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TEXT ONLY VERSION for quick reference and searching, for the illustrated version - download D: The present church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common 2.1 Mb pdf
152 Overview of section D
D 153-155 Meeting Room,
D 156,157,157 Music, Electric Lighting, Bells,
D 158, 159 President’s Chair, Sanctuary Chairs; Credence Tables; Legilium
D 160, 160-161 Choir Lectern, Processional Cross,
D 162, 162-163 Sanctuary Lamps, Sconces
D 163, 164 Thurible, Crucifix
D 165-166 Altar Dressings
D 167-170 Final architectural comments on internal fittings
D 171 The Vicarage
Repairs and revelations:
D 172-176 Downpipe repairs
D 177-181 Upper roof renewal 2005
D 182-188 Woodwool fall 2013
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Final Features …
In 1962, Maguire wrote this: 6 ‘In the single storey wing to the south-east of the church, there is a
sacristy/vestry and a meeting room, which is used, inter alia, for a parish breakfast. This room was an
important need for the parish, but there was no money available for such a room other than by combining its
function with that of choir vestry and committee room.’
The issue of limited War Reparation funds and a much reduced budget at a late stage need to be borne
in mind always when critiquing this building. The forecourt broke up so badly and became a bit of a
disgrace in my time in the parish and I remember Keith Murray describing how he and Bob had to
achieve what they could with what limited resources as they had. Times were tough in those post-War
In the same article Bob Maguire also wrote this:
Fortunately, the cost of the building strictly limited the choice of materials. They had to be cheap; most of them
would be found more usually in industrial buildings rather than in a church. The floor is of British Standard
precast concrete paving flags. The walls are built in cheap Flint brick. The columns are finished in white-painted
plaster. Originally the roof over the central space, as well as the aisle roofs, was to be in concrete, but owing to
cost limitations and the comparative lack of craftsmanship in this country in concrete work, the main roof was
eventually framed in steel, with a suspended ceiling.’
For me there is one interesting, small, but telling sign of the serious intent of the church in its inception!
It was with a very serious and purposeful mindset that this building was created and, politically,
committees were important instruments of people’s governance. One contemporary little label, tucked
away in the shadows of the corridor between the main church and what we came to call the church
hall (Maguire’s ‘Meeting Room’ above) is a switch panel for heaters
in that room. You can see from the image here that in the beginning
it was not styled ‘church hall’ or ‘parish room’ or even ‘meeting
room’ but ‘Committee Room’!
Again, within the constraints of what was
possible, the parish room was used for tea and
coffee after the Sunday service (and, in winter, to
help people warm up a little!) and for social
events and community groups.
The church had limited resources, it never had
much more than a small congregation and even
by the time I came to the church the building had
not had much maintenance. The church heating
had started to put out smoke a few winters
previously and so was turned off with a warning
to me not to turn it on!
I remember the thermometer I kept
under the president’s chair showing 1
deg C as a service began one Sunday two
winters after I arrived. A few gas
cylinder heaters made little difference in
the church but gave some warmth if one
sat near to them. We then decamped to
the church hall the next winter but
numbers had grown so we couldn’t keep
that up for another winter.
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The church hall had some not very
strong radiant wall heaters but the roof
was low and by comparison with the
church it was a welcome relief from
the cold of a frigid church, but it was
still a chilly place which seemed
somehow to be in keeping with the
asceticism of the rest of the building!
The cost of a new church heating
system was prohibitive at £40,000.
Astonishingly, the church was given
an anonymous donation, large enough
to install new heating in 2004! May endless blessings continue upon that generous individual!
A lot of community contacts grew in my first few years and we won the trust of the local major Housing
Association, Poplar HARCA, who also ran a lot of community initiatives.
Regeneration hit our area of the parish in a big way from about 2008 and when the local community
centre had to be demolished to make
way for new housing and a new and
very good community hub the church
was approached in 2010 with a
proposal from Poplar HARCA, which
offered to come in, in a big way, on
completely upgrading and modernising
the church hall for use by their
displaced community groups and then,
for a period after the new facilities
were built, to have a guaranteed
amount of use of the new hall.
This was an amazing opportunity and in April
and May 2011 the church facilities were
transformed, especially to be disability
compliant, with storage heating and a lot of
general storage for the church and community
groups. There had been no storage at all in the
hall as built. This was an amazing thing to
happen and on its own the church could not
have done this.
The design was in the hands of our architect of
the time, the excellent John Allan of Avanti. He
had an extraordinary eye and instinct for the
building and its resonances.
Thus he perfectly colour matched the
paintwork, the tiling and the upholstery in the
refurbished church hall to match the ‘bull’s
blood’ colour of the porch lettering and upper
level fascia renovated the previous year in
2010 under his guidance. A whole new boost
was given to the church and its service and
engagement with the parish and community.
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The ‘new’ church hall was now
disability compliant externally as
well as internally and now totally
available to the whole community.
A couple of months later, on 30th
July just days after he had been
consecrated Bishop, as the first
engagement of his ministry the new
Bishop of Stepney, Rt. Revd. Adrian
Newman blessed and opened the
hall and that crowned the whole
Just before I retired, on 13th October 2013, I was
greatly privileged when the church hall was
dedicated as the ‘Fr. Duncan Ross Community
Hall’ by the Most Revd. Dr. Rowan Williams,
himself retired from his labours as Archbishop of
Canterbury, but a friend of mine since theological
college days. It was a great honour.
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In 1962, just two years after the church had been consecrated, Bob Maguire noted these further
features of the church:
The organ will be on the west clerestory wall; the case for this was built with the church.
The organ console will be on the south side of the sanctuary, in the position now occupied by a harmonium.
There is no fixed choir; a four-sided choir lectern has been provided for the choir, which is small and whose
function is seen at St. Paul's as leading the congregation and occasionally to sing special parts with the
celebrant in the liturgy.’
Images below are of the small organ installed in 1960 and then the Manders Organ as it now is.
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6 ‘Electric lighting.
The electric lighting of the church consists mainly of specially made
fittings around the four sides of the central space. These are made of cast
prismatic crystal cylinders hanging one above the other in steel ladder
frames and suspended from a bracket arm. These lights are intended to
have some of the sparkle and gaiety which candles have though without
in any way trying to simulate candlelight or the appearance of candles.
The level of lighting is increased in one area just to the west of the
sanctuary, by a row of more powerful lights behind louvres under the
organ case. This is particularly convenient for those with bad eye-sight.’
In fact the spotlights under the organ are the main lighting for any
congregation seated, as they normally are, to the west of the High
Altar. They are impossible to access except from underneath! Thus
as the spotlights
be replaced without installation of mid-height
scaffolding. The perimeter lights simply do
not illuminate the seating area and so as the
spotlights continue to fail the seating area is
seriously underlit, especially at night. The
intention at the time of my retirement was to
install low-energy long-life LED spotlights.
There are two bells mounted in a steel bell-frame on the south clerestory wall. These are rung from the south side,
an arrangement convenient for the Sanctus and for announcing "small" services.’
The ropes enter the church through
the two circular apertures as shown. After so many years of use both ropes frayed and it would have
needed a lot of safely erected scaffolding to reconnect them with health and safety limits. However one
was restored for the Licensing of Mother Bernadette Hegarty on 4th October 2014.
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I have found no descriptions or reference in any of the literature for the items which follow, but images
Almost certainly the President’s Chair, together with the sanctuary seats and the credence tables
and probably the legilium and choir lectern were all designed by Keith Murray and clearly share
a commonality of design. The olive branches and doves on the President’s Chair have a clear
reference to Noah and the end of the Flood and the restoration of peace on earth. As can be seen
these motifs (inlaid resin) have a close affinity with Ralph Beyer’s incised motifs on the slate altar
in the Chapel of St. Katharine’s Foundation, as seen below. Did he design these elements?
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- 160 -
The origins of this kind of fitting are monastic and choral, where in a monastic church singers of
the various parts of a psalter or chant could follow their parts on volumes laid open on each side
with the upper part able to rotate. Given Fr. Kirkby’s interest in Gregorian and other chant this
was very likely his intention for liturgical accompaniment at Bow Common. Neither numbers nor
the technical skills required were in abundance and this had long since become a rest for Bibles,
Prayer Books and other sacred volumes. A reader standing at this lectern was hidden by it and so
it could never be used as a lectern, as well as being heavy and difficult to move easily.
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This is one of the most striking and effective of the church furnishings at Bow Common and the work
of Michael Murray. Many a visitor is convinced, when seeing it across the church for the first time, lit
by the sun or even in daylight that there are very clever electric lights arrayed along the arms of the
cross as the light catches the silver disks so strikingly.
When I arrived at Bow Common I was very clearly instructed in the traditions and ways of the church
with no allowance for variation! One of the first firm instructions I was given was about this cross.
During the weekday it was to be placed behind the Sacrament Altar at the east end of the church as the
altar cross for that altar. Masses celebrated in that chapel were in front of that cross. Then, at weekends,
in preparation for Sunday, the cross was brought out to stand under the eastern side of the iron corona,
quite a way to the east of the High Altar and was effectively the altar cross for the central altar. Under
NO circumstances was I EVER to place either candlesticks or an altar cross on the central High Altar!
THIS was the altar cross! However, I soon saw how well this worked and valued it and continued to
relocate the cross every week as intended. It ‘worked’ remarkably well.
From the archive, this view on the left shows the Dedication Mass for the opening of the new St. Paul
with St. Luke School (also built by Maguire & Murray) on 1st May 1972 with Bishop Trevor Huddleston
presiding and Fr. Kirkby assisting. The cross can be seen in position for a High Altar celebration, just
behind the bishop. To the right is a view 40 years later from 2012, showing the cross standing forward.
When not in such use the processional cross sits, as shown below, behind the Sacrament Altar as a
visual and liturgical focus both for the Reserved Sacrament kept in this chapel and also for that altar
when in use. In Lent a ‘Lenten Processional Cross’ is used, as also shown here. I suspect this was made
at a later date.
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These very finely made lamps (again, almost certainly by Michael Murray) are part of the few small
but beautiful elements of delicate, decorative work amidst the stark expanses of brick and concrete.
Beautifully made they are also beautifully balanced! To light them one simply reaches up and pulls
down each lamp. The opposite lamp on the end of a chain rises and remains suspended in perfect
balance until the lit lamp is raised, all four lamps remaining in perfect balance throughout. It was
always a pleasing exercise to carry out! Up to a couple of years after my arrival, oil was used in the
red glass ‘bowls’ with a floating wick. In time this became perilous with oil occasionally being
spilled and a lot of sticky residue being spread. Thereafter small wax votive lights have been used.
The third image shows the delicate chain system from below the roof of the ciborium, which
supports and balances the lamps on all four sides of the High Altar.
Again, the work of Michael Murray, these silver sconces served two functions. Clearly they are
processional candles and designed to flank the Processional Cross when it is carried. They also
serve the function of altar candles for the High Altar, though never placed upon it. The practice,
which I continued, had long been that, when brought in by altar servers at the beginning of the
service, they were placed on either side of the High Altar but at the level of the lower step. During
the first part of the Eucharist (The Ministry of the Word) the High Altar is effectively not yet in
use, the focus being westwards on the reading and preaching of the Word at the legilium. The
earliest practice, indeed, was not yet even to dress the altar with its cloth until the action moved
from legilium to altar – from Word to Communion.
There is rightly a great emphasis on the Sacrament of Communion, focussed on the elements of
Bread and Wine but often this can seem to push the Sacrament of the Word into being not much
more than a necessary preface to the action at the altar, of consecration of these elements. To
counter act this, I think the intention was for not just the priest to move to the altar but for the
people to follow and stand in the ‘Standing Space’ (see earlier). At this point the sconces were then
raised up a step to flank the altar to honour what was then to take place upon it.
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Over the years the sconces had been dropped and knocked and dented and came to look quite
battered. They were therefore restored very carefully just before the 50th Anniversary Celebrations
I have seen nothing written about the thurible anywhere. I’m not at all sure whether it is the work
of Michael Murray (I suspect not) or designed by Keith Murray. I do feel it was commissioned for
the new church, however, with that tell-tale three dimensional cross on the lid! It clearly doesn’t
belong to the old church – there are much more traditional thuribles which the church still has
from former use in Bow Common. However, the details of lettering on it (in Latin) do not sit
alongside anything else in the church and are almost certainly not designed by Ralph Beyer. They
say ‘Laudate Deum Omnes Gentes’ (Praise God All (you) People).
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Many visitors fail to notice the crucifix high up on the south wall below the lantern. Nothing is
recorded about this except that it was sculpted by William Figgis. In vain does one search for any
biographical details of him or how this commission came to be given to him. Given the very spare
decorative scheme for the building it might seem
something of a surprise to see such a sizeable
figurative presence at all.
Early on I learned that initially there was some
debate about where it would be placed. I was told
that Keith Murray wished for it to be placed on the
upper east wall so that as one stands at the west
end it would appear above the high altar and
However, or so
Keith told me,
which was that
silver processional cross was already prominently visible as a
cross above the high altar and that two crosses in one line of sight
would be excessive. The image shown here does show how the
silver cross is very effective in this way (also see previously) and
so the crucifix then found its place high up on the south wall.
In 2005 when roof repairs were being carried out and the church
was filled with scaffolding (see ‘Repairs & Revelations,’ later)
there was a unique opportunity to
inspect the crucifix at close quarters. I
found myself rather admiring its quiet
dignity and feeling regret that it was
now such a marginal feature of the
Alongside is a selection of close up
views of the figure taken by me at that
time. In the context of the whole
church and its rationale, in such a lean
and spare space, the ten great figures
of Charles Lutyens’ Heavenly Host for
me have a complementary presence, not at all impinging
upon the surfaces and
volume of the building
which the cross might
be considered as doing.
It should be remembered,
this figure was first
placed there when there
were as yet no mosaics.
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Keith Murray was a skilled designer and, as Managing
Director of Watts in his 20’s, designed copes
(decorative cloaks) worn by clergy at the Coronation of
HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Keith was to have
executed the mosaics of the ‘Heavenly Host’ in the
spandrels left blank for them. Some of his sketches for
these can be seen under the section on the mosaics
which, in the event, were designed and executed by the
remarkable Charles Lutyens who became a great friend
in my time at Bow Common.
What Keith did leave were these two altar frontals
which he designed to be laid on the altar very easily
and quickly at the point in the service where the focus
changed from ‘The Word’ at the lectern, to ‘The
Sacrament’ as the priest and people moved to the altar.
I remember Keith telling me that an important part of
the design was the ease and speed with which the altar
could be dressed with the frontal – two large
seasonally coloured ‘flaps’ at front and back joined by
a plain broad strip of lined linen of the same
dimensions as the slate top of the altar. He also
produced a matching set of red vestments. These have become really quite frail and, to be honest, of curious
medieval conical shape for the priest’s chasuble which was uncomfortable to wear with a lot of material
bunched around one’s neck! The white altar frontal had no matching vestments (or none surviving at the
time of my arrival in 1995).
Some years before I left the church I came to know the present Managing Director of Watts, David Gazely.
Having witnessed at first hand Maguire, Murray and Fr. Kirkby meeting and working on the church at
Watts he was a mine of information. With great kindness he made a gift to the church of the last cope that
Keith Murray had designed. For interest, details of that garment are shown here. The cope was never made
for this church but the purchaser sold it back to Watts who then kindly donated it to the church. The Bishop
of London is also seen wearing it on the occasion of the church’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.
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In normal use the High Altar is dressed throughout the year according to the prevailing liturgical ‘season.’
Through ancient usage the most joyful seasons are celebrated with white or gold (Easter, Christmas, certain
major feasts and saints); red for Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, also for Good Friday, martyrs and sacrifice;
purple for penitential seasons such as Lent and Advent, and for mourning; and green for the ‘ordinary’
times of the year, green being the colour of nature (in countries blessed with rain, at least!). There are also
special sets of vestments often for Passiontide (which leads up to and includes Holy Week), the Virgin Mary,
and ‘Refreshment’ Sundays in Advent and Lent – rose pink – when the rigours of the penitential season are
slightly eased. At Bow Common there are the red and white altar frontals designed by Keith Murray and
also a series of boards designed by Fr. Kirkby – some are shown here … as is the 2008 Christmas frontal
created by the congregation
Christmas altar frontal created by members of the congregation during Advent workshops 2008
and assembled by artist-in-residence Lucy Brennan as the ‘Child of Light.’ If this is the Child of Light
then I reasoned He would have a ‘shadow of light’ which I created with lit candles
The Advent frontal board. This picks up the
colours of the Advent vestments which are
worn in the church during that season of
preparation and looking forward to Christmas
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Early comments on the furnishings and fittings…
In ‘Church Building’ of 1962, following the article by Maguire and Murray already heavily quoted
above, there was an editorial ‘Comment’ on the building, including the earliest opinion in print on
some of the furnishings above. Some of these comments may have already been presented but are
gathered here for interest and a ‘final’ word on the building, even if some of the earliest written!
The site of St. Paul's Church is at the corner of St. Paul‘s Way and Burdett Road. Burdett Road is a main
road from the docks to the North, and carries very heavy traffic. On the site next to the church there are
single-storey prefabs ; otherwise at present the houses in the immediate vicinity of the church are three-storey
terraced houses. This makes the present scale of the church in relation to its environment rather peculiar. It
was however designed with the L.C.C. development programme for the area in mind in which it is proposed
that the adjoining sites should be used for towers of flats of possibly 11 storeys. On the opposite side of Burdett
Road there will be a large public park. Perhaps the most important permanent feature in the neighbourhood
of the building is the ‘tough' railway viaduct crossing Burdett Road to the north of the site. So while at the
moment the scale of the church is too massive for the surrounding buildings, as far as one may judge it will
be able to hold its own against the much taller flats when and if they are built.
The relationship between the lantern and the brick box of the nave is disturbing in photographs. In fact, the
crystalline lightness of the lantern allows it to sit on the cube of the nave most convincingly. It is probably
because we are used to the classical relationships between domes, cupolas and spires and the kind of buildings
they ‘sit’ on, that the unclassical relationship here is at first disturbing.
The cube of the nave has great strength in consequence of its simplicity. The capping of the wall, however,
is a strip of aluminium, and gives the cube a slightly unfinished look at the top. Another unfortunate external
feature is the treatment of the surfaces of the aisle roofs. It is a pity that they could not have been in ribbed
aluminium sheet like the roof of the lantern. The relationship between the roofs and walls of the aisles
emphasises the structural logic of the folded slab roof and the enclosing character of the flat-topped brick wall.
This wall, incidentally, has a 6-inch concrete capping as a bearing for the roof; the resulting strength in
contrast with the weak top of the nave wall makes an architectural object-lesson.
The bell frame on the south clerestory wall is an asset; it has a simple direct relationship to the wall (a frame
‘hung on ') which is convincing. On the other hand, the lightning conductor at dead centre of the north
clerestory wall is most surprisingly disturbing, taking away much of the quality of the brickwork and the
proportions of the wall. The church notice board on the west aisle wall, though well-designed in itself is in
some way unsatisfactory in relation to the wall (floating, not obviously hung on).
Porch. The main entrance to the church is through a complex little building which has a bivalent relationship
with the main building. Part of it, the inscribed roof on four columns, is entirely separated from the church,
while the octagonal walls underneath it are an extension outwards from the walls of the church. The two are
divided by a narrow gap filled with glass. This is in the architects‘ own words a mannerist solution to the
problem of ‘getting in '. The roof on columns conveys the idea of an entrance and the octagonal space is a
convincing narthex to the church internally.
The lettering on the porch has been criticised from two points of view: some say that the large inscription in
itself is tub-thumping (or not nice?), others object to the letters as being arty, unlike the building itself. It is
however convincing if seen in the context of the whole building. The lettering has a kick, like Victorian pub
lettering. This quality is unusual in letter-design since Gill. The porch is fairly dark inside. There is just
enough light to read the notice board, though this is clearly not the primary function of the space. The
octagonal form and the low scale give it a certain serenity.’
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6 ‘Going into the church, one is confronted by the font. On Sundays the font cover is raised and the large
font-bowl full of water, making the font a more effective memorial of baptism than usual. It would be
interesting to be able to find out whether this ‘works’ for people going to church week by week. The water
certainly seems to “give life ".
Looking across the font into the church there is an impression of a unified space, and although the altar is
clearly the most important object in the church, the space is related to rather than concentrated on the altar.
It is interesting to compare the effects of coming in through this porch with coming in through the ceremonial
doors in the west wall. Having entered through the porch, the aisles which run around the church register
as the first and important stage in a spatial progression. But coming through the west door, one's attention
is immediately concentrated on the altar, and the remaining space of the church is not so easily perceived.
At present the seating is arranged partly in the central nave but flowing out into the aisles, and there is an
obvious freedom of arrangement which makes one feel that the seating could never destroy the unity of the
whole. One moves from the aisles into the higher central space. In this the folded slab roof plays an important
part, turning the space of the aisles inwards. Once inside the central space the aisles fall right back; one is
enclosed by columns and clerestory wall.
The floorscape of the church, with its carefully worked out pattern of paving, is very important and
convincing. It is unfortunate that for economic reasons some form of hidden under-floor heating was not
possible here, but the heater grilles in the floor are much less disturbing than radiators or radiant heaters.
The only fixed objects in the church at the moment are the font and three altars. The rest of the furniture is
movable. Though it is bolted down, the ciborium, like the corona round the sanctuary or the bell-frame on
the outside for that matter, is ‘attached’ rather than ‘fixed’ and so comes somewhere between the fixed objects
and the movable furniture. It remains to be seen whether the organ console, which is not yet installed,
disturbs this hierarchy, since it will be a relatively large and immovable object.
In their notes on the design, the architects have stressed the importance of the concept of the ‘setting-apart‘
of the place of the assembly of the people of God. Going into the church the quality of the space, the
untheatrical use of light and the enclosing wall at ground level give the place this particular character.
Compared with the street outside, the church is very quiet, except when under certain climatic conditions
the aluminium roofing of the lantern makes a noise like crickets. The aisle wall is certainly very important
for this quality of set-apartness. Although as the architects claim, the breaks in the aisle walls for the
chapels do not themselves weaken this.
The glazed gap between the chapel wall and the main aisle wall is most unfortunate, particularly as the gap
on the east side of the Lady chapel catches your eye looking down the north aisle from the entrance. The space
of the chapels is sufficiently differentiated from that of the church for the chapel altars not to be in conflict
with the altar of the church. In fact, the chapels (which from a purist point of view might well be questioned)
do seem to add something to the spatial character and ‘feel' of the building.
A weakness in the setting-apart of the place is the door in the northeast corner. The space ‘leaks‘ badly
here, because of the bright glazed panels of the door. No doubt this will be improved when the vicarage is
added on this corner of the church.
The bench pews, which are four seats long, seem to overcome a number of the problems of seating. Their low
scale and wide seats give them a quietness even when arranged at odd angles. They have much of the freedom
of chairs and are unusually comfortable for kneeling. The broad low seat is also very comfortable, but the
shaping of the backrest is not entirely satisfactory. Machine routing has been used to define separate places,
but either the profile or the angle is not quite right. Another advantage of the low backs is ease of movement
- 169 -
6 ‘Of the sanctuary furniture, the stools are the most satisfactory. The chair for the bishop or celebrant is
less happy; the semi-circular back and decoration in white resin inlay seem out of character. The sanctuary
seats all have scarlet leather cushions. The credence table is rather spindly, like one of the stools which has
outgrown its strength. The four-sided choir lectern seems too big, though as a centre for a small group of
singers it may he satisfactory.
One of the most successful furnishings in the church is the processional cross, which is made of wood with
concave silver dishes let into it. It is normally kept in the east chapel, but when the church meets for the
Eucharist it is set up behind the celebrant‘s seat. The silver dishes pick up the slightest light falling from
anywhere: candles, electric lights or the daylight from the lantern. The candlesticks which go with the cross
are also made of wood with silver sconces but black iron bases which are detachable.
The organ is not yet installed. The organ case, which is of timber, is hung on steel rods from the ceiling and
attached to the west wall. The organ pipes will be entirely exposed in front. The side panels are of open louvre
work, giving a remarkable lightness to the case considering its bulk. In this position the organ does not seem
to impose itself on the space of the church, though perhaps the architectural form of the building might be
better without it.
The corona and ciborium cannot be considered outside their relevance to the architectural pattern of the
church and their function in the liturgy. The validity of the conception of the liturgy as movement is open to
question. If it is valid, then the corona is a very effective symbol, particularly when the candles are lit—
perhaps sixteen is rather too many. The effectiveness of the corona is to some extent due to its relationship
with the lantern above and to its complexity. It defines the space of the sanctuary without being a barrier ;
and it is surprising how, passing under it into the sanctuary for communion one becomes aware of the height
of the space above the altar, and the complexity of the corona emphasises the simplicity of the sanctuary.
Before the ciborium was installed the corona seemed a little unrelated to the building. The definition of a
special ‘place of the altar’ may be questioned on theoretical grounds, but if the concept is accepted then the
ciborium seems very apt. In the spatial organisation of the building the ciborium undoubtedly helps to relate
the altar to the whole church. The relationship between the structural quality of the rolled steel and the thin
marble, spanning by itself as a roof, is very satisfactory. At the moment the roof of the ciborium is dusty but
it should not be difficult to keep clean.
All the steelwork, structural and otherwise, in the church is made by the same contractor. Without any
special finishing, a highly developed industrial skill has been used to create objects of surprising elegance.
The bricklaying is another instance of an ordinary but well-understood industrial technique. The concrete
work of the aisle roof is less satisfactory. In this country few builders as yet have a natural command of
concrete technique. The marble roof and the plaster are both techniques of which an understanding is shared
by both the designers and the makers. The same knowledge and concern has gone into the design and
manufacture of joinery, though the finish of the external doors has proved unsatisfactory and is weathering
The main ceiling of the church is of acoustic tiling. In itself a very useful material, it seems out of place in
the pattern of materials in the church. It is undoubtedly the weakest point in this pattern. and it has been
pointed out that originally the church ‘nave‘ was intended to have a concrete ceiling, which would certainly
have been a great improvement from this point of view, although it is probable that on acoustic grounds the
present ceiling has advantages.’
- 170 -
6 ‘The inside of the lantern is exposed steel with woodwool panels. Unfortunately these have tended to settle
down the slope, leaving gaps. The colour of the panels is a strange green, which with the dark blue steelwork
of the lantern seems to work surprisingly well. The hexagonal grid of structural mullions is very beautiful.
It is a pity that the triangular windows of the aisles could not have been glazed in the same pattern, although
it might be argued that unlike the lantern sides they are windows with no structural function.
The electric lighting of the church is very effective; no attempt has been made to turn night into day. The
main lighting fittings of prismatic glass have a ‘sparkle ‘ when unlit during the daytime, avoiding the great
disadvantage of most modern lighting fittings—a rather obtrusive dullness. In one area, below the organ
case, the standard of illumination is very much higher. Here the light sources are hidden. This distinction
between the general lighting and a specially lit area for those with bad eyesight seems very sensible. Many
modern churches are excessively over lit in order to provide sufficient illumination everywhere for those with
weak sight. The aisles are lit by opal glass pendants which do not relate well either to the concrete or to the
main lighting in the church and it is a pity that they were felt to be necessary (they are, in fact, hardly ever
Acoustic. On the whole the church works well on the practical level as a place for the Eucharist, the church's
primary function. There are however problems which do not seem to be entirely solved. Most important of
these is that of preaching. At the moment, with relatively small congregations, the sermon is preached from
the altar steps and there is a real sense of communication between the preacher and listeners. But as the
congregation grows to the full 500, this will no doubt become more difficult. The architects have suggested
that a movable pulpit is a possible solution, although it may still be possible to preach from the altar. One
cannot judge this until the situation arises.
When the church is full the sense of the unity of the congregation may help to develop a sense of
communication and unity in the proclamation of the Word. This is still an open question but one may ask
whether preaching has been given sufficient importance in the design. From the point of view of acoustics
there is no great problem for preaching and the acoustics of the building are also helpful to singing. The
ciborium over the altar acts as an excellent sound reflector and has improved the distribution of sound from
the altar. When the church is empty the reverberation is such that it is necessary to speak rather carefully in
preaching in order to be heard easily in the corners of the building. However, when it is filled with people
(and so of acoustically absorbent material) this weakness corrects itself. The acoustic character of a church is
always a difficult matter of balance because while it is possible to design a building which is ideal for speaking,
the same building will almost certainly be too ‘dead' for singing. This latter condition is disastrous for the
liturgical life of the Church. On the other hand a resonant building makes preaching more difficult. Of the
two, resonance is probably easier to overcome than deadness, because a preacher who is used to preaching in
a building with resonant acoustics can to a great extent overcome them, while it is impossible to overcome in
singing the difficulties of an acoustically dead building.
The base on which the colour scheme of the church is built is the purplish grey brick. The other main colours
in the church are the ochre-grey concrete, the white columns, the grey and pinkish concrete flags, the black
steel and the green serpentine marble, the warm colours of timber and the bright scarlet cushions of the
furniture. However, one has the feeling that the building needs more colour. Perhaps this will be given by
the mosaics in the spandrel panels above the columns. These will be extremely important in the church,
which could be improved but might well be spoilt by them.
If they achieve this as satisfactorily in relationship to the architecture of the building as William Figg‘s
crucifix on the south clerestory wall, they will undoubtedly be an asset. This crucifix, which is very ‘quiet ‘,
exactly fulfils its function in the building; it does not suffer from the over-emphasis which seems to be
characteristic of most modern religious art.’
- 171 -
St. Paul’s Vicarage was built a couple of years after the
church was completed. By then Fr. Kirkby had firmly
established himself and, from what I heard, both in the
Diocese and the church, he had quite a say in the
design of it, though this, too, was by Maguire and
Murray. As already mentioned, to the end of his days
Fr. Kirkby described himself as an anarchist socialist
and was radical in his liturgical vision, embodied in
the church building. But in his catholic ecclesiology he
was also staunchly against the ordination of women,
barely a possibility in 1960 but to his distress a
reality within his lifetime. He was equally
staunchly celibate and the vicarage certainly
was not designed for a family with children,
either young or grown up. Most of the vicarage
is spread across one level of the ground floor
with a single, fine large sitting room upstairs on
its own, a bit isolated in practice.
It is not built to the same standard of brickwork as was
the church. No attempt was made to match the colour
of brickwork or the quality of bricklaying. It was a
I arrived in the parish but after a few years the large flat
roof over all the bedrooms was insulated and the
windows were double glazed in the large upstairs
sitting room and this improved matters noticeably.
In terms of security it was designed with easy access to the flat roof, either from the low boundary
walls or from across the lower folded slab roof of the church. From what I heard, even in his old
age Fr. Kirkby was troubled by youths climbing into the garden and banging on his windows. On
the first day of my moving in, someone broke the study window to
get in but had not reckoned with the bars installed on my arrival! In
2010 there were 8 separate
attempts to steal lead from
the flat vicarage roof – the
only place in the whole
church site in which there
was lead. The front door is
also rather isolated and
there were incidents there
in my time. Security fences,
lights, alarms and cameras
provided more security.
- 172 -
Repairs and Revelations …
Leaking downpipes and drains
From quite early on after it was in use, the church began to show the need for repair or intervention.
The church has a ‘footprint’ of some 890 sq. m (9.500 sq ft.). The area of the various angled surfaces of
the roofs covering this ground space is even greater. From the apex of the great lantern, all the way
down, a great deal of rainwater has to be channelled away to underground drainage and water seepage
is one of the potential enemies of any building.
When I arrived in the parish the building was only 35 years old and water staining was already a long
established feature of the church. This was in two zones; at high level where the high flat roof was
leaking along its perimeter with water stains from ingress of water visible intrnally and water actively
dripping into the church; and at uniform points all along the lower perimeter walls, inside and out.
The church simply did not have the funds to tackle this, nor the energy or human resources to fundraise
many tens of thousands of pounds. The result was a steadily worsening problem of water ingress.
The damp had damaged the wiring and I understand that a certain amount of rewiring took place in
the 1980’s but this subsequently failed and the very few power points still working in the church all
failed, except for one on the north side of the church. Fr. Kirkby barely kept records and so it is
impossible to tell what repairs had been done or when.
These views of the church show what was common every time there was even modest rain. The church
raised funds for repairs and the project was called the ‘Drop in The Bucket’ Appeal! Strategically placed
buckets were a permanent feature of church furniture up to 2005 when effectively a new roof was put
on the church and buckets could finally be removed! See later in this account.
I understood that roofs leak but what puzzled me from the beginning was the church’s ‘weeping walls’!
The church architect of the time told me that leaks in the walls had appeared from quite early on. But
no-one had any convincing explanation of what was going on (nor much interest!).
- 173 -
These views show (yellow) lower level leaks and
(red) higher level leaks. At the lower level there
seemed to be a regular height and regular interval,
both inside and out, to the leaks. But what was
inside the walls that could be leaking into the brick?
At the upper level, leaks seemed to be occurring
along the vertical extent of the corners of the upper
brick ‘box’ of the church.
But, nowhere is any of the roof drainage visible – no rainwater goods of any kind can be seen draining
water from the lantern, upper level flat roof and lower level folded slab roof. The unbroken ‘embrace’
of the brick walls around the liturgical and community space within would be seriously compromised
were downpipes to interfere with the expanses of brickwork. And so all downpipes in the building are
enclosed within the cavities of the upper and lower level perimeter walls. Those could be the only
source of the leakage – but how?
It is important to bear always in mind the limited funding which was available for building the church
in those years not long after the end of the War. Materials had to be used within the available budget
and it is remarkable how Maguire and Murray managed that almost impossible balance of superb,
innovative design and project control within a tight budget. A newly popular material was used for all
the pipework, both above and below ground – pitch fibre. It is fine now being wise after the event but
the problems with this material only became evident two or three decades later.
These notes on pitch fibre come from DEFRA (Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs)
‘Pitch fibre pipes were mostly used from the 1950s to the early 1970s. They were British Standard approved
(BS2760), although this was withdrawn on 15 June 1987. The pipes were relatively inexpensive and easy
to handle and install. However, it became apparent that these pipes were susceptible to the delamination of
their inner surface, ruining the integrity of the pipes. It was
also discovered that, under normal conditions, they were
susceptible to collapse under applied loading sooner than
pipes made of more rigid materials.
Published figures suggested that if laid correctly, and not
subject to adverse ground conditions, pitch fibre pipes can be
expected to have a design life of up to 40 years. This means
that many of them have reached or passed their design life
expectancy. If poorly installed, the life expectancy would be
The use of pitch fibre pipes was widespread and up to 50,000 properties are now suffering problems relating
to pitch fibre pipes every year. At present, problems with these networks are often addressed in the standard
manner, with local authorities carrying out repair works in default, reacting only to the problems’
- 174 -
‘as they arise. Pitch fibre will ‘squash’ over time.” The principal
cause of failure in pitch fibre pipes is as long term creep failure of the
material. This phenomenon is normally caused by point loading
from hard objects due to poor construction; or loss of side support.
Pitch fibre pipes are also highly susceptible to damage by high
pressure water jetting.’ Documented 2003
The images shown here are of pieces of pitch fibre drains
replaced in a section to the south of the church hall in 2001.
By 2000 I was in correspondence
with Bob Maguire about the
leaking walls. There are 14
downpipes sealed into the lower
level walls and, about 1.5 m from
the lower roof level, every one of
them was showing a wet patch
internally, externally or both &
some were active sources of
leakage with water seeping out of
the brick (see images above). As
already mentioned, alas there is
no architectural archive of the
building. Fr. Kirkby kept no
records of the building at all and
Maguire and Murray’s own
archive was lost in a flood in 1965 when their offices at
Thame in Oxfordshire were inundated by flooding of the
River Thames. The church had almost nothing to go on.
At some cost to a pretty hard-up church two lots of
investigation were carried out in 2000/2001. One was to
figure out what the underground drainage system layout
was around the church. And the other was to work out
what was going on inside the lower level down pipes
sandwiched between the inner and outer church walls. Dye
was used to determine the drainage flow network below
ground and the plan above is still the best (and probably
most accurate) view there is of how the drainage system
runs around the church It resulted from the dye studies.
In the course of our correspondence, in March 2001
Maguire sent me the diagram shown here to the right which
indicates (from his memory) his design for continuous
lengths of pitch fibre pipe sealed into the walls with an easy
bend at the bottom to connect into the circuit of external
drainage pipes also in pitch fibre. There is no indication at
all of any internal joins in the pipes. His conclusion
therefore was that the pipes were leaking at the seal on each
pipe at its upper end where it meets the aisle roof above. He
was unaware of what the builders had actually built.
- 175 -
I was not convinced that loose seals were the cause of the leaks which appeared at such a regular
point along the length of each of the pipes and not at the top. Again, at some cost, a thorough CCTV
investigation was carried out of the pitch fibre downpipes and the tapes, when viewed, were a
revelation! Presumably without the architect’s knowledge, consent or supervision, the builders
had actually executed something other than what was intended by Bob Maguire! As the camera
disappears down each pipe, for sure the edge of a join was shown in each and every pipe about
two thirds of the way up from the ground! This was exactly the position of the wet patches of leaks
in most of the downpipes and an obvious source of water seepage.
However, in principle, even with such an internal structure water should not be leaking out. Water
starting its journey to the drains would fall on the upper and lower level roofs. If originating on
the upper level roof, water would find its way down to the lower roof level via four very long
downpipes, one at each corner of the brick ‘box’ beneath the lantern. From there that water, along
with whatever was falling on the folded slab aisle roof, would find its way down each of the 14
lower level water pipes and go to earth. By the time water passed each of the joins in any of the
pipes it was very much under the force of gravity and impelled by all the water behind it and, in
theory, should not have been able to stop and make trouble by seeping through the joins. That
could only happen if there was standing water in the pipes where water would very naturally try
to escape through the joints and into the brick. We did find the rodding eyes and drains were
rodded but the problem appeared to continue. This suggested that the underground network of
drainage was not doing its job and taking water away and allowing water to back up and stand in
the downpipes, only draining away very slowly.
The wet patches on the four corners of the brick base to the lantern indicated that these great
lengths of pitch fibre pipe also had joins in them and when blocked there would be standing water
in the pipes and seepage into the brick. Debris, leaves etc. could easily block these narrow bore
pipes. They were rodded and cleaned but this was quite costly. We needed to find a solution to the
leaking joints. The total lack of access to the joins or even the pipes limited options considerably.
A solution was adopted for the lengths of downpipe at the corners of the lantern walls. This was
to line the pipes so that the joins were covered and no longer accessible to flowing water. Long
lengths of flexible pipe lining were inserted into the downpipes and chemically set. This
immediately stopped the problem of upper level pipe seepage and appears to have worked well.
The 14 lower level pipes, however, were already of quite narrow bore and caution won the day as
it was feared that a lining would reduce the bore further and they would either be more easily
blocked or overwhelmed in heavy rain.
On May 24th 2001, after permission had been granted,
another approach was tried out on the most heavily leaking
downpipe on the north wall of the church (shown here).
Very, very carefully the church wall was dismantled on
both inner and outer surfaces in the vicinity of where the
join in the pipe was deemed to be, from the CCTV exercise.
For the first and only time since 1959 a length of down-pipe
was now visible and, indeed, there were two lengths of
pitch fibre pipe joined by a close-fitting but loose collar. The
builders truly had disregarded the architect’s wishes!
- 176 -
In these unique views the black pitch fibre downpipe can
be seen emerging from the encasing mortar which holds
it in place within the cavity. The solution adopted was to
entirely encase the collar in (I think) a version of roofing
felt and any standing water in the pipe would not then
be able to find its way
out into the brick. The
contractors estimated a
min. 30 year lifetime for
this repair and certainly
half-way though that
period no further leaks have been seen. The bricks were
replaced and a matching pointing used and the repair has
left no signs of where it took place.
Two outcomes emerged. One was
that it was simply too intrusive to do this 14 times all around
the church. The other was that what was really needed was
not patching up the problem but treating the cause of it
which was the probably failed underground drainage
system. So long as that remained clear and water could pass
without hindrance from the roofs, thrugh all the rainwater
goods into the mains sewer there should be no leakage.
In September 2001 a section of underground drainage was then investigated along the south side
of the church hall under the enormous plane trees which have stood there probably since Victorian
times. It was clear that the tree roots had caused problems with the drains and particularly with a
material as easily compromised as pitch fibre. As can be seen from the image below, just in this
small section the pitch fibre had been perforated and almost certainly deformed or damaged
elsewhere over a period which now well exceeds its useful maximum lifetime of 40 years or so.
The drainage was renewed in this area but it was beyond the church’s means at that time to renew
the whole of the drainage system around the church. At the time of writing the present Vicar, Mthr.
Bernadette Hegarty, has raised funds to do this – such a major element in safeguarding the longterm
health of the building.
this repair and certainly
halfway through this
period no further leaks
have been seen.
The bricks were replaced and a
matching pointing used and the
repair has left no signs of where it
- 177 -
Upper Roof Renewal 2005
Our next task was to tackle the huge leaking upper level flat roof. In fact, funds were raised to make
radical repairs to the exterior of the huge flat roof surrounding the lantern. This grant did include an
element to tackle the 14 downpipes at lower level, too (though I can’t remember how we aimed to
repair these – perhaps by opening the walls and sealing the joins at each position?).
An English Heritage grant was a major part of this
funding. It was all very nail-biting as the clock ticked
towards the point at which the grant offer would expire
with so much to get in place with regard to permissions,
matched funding etc.
Meanwhile, some time before these works began early in
2005 a ceiling tile came loose in the circled area shown in
this view and was hanging by one edge. With the
underlying area of seating cordoned off beneath, the tile
was examined with a view to being re-fixed. To our
dismay it was then discovered that all the acoustic tiling
at high level contained asbestos! This was known from
the beginning but never passed down – indeed, the
drawing of 1962 on the next page details ‘asbestos facia.’
However, when the use of asbestos was banned in 1985
this knowledge was not passed on nor measures taken.
It was the highest priority now to remove and replace the whole of the inner ceiling of the church as
well as to renew the whole of the outside high level flat roof! And no funds were allocated for this with
the grant deadline about to run out and insufficient funds! Oh the joys of being an Incumbent!
Mercifully, English Heritage allowed us to divert the funding element which was earmarked for sealing the
14 lower level downpipes now towards replacing all the asbestos ceiling tiles. And we made the deadline!
Effectively, the church high level flat roof was now going to be renewed externally and internally as well as
leaking rainwater goods (all in pitch fibre) repaired and/or replaced. For many weeks the church was
submerged in darkness as it was completely filled with scaffolding and boarded over for access to the whole
of the inner ceiling and also for repairs to the lantern.
Some of us remember the hurricane of October
1987 which hit southern England and caused a
huge amount of damage, including that inflicted
on the church lantern with large glazed panels
blown in. Again, with the support of English
Heritage, these and some roof damage were
repaired in 1991. This view shows the lantern with
scaffolding erected for these works to be done.
This section of the architect’s drawing of 1991 for repairs
to the storm damage (right) shows that a ‘bridged
scaffold’ appears to have spanned right across the base
of the lantern and also outside, to give access to the
lantern roof repairs. The tiny detail at the top,
‘Replacement piece of woodwool’ proved to be vital
evidence in trying to understand woodwool, a material
which came to dominate the church’s life from mid 2013
to late 2015! See later.
- 178 -
’This image (left) from 1962 shows the
architectural detail of the upper level of the
church. Although the acoustic tiles are not
specified as containing asbestos, the fascia at
the base of the great lantern space clearly is
stated as being ‘1/2” asbestos fascia’! This
paper had obviously not been scrutinised in
detail since it was published, at least in the
years up to when asbestos was flagged up as
needing to be removed and replaced.
What also appears in this detailed drawing is
‘woodwool.’ I had long known that the green
‘lining’ across the whole of the inner of the
lantern was woodwool but beyond a passing
curiosity never thought to discover more
about this material.
Little did I know that on 6th July 2013, just 3
months before I retired, woodwool and its
properties would come to dominate the
church’s life for the next more than two years
– and would come within a hair’s breadth of
seriously injuring me, or probably worse! See
In 2005 high level roof repairs took place and,
once again, repair brought revelation! Already
we had discovered that all the downpipes in
the church had leaking joints in them, also that the huge inner ceiling contained asbestos. And
now, for the first time since the roof was constructed the structure of the roof space was revealed.
The darkened church filled with scaffolding
- 179 -
The platform beneath the lantern with the roof
space revealed above and all the
asbestos ceiling tiles removed.
New safe, compliant ceiling tiles – stacked for work in progress .. and work complete.
As the ceiling tiles were removed it was clear that there had been years of damp caused by
water penetration though the failed upper flat roof asphalt and though leaking pitch fibre
rainwater goods at that level.
- 180 -
Meanwhile, exterior works were carried out to the leaking upper level flat roof. While all this was
going on, as seen, the church, usually bathed in light, was plunged into an unfamiliar darkness.
The upper flat roof surface was totally renewed and that, in conjunction with the renewal of
rainwater goods within the roof space hopefully ensures a church without leaks and water ingress
at high level for the first time in decades and for many years to come.
A pitch fibre connecting pipe from roof rainwater inlet into one of the long down pipes sealed
in the corners of the upper brick walls below the lantern. Clear signs are visible that these
have been leaking. Modern durable flexible plastic replacements were installed and sealed.
Because of the failure of the upper flat roof and leaking rainwater goods, clear signs of damp
can be seen. Repairs to both have put a stop to this and damp areas have dried out.
All these views show details of the roof structure not seen since the church
was built in 1959 and (hopefully!) unlikely to be seen again!
- 181 -
From ground level we had thought that the high level lantern fascia had faded paintwork but close
inspection showed decay, as can be seen. All of this was renewed and the ‘signature’ ‘bull’s blood’
colour of the porch lettering (and possibly, originally the foundation stone?) refreshed at this level,
as had been originally when the church was built.
- 182 -
Woodwool Fall! 2013
In the afternoon of Saturday 6th July 2013 a rehearsal was in progress in the church for a large and
much-anticipated Confirmation Service the next day, when the Bishop of Stepney would be
welcomed, to confirm the faith of 6 young church members. This was one of the last major events
of my ministry in the church before retirement from November 2013.
The rehearsal had gone smoothly and just before 4 pm we had reached the point where the bishop
(whose part I was playing) had moved to the high altar and the newly confirmed gathered around
the altar, to the south side, to receive their first Holy Communion. I was standing at the altar when
suddenly an enormous roaring sound was heard and a deafening crash above my head as the air
filled with what seemed to be clouds of fibrous debris and dust. In a split second, for some
bewildering reason, all the young people and children who had been gathered at the altar step
rushed away, one of them leaping clean over a nearby bench as falling debris shot towards them.
It was totally bewildering, all happening so suddenly that there was no time for fear.
I honestly thought that missiles had
been launched at the lantern from
outside and had crashed through
the glazing. As the dust settled we
could see large heavy pieces of
green coloured, sharp-edged
debris lying around, exactly where
the young people had been
standing moments earlier and a
great deal of dust and fibrous
matter all around. I had never
thought at all about what exactly
the ‘woodwool’ was, which lined
the inside of the green coloured
lantern roof interior. It sounded a
bit soft and fluffy – some sort of
1950’s wood-based insulation material. Indeed it was wood-based but was wood shavings and
chips set in very solid and heavy concrete – anything but fluffy! Where it fractures the edges are
very sharp, very hard and potentially lethal.
It slowly emerged, as we looked up to
the pinnacle of the lantern that some
slabs of woodwool had chosen that
precise moment to detach from the top of
the lantern and crash exactly and
directly over where I had been standing
at the altar. The slabs had hit the marble
and serpentine panels of the ciborium
over my head and, thankfully, these had
held fast. The stone panels had split as
the now shattered fragments of
woodwool shot sideways – southwards,
directly towards all those standing at the altar step and in their path. The noise of impact had
provided the vital spilt second warning for them to leap out of the way. Had the marble slabs not
held but collapsed on top of me, or had the young people not had a fraction of a second’s warning,
the consequences would have been unthinkable.
The large pieces of woodwool which fell out of the lantern
stacked on a bench after the event. The water stained wooden spacer
which also fell showed a vital clue to damp having been present up there.
- 183 -
These images show how some of the largest woodwool pieces had originally fitted together and also
the crack in the slab of serpentine on the ciborium roof, shattered by the impact and which, by holding
and not collapsing inwards, very likely saved life and safety.
The spirit of the people of St. Paul’s, Bow Common was undaunted and immediately all the church
seating was removed from the church to the Vicarage garden to create an open air church for what
tuned out to be a most memorable Confirmation service with 300 people present the next morning. We
were in a heatwave and the weather was perfect and demonstrated powerfully that, as wonderful as
our church building is, the heart of a church is not bricks and mortar! Maguire and Murray were right
when they said that the church did not need buildings!
- 184 -
What could have happened?
Woodwool is a composite of wood fragments, set and moulded in a thin cement slurry, and was
used from War-time or before as an insulating material and, presumably, this was its purpose at
the time of installation in the glazed lantern in 1959. As mentioned already, budgets were very
constrained at the time of construction, from War Reparation Funds and materials used were the
best and most appropriate within those constraints. The surface facing inwards was painted with
a mixture of green and blue tones to give an over-all green coloured surface.
I learned a lot about woodwool from one of the contractors who attended after the roof fall. It
seems that woodwool is at its best and most stable when used in large blocks, typically of 2-3 m in
length. What we see in the church lantern is a patchwork configuration of smaller pieces where
possibly larger and more stable single large pieces might have been safer for use. There is a
framework of I-section metal girders which make up the grid of the lantern roof. The woodwool
slabs were laid on top of the flanges of the beams from above before the aluminium roof tiling skin
was fitted on top. Thus the woodwool pieces were laid basically loosely and not secured but held
up by the girders. There were 160 spaces to be filled but from my observation 355 separate pieces
of woodwool were used to fill these spaces. This complicated looking image illustrates this point.
14 spaces here have been filled using 33 woodwool slabs.
However, on close inspection of the individual slabs it can be seen that some of them were very
possibly cut short. From his knowledge of wood-wool, the contractor spoke of the potential
instability of smaller pieces of the material (especially when not fixed down) when subjected to
forces of wind or heat expansion or water. In his experience, any disturbance of the ‘safety blanket’
of aluminium tiles above can lead to air or wind disturbance of the wood-wool beneath, especially
if not laid in large slabs and woodwool will ‘move’. Smaller pieces are much more vulnerable. I
also did a thorough investigation of how each piece of woodwool was being supported at the edges
and only 2 pieces out of the total of 355 are supported on all edges. The remaining vast majority
of woodwool pieces have no perimeter support on at least one edge.
A chance comment by the longest standing member of the church, who has known the building
from its opening, that she remembered woodwool blocks having fallen in the 1980’s, was very
telling. It emerged that there was a repair programme of 1991 which addressed long-standing
problems which had arisen since the building was opened, as well as damage wrought by the
severe storm of October 1987.
- 185 -
Further evidence came from the schedule of the repair programme of 1991;
a small reference in the Quinquennial Report (QR) of 1986 and two small references in the QR of
1992. These reveal that woodwool blocks had indeed fallen from the triangular apex sections of the
lantern before 1986. An account of 1962 earlier also mentioned that woodwool blocks had already,
6 ‘.. tended to settle down the slope, leaving gaps.’
The problem had a long history and there had, therefore, been a mechanism at work early on, which
resulted first in small blocks falling from the apex. Woodwool blocks had shrunk and settled. Since
none of the blocks is fixed they all rest one against the other. As shrinkage progressed so they all
effectively shifted downwards. This then dropped the composite triangular sections at the apex
downwards into spaces which were too big for them. They then fell to the ground. There is no
surviving record of which particular blocks fell or
how many of them, or how often this may have
occurred or of any of them damaging the ciborium
roof. However, the repairs of 1991 include
replacement of a piece of woodwool from the apex
(which is what our church member remembered)
and also that ‘woodwool slabs to be fully inspected and
hard wood wedges (inserted) as required.’
In the QR of 1986 we learn that: ‘Woodwool slabs have
moved, leaving some gaps showing the underside of the Hyrib lathing. The reason for the movement is unclear
and warrants further investigation to check bearings and the cause of movement. One small triangular piece has
The QR of 1992 witnesses to repairs carried out in 1991-92. These include .. ‘Replacement of aluminium
hip covering to the high lantern, removed by high winds. Overall of lantern roof edge where fixings had pulled
through aluminium sheeting.’ Also, ‘Replacement of small triangular woodwool slab elements at top of the
lantern soffit where fallen out due to shrinkage and settlement. Existing slabs have been re-secured with hardwood
wedges, and repainted two-tone to match existing.’
Finally: ‘Roof Structure and lantern: Woodwool slabs had shrunk and small, triangular sections at the head had
fallen out. Investigations showed that all the slabs had moved downwards, reducing the edge bearing to nothing
on the top triangle. Repairs have included raising the uppermost slabs and wedging them with hardwood to ensure
perimeter support is maintained. New slabs have been painted with two colours to match existing.’
This immediately explains the hardwood spacer which also came down with the woodwool in the fall
of July 2013. The woodwool shrank and settled in the early years but, presumably, it has now stabilised
with the wooden spacers filling shrinkage gaps. The lowest slabs were carrying the weight of all those
slabs above it and this will have exacerbated the ‘movement’ of woodwool in those early days.
However, careful examination of all woodwool slabs in 1991 and wedging, which would have made
up for shrinkage, should very reasonably suggest that the whole configuration was now more stable
then even when first installed. So what had happened in July 2013?
These two views of the exposed external Hyrib aluminium roof covering are revealing.
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The left hand view above seems to show just plain
aluminium roof covering. But when seen from a more
north-easterly point clear damage can be seen to the
overlying aluminium roof skin. If that damage had
been such that water could have penetrated into the
woodwool in that region, it is a very inflexible
concrete-based material with little give and if the
woodwool swelled it could have applied
considerable pressure upon adjacent slabs. The water
stained hardwood wedge which fell clearly shows
that in that region there had been water penetration,
to judge by the staining on it when clean unstained wedges would initially have been installed.
Woodwool cannot bend but its ultimate response to stress would be to fracture. Mention has
already been made of this being a very hot period
when the woodwool fell on 6th July 2013 and I
remember clearly how hot the pieces felt when I first
picked them up immediately after the roof fall. Thus,
had there been a scenario of water, somehow soaking
the woodwool through that area of damage to the
protective aluminium outer skin, and then over
perhaps a long period of time swelling through
further soaking and also baked in summer heat
under the metal skin, it is reasonable to imagine that
eventually the stresses on such an unaccommodating
material could have led to sudden facture. Once a piece of woodwool fractured there would be
nothing underneath to keep it up in the lantern and it and everything else unsupported around it
would then fall to the ground.
This seemed to be a reasonable explanation of why the woodwool had fallen suddenly out of the
lantern – albeit with extraordinary and almost perilous timing! The point was not lost on me that
no-one was hurt and the marble roof and weight of woodwool did not collapse onto my head, and
that had this happened the next day during the crowded Confirmation service with the bishop in
exactly the wrong position the possible outcome would not bear thinking about. If there was some
kind of woodwool clock ticking away then we were extremely fortunate!
The question then remained of how damage could possibly have occurred near the apex of the
lantern where nothing and no-one has been since the roof was laid in 1959. Immediately on
inspecting it from the outside, the area where the woodwool had fallen on the inside, a tiny bit of
damage could indeed be seen! It is so small that it entirely escapes the eye unless looked for.
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It now looked very much as if a mechanism could be found to explain what had happened. But the
question remained of how this damage to the outer roof could have happened and when.
The detective work continued and I began to search my very large collection of images of the
church. Most of them do not include this area or angle of the church roof so the search was lengthy
and trying, to seek to establish if there was an early image of an undamaged roof in this area.
In 2004, following 6 years of using the inside
of the church for art and community events,
an extraordinary artist, the late Rose Finn-
Kelcey, installed a huge art work on the
upper west face of the church, below the
lantern, with 850 sq ft, of dazzling shimmer
disks in the award-winning installation,
‘Angel.’ This work was extraordinarily
popular and had an extended period of
viewing on the church from February to July
of that year. I logged every stage of its
installation, which meant that I had more
views than I would normally have of the
outside of the church. This view (left) is from
the day on which ‘Angel’ was installed – 20th February 2004. This is of the face of the lantern roof
where the damage was identified and it is very clear that the aluminium roof facing is undamaged!
On further close searching of my images it is clear
from this later view from 2nd April (see right) that
damage has now occurred – and the dent is
visible in the external aluminium covering. One
would conclude that whatever caused it must
have taken place between 20th Feb. and 2nd April
And then, purely by chance, I noted some curious
images I had taken that March of debris in the
Vicarage garden! As shown here, large pieces of
debris – looking like builders boards and planks –
had been blown by a gale into the garden during the
night of 19-20 March 2004. The winds had been
severe and strong enough to lift or to remove these
large pieces of
timber from wherever they had been, very likely over rooftops,
to drop them into my garden. If large pieces of windborne debris
were flying high on that night it is quite feasible to propose that
something heavy and
large enough to dent
the aluminium roofing
may have been blown
against the roof that
night and caused the
damage. Weather records confirm that southern England
suffered severe gales on that day. The dent looks very much
as if something has impacted from below. Perhaps the
mystery has been solved, in the absence of any other
explanation so far!
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From 6th July 2013 the greater part of the church has been cordoned off beneath the ‘footprint’ of
the lantern above. I was never again to stand at the high altar. Once the congregation had been
given the go-ahead to return to using the main building a safe area was set up westwards of the
central space which up to the time of writing this account (Summer 2015) has been the effective
useable area of the church. Again, the extraordinary flexibility of the building has made this
possible without too much trouble and all aspects of church life, from services to Christmas Bazaars
and some community events have continued.
Reflecting on the particular history of woodwool in the
church lantern from its original installation I feel
confident that as long as the crucial protective
aluminium skin of the Hyrib ‘skin’ maintains its
integrity and suffers no further damage there is no
reason to expect further falls of woodwool from the
lantern. Settling and shrinkage has very likely now
stabilised after more than five decades and following
the close inspection of the whole woodwool
configuration in 1991 and insertion of hardwood
spacers, so long as water penetration does not take
place, the whole system should remain stable. The discolouration of the green painted surface of
the woodwool could be due to condensation and that has always to be taken into account in any
assessment of the woodwool’s integrity. There is no ventilation in the church and on hot summer
days with high humidity perhaps added to by people in the church there will be moisture in the
From 2014 stirling efforts were made by the church to
manage a building project and raise funds both for
the inspection and repair of the woodwool in the
lantern and also finally to re-lay the whole of the
drainage system for the church with modern
materials. Mother Bernadette Hegarty came to the
parish as Vicar on 4th October 2014 and is seeing this
all through to completion, with works starting in
Autumn 2015 and coming to completion, hopefully,
the following winter. I understand that the fallen
woodwool is to be replaced with new woodwool
slabs and all the remaining slabs secured to the metal
framework of the lantern. St. Paul’s, Bow Common should be at its ‘healthiest’ and driest as a
building for the first time since it was built!
St. Paul’s, Bow Common is, indeed, a notable
building whose importance has been recognised
nationally and internationally. There is now a
culture of care for the fabric, as it reaches towards
completing its sixth decade. All of this not just to
preserve a remarkable piece of architecture but
primarily to provide a home and a place of welcome
and meeting for the Christian and wider
community, for it truly to live out its purpose. To be
none other than the House of God and the Gate of
All © DUNCAN ROSS 2015
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1 1956 Edward D Mills: The Modern Church (book) Architectural Press London
2 1958 Peter Hammond: A Liturgical Brief Architectural Review, London
3 1960 Peter Hammond: Liturgy and Architecture (book) Barrie & Rockliffe, London
4 1962 Ed: Peter Hammond: Towards a Church Architecture (book) Architectural Press,
5 1960 Rayner Banham: A Modern Church on Liturgical Principles Architectural Review
… London December 1960
6 1962 Maguire and Murray: An Anglican Church in Stepney Churchbuilding
7 1962 Rayner Banham: Guide to Modern Architecture (book) Architectural Press, London
8 1963 Gilbert Cope: Trends in Modern European Church Architecture Studia Liturgica,
…. Rotterdam December 1963 Volume II, Number 4
9 1964 Ian Nairn: Modern Buildings in London (book) London Transport
10 1964 G.E. Kidder-Smith : The New Churches of Europe Architectural Press, London
11 1964 Maguire & Murray: Modern Churches of the World (book) Dutton Vista, London
12 1965 Nicholas Taylor: St. Paul’s, Bow Common, A Realistic Church for our Time
Vol 8 No 1 ‘East London Papers’ : New Architecture IV
13 1966 Ian Nairn: Nairn’s London (book) Penguin Books: Harmondsworth
14 1969 Michael Webb: Architecture in Britain Today (book) Country Life, London
15 1970 Nigel Melhuish: Church building in the ‘sixties Architects’ Journal, London
… 8 July 1965
16 1973 Nigel Melhuish: Church Building in Britain The Architect, London January 1973
17 1990 Keith Murray: Introduction to Lutyens’ Mosaic Churchbuilding,
… London, Spring 1990
18 1990: Colin Coward: Forward to the Fifties: Churchbuilding,
……..Robert Philip Gibbons: St. Paul’s, Bow Common, A voice in the wilderness:
……. A Tribute to the Vicar of St. Paul’s: Robert Maguire London, Winter 1990
19 1995 Robert Maguire: Annual Lecture, Continuity and Modernity in the Holy Place.
Architectural History: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
20 1995 Donald Williamson: MA Thesis The religious and architectural significance of
…. All Saints Church, Crewe, Cheshire
21 1997 RIBA Exhibition ‘The 20th Century Church’: notes
22 1997 Edwin Heathcote & Iona Spens: Church Builders Academy Editions, Chichester
23 1998 Alan Doig: Theology Reflects on the Arts Epworth Review, Volume 25, No.1
.. January 1998
24 1998 Elain Harwood: Liturgy and Architecture The Twentieth Society, London
25 1999 Tanya Harrod: The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century Yale University Press
26 2002 Robert Maguire: Ecclesiology Today Journal of the Ecclesiological Society
.. January 2002
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27 2009 Robert Maguire: Private correspondence with Duncan Ross (unpublished)
28 2010 Robert Maguire: Reflection on the 50th Anniversary (unpublished)
29 2012 Gerald Adler: Robert Maguire & Keith Murray Twentieth Century Architects
C20 Society, RIBA, English Heritage
30 2013 Robert McGuire: St Paul's as resurrection Communication with Duncan Ross
31 2012 Andamento: Journal of the British Association for Modern Mosaic (BAMM) Vol. 6
Angels of the Heavenly Host: Article by Charles Lutyens
32 1905 T. Francis Bumpus: London Churches Ancient and Modern Pub. T. Werner Laurie,
………………………………………………………………Clifford’s Inn, London
33 1967 Gordon Barnes: Stepney Churches, An Historical Account The Faith Press
35 2009 Kenneth Leech: Father Gresham Kirkby 1916-2006 Anglo-Catholic History Society
All © DUNCAN ROSS 2015
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