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London: Church of St John on Bethnal Green, London 1824-28 (66)

Sir John Soane’s third church under the Church Commissioners Act (1818) was St John’s in the Parish of St Matthew, located in the borough of Bethnal Green, East London (the other two being Holy Trinity, Marylebone and St Peter’s, Walworth, also in London). This was his only Commissioner Church to be fully paid for by the Commissioners without additional funding from outside sources. It was to prove the most idiosyncratic of Soane’s churches, and the exterior, especially, was the cause of much controversy.

Soane was first approached by the Commissioners on 2 July 1822 to supply a design ‘suitable to the situation’ on the (Bethnal) Green. Soane surveyed the site fifteen days later with Edward Mawley, the first salaried Church Building Committee surveyor. Nevertheless, the final location for the Church could not be agreed upon until November 1824, so no further work was carried out. The site eventually chosen was well located, with the church aligned on the south-west corner of the Green, and the west front being almost directly on the main road from Hackney to Mile End (SM 47/5/1).

It was not until May 25 1825 that Soane’s office began work on designs. Like St Peter’s, Walworth, the budget allocated to Soane was £16,000 with seating for 2,000 parishioners. The first set of 12 designs came with an estimate by Soane of £15,800 excluding incidentals and 5% commission. Nonetheless, the Commissioners were not convinced either by the initial designs or the estimate with all the add-ons. In 1825, Soane presented the original designs again, but with two additional (seemingly lost) drawings which proposed ‘alterations’ and ‘omissions’ to the ornamentation of the church, and also to relinquish the vaults entirely, and thus keep the estimate to within £16,000. One further area of objection was the arrangement of the windows. So in 1826, Soane said he would repeat the window design as at St Peter’s Walworth, but it would cost an extra £270. This was approved, and Soane was allowed to continue designing the vaults for the Church. Additionally, Soane was even allowed by the Commissioners a final estimate of £17,500.

Unlike St Peter’s, where Soane relied on many smaller contractors and separate tenders for each area of building works, at St John’s Soane only used one main contractor, Robert Streather who tendered for the old budget of £15,999. Nonetheless, in the end, the Church cost £17,346 to build. This was the cheapest of the three Soane Commissioner Churches, and this may be due to Soane realising that unlike Marylebone or Newington, the parish of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, was deprived, and there was very little room for public subscription or a private patron to gain extra capital for the works. Therefore, the architect’s commission only amounted to around £867. The consecration date of the church is still debated, with Gerald Carr and Michael Port positing 16 October 1828, and Murray John claiming 28 October 1828.

The interior followed the tried and tested formula of St Peter’s Walworth, which was being constructed around the same time at Holy Trinity, Marylebone. In fact, such was the similarity between all three church interiors consisting of a nave, two side aisles, a small chancel with flanking robing room and vestry, a gallery level, and organ at the west end, that Carr commented, ‘Soane could have created the interior, at least, in his sleep’; (Carr 1976, Vol. II, p. 425). It is certainly true that Soane’s Office produced drawings for various elements which were near copies of those produced for the other churches (for example, the altarpiece, pews, pulpit and reading desk, and iron support structures).

However, the important characteristic of Soane’s interiors was that they followed the Commissioners instructions faithfully, and also his owns suggestions on designs for churches made to the Commission in 1818. The rectangular layout allowed the maximum number of seats, and the best acoustics, so everyone, whether in the gallery, aisles, or back of the nave, could hear and see the service. This was also significantly aided by the small chancel, which was not set back with a choir in front. The pulpit and reading desk were placed opposite each other at the end of the nave pews, which made them visible to all. These were all very important considerations for the Church Commissioners, and Soane’s interiors were successful in this regard.

The exterior, on the other hand, is the most commented on aspect of St John’s on Bethnal Green. Soane showed from the start that he intended to pare down elements because of budgetary constraints. The columns are reduced to giant pilasters on all sides, with an accentuated Corinthian capital. The chancel and vestry are still projecting from the rear but have been reduced to one storey, and the roof is a shallow version abutting the tower and there is not a single attempt at a clerestory level amongst the drawing corpus, although ultimately Soane never built such a level on any of his churches. Although the exterior wall is coloured yellow on many drawings to denote a stone covering, it seems Soane had already decided the bricks would be left exposed. Ornament would be the typical Soane caps and pinecone finials seen in all the other churches, but these are reduced in number over time from all along the roofline to the first and last bays and the tower.

The major point of contention was reserved largely for the tower/steeple. The base and first tier seem to follow the Soane model of the other churches, but the Corinthian columns are turned in a north-south orientation. This meant the east and west sides appeared larger, whilst the north and south sides appeared narrower; but this unusual longitudinal arrangement did allow the shadow to reflect back upon the tower. Murray John explained how the longitudinal columns react to the rest of the design:

‘The projecting columns then continue into the parapet wall and down to the ground to join the west fronts A.B.A.B.A bay sequence. The virtue of this façade is that its steeple seems to grow from the ground up. The play is further emphasised by the two deep side door recesses that Pevsner calls “obstinately original”. Were it not for the truncated steeple, this design would be one of the greatest of Soane’s compositions’ (John, 2003, p. 66).

Consequently, either by inspiration or accident, Soane presented a possible solution to the architectural problem of having a tower placed at the front of a church and emanating from its roof, without a pediment in front. This manner of arranging the columns of the tower at least gave the impression of a tower which rises from ground level. Nonetheless, this feature was not generally picked up at the time.

The design of the complete tower was critiqued extremely negatively. The problem was not so much with the first tier, but with the heavily truncated second. Two drawings from June 1825 show the tower with a more typical elongated second tier with a dome and weather vane (SM 47/5/57; SM 47/5/63). It is notable on each drawing that an alternative second-tier tower is also posited, which is much shorter, and removes any columnar supports. Another from the same month includes a truncated tower (SM 59/10/5). Eventually, it is the shortened version of the tower that Soane builds. It is most likely that cost dictated the decision. At the time the design caused uproar, with Joseph Merceron (a Curator of the Bethnal Green Charity Land), appealing to the Commissioners to give an extra £500 so the tower ‘which has mortified and disappointed the Expectations of almost every Individual’ could be enlarged.

Soane received an unsigned letter which recommended another turret should be added so the tower would not ‘terminate so absurdly’ and went on to say ‘But it [the tower] is now put on an equal footing with that ridiculous pile of rubbish, Haggerstone Steeple’. The Steeple at St Mary’s, Haggerston in Shoreditch, London, was also a Commissioner Church by Soane’s rival, John Nash. It was executed in the Gothic style, and noted for its disproportionately tall spire (destroyed by bomb damage in 1941). There were attempts to raise more money, for example, a Mr Brutton from Bethnal Green who had attempted, unsuccessfully, to raise money from Brasenose College, Oxford. Soane had worked on four suites of additional accommodation at Brasenose in 1807, but why this route was taken is unknown. Soane also announced that he would put forward £100 of his own money to enlarge the steeple, ‘if…the inhabitants will make up the rest'. However, no one took up the challenge, and as there was no more money from the Commissioners, this design was final.

Even when consecrated, the criticisms from architectural writers were not kind to the building, especially the exterior. E. J. Carlos in the 1831 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine started his critique of the tower as follows: ‘and how shall we describe appropriately this monstrous excrescence?’ (Carlos, 1831, p. 106)'. He called the antae (actually the pilasters) unsightly, and wrote that the cornice ‘is ornamented at the angles, or rather defaced, by those non-descript blocks of stone, with handles, which are to be found in all the works of this architect’ (Carlos, 1831, 106). Carlos identifies the pairs of longitudinal columns on each corner, but opined that they, ‘appear to be designed to give a useless and inadequate breadth to the side view of the tower’. Therefore, this view as to their effect differs from Murray John’s. Carlos goes on to lament the finish and the lack of elevation as ‘a ‘’most lame and impotent conclusion” to the dwarfish structure’ (Carlos, 1831, 106).

Carlos actually reserved some praise for the interior, as it resembled St Peter’s Walworth, the first church to be consecrated and critiqued, which Carlos always judged the other two Soane churches against, ‘for the essential qualities of light and distinctness of hearing, both of which it enjoys to a degree beyond many Churches of recent construction’. (Carlos, 1831, p. 108). Carlos was also pleased with the number of seats, including the Free Seats. Indeed, Carlos eulogised that, ‘Every new Church that is opened, affords an additional proof that a strong attachment to the Establishment exists among all classes and that if Churches are provided they will be attended,’ (Carlos, 1831, p. 108).

Indeed Carlos recorded that St John’s had a total of 800 paid pews and 1,200 in Free Seats. This makes St John’s, Bethnal Green the only Soane Commissioner Church to have more Free Seats than paid box pews. The statistic may also testify to Bethnal Green being a poor area when compared to Marylebone and Newington, and therefore those who could afford a paid pew were very much in the minority.

Nevertheless, Carlos’ eulogy was premature. By 1846, the churches within Bethnal Green were in decline. Bishop Bloomfield referred to the area ‘where it is said that we have sown our seed in vain’. The religious census of 1851 still pointed to a higher church attendance than in other parishes in the east of London, and church building continued throughout the nineteenth century (indeed St John’s was only the second parish church built in the area), and one wonders whether a dearth of church seats had turned to overcapacity by 1850.

The modern reception, from the twentieth century to the present, has only been slightly kinder to the exterior. Gerald Carr, who when it came to the tower still thought it was ‘difficult to justify’ suggested it was because of all the cost-cutting, and ‘An air of resignation hangs quite heavily about the building. By the standards of his own day, St. John’s was a lacklustre performance.’ (Carr, 1976, p. 429). Nonetheless, Carr also says the tower and the rest of the building appear ‘oddly “Soanic”’, and the building is fascinating and, ‘even “attractive”’ largely due to the ‘primitivism’ of the design, which Carr and Robertson noted pervaded Soane’s other works, such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery with its exposed brick exterior walls and truncated dome for the mausoleum of the founders. Additionally, as mentioned Nicholas Pevsner and Murray John were also more enamoured with the building, but this may also be due to more modern appreciation of Soane’s pared down ‘modernist’ designs.

St James’s Piccadilly and St Bride's in the City of London by Sir Christopher Wren, and St Martins-in-the-Fields by James Gibbs have all been posited as influences on Soane’s church designs. However, another church may have had a greater specific influence on St John of Bethnal Green, another St John’s, in Egham, Surrey. It was built by Henry Rhodes in 1817, the year in which he exhibited a drawing of the building at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (No. 928). The church had been visited by Soane in September 1818, and there is correspondence between Soane and Rhodes in the Soane archive. The exposed brick exterior wall, and accentuated Corinthian pilasters on the front and the first and last bays of the side, along with a truncated tower shows a superficial commonality between both churches with regards to the exterior; even the window arrangement reflected Soane’s first designs for St John’s, Bethnal Green. Of course there are differences, ; St John's, Egham, for instance has a pediment before the tower, andthe front windows above the three front doors, amongst others; but this church was built for £8,000, with a three-by-eight_ bay design, and may have suggested to Soane the way of designing churches within tight budgets.

As with all the other Soane Commissioner Churches, St John’s has undergone changes over the subsequent years. A hammer beam roof was added to the ceiling of the nave and gallery in 1870-1 after a fire destroyed the original Soane roof, along with plate tracery windows to replace the iron lattice damaged in the fire. Another large addition was made in 1887-8 when George Bodley enlarged and extended the chancel between the Vestry and Robing Rooms to two storeys. In 1941 there was damage caused by an air raid. The iron railings were presumably melted down during the Second World War, and inferior replacements were attached in the 1980s. The leaking roof was also of concern, with Julian Harrap Architects, and Ptolemy Dean pitching ideas for the work. The job was given to Brady and Mallalieu who as John states ‘…appeared to strike a balance between understanding the importance of Soane’s building and an interest in the development of the church as a Christian centre’ (John, 2003, p. 93).

Roberto Rossi, 2019


E. J. Carlos, ‘New Churches No. XXIX: St. John’s Chapel, Bethnal Green’, 1826, in, Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 101/1, pp. 106-108; G. Carr, The Commissioners’ Churches of London, 1818-1837; A Study of Religious Art, Architecture and Patronage in Britain from the Formation of the Commission to the Accession of Victoria. 3 Vols, 1976 (PhD thesis, History of Art: University of Michigan); S. Robinson, Sir John Soane and the Church, 1997 (Master’s Report, Courtauld Institute); D. Stroud, Sir John Soane, Architect, 1996, London: De La Mare; M. John, Sir John Soane’s Three London Churches, 2003, AA Diploma; M. H. Port, Six Hundred New Churches: The Church Building Commission 1818-1856, 2006, Reading: Spire Books Ltd
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