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St michael’s church ~

a history by english heritage

St Michael’s, Woolwich, gaunt and lost-looking now on the hill above Woolwich Dockyard Station, was the upshot of a classic High-Church mission to the London poor, set on foot by a single priest, the Rev. H. R. Baker.  A school and temporary church preceded the permanent chancel, built in 1876–7 to J. W. Walter’s designs.  The nave, by William Butterfield, followed in 1888–9. After Baker’s death, internal embellishment took priority.  One narrow aisle was added in 1955, but the church was never fully completed and lacks the intended tower.

Hugh Ryves Baker (1832–98), of a family from County Limerick, was consecrated priest at Exeter in the 1850s.  He had been working across the Thames at St Mark’s, Silvertown, before taking charge in 1865 of this dense district of Woolwich, still then under the parish church.  Beginning next year with a mission church and school in a skittle alley, he soon secured a promise from the Bishop of London’s Fund to buy a large plot of land for a church and school from Joseph Spencer of Blackheath.  The sloping site ran north-south, with Eustace Place on its west side and the high perimeter wall of what was then the Royal Marine Hospital, later the Red Barracks, looming over Station (now Borgard) Road to the south.  It had eleven small houses on it at the time. [ECE 7/1/41915/3: records at St Michael’s Chuch:  LPL, ICBS 7668, appeal leaflet, 1873: Church Times, 21 Feb 1896]

This sector of Woolwich was slum-ridden, and later testimony speaks of Baker as ‘stamping out immoral houses to make room for the buildings which he erected’.  The explosives expert Col. Vivian Majendie, RA, wrote to Baker: ‘The very poor and difficult district in which your labours lie … is exposed to evils of a very exceptional, and I fear extensive character, from its immediate proximity to a large, or I should say several large Barracks.  This evil cannot be successfully dealt with by the Military Chaplains, however zealous and faithful.  It overflows into adjoining neighbourhoods, and must be stemmed and controlled by those who, like yourself stand, so to speak, on the frontier, and have to guard the passes.’  [ECE 7/1/41915/3]

In 1868–9 Baker procured from the firm of Charles Kent a ‘tin tabernacle’ and schoolroom, put up on the future church site. [MBW Mins, 25 Sept 1868, p.1082; 22 Jan 1869, p.102; 5 Feb 1869, p.153; 19 Feb 1869, p.242: ILN, 17 Oct 1868, p.375]  The permanent St Michael’s Schools came next, built to their north in 1870–1, probably by W. Shepherd. [MBW Mins, 5 Aug 1870, p.224: B, 18 June 1870, p.496: The Architect, 2 Sept 1871, p. xxx]  This competent essay in High Victorian Gothic was broken into three elements – a single-storey infants’ school flanking Eustace Place, a two-storey boys’ and girls’ school with oak-shingled bellcote at the north end of the site, and a schoolkeeper’s house in the south-east position.  That is the only part of the composition to survive, as the schools have been replaced by Cardwell Primary School.  Though altered, the house’s plain brick elevations, with coloured brick relieving arches over doors and windows, give a clue to the style of the schools.  Their designer was John William Walter, not a well-known architect.  Apart from St Michael’s, his only surviving building identified is a Battersea board school, Westbridge (formerly Bolingbroke Road) School of 1873–4.  That is because around 1880 Walter went to the United States with Peter Paul Pugin, presumably to help with some of Pugin & Pugin’s church commissions there. [LPL, ICBS 7668, July 1886]

Fund-raising for the permanent church started in 1873 through two parallel committees, one of civilians, the other of artillery officers.  Among the major donors was Richard Foster, a commission agent from Chislehurst, who turned into Baker’s most consistent supporter.  Once again Walter was the architect.   His overall design was an ambitious one in early thirteenth-century lancet style, with aisles, transepts, a level roof from end to end over high vaults, and flying buttresses.  In the liturgically north-east position (geographically s0uth-east) a tall tower with pyramidal cap surmounted the organ chamber.  All this was to be carried out in brick with Bath stone dressings.  The foundation stone was laid in 1875, but the first part built, consisting of the chancel, chancel aisle, organ chamber and vestries only, was undertaken by the builders Kirk & Randall only in 1876–7 and consecrated in 1878, probably indicating short funds.  The architectural magazines were impressed by the fragment they saw, to which the iron church, shifted on rollers to a new position, remained attached as a nave.  The Building News spotted an allusion to Exeter Cathedral in the design, no doubt pointing to Baker’s connection with that part of the country.  Two Exeter craftsmen, Harry Hems for the choir stalls and Frederick Drake for the east window, were also involved in this first phase.  The Builder found the vaulted chancel and chancel aisle ‘very imposing’, and noted the High-Church changes of level as well as the chocolate-painted ironwork, ‘helped by marginal lines of gold’. [B, 24 July 1875, p.675; 20 July 1878, p.761: BN, 23 July 1875,; 26 July 1878, p.94: The Architect,  xxx: DSR]

In 1879 St Michael’s acquired its own parochial district.  Baker’s next priority was a vicarage, found in the shape of an existing house in Samuel Street, to whose refurbishment Hems and Drake both added decorative touches in 1884. [ECE 7/1/41915/3] Completing the church was postponed until 1886.  In that enterprise Richard Foster was Baker’s chief coadjutor, though there were various other donors and supporters including J. G. Hubbard, later Lord Addington.  Walter having emigrated, leaving his drawings behind him,  Foster decided to discard these and bring in William Butterfield, ‘so the plans are sure to be all right’, as he put it to the Incorporated Church Building Society.  The architect for his part took up the work ‘out of compliment to Mr. Foster’. [LPL, ICBS 7668, July 1886, Nov 1889]

The formidable Butterfield was then over seventy and nearing the end of his long church-building career, but he never lacked application.  His plans for a nave and aisles for St Michael’s, conservative for their date but quite different from Walter’s, sailed through the church-building bureaucracy.  The three-and-a-half-bay nave and arcade came first, the aisles and west front being left for later.  Work went ahead on that basis in 1888–9 under Butterfield’s veteran builder, Joseph Norris of Sunningdale.  The finishing stage caused Baker some grief.  The object of altercation was the gaslights, changed at the last moment without consultation.  Against Foster and his architect, Baker regarded them ‘as a disfigurement’.  But as he put it, ‘Butterfield knows his power, and I am condemned without a hearing … Mr Butterfield has simply walked through contract specification and everything!’ [LPL, ICBS 7668, Oct–Nov 1889: Kentish Independent, 23 Nov 1889]

An extra effort was made to complete the church in 1898–9.  Butterfield having retired, his place was taken by W. D. Caroe, who produced an optimistic drawing for the tower, partly based on Walter’s old design.  All that seems to have been achieved (with Norris once more the builder) was the completion of Butterfield’s west front with five-light window. [LPL, ICBS 7668: ECE 7/1/41915/3:  B, 15 April 1899, p.371: DSR: drawings at church] The aisles were again postponed, and with Baker’s sudden death in 1898 all heart went out of further enlargement.  Only in 1955 was a narrow south (geographically west) aisle added by Thomas Ford & Partners.

The fragmented history of St Michael’s construction leaves the visitor ill-prepared for its noble (if now fusty) interior.  Its virtues have much to do with Butterfield’s skill in making the best of an unpromising brief.   The nave is slightly wider than the chancel, and that together with the completeness of the arcade on both sides lessens the sense of amputation conveyed by the want of full aisles.   The western bays take the form of high, narrow narthex arches, intended to relate to tall side porches.  Perhaps the outstanding feature is the Devon-style wagon roof, a form perhaps once again chosen in deference to Baker (who was buried at Ottery St Mary); its cross-ribs pick up the vaulting of the chancel with economical dignity.   Beneath, the sexfoil rose windows of the clerestory are a reminder of Butterfield’s unrepentant High Victorian taste.   The colour scheme, tamed by whitewashers in 1930, was in his typical strong tones, with alternating stone bands on the piers and further brick banding higher up over the tiled frieze.   Walter’s east end is finely proportioned but less personal.  Both chancel and side chapel have brick-groined vaults (now painted), but while the chancel windows are austere lancets, the chapel ventures into plate tracery.

Baker was a fervent Tractarian whose liturgical practices sometimes sailed close to the wind.  The fittings of St Michael’s reflect that churchmanship, which survived him.  The side or Lady Chapel acquired a second altar in about 1880; [LMA, DR/F/1885/6] it has a tripartite reredos with low-relief figures.  In a corner is a sacrament house of 1927 by Cecil Hare of Bodley & Hare, who made various changes to the church around that time.  The main reredos over the high altar is a grander affair, made in 1892 by Cox & Buckley to the designs of the architect-priest Ernest Geldart in Low-Countries taste.  Of marble, alabaster, blue Corsham stone and slate, it deploys angel statues (made in Bruges) left and right of a central painting of Christ in Majesty.  Above, Geldart designed for the three lancets a stained glass scheme showing the nine orders of angels; this seems to have been irreparably bomb-damaged and replaced by a simplified post-war scheme depicting the same subject with angels in the same positions.  Geldart also provided low arcading left and right of the reredos, replaced with panelling by Cecil Hare in the 1920s, and a bishop’s chair. Elsewhere in the chancel, surviving fittings of 1878 include the oak stalls made by Harry Hems, and the encaustic tiled pavement by Webb & Co. of Worcester.  The mosaic work on the lower part of the north wall, dated 1890, is by Butterfield.  The painted decoration in the chancel and over the chancel arch is of various dates, the insipid figures against the east wall (by F. A. Jackson of Ealing, working under Hare) arriving as late as 1928.   In the nave, both font and pulpit are typical Butterfield fittings, as are the benches; the unusual wooden lectern is probably not his.  The largest fitting is the elaborate oak chancel screen and rood of 1903, a memorial to Baker but rather a disappointment; its designer is unknown.  Of later fittings, the most significant is the war memorial altar, dossal and large crucifix on the south side at the west end, by Ninian Comper, 1919. [Records at St Michael’s Church: Church Times, 21 Feb 1896)] Following war damage, most of the older stained glass has disappeared.  The Lady Chapel windows are by Goddard & Gibbs, 1948. []

At Baker’s death, St Michael’s was said to have had more communicants than any other church in the deanery. [ECE 7/1/41915/3] But inexorable replanning and social change in Woolwich after 1945 broke up its tightly knit setting of low houses and made it a growing anomaly.

Written by Andrew Saint

General Editor

English Heritage

Survey of London

20 March 2009