St. George-in-the-East

Prebendary Arthur Royall

This Hawksmoor Church was built to serve the needs of a well to-do suburb, inhabited by such respectable people as ship owners and ships masters. Few, if any of those involved in establishing this parish, and building a church designed by Hawksmoor, could have imagined that within 150 years the area had deteriorated to becoming one of the most terrible slums of Victorian London. A fate that was to be that of all his three East London churches (St Anne's, Limehouse and Christchurch, Spitalfields being the other two).

A site for the church was bought for 400 in 1714, but the business of building the church was a protracted one and the causes of this were varied including disputes with the contractor over a supply of bad bricks, the removal of the workmen to work on other churches and a general shortage of money.

Most of the exterior was eventually completed by 1726 and the entire church was completed in 1729.There was yet another delay before the consecration on 19th July 1730.

During part of this long delay the Parish Church of St. Dunstan's was also closed for repairs.

St. Georges cost 23,832 to build; and the Rectory a further 1459, not a cheap undertaking by any means. A commentator writing in the late 18 00's refers to its rather gloomy Georgian atmosphere.

During the years 1859-60 the atmosphere of the church was anything but gloomy. These were the years of the notorious Ritualist Riots when St. Georges was the centre of sensational disturbances of a most disgraceful kind.

Hounds let loose in the aisles; hassocks thrown at the altar; boys and clergy kicked and tripped; boys supplied with peashooters and fireworks; a pew used as a privy; and a Protestant League which met every week to plan the next weeks assault.

This is a quote, not from the press but from the Parliamentary Report. When the riots were reported in the press, hooligans travelled from other parts of London to support the disturbances. The troubles arose from the fact that the Rector the Revd. Bryan King and his dynamic curates Charles Lowder and Alexander Mackonocie were high churchmen who insisted on wearing the Eucharistic Vestments and wearing a surplice in which to preach, instead of a black gown. The spark that set fire to the conflagration was the deliberate action of the Low Church Bishop in appointing a most militant type of Protestant clergyman as a Sunday afternoon Preacher.

Bryan King's health collapsed and the Bishop very unusually allowed a locum to be appointed . Charles Lowder remained in Wapping for more than 20 years, during which time he converted a tin mission into the beautiful parish church of St. Peter, London Dock. From time to time his papist practises were denounced in the local newspapers together with those of other East London high church incumbents who shared his ritualist views . There seems to be no doubt that Father Lowder won the affection and respect of the people for his care, compassion and practical help during the last cholera outbreak in 1868.

St. George's was gutted by incendiary bombs in May 1941 all the furnishings were destroyed, apart from the font. It is strange that St. Georges church with four other churches within half a mile should have been restored. Plans for the rebuilding were prepared in 1960 and the new church was consecrated in April 1964. The cost was upwards of 120,000, a large sum indeed at that time. The exterior of the new smaller church, has been described as magnificent.

Temporary provision was needed to provide a meeting place for the congregations of St. George's, Christ Church, Watney Street and St. John-the- Evangelist, Grove Street. At first services were held in a large room in the Rectory, and then until 1943 in the Mission House. The Bishop then dedicated a temporary church in the ruins of St. Georges' and this was to serve the three churches for the next seventeen years. I worshipped there one Sunday morning in the late 1940's and have vague memories of what appeared, from the outside, to be large shabby wooden shed. Here a small but faithful congregation worshipped for seventeen years.

Arthur Royall

May 2010

© Prebendary Arthur Royall

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