St Matthias, Poplar is one of London’s most surprising buildings. Externally it is Victorian, but inside its stone-clad walls is a rare example of a mid-seventeeth century classical church which has survived in surprisingly unaltered form. It is the oldest building in Docklands.
Origins of the Church.
Originally known as Poplar Chapel, it had two purposes: it served as a chapel for the inhabitants of the hamlets of Poplar and Blackwall, who had previously been obliged to travel several miles to the overcrowded parish church of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, and desired a more local place of worship; secondly, it served as the chapel for the East India Company, which had an almshouse and a dockyard hard by. It is their coat of arms that is carved upon the ceiling boss inside the church, and their history that is central to the story of the Poplar Chapel.
In 1600 a Royal Charter was granted which formed ‘A Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies’. Trading with the East (and above all, with India) was seen by London merchant venturers as a profitable — if risky — area of vast potential: a similar company based in Amsterdam had already been set up in 1594. The Company had been granted a monopoly on all English trade with the Far East, which consisted primarily of spices, fabrics and, in later years, tea. The East India Company retained such a monopoly until 1813 and was not wound up until 1858. It became Britain’s most powerful trading body and was responsible for the administration of vast stretches of her empire, including all India.
The East India Company purchased a house on Poplar High Street in 1627 for use as a hospital for disabled company seamen, their widows and orphans. It did so in bizarre circumstances. A jeweller named Hugh Greete had worked for the company in India buying diamonds; he was sent back to England in 1618 for purloining the best stones for himself, and died a prisoner in 1619. However, his will directed that a school or hospital be founded out of his estate. The Company had no choice but to honour this, but understandably insisted that the foundation be made in their name and not that of the fradulent Greete. A shipyard at Blackwall had been bought by the Company in 1614 and this made Poplar an obvious location for their almshouses. In 1627 Captain Thomas Styles, a director of the East India Company, reported that ‘behind the house there is a faire field, and a dainty row of elmes, and a private garden, wherein a chapple may be built of 90 foote in length and 32 foote in breadth’. The fair field is now Poplar recreation ground; the elms have gone, but the chapel remains. The inhabitants of Poplar and Blackwall in 1633 requested that the Company build a chapel that they might use, but it was not until the Lord of the Manor of Poplar, Gilbert Dethick, died in 1639 leaving £100 towards the building of the chapel, that the project began to gather momentum. Dethick had stipulated that this money would only be paid if work was commenced within three years of his decease. Since the money was paid, it must be presumed that work began on laying foundations in 1642.
The Building of Poplar Chapel
The beginning of the church coincided with the outbreak of the English Civil War. The 1640’s was not an auspicious decade for church building: money was in short supply, trade was diswpted, circumstances were uncertain. So too was religion: William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, was beheaded in 1645 and the Head of the Church of England, King Charles I, followed him to the block in 1649. London became a centre for Independent congregations which provided the core of support for Parliament. The Commonwealth may have seen the dismantling of monarchy and episcopacy, but parishes continued to worship and to face dayto-day problems. Poplar and Blackwall remained without a place of worship and once more it was a legacy that made progress possible. Sir John Gayer, a director of the East India Company and Lord Mayor of London in 1646-1 647, died in 1649 and left money for the glazing of the Poplar Chapel, so long as it was built within four years of his death.
This legacy, together with more monies from the Company provided a spur for building. A prominent City merchant and resident of Mile End Green, Maurice Thompson, was the prime mover behind the completion of the chapel. In June 1652 the Company made its first payment of £100 to a City bricklayer named John Tanner (Master of the Bricklayers’ Company in 1654) who can be seen as the principal builder of the church. Tanner was subsequently appointed Bricklayer to the Corporation of London. Work was finally under way upon the earlier foundations, and by 1654 the building was completed and ready for worship.
The Architectural Style of the Poplar Chapel St Matthias, Poplar as we see it today is externally Victorian and internally seventeenth century. It has recently been established by Peter Guillery that the chapel was closely based on an earlier building, the now-demolished Broadway Chapel of 1635-39, which stood on present-day Victoria Street, Westminster. The designer of that building is not known, nor is that of the Poplar Chapel. All that can be said is that John Tanner and his patrons in the East India Company would have been familiar with this, London’s most recently completed church. The Broadway Chapel was an obvious model, and an appropriate one, for the East India Company’s chapel for Poplar: both were built for wealthy congregations of City merchants with leanings towards Puritanism.
The earliest illustration of the building, a primitive ink drawing now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford dates only from 1755. It shows the chapel from the north-east, with walls of brick containing arched and square windows with bizarre mutant Perpendicular tracery within. The triple gabled roof runs east-west and is crossed by a taller north-south pitched roof, and central gable to the west end is surmounted by a weathervane-capped tower. This tower was a later addition: a report of 1718 stated that the lack of a tower on the chapel was an argument against raising it to the status of a parish church. The red brick walls were enhanced with stone quoins at the corners. It can at once be appreciated that the Victorian alterations have fundamentally altered the exterior appearance of the church.
Internally the cross-shaped roof form is immediately apparent. The rows of Tuscan columns supports entablatures, from which rises the elliptically vaulted ceiling. Seven out of eight of these columns are of oak: one has been replaced in stone, but the remainder are original. The story that they were made from ships’ masts is, alas, untrue. The centre of the ceiling sports the only early decorative feature to remain: the carved boss which depicts the original arms of the East India Company, which aptly featured three sailing ships. This was probably installed in 1657, when the Company took over responsibility for the chapel from the financially overstretched populace of Poplar and Blackwall.
The overall impression of the interior is one of breadth, spaciousness and order. The present east end was added in 1875-76. Prior to that the building was severely rectangular, emphasising the lucid central planning of the interior. This was ideal for the sort of worship that stressed the word rather than ceremony, that stressed bible readings and preaching, and played down the celebration of the Eucharist. This was the religion of Calvanism, and thus St Matthias can be said to reflect closely the Puritanism of Interregnum London.
Churches of the Mid-Seventeenth Century
Churches of the Civil War and Commonwealth period are, not surprisingly, rare. Only three surviving churches are known to have been built anew in the period 1.642-1620. One was Holy Trinity Church, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland of 1650-52, built by a London mason named John Young. The second was at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, built by the Royalist baronet Sir Robert Shirley in 1653. The Poplar Chapel is the third.
The classical City churches of Sir Christopher Wren, built following the Great Fire of 1666, are renowned as one of the glories of English architecture. Yet little attention has been paid to their immediate predecessors. Pre-Wren churches fall into three categories. Some are still in the Gothic tradition, and rely on medieval precedents: Staunton Harold belongs to this type.
Others (and they were very few indeed) were wholly classical, relying upon Palladio and other commentators on the Antique: Inigo Jones’s the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace of 1623-27 and his St Paul’s Covent Garden, completed in 1631, represent this type.
Such churches sought to return to the architectural purity thought to have been associated with early Christianity. The third, and by far the largest, category is that of mixed Classical and Gothic. The best known example of this type is the City church of St Katherine Cree which was consecrated in 1631, and it is to this type that the Poplar Chapel belonged, for this too combined classical columns with Gothic traceried windows.
London’s closest artistic links with the continent during the mid-i 7th century were with Holland and there is an undeniably Dutch flavour to the interior of the Poplar Chapel. The most important early 17th century Dutch architect was Hendrick de Keyser (d.162i) and the influence of his Amsterdam churches can be felt within St Matthias, with their central planning, Tuscan arcades and barrel-vaulted roofs. These had been illustrated in a posthumous collection of his designs entitled Architectura Moderna (1631) which was much used by London artisans. The Poplar Chapel, like the Broadway Chapel before it, combined the pure classicism of Inigo Jones with the adapted classicism of Dutch architecture to produce a transitional sort of church that both looked back to the medieval Gothic tradition, and forward to the accomplishment of Wren’s City churches.
The Later History of the Poplar Chapel
In 1711 the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches were informed that the building was worthy of being upgraded to a parish church (the vast parish of Stepney was subsequently divided up into no fewer that sixty-seven lesser parishes by the late nineteenth century). It was not until 1866, however, that the church was finally consecrated, renamed St Matthias and accorded parish status. Poplar itself, and area which was undergoing dramatic commercial and population growth, had been made a parish in 1821, and the large nearby church of All Saints was built in 1821-23.
The eighteenth-century history of the church is one of gradual repair; its nineteenth century history is one of major alteration.
Galleries were first installed in the early i8” century, and the pulpit visible in the earliest photograph of the church shows a tall triple-decker pulpit which was probably installed in 1733. In 1774 the congregation requested the East India Company overhaul the building, which was ‘exceedingly out of repair in the window frames and wall’. Accordingly, in 1775-76, the Company’s surveyor, Richard Jupp (1728-99), oversaw extensive repairs and alterations which included the removal of the mutant Gothic windows and their replacement with more correctly classical arched windows of a similar shape to the present ones. In addition, one of the wooden columns was replaced in stone. He also altered the tower and these changes were recorded in wash drawings of c.1800. The other main change to the building was the application of a coat of cement render to the exterior, over the brick walls of the 1650’s. This occurred in 1803.
At about the same time the chapel received its most distinguished addition: the mural monument to George Steevens, by John Flaxman (1755-1826). Steevens, who died in 1800, belonged to a wealthy merchant family with strong East India Company ties, and thus was buried here. He was best known as a literary controversialist, member of Dr Johnson’s circle and the editor of Shakespeare, and is depicted at work before a bust of the Bard in a pose that Flaxman took from one of the figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. Removed for safe-keeping from the church by the Diocese of London in the late 1970’s, it is currently on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It is among the finest of memorials by Britain’s outstanding neo-classical sculptor.
The Poplar Chapel becomes St Matthias
To midi9th century eyes the Poplar Chapel was a distinctly awkward little building which wholly lacked the time-hallowed gravity that a proper parish church was expected to have.
Funds did not allow for its demolition and replacement, but the parish, led by its dynamic vicar, the Revd John Fenwick Kitto, did the next best thing; it wrapped the building inside a cloak of Kentish ragstone, inserted traceried windows, and added a chance! at the east end and a jaunty bell tower at the west. Gone — externally — was the Puritan preaching box of the Poplar Chapel; the Anglican parish church of St Matthias had arrived. The architect responsible for the alterations was William Milford Teulon (1823-1 900), brother of the better- known Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-1873). The younger Teulon, together with his partner E. Evans Cronk, carried out the alterations in three phases. The first, in 1867-68, affected the interior with the removal of the box pews and of the north and south galleries, and the installation of modern pulpit, font and organ. The re-facing of the church in ragstone with Bath stone dressings and the addition of porches and the tower took place in 1870-74. The final phase was the addition of a chancel, vestry room and organ chamber at the east end, completed in 1876.
Recent History: Redundancy, Decay and Restoration
St Matthias survived the Blitz of the Second World War, which brought such devastation to the Docklands, relatively unscathed. In the 1970’s there was a move to merge the congregation of certain churches in Poplar and a decision was taken to close St Matthias. This finally occurred in October 1976, and thus ended three hundred and twenty two years of worship. It was declared redundant in 1977.
Discussions over the re-use of the church were protracted: a number of schemes for conversion (into an arts centre, into a place for musical performances, even into squash courts) came and went. In the mean time, the building fell prey to vandalism and a downward spiral of neglect and decay developed. In 1976, the lead from the roof was stolen; the rain came in; dry rot proliferated and the floor and fixtures were removed. The worse the vandalism, the more inviting further damage and theft became.
English Heritage and the London Docklands Development Corporation became increasingly concerned over the deteriorating condition of this important building. In 1990 they agreed a major restoration scheme which involved a jointly funded programme of repairs costing £700,000. The LDDC negotiated a “Planning Gain” agreement which secured funding of £700,000 from a developer to restore the interior and to landscape the churchyard. Grant aid was also obtained from the Heritage of London Trust and Barclays Bank plc for some of the costs of repairs to the tombs, repair and replacement of the stained glass and the overhaul of the clock mechanism.
The decision was taken not to restore the church to its hypothetical original appearance but rather to conserve the building in the form in which it had come down to the present. Thus the Kentish ragstone cladding was not stripped away to reveal the original brickwork (which might well have been in poor condition), but consolidated. Teulon and Cronk’s quirky bell tower was not removed in favour of a more conventional cupola, but conserved. Their Gothic stone dressings and curvilinear window tracery were also not only retained, but returned to their original condition. The architect responsible for the restoration was Roger Taigel of Peter Codling Architects of Norwich. Bakers of Danbury, Essex were the main contractors.
The bright and broad interior of the original Puritan chapel has returned to its original impressiveness and now lends itself readily to re-use. The LDDC and English Heritage were also instrumental in the negotiations to establish a charitable trust to take on responsibility for the upkeep and operation of the building. The trust — the St Matthias Conservation Trust — came into being in 1992 and has negotiated a long lease from the Diocese of London. The Trust provides for local and national representation and is committed to making thebuilding available for community use. Once more, the oldest building in Docklands will be playing an active part in the lives of the local people.
The leaflet was written by Roger Bowdler of English Heritage London Region.
St Matthias Conservation Trust Limited, Registered Charity No 1023032