Monday, June 17, 2013

A history of Trinity Church, Rotherhithe

Update 20th June 2013. My thanks to Holy Trinity Church Warden Ed Aldred for additional information in this post.

The Location

Trinity Church, its construction started in 1837 and completed in 1838, is marked on both the 1844 map of the Rotherhithe docks by Nathaniel Gould and on the successive Old Ordnance Survey Maps (London Sheet 78).

On the 1868 map (shown on the right) Trinity Church is clearly marked with a large churchyard, school building and a driveway that opened out onto Trinity Street. I have highlighted it in green for ease of identification. It was flanked by residential areas on three sides and by Acorn Yard on its other.  In the Downtown area of Rotherhithe, it served a newly expanding area of residential, as well as commercial development.

Today Trinity Street is the part of Rotherhithe Street that forms the right turn off Salter Road.  You can see its exact position on Streetmaps here. The Trinity churchyard stood in the corner where Salter Road and Rotherhithe Street now meet.  The entrance is close to the Surrey Dock Farm, on the left as you proceed from the postbox on the corner of Salter Road towards the Farm, where today a modern Holy Trinity Church stands.

The former churchyard now ends behind the new church and is shared by the the original 1836 school building. The modern residential Church Court seems to be built on the site of a former complex of buildings that were not associated with the churchyard (shown to the bottom left of the green-highlighted area on the above map).

Trinity Church of 1837-38

From the The British Critic Quarterly Theological Review
and Ecclesiastical Record
(Volume 28, 1840)
Both Trinity Church and the school were built on land provided by the Commercial Dock Company. They were both the inspiration of Reverend Edward Blick, the Rector of Rotherhithe between 1835 and 1867, and something of a local visionary.  It was Blick who began raising funds to build the church and school, deeming that St Mary's, the local parish church, was too far from the growing Downtown community.

The design, by Sampson Kempthorne, is Victorian Gothic Revival, a popular style for its day. Kempthorne specialized in designing workhouses, for which he was very highly regarded, but he designed a number of churches including Trinity and another Gothic Revival Rotherhithe Church, All Saints (which was consecrated in 1839).   

The Reverend Beck, who provided quite detailed listings of some of the clergy in the area, says that the first rector of Trinity was Reverend William Hutchinson M.A. from All Souls College, Oxford, and that he was the incumbent from 1839 to 1850.  He moved on to serve in other parishes. Between 1851 and 1859 the incumbent was he Reverend J.R. Turing, M.A. of Trinity College, Cambridge. According to Beck, he was "much liked by his parishioners" and produced a printed volume of six of his sermons, one of which was delivered on the 21st anniversary of the dedication of Trinity Church. He was succeeded by the Reverend James Wilson M.A. of Emmanuel College, Cambridge "and here he was devoted to the work of the schools and of the parish for 29 years, till his health and his voice completely failed, and he was constrained to reign his charge, to the great regret of his parishioners and friends."   His successor, Reverend Henry Horne Selby-Hele was vicar of Trinity until 1900, when he swapped positions with Reverend W.D. Weeting, M.A. who held the position until 1905.  He was in turn succeeded by Reverend H.R.P. Tringham M.A..

Beck also says that the three new churches established by Edward Blick cost, in total, £13,525, and that Trinity itself was provided with a £150 a year endowment. 

Stuart Rankin points out that Trinity Church seems to have been named for the street in which it was built, because the name of the road predates the building of the church. Building began in 1837 and it was consecrated in 1838.  It was built on a north-east to south-west axis. The church's architecture did not meet with contemporary critical approval. It was described in A History of the County of Surrey (1912) as follows:

"The church consists of a shallow sanctuary recess and a wide barn-like nave with vestibules and a tower at the west. The nave is lit by large lancet windows and the whole church is meanly designed in 13th-century style. The tower has an embattled parapet."  

Edward Walford, in his series of publications Old and New London, covered Rotherhithe in Volume VI, "The Southern Suburbs" but his brief survey of the area only has the following to say on the subject:

"Holy Trinity Church, in the eastern part of the parish, is a spacious edifice, in the Pointed style, capable of accommodating 1,000 persons. this church was consecrated in 1839."

The term "Pointed" refers to the pointed arches and doorways of the Gothic tradition.

The British Critic Quarterly Theological Review and Ecclesiastical Record (Volume 28, 1840) was very derogatory about both Trinity and All Saints, and took up some page space to make its feelings clear.  

"These churches have so little pretension, and have so evidently been subjected to the economizing process, that we would rather pass them sub silentio but that something in the way of comment is looked for. . . . each are designed to hold 1000 persons, cost about 3400/. and are arranged  for one-third pews, one-third sittings at a low rate for the middling classes, and one-third free seats. Both of these churches have steeples, which we think, under such circumstances, an error in judgement: and these steeples rise out of the body instead of being projected from the front" (p.496).

Looking in more detail at Trinity Church itself, The British Quarterly goes on, in ever-more disparaging tones:
"It only positively offends when it ceases to be plain.  The corner buttresses, surmounted by weathered canopies rising above the parapet seem more fortuitous appendages.  the break in the line of the east wall spoils what little symmetry there is in such a building, and only suggests the idea of a nave, and aisles enough to remind us that there are none" (p.497).

Trinity Church. From the Diocese of Southwark
In spite of these aspersions, the various illustrations that survive indicate that it was probably a rather inoffensive and actually very attractive little church that was probably much-loved by the people it served.  It was also a significant achievement for a project with limited funding in an impoverished area.  The building certainly stood the test of time, completing nearly a century of service before it was destroyed in a bombing raid. 

The illustrations suggest that the tower was designed to hold a bell, although it seems unlikely that it ever had one, as I have seen no mention of it and apparently no remains of it are found after the church was bombed in the war.

The Victorian attraction to the Gothic style, which expressed itself in the form of Gothic Revival (also known as neo-Gothic and Victorian Gothic), was inspired by the sense that Christianity in its purest and most beautiful form emerged the Medieval period.  The often richly decorative and flamboyant architectural motifs of Gothic architecture and decorative art also appealed to to the Romantic movement, and these ideas were combined in the form of art, architecture and craft. The architectural results are found across Europe, expressed in the form of the extravagance of buildings like the Palace of Westminster and Cologne Cathedral to more modest versions that sprung up in small communities all over the Britain.  In Britain, most of the more elaborate examples of Gothic Revival architecture are secular rather than religious, and much of the style in religious structures survives in the more modest form of relatively small provincial and suburban churches of very varying quality.

Trinity Church and its vicarage were destroyed by bombing on 7th September 1940, the first night of the 39-day London Blitz, a tragically memorable day for London.  At 5.30pm 348 German bombers dropped incendiary bombs on London.  A distribution map compiled from Fire Brigade records shows where and how densely the bombs fell on that day across London. Another map, on the Guardian website, shows where they fell in Rotherhithe. The bombs hit Rotherhithe so badly that the fires were uncontrollable and had to be left to burn themselves out, largely due to the intensity of the fires in the timber yards. The area was evacuated and much of the Downtown area of Rotherhithe was lost in the blaze.  Trinity Church was one of the first churches to be destroyed by German bombing.  All that now survives of its interior is a charred metal cross, with a figure of Jesus, returned to Holy Trinity in 2002. In the modern churchyard are some of the old churchyard's rather lovely tombstones, leaned up against the churchyard wall.

The Modern Church, Holy Trinity, 1957

Holy Trinity Church
The modern Holy Trinity Church was erected seventeen years later on the site of the former Trinity Church.  Designed by Thomas Ford in 1957 it is, (as the Holy Trinity website points out), a fine example of of 1950s architecture.  It is brick-built with a copper-clad roof.  I don't think that even its best friend would consider the exterior to be a thing of beauty, particularly with the green roof, but it does have the twin virtues of being striking and unusual, and its light-filled interior is really rather lovely. Apparently the acoustics are excellent. It features a distinctive mural by Hans Feibusch, depicting the crucifixion, which will not be to everyone's taste, but was considered by Terence Mullaly, writing in the Daily Telegraph in 1960, to be among his finest works.  The pews came from St James, Bermondsey.  St James survived the blitz but after the war the side aisles were taken out of use and the spare pews moved to the new Holy Trinity. 

Apologies for the lack of an interior photograph.  There is, however, a photograph of the interior and the mural on the Holy Trinity Church website (go to the "Local History" section, then go to the the very end of the page and click on the "See Inside The Church" link).

The Diocese of Southwark describes the church as follows:
"The church is of an orthodox plan on an east west axis, the sacristy being to the east. The main nave has simple aisles, there is a vestry, parish office and kitchen area to the east end and Lady Chapel with two entrances / exits, vestibules to the west end."
As Church Warden Ed Aldred points out, however, both the original and the replacement churches are on a North East to South West axis.

Surprisingly, I have been unable to find out anything useful about Thomas Ford (apart from the fact that he remodeled the interior of St John’s Church, Waterloo, ten years after it was bombed in 1940).  I am grateful to Ed Aldred for the information that he was involved in maintaining, repairing and replacing various bomb-damaged churches in the Southwark area, and that he built Christ Church and St Stephen in Battersea (which has a number of recognizable elements in common with Holy Trinity).  There's a colour photograph of it on the Geograph website here.

The mural painter Hans Feibusch (1898-1998) is still quite highly regarded and therefore well recorded. Feibusch was a German Jew who converted to Christianity when he escaped to England. A talented painter, he eventually specialized in murals, which are faintly Expressionist in style. He was a friend of Clough Williams-Ellis and was commissioned by him to paint a number of murals in Portmeirion. With Thomas Ford, he also contributed to the renovation of St John's Church at Waterloo. You can find out about him on Wikipedia and on the Holy Trinity site in the Local History section (click on the "The Mural" link under "Local History"). There's a slideshow of 51 of his paintings on the BBC website.

More information about Holy Trinity Church, with photographs, is available from the Holy Trinity website.

The School 

Infant School, from within the churchyard
The school was established by Reverend Edward Blick (Rector of Rotherhithe between 1835 and 1867) and was in use from 1836 and although it ceased to be used for that purpose in 1910 when a new school opened nearby, the building itself survived to serve as a church hall and daycare centre.  It is accessible via the modern churchyard. The original engraving "Infant School" is still clearly visible on the building.  One end faces out onto Rotherhithe Street.

The building is small and delightful.  It is an elegant and attractive brick-built single floor building with windows in arched recesses, although the yellow daycare centre signs don't do it any favours. Modern signage really can be an eyesore. 

One wall bears the mark of the 1928 flood, which was one of Rotherhithe's more serious flooding events, and is marked at 3ft and 2inches from ground level.

The round plaque on the wall facing into Rotherhithe Street (under the central window in the photograph below) mentions two restored rope wells.  These are not on display to the public because they are below the modern floors. 

School seen from Rotherhithe Street, with its
modern "Trinity Halls" sign

The churchyard, which consists of a rectangle of grass with wooden benches in front of the church, some really fine roses and two very unique buildings, is a very peaceful place.  I don't think that Reverend Blick or his contemporaries, with at least one eye on the future, would have disapproved too much of the somehow harmonious mix of the buildings of the 19th and mid 20th Centuries.


Lesley wood said...

Just found your blog and this post. Fantastic- the old map of Trinity St. My GGGF Samuel Watkins lived on Trinity St in 1812 when he and his wife christened 2 children at St Mary's, Rotherhithe. Gave his occupation as timber merchant and that old map makes it all clear!

Anonymous said...

Trinity Church has an association with the Austin family, founders of the Austin of England motor car company, Herbert Austin, his siblings, their baptimsd at St Trinity