It was 7 September 1940, and St Matthew’s Bethnal Green had seen a lot over its 200 years. After an almighty struggle to raise funds to build the church in the first place, it had required an Act of Parliament back in 1745 just to get the cash to finish the construction. Then in 1859, fire had gutted the building. It was quickly rebuilt, reopening in 1861, but only after a builders’ strike and a stand-off between architect TE Knightley and the organising committee.
That September evening in 1940 was worse by far though – it was the first night of the Blitz, the first of 76 consecutive nights of bombing by the Luftwaffe, and St Matthew’s was one of the earliest targets. All the detail over which Knightley had sweated 80 years before – the cupola on the tower, the iron sanctuary gates, stained glass, ornate mural decorations, and a huge stone reredos – were gone, with the church left a roofless shell. London awoke on 8 September in shock. 300 bombers had caused more than 1000 fires, killed 430 people and badly injured 1600 more.
And the bombing went on, getting steadily worse. On 19 March 1941, a 500 bomber raid on the docks and East End of London killed 750 people. On16 April 1941, 685 bombers caused more than 2000 fires and killed well over 1000 people. The night of 19 April was heavier still, and on 10 May nearly 1500 people were killed. The damage to the fabric of London was terrible, with The House of Lords, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Hall, St James’s Palace and Lambeth Palace all being hit.
Hitler and Goering’s aim was to blast into submission the people of the East End and of the rest of London. Then to do the same to Coventry, Manchester, Plymouth, Sunderland and a score more British cities. They failed of course, as the British people – whose ‘make do and mend’, stoicism and gallows humour might have been designed for withstanding a Blitz – set about reconstructing their cities from the rubble.
In the case of St Matthews, making do meant shifting the rood figures (which had miraculously escaped the blast) to St John’s church up the road, where they remain to this day. In the meantime, though, the congregation had to disperse and worship in neighbouring churches, although they were steadily being bombed too – St Philip’s in Swanfield Street, St Matthias in Bacon Street and many more.
In the early Fifties, St Matthews didn’t so much rise from the rubble as within it. A new, temporary church was built inside the old walls, by architects Wontner Smith and Harold Jones. Then, a permanent replacement was begun in 1958, with architect Antony Lewis commissioning a raft of young artists to contribute work – a 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 were by Barry Robinson. The glass panels were designed by Heather Child.
Perhaps most poignantly though, St Matthew’s would house pieces from the many other local churches which hadn’t survived the bombs. Lawrence Lee’s stained glass in the Back Chapel incorporates windows from St Philip’s; the crucifix at the east end, the statue of Our Lady of Peace and a number of the carved wooden furnishings came from the temporary church. And the organ was brought from St Matthias church in Bacon Street. The Blitz spirit of make do and mend was still alive. The new church would open on 15 July 1961, a century after TE Knightley had finally seen his building consecrated.
Nearly half a century on, Malcolme Bass is now Churchwarden of St Matthews, but he shares some rather special history with the church, having sung in the choir at that rededication back in 1961. He was 11 then, he’s 60 now and he’s seen some changes in the parish. Back then, Bethnal Green was a white, working class area, now his church sits at the heart of one of the largest Bangladeshi communities in London. And the decline in St Matthew’s traditional congregation brings its own challenges. “We’re trying to raise £20,000 to repair the tower. Twenty years ago we’d have had that very quickly, now it’s more of a struggle but we’re getting there.”
They are. This remember is a church that has survived fires and bombing, a crooked churchwarden (Joseph Merceron) who ran it as his own private business and 19th century rectors who never visited the place. It has withstood running battles between resolute rectors determined to stamp out gambling, drinking and dog-fights in the churchyard, and fights between radical, Anglo-Catholic clergy and the Church authorities.
But with contributions to the tower appeal trickling in and a re-tuned set of bells ready to peal out on 7 September, marking the 60th anniversary of its near-destruction, St Matthew’s is preparing itself for the next few hundred years.
1576 Rural Spitalfields transformed into brick fields as clay is mined to make bricks (hence Brick Lane)
1669 Building of Black Eagle Brewery (becomes Trumans in 1699)
1685 Revocation of Edict of Nantes sees many Huguenots flee to London, with prosperous settling around Spitalfields and Shoreditch and poorer in Bethnal Green. Need for church in area becomes pressing
1690 Nicholas Hawksmoor draws up plans for basilica-style church
1725 Portion of Hare Fields off Cheshire St, heart of poorer Huguenot area, bought by church for £200
1742 Parish of Bethnal Green authorised
1743 Foundation stone laid by Ebenezer Mussell but funds run out
1745 Act passed to pay all debts and complete the work
1746 Church opened and consecrated
1754 Watch house built to guard against bodysnatchers in churchyard
1809 Joshua King becomes rector and has corrupt churchwarden Joseph Merceron imprisoned in 1818. On his release, Merceron will resume job as churchwarden until his death in 1861
1859 Interior of church destroyed by fire
1861 Rebuilt church reopens
1873 Radical Anglo-Catholic socialist 1873 Stewart Headlam made curate
1890s Arthur Foley Winnington Ingram made curate, goes on to head Oxford House
1940 Bombing leaves church as roofless shell. Tempororary church built within the walls
1958 Rebuild begins; temporary church demolished in 1960; present church re-consecrated 15 July 1961
1974 Kenneth Leach made rector, one of the C of E’s foremost experts in drugs culture, a leading representative of the Anglo-Catholic Socialist tradition and a prolific historian of the movement
1990s onward Funerals of Ronnie, Charlie, Reggie Kray and Tony Lambrianou all held at St Matthew’s