St. Gabriel, South Bromley

Chrisp Street, Poplar.

"Between 1916 and 1935, when Lambert was Vicar of St.Gabriel, South Bromley, this church, hidden away in slums between East India Dock Road and Bow Road, became notorious as a hot bed of underground episcopal activities." I imagine that the notoriety referred to by Peter Anson in his book "Bishops at Large", was something of which the parishioners of this working class East London parish, were, for the most part ,quite unaware. In no way would the irregular activities of the clergy in this parish have been comprehended by ordinary Poplar people, for whom the daily round of work and struggle for survival would have been their prime concern.

The Parish Church of St. Gabriel, South Bromley, was in the Anglo-Catholic tradition as were many other Church of England parishes in East London, the colourful ritual of such churches appealed to many forced to spend their lives in a grey and dismal area deprived of all visual beauty. Served for the most part by outstanding and devoted priests who sought to provide for both the spiritual and material needs of the parishioners, such churches were accepted as a normal part of the pattern of East London life.

Before leaving this matter of ecclesiastical irregularities, I should perhaps mention that in 1924 this parish was served by a Vicar and two curates who were all irregularly consecrated "Old Catholic" Bishops. It is estimated that in a period of only a few years two or three hundred priests of the Church of England with very high church inclinations made their way by tram along the East India Dock Road to Chrisp Street, walked up through the Market to St. Gabriels and some two or three hours later returned, having been validated.

Although always thought of as a Poplar parish, it was in fact part of the ancient parish of Bromley-by-Bow, and St. Gabriels was carved out of the Parish of St. Michael, Bromley-by-Bow created in 1865. South Bromley was that portion of St Michaels parish that was on the West side of the North London Railway which was opened in 1852, it was connected to its parent parish by a foot bridge close to the South Bromley Station.

St. Gabriels was consecrated on 22nd. February 1869. The population of the new parish was 7,000 crowded into a small area of what has been described as mean streets, a later pre-1914 writer speaks of houses "packed like bricks in a box, and the roads are characterless, whilst Londonís pall of smoke is over everything".

Writers about East London around the turn of the century had a tendency to pile on the agony, especially if they were seeking financial support for a much needed social or religious project, however accepting this , there is no doubt that the description of it as an "unlovely district", the dwellers in which were among "the poorest toilers in London" was reasonably accurate.

The lower and livelier end of Chrisp Street with its barrows, stalls and shops was the local market and was in the parish of All Saints, Poplar; an article in the Sign in December 1914 says that the only break in the monotonous rows of houses in St. Gabriels parish was provided by an "occasional fried fish or old clothes shop, or a poster covered hoarding - a welcome splash of colour in the general greyness". I am not absolutely sure of the boundaries of the parish, but a press notice in 1924 giving information about the annual outdoor procession of witness gives the route which I imagine followed the parish boundaries, Chrisp Street, Morris Road, Brabazon Street, Chrisp Street, Broomfield Street, Sharmen Street, Barchester Street, North Street, Ellesmere Street, Lion Street, Flint Street, Kerbey Street, Cordelia Street and then back to the church in Chrisp Street.

The land on which the church was built was conveyed to the diocese as a free gift and most of the cost of building came from the Bishop of Londonís Fund, the architect was R. J. Withers of Doughty Street, London; the builders were Dove Brothers and the cost was £4,700. It provided seating for 753 people, once again it would seem that the church authorities had made an over-provision. The cost of the church suggests a cheap construction and as was customary at that time no provision was made by way of endowment for its future maintenance. Most late Victorian churches in Tower Hamlets having been built cheaply were, and are, expensive to maintain.

The church was situated on a triangle formed by the intersection of Chrisp Street, Morris Road , and Walker Street later Barchester Street, facing the site on which the present St. Saviourís School stands and which was opened by Princess Margaret in 1969. The Parish Day Schools for Girls and infants was built on the land adjoining the church at the point of the triangle and the Vicarage on a site at the rear of the church and fronting on to Morris Street. When it was built the church must have been a huge , barn-like building dreary in its emptiness, but over the years the interior was improved in order to reflect the beauty of holiness and the furnishing and decorations would have been of the richest and most colourful that a poor East End Parish could acquire.

Despite the poverty of the district, the nave of the church was, before, the first World War panelled in oak , the panelling being the work of two local boys, one a cabinet maker, the other an organ builders apprentice, the materials being supplied by other parishioners.

Most East End incumbents were required to be beggars in order to maintain the work undertaken in their parishes, some were more successful than others in this essential activity. The methods used to raise funds varied according to the temperament and connections of each incumbent. Both Father Lambert who went to St. Gabriels in 1916 and who remained for twenty years and Father Lauria who succeeded him and who was to be the last Vicar of the parish made great use of newspaper advertisements.

Most of these appeals for help appeared in the Church Times, but from time to time an appeal would appear in The Times, as in March 1923 when Father Noel Lambert wrote, "Life in Dockland - Think of the shoeless, half clothed, hungry little dock-land waifs. Think of the unwanted , lonely aged suffering privation in the evening of their lives. Help bring hope and happiness to some poor wreck of humanity." The upkeep of the parochial schools were a great burden and many were the appeals made to, "save the last Church Schools in this district from closure. Keep 400 children under the influence of the Church. Education without religion is no education at all. Spiritual starvation results in hooliganism, Bolshevism, class hatred etc." Many such advertisements appeared in the 1920ís. Some had headlines such as HELP DESTROY BOLSHEVISM and FRESH AIR FOR SLUMLAND, this last an appeal in 1926 for money to provide holidays for sick and needy Mothers and Children. In 1924 Father Lambert had been able to say "HIS MAJESTY THE KING graciously sends a donation Will others follow his Majestyís lead?"

Despite the frequent and fervent appeals on behalf of the Schools, which had been opened in 1870, lack of money forced there closure in 1937.

In 1919 Father Lambert embarked upon a new project which would in its turn call for financial support from outside the parish. The project was what the Vicar called A Sensible War Memorial, an anonymous friend had made over to the parish a block of free-hold buildings which, "when altered, done up and furnished, will be known as St. Gabriels Settlement and will be the Headquarters of a complete network of Religious, Social, Athletic and Philanthropic work among the poor of East London." Such activities, to some extent already existed, meetings for boys and menís clubs met at the missions - these being the ground floors of two houses. Various weekday services also took place at these missions which were described as being in outlying parts of the parish, in a parish as compact as this the outlying parts could not have been more than a few hundred yards from the parish church.

Although its church building was rendered unusable as a result of the Blitz, in World War 2, the work of the parish continued throughout the war. Services were held in one of the Mission rooms, marriages and baptisms took place in St. Saviourís Church. Father Lauria continued his pastoral work in a parish much damaged by air raids and with a population depleted by evacuation. In 1947, he moved to the quieter pastures of Twickenham, after a devoted ministry in this East London parish.

The last marriage recorded in the Register took place on the 10th May 1947 between Edward Willing of East Ferry Road, Cubitt Town and Edith Rose Quinton of 126 Kerbey Street. The last baptism in the register, was of Anthony the son of Stanley and Irene Dean of 104 Teviot Street on 13th April 1947.

For all practical purposes the parish was now amalgamated with that of St. Saviours, although this was not formalised until the Diocesan re-organisation scheme came into effect on 1st July 1952

Arthur Royall. January 1999

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