Captain Styles and Sir John Gayer, a wealthy East India Company 'Committee' and City Alderman, were sent to set out the ground. (fn. 14)

Figure 25:

The Church of St Matthias and the East India Company's Almshouses. Site plan based on the Ordnance Survey of 1867–70

Dethick's bequest eventually was paid, indicating that the foundations of the church were laid soon after the grant of land. (fn. 15) If so, the inhabitants must already have had an agreed plan, which, to judge from the resulting building, was closely based upon the recently completed Broadway Chapel at Westminster, one of very few London churches newly built in the early seventeenth century. (fn. 1) The Broadway Chapel appears to have been devised as a form of church ideally suited to Protestant worship, free from Romish precedent and harking back to 'primitive' Christianity. Its plan reflected the requirement of Reformed worship that a church should serve as a lecture room. Architecturally it stemmed from the work of Inigo Jones (1573–1652), and perhaps also from Dutch models. Jones may have had a hand in its planning, but the architectural design was probably largely the work of men such as Edward Carter (d.1663) or Nicholas Stone (1587–1647), both of whom had worked with Jones on other projects. Ideology and fashion may have influenced the choice of the Broadway Chapel as a model for Poplar, but family connections possibly played a part as well. Thomas Pye, a vestryman for Poplar from 1639 and churchwarden in 1641–3, may have been related to Sir Robert Pye (1585–1662), the principal fund-raiser for the Broadway Chapel and one of the Poplar Commissioners of Sewers from 1645 to 1657. (fn. 16)

Lack of further funds and the outbreak of the Civil War seem to have prevented progress beyond the foundations, and the garden behind the almshouse became 'very ruinous, and overgrowne with weeds'. (fn. 17)

Funding and Building the Chapel

A deadline for the resumption of work on the building was imposed in the will of Sir John Gayer, who died on 20 July 1649. He provided for the glazing of the chapel, if it were built within four years of his death, and stated that his Coat of Arms should be set in the east window. His son-in-law, Robert Abdy, was instructed to see to the ordering of the glass. (fn. 18) (fn. 2) Gayer's bequest was probably worth a few hundred pounds, given the cost of glass, but funds for the building were still lacking. The inhabitants approached the East India Company again in April 1652, asking for help towards the completion of the chapel. The company decided to contribute £200 from its maintenance fund for the almshouse, on condition that space in the chapel be reserved for its almsmen. The walls were apparently up by June 1652, when the first £100 was ordered to be paid to John Tanner, the bricklayer. (fn. 3) Work continued in 1653 and the chapel was ready for worship by 1654. (fn. 19)

It is, of course, possible that Tanner and other craftsmen worked under the supervision of an architect, as had been the case when the East India Company employed Edward Carter to remodel the almshouse in 1627–8 (see page 108), but there is no evidence for this. An architect may not have been needed for the 1650s work; it was apparently carried out to plans long since settled, with an accessible London building as a model.

Other benefactors contributed to the cost of the chapel. Maurice Thompson and Thomas Tomblings 'together with diverse other inhabitants of the parish …disbursed and laid out severall somes of money in and for the building'. (fn. 20) These two men, 'partly by their own Bounty, but chiefly by their earnest Application to wealthy persons of their Acquaintance carried on this noble Building to its Perfection, at the Cost of above two Thousand Pounds, as it is usually computed'. (fn. 21) (The Broadway Chapel cost approximately £2,200.) (fn. 22) The involvement of Maurice Thompson (d.1676) was critical to the success of the enterprise. He was a wealthy and influential Puritan merchant of very high standing in the 1650s, a principal author of the Navigation Act of 1651, a member of the High Court of Justice, and the 'right-hand man' of Cromwell's Western Design. (fn. 23) Thompson was a leading figure in the East India Company from 1644, and its Governor in 1657–9. He lived at Mile End Green and was a Stepney vestryman from 1647 to 1662. (fn. 24) Between reorganizing the nation's trade and otherwise serving the government, Thompson evidently made it his business to solicit money for completion of the Poplar Chapel. He helped to arrange donations of a further £120 through the East India Company in 1653, and supported the hamlet's successful claim to £50 more from the company. (fn. 25) His own contribution must have been substantial. It is perhaps to Thompson's status, more than to any other single factor, that completion of the building was due, and when it opened he 'condescended to go into the Clerk's Desk, and there named and set the first Psalm'. (fn. 26) In common with other churches built during the Interregnum, the chapel was unconsecrated.

Thomas Tomblings (or Tomlins) was 'Treasurer for the money collected for the building'. (fn. 27) From 1646 Tomblings was the East India Company's Clerk at Blackwall Yard, but his fund-raising for the chapel was unofficial. (fn. 28) One of the contributory 'wealthy persons' was Henry Johnson, who leased and then purchased Blackwall Yard from the East India Company in 1652–6 (see page 556). As a new arrival in the hamlet, its principal employer, and a vestryman from 1654, Johnson would have been expected to make a respectable donation towards the completion of the chapel. (fn. 29) This he apparently did, and gave money 'to beautify it with Painting soon after that it was finished'. (fn. 30) He may also have given a west gallery as a late addition. The principal benefactors were commemorated by representations of their Arms: in the east window, as stipulated, were those of Sir John Gayer, flanked by the Arms of his wife and daughter, Katharine Gayer and Katharine Abdy; in the north transept window those of Gilbert Dethick were represented; in the south windows those of Maurice Thompson and Thomas Tomblings; and, 'Against the West end of the gallery', were placed the Arms of Henry Johnson. William Dethick's Arms were incorporated in the east window of the north aisle after his death in 1655, indicating that further money was raised from the Dethick family. (fn. 31) (Most of these Arms remained in place into the nineteenth century.) (fn. 32)

Figure 26:

The church of St Matthias, plan showing the main building phases. A1– A indicates the line of the section shown in fig. 28

The Structure and Architecture of Poplar Chapel

The earliest known representation of the Poplar Chapel is a crude drawing of 1755 (Plate 13b). (fn. 33) This is the only documentary evidence we have of its appearance prior to refenestration in 1775–6. The subsequent building was illustrated by watercolours c1799 (plate 150a, 150b). (fn. 34) The evidence of several repairs indicates nothing approaching the complete rebuilding that was postulated in descriptions of the building from the late eighteenth century onwards. The fabric of the 1652–4 church survives to a very large degree and is generally consistent with the drawing of 1755 (fig. 26).

Hidden behind ragstone cladding and cement render there are red-brick walls, the bricks approximately two inches thick and laid in regular English bond. There are also flush-faced ashlar quoins, clearly contemporary with the brickwork, though absent from the 1755 drawing. Internal straight joints and their ghosts in plaster run about 2ft outside the jambs of the large west-central and transept windows, and over the chancel arch, carrying up to meet just below the ceiling to circumscribe very large round-headed openings (fig. 28). A reduction in the size of these central windows in 1775–6 is witnessed by the watercolours, and by Portland stone reveals and cills surviving immediately behind the Victorian window surrounds. Similarly, joints and ghosts confirm that the smaller windows at the outer ends of each main elevation were originally square-headed. Doorways at the east and west ends of the main north and south elevations were, apart from the north-east one, round-headed and probably original. The watercolours show a Classical doorcase to the south-east and paired panelled doors with strapwork ornament to the north-west. They also show large shaped eaves brackets, which still survive. Stylistically these are consistent with the 1650s, not the 1770s. The coved eaves in the 1755 drawing might represent an early covering of the timber brackets. The absence from the drawing of the two known and apparently original 'Classical' external features and the depiction of pointed arches may simply be inaccuracies: faced with traceried windows the 'artist' perhaps felt he was drawing a 'Gothic' building. Like much of the rest of the church, the tracery was paralleled at the Broadway Chapel, views of which help form an impression of the original appearance of the Poplar Chapel (plate 13c). Though clearly very alike, the buildings were not identical. There were originally 'Holborn' gables at Westminster, a feature for which there is no evidence at Poplar, though ornamental gables may have been destroyed in 1703–5.

The plan and interior of St Matthias's come as a surprise after consideration of the original exterior. This is a contrast that the Victorian work re-established. Minor accretions disguise the extreme simplicity of the plan, which is a rectangle of a square and a half (approximately 90ft by 60ft), the east-west axis of which is reinforced by two rows of columns dividing the building into a nave and aisles of five bays (fig. 26). This emphasis is moderated through the widening of the middle bay for transepts, which disrupt the rectangle only slightly and create a central 24ft-square (in fact almost cubic) crossing. The result is a centralized axial plan, a cross-in-rectangle, with no eastwards emphasis whatsoever. Regular proportions were carefully maintained; the outer nave bays are square-and-a-half rectangles (24ft by 16ft) and the aisle bays are 16ft squares.

The coherence of the plan is sustained by the Classical interior (plates 14b, 15a, 15b). The columns are neither correctly Doric nor Tuscan. That the intended order was Tuscan is suggested by the plain entablature and comparison of the mouldings with early seventeenth-century 'Tuscan' orders. (fn. 4) The entablature was not returned into the transepts, reinforcing the east-west axis. The oak columns stand on low ashlar plinths. (fn. 5) There is no evidence for the tradition that the columns are re-used ships' masts; their mortices and patching are explicable in relation to galleries that carried across the transepts, and the repair of stress cracks. It was presumably stress that made replacement of the north-west crossing column necessary, perhaps in 1722. The other columns have castiron cores, presumably inserted in 1867–8 in preference to further replacement. (fn. 35) The north-east crossing column has iron braces at its base, a repair method more characteristic of shipbuilding than of architecture. (fn. 36) The column timbers continue above the capitals and are evidently tenoned into the entablature beams. The integration of the plan, the columns and the roof structure suggests that these features, with the depressed, almost elliptical, vaults and flat-ceiled aisles, are all contemporary. The plan, the 'Tuscan' order and the ceilings can all be paralleled at the Broadway Chapel. There is no reason to ascribe the basic form and structure of the church to any date other than 1642–54.

The church retains its original roof structure, steeply pitched with slates replacing tiles (fig. 27). The main timbers are oak of consistently large scantling, neatly square-cut and generally wooden-pegged. There are kingpost trusses with the heads of the posts splayed, as if to provide keys to arches made up of the principal rafters. The posts are thus, in principle, suspended, rather than bearing down on the tie beams as in 'vernacular' kingpost construction. The suspended king-post truss was a continental roof type, apparently introduced to England by Inigo Jones. (fn. 37) This appears to be one of the earliest surviving examples of its use in England. The vaulted ceiling made it necessary to have raised tie beams, so the trusses are strengthened by paired passing braces, fixed by forelock bolts and timber pegs to the inner faces of all but the east and west end trusses, which abut the walls. The braces are probably original, as they are neatly housed into the principal rafters. The nave upper purlins are linked by iron straps to prevent racking. Further stiffening is provided by longitudinal beams linking the ties.

The crossing roof is an ingenious but tentative solution to a problem unfamiliar to mid-seventeenth-century English carpenters. The massive central king post is suspended not from principal rafters, but from huge cambered struts bearing on to the junctions of the longitudinal beams and the nave trusses flanking the crossing. The post is joggled at its base to accommodate the jointing of the nave and transept longitudinal beams. Heavy iron stirrup straps reinforce this construction. The weight of the crossing roof is thereby transmitted to the crossing columns, which have needed replacement and repair. Daring though this roof seems to be, it was not economical with timber and there is evidence of uncertainty in its construction. There are apparently never-used mortices on the inner faces of the principal nave rafters flanking the crossing at the level of the nave upper purlins. Rather than continuing these purlins, much larger purlins were set slightly lower and double tenoned. These are unsupported over 24ft except by struts from the central king post. Roofs over vaults such as this became commonplace in the late seventeenth century. (fn. 38) However, in the 1650s this roof was both sophisticated and experimental. (fn. 6)

Much of the weight of the nave roof is transmitted to the aisle roofs and beyond to the side walls. The aisle roofs are therefore reinforced with beams running diagonally outwards from the centre of the building. The aisle trusses nearest the transepts have king posts to help to cope with the weight of the transept roofs. The west bay of the nave roof contains the existing turret, its predecessor and evidence of something earlier. Upper purlins across the east end of this bay were sawn off, probably in 1775–6, for the insertion of a turret frame, encased in 1870–2. There are no indications of upper purlins in the western truss, suggesting that there was always some sort of turret, albeit small (plate 13b). There are references to the chapel bell in 1684 and to a belfry in 1701. (fn. 39)

Figure 27:

The Church of St Matthias, isometric view from the south-east of the roof framing of 1652–4 and turret framing of 1775–6, as surveyed in 1985 and 1988. Common rafters and plates omitted

There is little evidence for the layout of the original fittings; the chapel appears to have been largely refitted in the eighteenth century. A reference of 1711 to the pulpit places it just east of the crossing. (fn. 40) It is not clear what, if anything other than pews, lay to its east, though by 1720 there was a communion table under the east window. (fn. 41) The west gallery was, if not original, an early addition. (fn. 42) The painted decoration of the chapel must have been modest; the internal architecture demands chaste treatment. The heraldry was probably the only iconographic ornament.

The History of the Chapel from 1654 to 1866

The inhabitants of Poplar and Blackwall had difficulty maintaining a minister at the chapel, perhaps partly because of a medieval agreement relating to the Chapel of St Mary, whereby the Isle of Dogs was exempt from payment towards such maintenance. (fn. 43) The Trustees for the Maintenance of Preaching Ministers, empowered by Parliament in September 1654, were unable to assist as the chapel was not a parish church. (fn. 44) The first minister had already departed by October 1655 when, despite prevailing antipathy to private patronage, the inhabitants were obliged to ask the East India Company, not previously involved in appointment or maintenance, 'to joyne with them in the settling of … a Minister amonge them'. Three months later they asked the company to take on outright patronage of the chapel. (fn. 45) The company had its own cleric in the almshouse and so would not have been keen to pay for another in Poplar, particularly as it had just severed its principal link with the district by the sale of Blackwall Yard. The company and the inhabitants attempted to solve the problem by applying for Poplar and Blackwall to be made a parish, but this proposal ran into opposition. (fn. 46)

The issue was resolved in January 1657, when the East India Company accepted a candidate put forward by the hamlet to serve as 'chaplaine' to both almshouse and chapel. The company agreed to accommodate the chaplain in the almshouse and pay him a salary, he undertaking to preach 'to the Almespeople and such others as shall come to heare him during the pleasure of the company'. The company took the chapel key. (fn. 47) The plaster roof boss at the centre of the crossing carries the Arms of the East India Company, as they were until 1709. (fn. 7) The robustly moulded cartouche, with lion masks in the surrounding wreath, was probably put up in 1657 to mark the effective transfer of the chapel to the company.

The relative rights and duties of the East India Company and the inhabitants of Poplar and Blackwall regarding the chapel were not clearly defined in 1657. Chaplains were nominated by the inhabitants and formally elected by the company in 1666 and 1670, and they were maintained by the company. (fn. 48) The inhabitants regarded repair of the chapel as their proper concern. (fn. 49) The company's authority was threatened in 1690 when the inhabitants 'elected' a chaplain. After some deliberation the company accepted this fait accompli and agreed to keep up the maintenance. (fn. 50) The inhabitants held the rights to the burial ground and from 1701 applied burial dues to the maintenance of the chaplain, or minister as they preferred to call him. Some of this money was used in 1702 for the purchase for the chapel of a 'brass sconce with branches'. (fn. 51)

The chapel needed extensive repair after the Great Storm of November 1703. The storm had perhaps exacerbated earlier dilapidation as, earlier in 1703, the inhabitants had approached the East India Company about repairs. The storm damage cannot have been enormous as the tracery and heraldic glass survived (plate 13b). The necessary repairs seem to have been carried out in 1705. (fn. 52) The inhabitants later reported that the chapel 'was almost intirely ruined' in the storm, but this was probably indignant exaggeration as they had had to pay the repair bill of '£104 and upwards' without the help from the company that had been sought. (fn. 53) This was one of several causes of a deterioration in relations between the inhabitants and the company, which was preoccupied with stiff competition at this period. In 1706 the inhabitants complained of 'the numerous hardships, extraordinary charges and dilatory treatment this hamlet hath of late years laboured under occasioned by the Hon. East India Company'. The company met an attempt to prosecute for the payment of various sums by locking the chapelyard gate and asserting that its 'Ancient Rights' would be maintained. (fn. 54) Against this background the appointment of a chaplain in 1711 was bound to be contentious. The inhabitants claimed not only the right to elect the minister, but absolute rights to the chapel and its yard before electing John Landon. (fn. 55) The East India Company resisted, deciding to hold its own election for the chaplaincy. Landon won this election on the second ballot, but only after the inhabitants conceded the company's right to make the appointment. (fn. 56)

In 1711 the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches declared Poplar Chapel fit to be a parish church. John James reported for the Commissioners in 1718 that the building 'required considerable Reparations in the Roof, Covering, Stone, Windows, paving, pewing and Galleries, besides that it has no Tower at the West End which perhaps will be thought necessary if it be made parochial'. (fn. 57) The already limited capacity of the hamlet to cope with repairs was further weakened in 1720 when Landon managed to obtain a half of the profits from the chapel and its grounds for himself. The inhabitants were obliged to ask the East India Company to repair the chapel. Recalling earlier disagreements, the company offered to carry out current and subsequent repairs if the inhabitants gave up 'all pretences' to the chapel. They capitulated in 1721 and the company spent £230 in 1722 carrying out 'only such repairs as are really necessary'. (fn. 58) These works may have included the replacement in stone of the north-west crossing column and additional seating. Complaints of inadequate seating had been made in 1709, when there was a single gallery (presumably that given by Henry Johnson). There are references of 1711 to 'gallerys' and James's 'Galleries', but there is no clear evidence that others were added before 1722. (fn. 59)

In 1724 the Commissioners proposed that Poplar be included in the new parish of St Anne, Limehouse, but this was vigorously resisted by the hamlet and the East India Company with claims that the Poplar Chapel would thereby be rendered useless. The Commissioners agreed, once again, to accept the chapel as a parish church, but the matter ground to a halt over the question of maintenance for the minister. The public funds applied to the new churches were not made available, the hamlet resisted the imposition of a rate, and the company was not prepared to continue its stipend without the benefits of patronage. (fn. 60) The East India Company imposed its full control over the Poplar Chapel in 1728 when it elected a chaplain against the wishes of the hamlet. (fn. 61) Repairs to make the chapel 'fit for divine service' were carried out in 1733 for about £80, paid for through the East India Company's Poplar Fund, the almshouse 'pension fund'. (fn. 62) An early photograph shows fittings that would suit this date and the expressed intention, a triple-decker pulpit well to the east and communion rails enclosing a small sanctuary in front of a pilastered reredos (plate 14b). The reredos may explain the raised cill to the east window in the 1755 drawing (plate 13b). (fn. 63)

The inhabitants wrote to the East India Company in November 1774 that the chapel was 'exceedingly out of repair in the window frames and walls', as well as in its tiling and gutters. (fn. 64) Richard Jupp (1728–99), the company's Surveyor, was instructed to report on the state of the building with a view to carrying out 'necessary repairs'. (fn. 65) The company's chaplain, who did not then reside in Poplar, reported in 1790 that the chapel was 'rebuilt in 1775', (fn. 66) and in 1795 Daniel Lysons wrote that 'The whole chapel was nearly rebuilt by the East India Company in 1776'. (fn. 67) This rebuilding is accepted as such in almost all subsequent descriptions of the building, but Thomas Pennant's report that 'The chapel has been, of late years, thoroughly repaired by the East India Company' is more accurate. (fn. 68) Given the instruction to Jupp, it is improbable that the East India Company would have paid for more than essential work. The repairs were extensive, but apparently limited to remedying specified faults, comprising complete refenestration, with replacement of the turret (plates 13b, 150a, 150b). The tracery was removed, the large windows made narrower with new round heads, and the smaller windows given segmental heads, all with plain leaded glazing and projecting stone surrounds (fig. 28). The new timber turret had a square lower stage and an octagonal cupola with a ball finial. The frame for the lower stage of the 1775–6 turret survives under its successor, retaining the housings for the cupola.

The East India Company extended and rebuilt its almshouses in 1798–1806, leaving the chapel at the centre of a collegiate group of buildings. The chapel itself was 'repaired and embellished' in 1803, when Henry Holland was the East India Company Surveyor. (fn. 69) The works evidently included cement rendering and ochre colouring of the external walls and partial reroofing in slate, thus hiding unfashionable red brick and tile. The north-west entrance was blocked and a vestry and fire-engine house was built against the east wall. (fn. 70) A clock, said to be dated 1803 and made by J. Thwaites of Clerkenwell, was placed in the turret. It survives with its faces reset in the 1870–2 turret. John Perry of Blackwall Yard gave an organ, probably fitted into the west gallery. (fn. 71) After the opening of All Saints' Church in 1822 the chapel continued as the East India Company's private concern, though still accommodating a number of poplar churchgoers. (fn. 72)

Figure 28:

The Church of St Matthiasin 1988, south elevation (far left)and section looking west. Dottedlines indicate the 1652–4 windowopenings, dashed lines the segmentalheaded windows inserted 1775–6.The line of the section is shownin fig. 26

The Church of St Matthias, from 1866: Restoration, Decline and Renewal

The East India Company was wound up in 1858, its functions absorbed by the Crown. The government anticipated disposing of the Poplar estate from at least 1860, but the decision to break up the establishment was deferred until 1866. (fn. 73) The chapel was transferred to the Bishop of London and a district was fixed for what was then designated the Church of St Matthias, Poplar. John Fenwick Kitto was appointed the first vicar. The building was consecrated for the first time by the Archbishop of Armagh on 19 February 1867. (fn. 74)

An appeal for the restoration of the church was launched in January 1867 and funds were raised from many of the larger commercial enterprises of Poplar and the Isle of Dogs. New pews were the priority. The addition of a chancel, porches, a new turret and other external improvements would follow. (fn. 75) William Milford Teulon (1823–1900) was appointed architect, and the first phase of the restoration was carried out in 1867–8 by Crabb & Vaughan, who were paid £647 for the reseating. The work also included removal of the north and south galleries, cutting back the west gallery on new iron supports, marbling the columns, an underfloor hot-water heating system from Hayden & Company, lighting, ventilation ribs across the ceiling vaults, a pulpit, a neoNorman font and an organ from Hill & Son (plate 15a, b). The north-west entrance was reinstated and the southeast entrance closed. (fn. 76)

The next phase of the restoration was carried out in 1870–2. This was external work, apparently intended to give the 'low' church an ecclesiastically, if not architecturally, respectable appearance (plate 14a; fig. 28). Edwyn Evans Cronk, Teulon's junior partner, had become involved. He was asked to prepare the specifications; Teulon claimed the plans. The work was carried out by J. Kemp Coleman, a builder and cabinet-maker of No. 120 Poplar High Street and a former churchwarden. Stained-glass windows were fitted by Lavers & Barraud. The external restoration comprised the cladding of the elevations in Kentish ragstone with Bath stone dressings, refenestration with 'Venetian' tracery to suit roundheaded windows, reroofing in slate and a quaint zincclad turret 'lengthened' over the Georgian turret, reusing the earlier ball finial and weathervane. The addition of the north and south porches followed in 1873–4. The whole second phase cost approximately £2,000. (fn. 77)

The last part of the restoration was the replacement in 1875–6 of the east vestry and fire-engine house with a chancel flanked by a vestry and an organ chamber. (fn. 78) Teulon's plans for this stone-clad stock-brick addition elicited no praise. G. E. Street commented: 'There is nothing to show what the character can be of the church to which the very singular design of this chancel can be suited … [the] tracery of the east window ought to be reconsidered and the big trefoils in the gables of the aisles ought hardly to be inserted if the style is meant (as is supposed) to be modern Italian.' (fn. 79) The Incorporated Church Building Society Committee of Architects was no kinder: 'Hideous as the "original design" must be the Committee presume that they cannot insist upon its leading features being abandoned in the addition now proposed.' (fn. 80) Teulon left St Matthias's in 1875, having fallen out with Kitto, and Cronk supervised the building of the chancel, by J. Kemp Coleman for £1,177. (fn. 81) The east window was given a stained-glass Crucifixion, with scenes from the Passion and the Four Evangelists, designed c1868 by N. H. J. Westlake and erected by Lavers & Barraud (plate 15a). (fn. 82) The mosaic Evangelist symbols below this window were added in 1903. (fn. 83)

Subsequently the church underwent only minor repairs and alterations. A carved oak pulpit, made by Jones & Willis of Great Russell Street, was given in 1915. The north transept stained-glass window was a war memorial to East London Freemasons, erected by Cakebread, Robey & Company of Stoke Newington in 1920. (fn. 84) A choir vestry was formed at the east end of the north aisle in 1927 by the insertion of a Tudor-style oak screen with fluted pilasters and a vine-scroll frieze, designed by W. Wheeler, architect, and made by Faith Craft Works (Plate 15a). The north-east entrance was made at this time. (fn. 85) In 1935 the choir vestry was enlarged into the organ chamber and the organ moved to the east end of the south aisle. (fn. 86)

St Matthias's emerged intact from the Second World War. Owing to a decline in the number of worshippers, the church was closed on 24 October 1976 and formally declared redundant on 11 October 1977. (fn. 87) Schemes to adapt the building for use as a community arts centre and concert hall proved abortive. To combat dry rot the interior was stripped out and the floor removed. The church became derelict, suffering much from vandalism, with stained glass smashed and monuments pillaged for 'architectural salvage'. The London Docklands Development Corporation funded emergency repairs in 1989, then, in recognition of the building's value as an historic monument, a programme of repair jointly funded by the Corporation and the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission (English Heritage) was carried out in 1990–1. These works were carried out by the firm of Peter Codling, architects (Roger Taigel, job architect), with Bakers of Danbury as builders. Conversion of the building to use as a community centre followed in 1992–3, with funding arranged through the LDDC.

Monuments and Churchyard

Monuments in the Church.

The commemorative monuments in the church are principally of interest for the lives they record, particularly in that they recall the building's links with the East India Company. (fn. 88) The best known and aesthetically most notable one is a white marble mural tablet to George Steevens (1736–1800) by John Flaxman (1755–1826) (plate 14c). (fn. 8) Steevens, the son of an East India Company director, gained fame as a commentator on Shakespeare, publishing a complete edition with Dr Johnson in 1773 which set out to establish an authoritative text. His epitaph was written by the poet William Hayley, a friend of his. The gracefully composed bas-relief portrayal of Steevens contemplating a bust of Shakespeare was, in Flaxman's lifetime, one of his bestknown monuments. (fn. 89)

Another literary figure, Robert Ainsworth (1660–1743), editor of the Latin Dictionary, is commemorated by a wall tablet. Ainsworth wrote his own Latin epitaph, set in a simple aedicule over a cartouche of Arms. Captain Philip Worth (c1695–1742), an East India Company Commander, and his wife Elizabeth (c1695–1754), had a grander aedicular tablet in the blocked south-aisle east window. This had Corinthian pilasters and a bas-relief East Indiaman at its base. There are other East India Company monuments in the north aisle, to Captain John Barfoot (c1744–1807), signed by Thomas Burnell & Sons; to Margaret Woolmore (c1751–88), wife of Captain John Woolmore (c1754–1837); to Henry Higginson (1790– 1848), the company's chaplain at Poplar from 1825 to 1848; (fn. 9) and to Susanna Hoole (c1720–1808), wife of John Hoole, East India Company Auditor and translator of Tasso and Ariosto (their son Samuel was the company's chaplain at Poplar from 1802 to 1825 and the first rector of All Saints'). (fn. 90)

Blackwall's famous shipbuilding families are also commemorated at St Matthias's. In the north aisle there is a tablet to George Green (c1768–1849), the prominent local Nonconformist and philanthropist. Above an inscription stating that the dockyard workmen, foremen and other friends erected the tablet was a bas-relief profile bust flanked by ships. (This was removed in 1990.) There are several simple tablets to members of the Perry family. John Perry (1743–1810), builder of Brunswick Dock (see page 562), and his first wife Elizabeth (1746–96), have a memorial in the north aisle. Perry's second wife, Mary (c1769–1843), who was George Green's sister, has an adjacent tablet signed by R. Brown of Bloomsbury. On the south wall there are tablets to two of John and Elizabeth Perry's sons, John (c1768–1824), and, with a sarcophagus, Philip (c1770–1830).

Several commemorative ledger stones survive. Formerly positioned over brick vaults under the church, they were reset and grouped together in 1991–2. From the north aisle there are slabs to the families of Francis Barham (c1618–95), a shipwright and partner of Sir Henry Johnson at Blackwall Yard from 1658, and Henry Hall (c1659–99). (fn. 91) From the south aisle the families of Captain George Phenney (c1622–97), John Deane (c1634– 1708), grazier, and Captain William Anthony (c1645–97) are commemorated. (fn. 10)

The Churchyard and its Monuments.

The ground around the church was never consecrated, but it was used for burials from 1654 to 1855. (fn. 92) The East India Company gave half an acre for the chapel in 1642, and when it accepted responsibility for the chaplain in 1657, it defined the burial ground as an area c200ft square. (fn. 93) The ground may have been fenced at that time, though a fence was made 'about the Chappell' in 1676. (fn. 94)

This was the only burial ground in Poplar throughout the eighteenth century. The East India Company permitted its enlargement in 1777. (fn. 95) The extension was presumably northwards and westwards to the approximate dimensions of the churchyard today. The wooden fence enclosing the burial ground was replaced with cast-iron bollards and chains in 1822. (fn. 96) A brick wall was erected along the east side of the ground c1854, when Woodstock Terrace was laid out. This was rebuilt with wrought-iron railings in 1969. (fn. 97) The burial ground and paths from the High Street were transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, with the chapel, in 1867. (fn. 98)

There are several large monuments and a number of headstones in the churchyard. Many are damaged or badly weathered, and others have been cleared away. Strype recorded 'several fair tombs' now destroyed or unidentifiable, including memorials to shipwrights and East India Company and Royal Navy captains. Many other tombs are mentioned by Rawlinson, Lysons and Bradford. (fn. 99) The most prominent remaining monument is that to Captain Samuel Jones (1668–1734) and his family, north-west of the church. Jones 'engaged a superior force of the French off Cape Rwella in 1706 and off Beachy Head in 1707, and with signal bravery and conduct put them to flight'. (fn. 100) The monument has bas-relief panels on its plinth, a cartouche of Arms enriched by military trappings with globes on one side and a ship on the other. Console brackets above supported a funerary urn, recently destroyed. The pedestal of the monument was remade c1900 by William and Arthur Ellingford of Stainsby Road, Poplar. Its semi-cylindrical projections formerly supported freestanding putti. (fn. 101)

There are several early monuments along the east side of the churchyard. An obelisk on ball feet over a plinth with a cartouche of Arms commemorates Daniel Coppendale (c1669–1722), a distiller, and his brother Samuel (c1675–1725). South of this is a chest tomb with bellied angle pilasters, to Solomon Baker (c1693– 1756), a distiller of Stratford. To the north are a damaged and unidentifiable early eighteenth-century chest tomb with cherubs' heads at its angles, and a panelled and pilastered chest tomb to John Oyles (c1653–1731), Benjamin Hager (d.1773) and Rebecca Hooker (d.1781). Further west stands a neo-Classical chest tomb to the family of John Smart (c1702–77) which has elegantly carved amphorae at the ends of its long sides. South of the church there is a group of three chest tombs to members of the Perry family, from Philip Perry (c1678–1742) to Philip Perry (c1770– 1830). These badly damaged nineteenth-century tombs incorporate some eighteenth-century panels and an inscribed cap. A simple chest tomb near the southwest corner of the church is dedicated to Captain John Rendell (c1692–1755) and his family. (fn. 102)

The churchyard has some imposing early nineteenthcentury monuments, demonstrating that St Matthias's remained a prestigious place for burial after the opening of All Saints' church. To the south-west there is a large chest tomb with battered sides to a coved cap. This commemorates Hugh McIntosh (c1768–1840), dock contractor. To its north is a large three-stage memorial of 1840 to the Flowers family. Other early nineteenthcentury chest tombs include those to Daniel Maxwell (c1757–1810), surgeon, William Grundy (c1759–1823), Benjamin Granger (d.1819), and Thomas Lambert (c1768–1844), builder and coach operator. (fn. 103)


  • 1. The others were Lincoln's Inn Chapel (1619–23), St Giles-in-the-Fields (1623–31), the Queen's Chapel (1623–7), St Katherine Cree (1628–31), the chapel at Somerset House (1630–5) and St Paul's, Covent Garden (1631–8).
  • 2. Abdy was the son of Anthony Abdy (d.1640), another Alderman and East India Company 'Committee'.
  • 3. Tanner was a City artisan who had previously worked for the East India Company, at the Poplar Almshouse in 1627–8 and at Blackwall Yard in 1633. He had status in his profession, becoming Upper Warden to the Company of Tylers and Brickmakers in 1652, and Master of the Company in 1654. From 1661, if not before, until 1671 Tanner held the appointment of City Bricklayer, which involved him in the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange and other post-Fire works in the City. He died in 1672, his nephew, Anthony Tanner, succeeding him as City Bricklayer.
  • 4. The Canterbury Quadrangle at St John's College, Oxford, or Castle Ashby are well-known examples of around 1630.
  • 5. Post-1660 Classical church interiors typically have their columns raised on high plinths so as to make the bases visible above the pews.
  • 6. Tempting though it is to try to relate the unusual characteristics of the roof to the proximity of shipwrights at Blackwall Yard they are fully explicable as the work of an enterprising carpenter.
  • 7. The Arms on the boss have lions and fleurs-de-lis transposed, a mistake evidently copied from the Arms over the gateway to Blackwall Yard, which survive in the care of the National Maritime Museum.
  • 8. This was on the north wall. It was removed for conservation in 1979 and at present is held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
  • 9. This ornamented tablet, signed by M. W. Johnson of New Road, Fitzroy Square, was virtually destroyed in 1989.
  • 10. Both Strype and Lysons, and A. Bradford (who recorded the 'Tombstones and Mural Epitaphs of St Matthias, Poplar' in 1883–4), name these, as well as a number of other memorials that are no longer extant or legible.
  • 11. IOLR, B/11, p.519, 9 May 1627: Calendar of East India Company Court Minutes, 1635–9, ed. E. B. Sainsbury, 1907, pp. 155, 167–8.
  • 12. IOLR, B/15, p.263, 3 May 1633; B/25, p. 128, 2 April 1652.
  • 13. PRO, PROB11/180/73: Memorials of Stepney Parish, ed. G. W. Hill and W. H. Frere, 1890–1, pp. 61, 141, 166.
  • 14. IOLR, B/20, pp. 154, 156, 4, 6 May 1642.
  • 15. PRO, C10/47/157.
  • 16. P. Guillery, 'The Broadway Chapel: A Forgotten Exemplar', London Topographical Record, vol. XXVI, 1990, pp. 97–133: GLRO, PCS/63, passim.
  • 17. IOLR, B/22, p.104, 14 May 1647.
  • 18. PRO, PROB11/209/133.
  • 19. IOLR, B/23, pp. 176–7. 223, 7 April 1652, 4 Feb 1653; B/25, pp.128, 131, 241, 2 April, 4 June 1652, 8 April 1653: TH 8367/1: LPL, MS 997, Comm III/3, 1.6.1, f.138; 1.6.2, f.224.
  • 20. PRO, C10/47/157.
  • 21. J. Strype, Stow's Survey of London, 1720, vol. II, app.1, p. 103.
  • 22. Guillery, op.cit., p.113.
  • 23. C.Hill, God's Englishman, 1970, p. 131: Biographical Dictionary of British Radicals in the Seventeenth Century, ed. R. L. Greaves and R. Zaller, 1982–4: M. Ashley, Financial and Commercial Policy under the Cromwellian Protectorate, 1962 edn, pp.10, 14, 51, 113–15.
  • 24. Hill and Frere, op.cit., passim.
  • 25. IOLR, B/23, pp.223, 242, 306–7, 4 Feb, 28 Sept 1653, 15 Oct, 6 Nov 1656; B/25, pp.278, 525, 23 Sept 1653, 11 July 1656.
  • 26. Strype, op.cit., p. 103.
  • 27. PRO, C10/47/157.
  • 28. E.B. Sainsbury, op.cit., passim.
  • 29. Hill and Frere, op.cit., p. 204.
  • 30. Strype, op.cit., p. 103.
  • 31. BL, Sloane MS 516, ff. 120–1.
  • 32. D.Lysons, The Environs of London: Extra Illustrated, vol.III, pt.2, 1795, b/w pp.462–3.
  • 33. Bodleian Library, Gough Maps 17.26R. TOP; Neil Burton kindly drew attention to this drawing.
  • 34. MiD, Poplar portfolio: Lysons, op.cit., b/w pp. 462–3.
  • 35. Information kindly supplied by Bakers of Danbury.
  • 36. Information kindly supplied by R. Crayford.
  • 37. D. Yeomans, 'Inigo Jones' Roof Structures', Architectural History, vol. XXIX, 1986, p.87.
  • 38. Wren Society. vol. IX, passim.
  • 39. Pop.454, f.213; 455, f.10.
  • 40. Pop.455, f.29.
  • 41. Strype, op.cit., p. 103.
  • 42. W. Foster, 'The East India Company's Hospital at Poplar', Home Counties Magazine, vol. XII, 1910, p. 140.
  • 43. Journal of the House of Commons, vol. XX, 1722–7, p.476.
  • 44. An Ordinance for the better Maintenance and Encouragement of Preaching Ministers And for uniting of Parishes, 2 Sept 1654.
  • 45. IOLR, B/23, pp.284, 291, 293, 3 Oct 1655, 2 Jan, 6 Feb 1656; B/25, p. 441, 25 July 1655: A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised, 1934, p. 509.
  • 46. IOLR, B/23, p.284, 3 Oct 1655: LPL, MS 991, Comm XII c/2, ff.17, 55.
  • 47. IOLR, B/23, pp.308–10, 7, 14 Jan 1657: Strype, op.cit., p. 103.
  • 48. Calendar of East India Company Court Minutes, 1664–7, ed. E.B.Sainsbury, 1925, pp. 153, 184, 224: Calendar of East India Company Court Minutes, 1668–70, ed. E.B. Sainsbury, 1929, pp. 275, 296, 308, 316, 318.
  • 49. Pop. 454, p.213.
  • 50. Pop. 454, p.228: IOLR, B/40, ff.25, 33, 37–9, 24 Oct, 7, 21, 28 Nov, 19 Dec 1690.
  • 51. Pop.455, ff.10, 12.
  • 52. IOLR, B/44, pp.69, 291, 12 Feb 1703, 3 Jan 1705: Pop.455, f.23: Lysons, op.cit., b/w pp.462–3.
  • 53. Pop.455, ff.16, 29.
  • 54. Pop.455, f.17: IOLR, B/46, p.132, 7 Feb 1707.
  • 55. Pop. 455, ff. 29, 32–6, 38.
  • 56. IOLR, B/51, pp.540–1, 543, 551–2, 7, 19 Sept 1711.
  • 57. LPL, The Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches, Minute Book 1, pp. 389, 391.
  • 58. Pop.455, ff.62, 64, 75, 77–9: IOLR, B/56, p.403, 19 July 1721; B/57, pp.94, 218, 24 Aug 1722, 2 Jan 1723.
  • 59. Pop. 455, ff. 24, 29.
  • 60. LPL, The Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches, Minute Book II, pp.279–80, 401; MS 2717, ff.144, 150–1, 154–8: IOLR, B/58, pp.93–4, 98, 115–16, 137, 258, 262, 266, 280, 29 July, 5, 28, Aug, 2, 23 Sept 1724, 17, 24, 26 Feb, 12 March 1725; B/59, pp. 163, 445, 4 Jan, 6 March 1727: Journal of the House of Commons, vol. xx, 1722–7, pp. 468, 476: GL, MS 11, 955A, p.85: Pop.506.
  • 61. IOLR, B/60, pp.96, 107–8, 6, 25 Sept 1728: Pop. 455, ff. 104–6, 108; Pop. 459, letter of 16 Feb 1816.
  • 62. IOLR, B/62, pp. 287, 338, 9 March, 9 May 1733.
  • 63. IOLR, L/AG/1/1/16, ff. 208–11.
  • 64. Pop. 455, ff. 265a–6a: IOLR, B/90, p.286, 30 Nov 1774.
  • 65. Pop. 455, f. 267a.
  • 66. LPL, Visitation Returns, MS Film 39, 1790.
  • 67. Lysons, op. cit., p. 462.
  • 68. T.Pennant, Journey from London to the Isle of Wight, 1801, p.25.
  • 69. Samuel Hoole, A Sermon preached the 15th of January, 1804, on the opening of the Chapel at Poplar…,1804.
  • 70. THLHL, photographs 223.12: LBTH watercolour at Southern Grove Lodge, E3: GLRO, MCS 498/397, sketch plan: GL, MS 18, 319/90.
  • 71. THLHL, cuttings 223.12: Alfred Simmons, The History of the Parish of All Saints, Poplar, 1870, p.9.
  • 72. LPL, Visitation Returns, Tait 440, f.342.
  • 73. IOLR, L/SUR/2/4, ff.203–5; L/SUR/2/6, ff. 8–10, 136–42: Pop. 1048, Nos 20–28: LPL, Visitation Returns, Tait 441, f.486.
  • 74. CC, file 31, 361; E.C.E. Copy Deeds, Ixxx, new series, files 6933– 4: GLRO, P88/MTS/47: GL, MS 19,224/497.
  • 75. CC, file 31,361: GLRO, P88/MTS/47.
  • 76. GL, MS 18, 319/90: LPL, ICBS File 6676: GLRO, P88/MTS/47: Pop.885/16: THLHL, photograph 223.12: B, 12 Oct 1867, p. 756: C. Mackeson, A Guide to the Churches of London, 1868.
  • 77. GLRO, P88/MTS/47: EWIDC 450, p.440: POD: E. J. Marsh, St. Matthias Church, 1933, p.12.
  • 78. GL, MS 18,319/53: B, 1 Jan 1876, p.20: GLRO, P88/MTS/47: TH 8360.
  • 79. LPL, ICBS file no. 6676.
  • 80. LPL, ICBS file no.7678.
  • 81. B, 15 Jan 1876, p.63: GLRO, P88/MTS/47.
  • 82. AR/HB, notes by M. Coles.
  • 83. CC, file 31, 361.
  • 84. THLHL, cuttings 223.12; Whiffin No.360; Pop. 885/22–8; TH 8360/5: CC, file 31, 361: RCHME photographs, BB76/5510: Marsh, op.cit., p.13.
  • 85. GL, MS 18, 319/53: CC, file 31,361: TH 8360/6.
  • 86. CC, file 31, 361: Pop.885/18–20, 29–32: TH 8360/6, 8: GL, MS 18,319/73: GLRO Photographs, F2670.
  • 87. GLRO, P88/MTS/25, 31: CC, Redundancy Scheme.
  • 88. They are fully described in Marsh, op.cit., pp. 6–12, and TH 8367/7.
  • 89. D. Lysons, The Environs of London, 1811, vol. II, pt 2, pp.699–700: John Flaxman, ed. D. Bindman, 1979, p. 104.
  • 90. Lysons, op.cit., 1811, pp. 699–701: THLHL, Photograph 223.12.
  • 91. Strype, op.cit., p.104.
  • 92. TH 8367/1: LPL, Visitation Returns, Tait 440, 1858, p. 342.
  • 93. IOLR, B/20, p. 156, 6 May 1642; B/23, p.310, 14 Jan 1657.
  • 94. Calendar of East India Company Court Minutes, 1660–3, ed. E. B. Sainsbury, 1922, p.216: Calendar of East India Company Court Minutes. 1674–6, ed. E. B. Sainsbury, 1935, pp. 180, 187, 312: IOLR, L/AG/1/1/7, p. 116.
  • 95. Pop. 455, p.268a: IOLR, B/92, pp. 616, 642, 25 Feb, 11 March 1777; B/93, p.144, 4 June 1777.
  • 96. IOLR, L/MAR/1/5, p.211; L/MAR/1/8, p.502; L/MAR/1/9, p.51; L/MAR/1/11, p.448.
  • 97. LBTH Mins, 1969–70, p.124.
  • 98. CC, file 31, 361; E.C.E. Copy Deeds, Ixxx, file 6933; Ixxxiv, new series, file 7450: IOLR, L/SUR/2/6, ff. 136–42, 313–16, 376: TH 8360, viii.
  • 99. Strype, op.cit., pp. 103–4: Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson B 389B, ff. 164–6: Lysons, op.cit., 1795, p.462: TH 8367/8.
  • 100. Lysons, op.cit., 1795, p.462: Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson B 389B, ff. 165v–6r.
  • 101. MiD, Poplar portfolio: THLHL, Whiffin 991: POD.
  • 102. TH 8367/1, 8: Lysons, op.cit., 1795, p.462.
  • 103. TH 8367/8.
  • 104. V. Pearl, London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution, 1961, p. 288: PRO, PROB11/184/120.
  • 105. IOLR, B/15, p.262, 3 May 1633.
  • 106. GL, MS 3043/2.
  • 107. CLRO, Rep.68, f. 18; Rep. 76, f.260: PRO, PROB11/340/114.
  • 108. Information kindly supplied by Robert Baldwin.
  • 109. AJ. 21 Feb 1979, pp. 358–9.
  • 110. Strype, op. cit., pp.103 4: Lysons, op.cit., 1795, p.462: TH 8367/8.