If you want to find out more:
A Short and Anecdotal History of St Matthew's Church, Bethnal Green by Adey Grummet has been published.
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You may be interested to see a number of historical photographs. They form part of Dr Christopher Maxim's History of the Organ.
History of the Area
Up to the 18th century Bethnal Green was a small rural hamlet within the parish of Stepney outside eastern gates of the city of London's walls. Its few houses centred around the Green, which open space survives in the park near the Underground station. With the breaking up of Lolesworth Field in Spitalfields for brick making (Brick Lane) in 1576 and the building of the Black Eagle Brewery in 1669 (which became Truman’s in 1694) the village was slowly becoming more of residential area. Then in 1685 the revocation of the Edict of Nantes meant that it was no longer legal to be a Protestant in France. Huge numbers of Huguenots fled to England, many of the more prosperous settling around Spitalfields and Shoreditch and the poorer around Bethnal Green. The need for a church in the area became pressing.
History of the Church
As early as 1690 negotiations were commenced for the creation of a separate parish of Bethnal Green. Nicholas Hawksmoor, then a pupil of Christopher Wren, drew up plans for a large, basilica-type church, which was to be built by the “Fifty Church Commissioners”. There was opposition to this, however, from both the local population, who feared the increase in costs to themselves in maintaining a church building and its Rector, and from the Rector of Stepney, whose income from tithes in the area would be lost if it became a separate parish.Negotiations were drawn out and it was not until 13 October 1725 that a portion of Hare Fields (its last remnants seen in the 15 metres of Hare Marsh remaining off Cheshire St) was purchased for the church at the cost of £200,. The reason that the site for the new church was to be so detached from the old village green was that there had grown up, with the Huguenot weavers’ community, a sizeable new commercial hub in west Bethnal Green around Hare St (now known as Cheshire St). But by now the Commissioners scheme was in financial difficulties and the plans for the church building were abandoned.In 1742 the parish of Bethnal Green was finally authorised and George Dance was commissioned to design a smaller and more reasonable church than that Hawksmoor had done. No detailed description of Dance’s designs survives but his drawings in the Soane Museum show simple and spacious ideas. In 1743 the foundation stone was laid by Ebenezer Mussell but St Matthew’s troubles were not over. The following year work on the half-built church was halted as, once again, funds were insufficient.A petition was made to Parliament and in 1745 an Act was passed to pay all debts and complete the work. The Act began,
‘The want of a place for public worship of Almighty God hath been a great cause of increase of dissoluteness of morals and a disregard for religion, too apparent in the younger and poorer sort.’
The church was finally completed and dedicated on 15 July 1746.In 1859 the interior of the church was destroyed by fire. The night of the fire was so cold that the firemen were covered in sheets of ice as they struggled with the flames. The registers and robes having been saved, a rate was then levied on the Parish to rebuild the church but the work was delayed by builders’ strikes and rows between the architect, T.E. Knightley, and the local committee. Finally the church was reopened on 13 December 1861. A cupola on the tower, iron sanctuary gates, rood figures (now in St John’s church up the road), stained glass, ornate mural decorations, and a huge stone reredos are shown in pictures of this time.In 1940 bombing destroyed or damaged all of this and the church was left as a roofless shell. A temporary church was built within the walls, the architects being Wontner Smith and Harold Jones. This was dedicated either on 24 September 1952 or 27 November 1954, records differing on the date. Many of the furnishings for this church survived from other local bombed churches and a number of them are still in the church today.In 1957 it was decided to rebuild the church and Antony Lewis was appointed architect. Work began in 1958 and the temporary church was demolished in 1960 and the present church was re-consecrated on 15 July 1961.
The Present Church Building
The enlightened vision of Antony Lewis included commissioning young artists and ensuring that their work was integral to the structure of the building. Thus the church now has Stations of the Cross by Don Potter, a staircase sculpture by Kim James, the Apostles Screen by Peter Snow and an altar by Robert Dawson. Dorothy Rendell painted the tester designed by Lewis himself (as were the light fittings and the font) and the murals in the Upper Chapel are by Barry Robinson. The glass panels are designed by Heather Child. (see Art in St Matthew's)
Apart from these major pieces St Matthew’s houses a legacy from many of the other bombed churches in the area which are no longer standing. The stained glass in the Back Chapel by Lawrence Lee incorporates windows from St Philip’s, Swanfield Street, the crucifix at the east end is from the temporary church, as is the statue of Our Lady of Peace and a number of the carved wooden furnishings. The organ was brought from St Matthias church in Bacon Street. When the “Red” church, St James the Great, on Bethnal Green Road was closed in 1984, a number of the furnishings there were brought to St Matthew’s as well.
Characters and Quirks of St Matthew's Parish
The problems of a poorer community and a cultural distrust and disinterest in religion have been as much a part of the priests’ work at St Matthew’s historically as they are today. Very soon after the church’s consecration Vestry records show that several hundreds of the local people were holding their Sunday pastimes of bull-baiting and dog-fighting in the field adjacent to the churchyard. There was particular outrage on the day the terrified bull ran into church during the morning service.
With the burgeoning of scientific discovery in the 18th century England, it became necessary to protect the buried corpses in the churchyard from desecration by “resurrectionists”. Medical schools at Guy’s and the new London Hospitals were not overly-fussy where the bodies for their research and teaching actually came from. In 1754 the Watch House was built (now on the corner of St Matthew’s Row and Wood Close) and by 1792 a person was paid 10s 6d per week to be on guard. A reward of 2 guineas was granted for the apprehension of any body snatchers and the watchmen were provided with a blunderbuss (picture above) and permission to fire it but only after sounding a rattle. This right is still held by the churchwardens today.
In 1809 Joshua King became Rector and, at first, took a close personal interest in the post he was appointed to. This was contrary to the usual practice where the Rector installed a “perpetual curate” to do the parish work and proceeded to live off the stipend in a more pleasant part of the world, (There is no record of his predecessor, William Loxham, who was Rector from 1766, ever having set foot in the parish!) What King uncovered was a great web of corruption and fraud among the Parish officials led by the Churchwarden Joseph Merceron. This “mafia”-type character ran brothels in many of the local Public Houses, which he also licensed, manipulated the “poor funds” and ran protection rackets in the area. King struggled for some years to bring him to justice but he was a very canny operator. Finally Merceron was sent to prison in 1818. Shortly after this King inherited the right to a rich parish in Cheshire and so he left Bethnal Green and never returned though he retained the position as Rector and the stipend. On his release from prison, Merceron, finding his adversary gone, promptly reinstalled himself in all his old positions and continued his nefarious business “as usual” until his death in 1861. This is the subject of Julian Woodford's Book, The Boss of Bethnal Green. Ironically his family's grand memorial tomb, stating that one “lived to an honourable old age”, is one of only two to survive the World War 2 bombings.
The radical Anglo-Catholic socialist, Stewart Headlam, was a curate at St Matthew’s from 1873 till 1878 under the redoubtable Septimus Hansard. Here he founded the Christian socialist Guild of St Matthew in 1877. Although his inflammatory views meant that he was barred from having a license for many years and he was asked to leave almost every position he held in the Church of England, his political life and passion was bound up in the welfare of the poorer people of Bethnal Green. He served for many years on the local council, the Board for Schools, instigating, among many other reforms, school meals for underprivileged children in the area. (A school in nearby Tapp Street bears his name.) He was a lifelong friend of the social reformer Annie Besant, as well as George Bernard Shaw, G.K.Chesterton and many other luminaries of the period. His dogged and emotional defence of the Music Hall and the ballet as being worthy occupations and uplifting pastimes was an anathema to the puritan Christian and political climate of the day. He was notorious for his defence of the down-trodden of every sort, famously providing part of the bail and a safe house for Oscar Wilde upon his release from Reading Jail. John Orens' book,Stewart Headlam's Radical Anglicanism, published in 2003 by the University of Illinois Press, details his life and work.
Another of Hansard's curates was James Woodroffe, who was responsible for social care payments to the impoverished parishioners of Bethnal Green. Fr Woodroffe kept a metiuculous record of his encounters with and visits to people seeking aid from the church. It provides a fascinating insight into the forerunner of what we would now call social work. It can be read online courtesy of the Bishopsgate Institute.
Another Rector for a short time was Arthur Foley Winnington Ingram who headed the Oxford House settlement in which students of Oxford university lived and worked in poorer areas. Oxford House continues its work with and for local people, albeit with no resident community. He went on to become Bishop of London in 1901.Headlam’s legacy was well continued in the 1960s in the work of Kenneth Leech, Rector of St Matthew’s from 1974 to 1979. Based on his work here, he has become one of the Church of England’s foremost experts in drugs culture and related social issues and he also pioneered the Church’s engagement with issues of racism. He founded the Jubilee Group in 1974 and has been a leading representative of the Anglo-Catholic Socialist tradition and a prolific historian of the movement. He has been published widely.
Perhaps the most infamous modern parishioners have been the Kray brothers. The twins, Ronnie and Reggie, gathered around them a coterie of tough men, known as The Firm and beautiful women. Their notoriety, involving standover tactics and murder are well documented, and bordered on celebrity. The funerals of Ron, Charlie , Reggie Kray and Tony Lambrianou, were all held in St Matthew's Church. These were not universally the solemn events that Christians might expect.Christopher Bedford is credited with building up what was a dwindling church when he arrived as Rector in 1981. He oversaw an imaginative community development programme which brought the top floor of the church hall, then a sweatshop, into use as a social centre. His fierce opposition to the ordination of women as priests saw him work strongly to move St Matthew's into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. Over half the worshippers and the clergy changed their allegiance to the Roman discipline. For a year the new Roman Catholics, worshipped in St Matthew's. An unfortunate consequence was the diminishment of much good work.
A booklet on the History of the church and parish was produced in 1989, crediting John Oldland as the revisionist. It clearly draws on an earlier booklets written by churchwarden P.J.E. Eyre and Ken Leech in 1976. These writers acknowledge the work of The Revd Denis Shaw. The 1989 booklet is available on this website. Click here to download it in PDF format.
St Matthew's in the 21st Century
Today St Matthew’s is still the focus of a growing and living church community. We try to welcome everyone who comes through our doors because we believe that the church is here for the local people and their lives today as much as for any historical record. The various problems and deprivations of the area have not actually changed that much in 250 years – poverty, prostitution, tensions between immigrant communities and drug abuse were as much a part of the 19th century priests’ work as they are in the 21st. A new influx of young professionals has led to artistic and commercial regeneration. Much private housing is being built. We have a parish school and numerous links with community organisations. And we celebrate the fact that we have such a rich testament to the tenacity and resilience of a faithful community in our beautiful church
St Matthew's Row,
Bethnal Green London E2 6DT
Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our main Sunday service is the
Parish Eucharist at 10.30am
Mass, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are offered most days.
See Parish Notices for more information