St. Michael and All Angels

South Bromley

© Prebendary Arthur Royall

The Parish of St.Michaels created in 1864 was the only one of the six parishes created out of the ancient parish of Bromley-by-Bow to survive the London Diocesan post-war reorganisation of 1952. The parish was united to that of All Saints, Poplar in the Poplar Team Ministry in 1971. The church building remained in regular use until it was declared redundant in 1978, since then it has been converted into residential use. I have already written about four of the former daughter churches of St. Mary, Bromley-by-Bow. The original name of this ancient parish was in fact Bromley St. Leonard. The change was made in order to distinguish it from Bromley in Kent. When the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar was created in 1902 it consisted of the three ecclesiastical and civil parishes of Poplar, Bow and Bromley St. Leonard.

This account of St. Michaels has been left until last simply because it was a church for which I had a great affection; its furnishings were of indifferent quality, some of them indeed were tawdry, and it had a feel of what is often described as religious dimness, even though the walls were whitened in 1955 at the same time as the woodwork was pickled, but it had an atmosphere of prayer and devotion. You entered the church directly from the street pavement and one felt that it was at one with the streets around it. After the Second World War the congregation was not large, but the walls had the feeling of being saturated by prayer and was much loved by its people.

If you wish to get the flavour of St. Michaels and its people in earlier days, I suggest you read Shabby Paradise by Eileen Baillie published in 1952 this book is without doubt one of the most attractive books of memoirs that I have ever read. Eileen was the young daughter of Father Preston who was Vicar of this shabby paradise in the years immediately before the Great War. She refers to these years as the happiest decade of my life. She describes the church and Vicarage blackened by smoke standing on a triangle of land at the top of St. Leonard's Road, that was and still is a meeting-place of six streets. Neither of these buildings said the writer could ever be called handsome. However the tall tower with its four illuminated clock faces towered majestically and protectively above its streets of small and shabby houses. The lighted clock wrote John Blake who grew up in the parish in the 1920's was a beacon, seen by all around, and every household checked their time by it. Read the book for yourself and you will get the feel of the parish of St. Michaels, South Bromley as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

The open space outside the Vicarage created by the meeting of the six streets provided a useful space for the holding of public meetings of many kinds. After the First World War a war memorial was erected in this space, which was unveiled by the then Duke of York later King George the Sixth in 1925.

A Mission Chapel was opened in 1861: the permanent church designed by J.W.Morris, was begun in 1864, and consecrated on August 4th 1865. Much of the money needed was raised by Sir Edmund Hay Currie of Bromley who was a generous benefactor to the local Church all his life. Basil Clarke in his Parish Churches of London describes St. Michaels simply as a stalwart brick church, well suited to its surroundings. Pevsner in his Volume devoted to the buildings of London does not mention the church at all, an incredible omission considering some of the East London churches he does mention.

The parish at the time of its creation was an extensive one including the areas that would later form the parishes of All Hallows, East India Dock Road; St. Frideswide's and St. Gabriels. The population of the parish increased from 8,000 to 20,00 in the first ten years of its life. The North London Railway which was opened in 1852. ran through the parish and it was the area to the West of the line that became the parish of St. Gabriels in 1869.The South Bromley Station was close to the Church and Vicarage of St. Michael, this line gave direct access to the City. The two parts of the parish were connected by a footbridge close to the railway station.

The parish of St. Michaels was the first parish to be created from that of St. Mary Bromley, St. Leonard; St. Gabriels, Chrisp Street followed in 1869; All Hallows Devons Road in 1873; All Hallows East India Dock Road in 1879 followed by St. Frideswides Lodore Street which although it already had a permanent church building did not become a parish until 1914 and finally St. Andrew in 1900. The Mother Church was destroyed in the Second World War and the ruins demolished in the 1950's although the gateway to the churchyard remained for some years, a lonely and sad reminder of glories that had departed. St. Michael's Church survived the Second World War with out any serious damage, but succumbed to reorganisation and a declaration of redundancy in 1978. The building still stands having been converted into residential accommodation all efforts, to retain it for community use having failed.

Father Preston who's ministry is described in his daughters book Shabby Paradise shared the problem of all East London incumbents, that of raising the money with which to run his parish. The financial responsibility was that of the incumbent alone, if he had the assistance of curates he had to find the where withal to pay their salaries and to provide their housing. Grants might be forthcoming from various ecclesiastical charities but these only made a contribution to the overall cost. The Vicar of St, Michaels like other local parish priests needed to go begging and so Father Preston accepted invitations to preach in well to do parishes of the south coat. Understandably if the preacher was to obtain a worthwhile response he had to touch the hearts of his hearers with a convincing account of the needs of his poverty stricken parish. On one occasion a report of a sermon by Father Preston preached in Eastbourne was printed in a local paper. A copy of this sermon found its way back to an unsympathetic parishioner in Poplar, who found the references to the poverty of St. Michaels parish, insulting to the local residents and claimed that they were untrue. The aggrieved person protested loud and clear in an East London paper and stirred up quite an acrimonious furore. Perhaps on this occasion Father Preston had gone over the top, but one can well understand the difficulties of a preacher seeking help for an East London parish in which, without a doubt, there was a large incidence of poverty.

There is no doubt that the Vicar was both a hard working man and a person of strong opinions who did not accept criticism and opposition meekly. The upper floor of the church hall adjacent to the church was equipped with a well designed stage of good size. This Hall had replaced the old Parish Room and was the venue of weekly free and easy concerts promoted by the St. Michael's Harmonic Society which had been founded by a few members of the church congregation in 1902. Over the years these concerts had proved to be remarkably successful. The Society claimed that the Society had been instrumental in aiding the formation of a strong branch of the Church of England Temperance Society and of promoting the forming of the St. Michaels Brass Band. In 1911 a dispute between the officers of the Society and the Vicar broke out. Accusations were made by both parties, but, despite the publication of a pamphlet by the Society the real cause of the dispute is not made clear. I would imagine that it was largely due to a clash of strong personalities. There are many examples to be found of disputes between parish priests and the leaders of organisations that, having grown in strength, appear to challenge the established authority. The East End News on 5th December 1911 reported that on the previous Saturday evening, the Harmonic Society was turned out and the lights turned off. The incident received the maximum of publicity as both the Mayor and Mayoress of Poplar and George Lansbury the M.P.were present.

It was also during the incumbency of Father Preston that the election of a Churchwarden was challenged. The challenger was a candidate who had failed to secure election at the Annual Parish Meeting in 1911 at which all rate payers were entitled to vote. The defeated candidate was a local Borough Councillor and business man who lived in St. Leonards Road Mr. William Jones, a man of extreme low church opinions a violent critic of the Vicar. The gentleman concerned made a legal objection and demanded a poll which was duly held on the 23rd May. Those voting went to the Parish Hall which was the designated Polling Station to cast their vote. The result of the Poll was declared just before midnight and the vote revealed that the challenger had lost and the original election of Mr. G. Blackmore had been upheld. Such was the interest roused by the dispute that a large crowd had gathered to hear the result of the Poll A poll of this sort must have been a rare thing, I have never come across another example.

The dispute between the Vicar and Councillor Jones continued . Accused of brawling in Church Mr. Jones was twice excommunicated by the Bishop of London before peace once more rained in the parish. The dispute had been widely reported in both the local and national press

Parish life experienced a different form of excitement in the early nineteen-twenties . Father Langdon the newly appointed Vicar of St. Michaels invited Father John Groser to join him and Father Jack Bucknall (John's brother-in-law) as a curate. All three priests were Socialists, but as events proved, the curates were far more radical than their Vicar. The Grosers moved into 1 Teviot Street next door to the Bucknalls and their home was soon an open house for all those who were concerned for those in the community such as the dockers, unemployed ex-servicemen and others who lived in uncertain poverty around them. Father John was a member of the Catholic Crusade a Christian Socialist body the aim of which was to transform the Kingdom of this world into the Commonwealth of God.

With his tremendous energy and strong convictions John Groser soon found that the customary curates role was insufficient and unfulfilling. He and Bucknall gathered around them a group of like minded people, many of whom were not church people. He organised successful street corner meetings which drew large crowds. A platform would be erected and alongside it would be placed the Crucifix, the flag of St. George and a Red Flag. Meetings often ended with the singing of The Red Flag. He was a very effective agitator. An excellent speaker and his help was often sought by groups and individual. As the economic situation worsened his speeches became more political and did not please those who objected to a priest being involved in politics, he was often attacked in the press. During the Strike of 1926 his advice was frequently sought by the local strike committee. He was an effective speaker, much sought after at many local solidarity meetings. As early as May 1924 Father Langdon the Vicar gave his two curates six months notice, saying that it was clear that they were not working together with him in a manner that would advance the work of the parish. In the Spring of 1925 Father Langdon moved to St. Matthews, City Road and Kenneth Ashcroft a priest with Labour sympathies moved to St, Michael's. However the relationship between the new Vicar and the Curate was uneasy and unsatisfactory. In March 1927 it was announced that Groser was to leave St. Michael's. In the years 1922-25 parish life had been colourfully explosive, the future promised to be somewhat quieter and less publicised. It is interesting to note that on Easter Day 1926 there were over two hundred communicants at St. Michaels.

Father Groser continued his ministry in East London until he retired, for some years and throughout the war he was the Vicar of Christ Church, Watney Street. He always remained a radical, but by the time I was ordained in 1953 he was the Master of the newly re-constituted Royal Foundation of St. Katharine's at Shadwell and on the way to becoming a Senior Statesman in the Diocese of London. He preached one of his last sermons, at my invitation at, St. Michaels in September 1965.

The Parish of St. Michael's settled down under Father Ashcroft who remained until 1943 when he left to go to Somerset, to which part of the country many Poplar people had been evacuated. The parish was placed in the care of the Rector of Poplar and his staff until a new Vicar, Father Colthurst was appointed in 1946.

Post-war Poplar was a very different place to what it had been before the first bombs fell in 1940. St. Leonards Street would never again be the village street with shops serving the area immediately around. A far reaching plan for redevelopment, involving the demolition of whole streets and much rebuilding would change the area, but until it did something of a blight settled on that part of Poplar that centred on St. Michaels. The Diocesan Re-organisation Measure of 1952 had made clear which parishes would remain to serve the locality the Borough, St Michaels was to remain. Ten years later there was new thinking abroad in the Church about how the pastoral needs of Inner- City areas such as East London should be met. One of the first products of the new thinking was the creation of a South Poplar Area Ministry comprising the three parishes of All Saints, St. Michaels and St. Saviours. The whole area would be served by a Team of Clergy under the direction of a Team Rector.

In September 1964 the new Rector of All Saints (myself) was appointed who was also to be Priest-in-Charge of St. Michaels and he was to take charge of St. Saviours as soon as that living became vacant. The large staff of All Saints, six curates and four parish workers would work the whole area. The services continued as usual in both parishes and St. Michael's Vicarage became the home of the unmarried curates. There were no plans for the closure of St. Michaels's Church or in the future of St. Saviours'. In 1972 a formal legal scheme brought into being The Poplar Team Ministry with three parish churches each with its own churchwardens. Due to the financial difficulty of maintaining and running of three churches, the church people of the Team Parishes had think carefully about whether all three were needed. The consultations were long and thorough and the result was a decision that the area could be best be served by a single Church, All Saints. The last service at St. Michaels was held on Sunday 28th September 1975 I was no longer Rector, but I was present at the service and my feelings were very mixed. Far from being submerged in the congregation of All Saints the people of St. Michaels brought their own particular strong and distinctive contribution.

With the closure of St. Michael's as a place of worship, only All Hallows, Devons Road remained and still remains, of the parishes created out of the ancient parish of Bromley-St. Leonard.

The Church in Bromley for a Thousand Years. Edmund Sinker 1900

The Shabby Paradise. Eileen Baillie. 1958

John Groser, East London Priest Kenneth Brill. Mowbray 1971.

The St.Michael's Harmonic Society. Frank Bird. 1911

Father John Groser. Rebel with a cause. Joan Renton. CA 79

The East London News and E.L.Observer 1911

© Prebendary Arthur Royall

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