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Tracing a little of the History of the Parish
227 Overview of section F
F 228-231 The interior of the old Church
F 232-236 The Ritualist Scandal prevents a Rood Beam being introduced
into the church
F 237 The Rood Beam appears
F 238-240 Some mementoes of the past
F 241-247 The first Church celebrates its 50th Anniversary – a Retrospect
F 248-259 St. Luke’s, Burdett Rd.
F 260 Churchgoing in our area around 1900
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The Interior of the Old Church
An early interior view of the first St. Paul’s, Bow Common
Easter 1905
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Two descriptive accounts follow, of the first church of St. Paul, Bow Common. The first is
contemporary with the church itself (1905) 32 and the other is from 1967 33 .
- 230 -
More early views in the first years of the 20th century, the right hand view clearly having been
taken at Christmas. There is an open chancel screen in place which looks too elaborate and solid
just to be part of the decoration of the church for Christmas. More than once the new church sailed
close to the shores of illegality! When consecrated it was not yet in the decorated form that we see
in all these views. A simple and (as we would see) innocent enough device on the east wall was
immediately challenged by a Privy Council judgement!
In 1908 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the church a very good and helpful ‘Retrospect’ was
published written up by the first Vicar, Rev. Arthur Cotton. The whole of this document is
reproduced here very shortly. This reports that:
‘At the consecration of the Church the only decorative feature in the chancel was floriated Greek cross of
white marble let into the Canterbury pattern tiles on the East wall, and this apparently innocent ornament
was objected to because it appeared to stand on the Holy Table and was thereby, according to a recent Privy
Council judgment, an illegal ornament, but at the last moment it was allowed to remain.’
Very shortly a full account will be given of the huge controversy which arose from the church’s
petition to erect a ‘Rood Beam’ across the chancel entrance – a very simple beam with a large rood
(crucifix) standing above on the beam. The case reached the newspapers and the grave offence
which was in danger of being caused was that of ‘Ritualism.’ The ‘Oxford Movement’ represented
a move by High Church Anglicans to restore to the Church of England some of the more ancient
traditions of the Christian Church into the Anglican Church’s theology and liturgy. This movement
began in the early 1830’s and very soon was seen as a ‘Romanising’ tendency within a reformed
and basically Protestant Church.
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In particular, how churches were adorned was viewed with great sensitivity. And so, crosses on altars
and large crucifixes were seen as ‘crimes’ of Ritualism! For sure William Cotton and his son Arthur
(first Vicar) and even Bishop Blomfield were of a broader catholic identity and this continued to be the
ecclesial flavour of the church right through to these days of controversy with the Rood Beam.
The kind of open metal screen shown in the view above probably was on the ‘safe’ side of controversy
and had no inflammatory symbolism or iconography on it. But by 1909 the church wanted a proper
rood beam and as that proved too much, the case went to trial!
Even so, it is interesting to see, as the church began to be decorated how much figurative decoration
was put into the church, certainly at the east end. The great architect George Edmund Street was
commissioned to design the chancel. This fine example of Gothic Revival did not prove to be
problematic to those with scruples about Ritualism! These not very good views are extracted from other
general views:
An extract from the Retrospect of 1908:
‘On completion of the Jesse East window, designed by Mr. G. E. Street, the well-known Architect, and executed by
Powell of Whitefriars, Mr. Street was commissioned to make sketches for the chancel walls and roof decorations, and
a design for the Reredos. The erection of this necessitated the removal of
the Greek Cross, which if not legal was certainly not symbolical, and its
removal was not regretted.
The decoration of the chancel was the work of the congregation, and the
cost of the East window was provided for by the sale of old family
diamonds inherited by Mrs. Cotton. They were thus converted into
paste, though not in their original form. ‘
Another great name – that of Sir Ninian Comper, another
renowned architect of the Gothic and Classical revival – was also
associated with the church in the design of the Lady Chapel.
Again from the Retrospect: ‘In 1905 the Lady Chapel was separated
by a stone screen, the Altar was enlarged, and a very beautiful reredos
with a Calvary and figures of St. Paul with his companions, St. Peter,
St. Barnabas and St. Luke, painted on mahogany, designed by Mr.
Comper was erected, in memory of Mr. Counsell Jeffery who for 30 years
had been Churchwarden. The expense of this memorial was defrayed by his widow and family.’
- 232 -
Scandal and Controversy at Bow Common.
In 1859 Bow Common hit the headlines with the scandal of the great Nuisances of smells and toxic
fumes. Now 50 years later, this time it was the church which hit the headlines! In 1907 the Church
Council had decided that they would like to erect a Rood Beam in memory of Ellen Jeffery (possibly
a relative or even the widow of Mr. Counsell Jeffery who had been Churchwarden for 30 years and
in whose memory the Lady Chapel had been dedicated in 1905). Even to this day, churches are not
free to add or remove anything major from their buildings without specific permission that this
would be judged appropriate. For all such works, from a new High Altar to a new boiler, a ‘Faculty’
has to be applied for and the full weight of the law could be applied if there was serious doubt
about the church’s petition. Indeed, this turned out to be one such case! The articles in the press
are reproduced below and speak for themselves. The first section is not relevant to the Bow
Common petition but gives a vivid impression of how contentious ritualism was at that time.
- 233 -
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Alas, I have no source for the above very clinical and
forensic article. It is very careful throughout not to
impose personal or editorial opinion as to the ills or
otherwise of ritualism.
Not so the items which follow! The only note I have is
that they from EEM (or EEH). My guess is that ‘EE’
might stand for ‘East End’ and so this could be a local
newspaper’s view of these matters.
Article of 19th January 1909
- 235 -
Article of 30th March 1909
The Chancellor’s Decision has been made.
- 236 -
1860 1941
There are also these undated comments which
follow, clearly from the same newspaper and
which, again, express the writer’s undiluted
opinions about High Church practice, and are
also revelatory about St. Paul’s, Bow Common
being a widely recognised and contentious
focus for such practices and protests, alongside
the better-known and notorious St. George-inthe-
Not even the old-timers in church seemed to
know anything about this pedestal on the old
church – and certainly nothing about the Rood
Beam controversy. However, on examining
early photographs – there it was! But, even
more intriguingly, by the time of the War,
there was no sign of the canopy over the niche
any longer, though the base was still there!
One is intrigued as to what led to its removal –
and when!
- 237 -
After all that …. the Rood Beam appears!
As mentioned previously the church had virtually no records at the time of my arrival in 1995, with Fr.
Kirkby not seeming to believe in keeping records of any kind! However, there must have been scattered
items because, during the vacancy before I arrived, they were collected together by a couple of church
members into a small but invaluable archive, very well ordered and displayed in an album. It was after I
had done my own researches some years later and had ‘discovered’ the story of the ‘Ritualist Controversy’
of 1909 that I looked more carefully at the few interior views of the old church which had been preserved.
After so much contention and the public shame, almost, of having a faculty denied – at some later time the
verdict must have been reconsidered and the faculty granted because among the archived images there was
just one of the church WITH a Rood Beam in place!” Alas it is a dark image and not very clear – but, after
all that trouble and argument, there it is! It appears to be Harvest-tide but the year is unknown.
In the gloom of this view it can be seen that is precisely the design of Rood Beam which had been proposed
by the church in 1907 and subsequently refused. The figures of Christ on the Cross, as well as of the Blessed
Virgin Mary and St. John can just be seen atop the beam spanning the church and the wording which runs
across the face of the beam and below the figures is exactly as proposed in the faculty petition.
- 238 -
It is over matters like this one and also the mystery of the disappearing niche for a statue on the west face
of the church that I really regret that no records were preserved before my time. Far more regrettable is the
total lack of any archive of the planning and execution of the Maguire and Murray building apart from the
scant mentions in the Minutes of the PCC already shared in these pages a long way back. None of this
material can ever be retrieved now and certainly none from a century ago. When the old church was first
damaged externally, the interior seems not to have suffered too greatly as the organ (seen in the final view
of the church at the bottom of this page) was able to be removed and stored subsequently in the church
school and then in St. Luke’s church nearby. By the time the incendiary bombs fell 6 months later all records
and valuables would have been removed to safety. But none of those seems to have been preserved.
In the great scheme of things these are minor matters but so often such records retain a marker of how far
larger issues in the wider church impacted locally upon a forgotten place like Bow Common and those
finger-prints of history are always of interest to those who come after who would otherwise know nothing
of the ‘family history’ of the congregation and community which they join.
During 2001 when the church began to investigate what was underground, in relation to its drainage
system, a trench was dug alongside the south wall of the church hall. By nature I am curious always about
what lies beneath our feet unseen, or what may once have stood where we are. I could not resist exploring
what could be seen inside the trench!
Useful things, but not very exciting,
could be seen – tree roots, power
cables, damaged pitch fibre drainage
pipes & a lot of earth!
But, just by chance I spied amidst the
diggings a pale glimpse of
something which seemed to be
coloured red! It was a piece of
decorative tiling and could only
have come from the paving of the first church! Nothing else has ever stood
here and certainly nothing so grand as to have decorative tiling such as
this! This small fragment of tiling could just be all that remains of the first
church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common! But for sure there must be many other
fragments and other remains and as drains are renewed it may just be that
some of these may be spotted although the bulk will lie beneath the ‘new’
church & will never now be revealed. A final view of the church is below.
- 239 -
A final glimpse – first, of land ownership belonging to the Incumbency as at 1889 and then of rental
income from 22 properties, to provide or supplement the incumbent’s stipend, very likely. These leases
began as early as 1862, probably at the point of the properties’ construction by William Cotton, assuring
the church he had built in 1858 of a guaranteed stream of income to help support the incumbent for the
next 99 years, assured in his Will. As will be seen, soon demographic changes in the parish led to big
challenges, financially, and of not enough staff to do the work. Such income would have been essential
in tough times.
- 240 -
- 241 -
The First St. Paul’s, Bow Common 50 Years on …
In 1908 the first church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common celebrated its Golden Jubilee, just as we did in
2010 for the second church. A commemorative booklet was produced and is reproduced here in its
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Also in 1908 there was a sobering and revealing article about the first 50 years of the church in the
East London Church Chronicle.
St. Paul, Bow Common, E
his parish, which now lies in the centre of the East London, was formed 50 years ago, out of
the parishes of Stepney, Limehouse and Bromley, and in those days had some pretensions to
be a delightful “common,” so dear to the hearts of East Enders, consisting mainly of rhubarb
fields, rope walks, a cricket field and various gravel pits, bounded by the Bow Common Lane,
which contained a few country cottages and the tortuous Rogues’ Well Road which still retains the
appearance of a not-knowing-where-it-wants-to-go sort of lane
In those early days a magnificent church was built by the late William Cotton, the founder
of St. Andrew, Bethnal Green, and was consecrated in 1858 by Rt. Rev. Dr. Tait, the Bishop of
The Church stood in a lovely position in the fields, with the Blackwall Railway Extension in
the background. On a dark night the good people might be seen picking their way across the fields
with the aid of lanterns, and occasionally coming to grief in the gravel pits. Then roads were made
and houses sprang up like mushrooms, and the great Church was filled with suburban residents
during the incumbency of the first Vicar, Rev. A.B. Cotton, who resigned in 1878 after twenty years’
During the incumbency of the second Vicar, Rev. R.T. Plummer, the population increased
to nearly 15,000, but with the removal of well-to-do people, financial difficulties arose, and he was
compelled to appeal to the E.L.C.F. (East London Churches Fund) to provide stipends for the
Assistant Clergy. £ 135 per annum was granted for a second Curate, and with the help of
volunteers, the parish was worked by a staff of five clergy and many lay-helpers, until disaster
came in the utter breakdown in the of the Vicar’s Health and his resignation in 1900.
Since then difficulties have increased by the immigration of an alien population and the
overwhelming growth of poverty. Again, the E.L.C.F came to the rescue with a further grant of £30
per year: but the parish has only a staff of three priests and a very few lay-workers.
The Church still retains many beautiful features, relics of more prosperous days: A very
fine Jesse window designed by Street, a magnificent organ, a painted chancel (now faded), and a
set of Holy Vessels, formerly the property of Queen Caroline, which were presented by Bishop
The schools began in a small way in dilapidated, rat-infested cottage, but in 1859 the
foundation stone of the present school was laid by Bishop Wilberforce. The Schools have the largest
playground in London, with a swimming bath, and in spite of recent legislation are more than
holding their own.
This parish, like many in the East End, has buildings and everything needful, but lacks the
necessary workers but must have gone under long ago, but for the E.L.C.F. A ship has been the
emblem of the Catholic Church since primitive times, but in the East End it must be likened to a
ship without a crew to man it.
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St. Luke’s, Burdett Road
The present day church is still called St. Paul’s, Bow Common but following post-war
reorganisation of parishes and re-building only certain churches, the parish which this church
serves became the parish of St. Paul with St. Luke, Bow Common.
Therefore part of any history of this parish should include an account of the church of St. Luke,
Burdett Rd. especially as it became the home for the displaced people of St. Paul’s, Bow Common
after their church was destroyed in the War. As is now known, the church of St. Paul, Bow
Common was the gift of William Cotton to the people of the area and those who would come to
live in the housing he was soon to build, and with the support of the Bishop of London, Charles
Blomfield, this led to the creation of the Ecclesiastical District of St. Paul, within the large and
ancient parish of Stepney. Later this became the Parish of St. Paul, Bow Common. This was in 1858.
Poverty and need were great in this part of the East End, though as the Booth poverty maps showed
a little earlier, conditions could be very different just a street or two away. And in 1865 a Mission
enterprise was created on the edge of St. Paul’s parish, within an area which was part of the parish
of Holy Trinity, Mile End.
The first service was held in the school rooms of St. Paul’s, Bow Common and the venture soon
proved to be much needed. It was soon clear that a permanent church would be needed for this
work. In 1867 the tireless and devoted Mission priest, Revd. William Wallace wrote this Appeal
Leaflet. Funds were urgently needed.
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As one reads the Appeal Leaflet above, both
the need as well as the great efforts and
persistent striving are evident.
The Revd. William Wallace, a great priest
and a great man, is shown in the view to the
His incumbency was a long one, from 1865
– 1913, at 48 years the longest incumbency
of any parish priest in either of the parishes
of St. Paul or St. Luke. I think Fr. Kirkby
comes next at 43 years!
He is shown here in August 1914, following
retirement from St. Luke’s in December
1913. He died on 9th September 1915 in Budleigh Salterton, Devon.
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In fact, just at the last moment the necessary funds were raised by a perilously narrow scrape and
the church was consecrated on 18th October 1869. This account, from “Stepney Churches – An
Historical Account” by Gordon Barnes (Faith Press 1967) relates what happened.
In 1928 in the local newspaper, the East
London Advertiser there was a report on the
state of the churches (including St. Paul’s, Bow
Common) and half way through it tells the
story of St. Luke’s, Burdett Rd. (marked red).
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A view of 1908 looking south along Burdett Rd., showing St. Luke’s at the right and in the distance
above the railway bridge can be seen the misty outline of the spire of St. Paul’s, Bow Common.
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Some more small glimpses of St. Luke’s and of William Wallace:
St. Luke’s, seen from Timothy
- 256 -
Another view of 1908 showing the interior of St. Luke’s, Burdett Rd.
Below is a pre-War photograph, before the church was bombed in 1940,
The array of statues give a flavour of the High Church tradition of this church at the time.
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An admirable witness to the continuing work of the local church even after the War had done its worst!
St. Paul’s Church is shown as in ruins but the church was leafletting residents who remained in the
parish, with this invitation to come to St. Luke’s – even when your church is reduced to ruins and times
are hard, your church is there for you and worship and church life continues! Admirable!
Two views around 1953-54: on the left is a view of St. Luke’s and, in the distance, the stump of the
steeple of the bombed out St. Paul’s Church, beyond the railway arches. On the right is a view of
the Clergy House in Timothy Road behind the church.
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Two views taken in
The upper view is of
the west front of St.
Luke’s Church, seen
from St. Dunstan’s Rd.
(later Timothy Rd.).
The main façade
normally seen on
photographs is the east
front in Burdett Rd.
accessed via a side
entrance from the main
To the left of the
church is the Vicarage
and Church House.
The lower view is also
from St. Dunstan’s Rd.
looking back at the
church with the
Vicarage in the
There is a later view of
the Vicarage some
years later in 1953/54
on the previous page.
- 259 -
Final views of the interior of St. Luke’s in the time of Fr. Kirkby, during the 1950’s
- 260 -
Churchgoing in our Area at around the peak of attendance in the early 1900’s.
By the turn of the century two churches had been built in our immediate area as well as a lot of housing.
The community was settled without, yet, the disruption of war or mass population movements. The
churches were established parts of society and churchgoing was the norm, though by no means universal.
The tables which follow give a snapshot of Christian religious adherence in Stepney in the year 1904.
As we can see,
churchgoing was a far
more popular thing to
do in 1904 than it is a
hundred years later!
Even so, only 5% of the
total population actually
went to Church of
England churches in our
area, exceeded only by
Nonconformists who
were supported by 7% of
the population and 3%
going to Roman Catholic
churches. In all 81% of
the population didn’t go
to church at all.
At St. Paul’s, Bow
Common a huge 613
people went through the
doors every Sunday! 148
adults went to church in
the evening and 130 in the
morning. However
children (age 15 or under)
formed 55% of those who
went to church - 335 every
Sunday! Ours was the 5th most
attended church in Stepney.
At St. Luke’s, Burdett Rd., 137
people went to church every
Sunday with 62% of these being
Denominations gathering in
Stepney on their holy days are
shown, with the Church of
England as the greatest
gathering, with the Jewish
‘Church’ at 94% of that figure
and Roman Catholics at 63%.
Next came Evangelical Mission
Churches at 53%.
In 1883 it was observed that,
‘Out of 2,290 persons living in
consecutive houses at Bow Common, only 88 adults and 47 children ever attend [a place of worship]’ – a situation
that the observer blamed on the conditions in which they lived.
All © DUNCAN ROSS 2015

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This detailed and authoritative guide is the painstaking, dedicated work of Father Duncan Ross, Vicar of St Paul's, Bow Common from 1995 - 2013.  

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© Duncan Ross 2016

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