St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe
|St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe|
Tower of St Mary's Church, Rotherhithe
|Denomination||Church of England|
St Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, is the local Church of England parish church in Rotherhithe, formerly in Surrey and now part of south east London. The parish is now within the diocese of Southwark and under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Fulham. The 18th-century church is in St Marychurch Street and is dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, and it is particularly proud of its connections with the Pilgrim Fathers. It remains a living and working church, supported by local people and serving a broad community.
There is documentary evidence that a church has existed on this site since at least 1282. However, Roman bricks were found when the tower was underpinned in 1913, so it is probable that there were even earlier buildings on the site.
The area was eventually served by Catholic priests from Bermondsey Abbey. Following the break with Rome under Henry VIII in 1538, the vestments, silver and gold plate and other gifts of the cathedral were sold to provide money to repair the mediaeval church.
Some remains of the mediaeval building can still be seen, for example the stone blocks incorporated into the walls on each side of the organ. In the crypt, parts of the old church walls of chalk and flint are visible, and some later Tudor brickwork. A drawing made of this building in 1623 has survived. Although the artist had difficulty representing the perspective of the old church, this drawing is the only remaining evidence of its appearance. A few memorials from the old church have survived.
In 1710, the parishioners of St Mary's petitioned parliament for a grant to rebuild their church 'which standing very low and near the banks of the Thames, is often overflowed, whereby the foundation of the church and tower is rotted and in great danger of falling'. The petition was not successful but the parishioners went on to collect subscriptions and the local craftsmen, of which there were many, turned their hands and feet to church building.
It was rebuilt in 1714–15, to a design by John James, a major architect of his day (and an associate of Sir Christopher Wren). As money was short, the tower (above right) was not finished until 1747, when Lancelot Dowbiggin, a City joiner and surveyor, completed it, perhaps to his own design, following the general plan of James.
Since then, the external appearance of the church has remained almost unchanged. It is set in a narrow street close to the Thames, surrounded by former warehouses and facing the charity school house which was built in 1703.
In 1760, Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton wed his second wife, Anne, here. The two had journeyed far from home to evade ecclesiastical difficulties; she was his first wife's sister, and the marriage was forbidden by canon law, but not void if no one objected when the banns were read.
In 1838, when the well-known ship Temeraire was broken up, some of her timbers were used to build a communion table and two bishop's chairs in the Rotherhithe church.
The interior of the church was much altered in 1876.
Between 1996 and 1999, the bells were restored and re-hung, and essential repairs made to the spire. The bells are regularly rung by members of the Docklands Ringing Centre.
The Vestry decided to rebuild St Mary's as early as 1705, but a faculty was not applied for until 1714; and although on 9 March 1715 it was recorded that 'the parish church is now finished in Pewing', not until 1746 did they decide to complete the tower and in the following year to provide it with bells. A further eighteen years elapsed before the new church was provided with an organ. Until then a small band of musical instruments led the singing of hymns and psalms.
The history of the organ begins with a vestry minute of 24 April 1764: -
'Whereas many of the Parishioners have expressed their desire of having an Organ erected in this Church which they apprehend would be not only a very decent Ornament but also add to the Solemnity of Divine Service, we do unanimously agree that an Organ will make a very useful and agreeable addition to this Church and therefore authorise and desire the Churchwardens to erect the same as soon as possible.'
The vestry also agreed that the expense of erecting the organ should be met by public subscription and at a subsequent meeting that the organist's salary be defrayed from the annual rate. The Churchwardens lost no time in starting the process of obtaining the necessary faculty from the Bishop of Winchester (of which diocese Rotherhithe was a part). The faculty was granted on 22 July, it was decided that the organ was to be placed in the west gallery and to measure 21 ft high, 12 ft wide and 6 ft 9inches deep with a further 2 ft for the organist's seat. It was necessary to state these dimensions precisely to help establish that no regular worshipper would lose his or her seat through the space taken up by the instrument!
The organ is enclosed at the front by a polished mahogany case and at the back by dark stained wainscoting of pine standing between the case and the west wall. The breadth and depth of the organ as it stands today are exactly the same as the measurements stated in the faculty (organ stool excepted) leading to the unavoidable conclusion that the organ has occupied the same west gallery floor area right from the beginning and that the wainscoting was part of the original construction.
It seems likely that the Churchwardens had already contacted John Byfield II, as the accounts for 1764 record payments relating to 'Expenses of attending Mr. Byfield' and finally 'Mr. Byfield...for erecting and compleating the Organ as per Contract...£400' (£59,850 at 2012 values).
The organ was already under construction during spring 1765, as 4 shillings was paid for the bells to be rung on 29 May 'when the Organ Case was fixing up that it might not be incommoded by the rocking of the Steeple at the time of ringing the bells.'
The bells were rung again on 29 September 1765 when, as a local newspaper reported: 'Sunday was opened by Mr. Worgan, at St. Mary Rotherhithe, the new Organ built by Mr. John Byfield, Organ-Builder in Ordinary to his Majesty, which gave a general satisfaction to a polite and crowded Audience.'
Neither the original contract nor list of subscribers have survived, but an inscription on the front of the gallery records that the organ was erected by subscription of some of the inhabitants.
Byfield looked after the organ from 1766 to 1803. As the original contract does not survive, the earliest specification we have is from James Henry Leffler's early nineteenth century notebook.
Hugh Russell and Sons took over the care of the organ from 1805 to 1859. Two items of substantial repairs and maintenance took place during this period. £40 was paid for 'cleaning and repairing' in 1816, and substantial work was commissioned from Russell in 1828/29. Russell's quote was £137, the actual cost rising to £166 by the time his bill was paid on 16 February 1830 (£16,056.72 at 2012 values).
Austin Niland, in his monograph on the instrument, gives the following description of the work done by Russell: 1. extended the Great and Choir compasses from GG (short octave) - e to GG (long octave, no GG#) - f; 2. added an octave and a half of pedals without pedal pipes (i.e. pulldowns to the Great, probably GG - c); 3. on the Great, suppressed the Cornet and substituted a second Open Diapason for the Nason; 4. on the Choir, substituted a TC Cremona for the Vox Humana; and 5. on the Swell, removed the Cornet and added a second Open Diapason, but left the compass unaltered [from tenor G upwards].
The resulting specification is given in Hopkins and Rimbault (1855).
The justification for a second Open Diapason on the Great can be seen in a voluntary written by Hugh's organist son William, where the Open Diapason on the Great is accompanied by the Swell Oboe. Experiment shows that Byfield's Open is not strong enough to balance the Oboe. The organist of the time, Robert Nottingham, obviously wanted the Rotherhithe instrument to keep abreast of changing fashions in musical style.
Gray and Davison took over care of the instrument in 1864. The first work which they recorded as having carried out was: 'Cleaning the organ, repairing pipes, regulating and tuning, £15; improving the touch by altering the action and regulating movements £2; taking out bellows and thoroughly repairing, enlarging feeders, repalleting middleboard and refixing £7; tuning to equal temperament £5.'
A basic overhaul in 1876 was recorded by Gray and Davison as: 'cleaning organ through, repairing pipes, renewing wirework, cleaning casework and front pipes £40'.
A more substantial rebuild took place in 1881/82, including enlarging the Swell organ, converting all manuals to the German compass of C-f3, and providing a new pedalboard with Bourdon pipes C-e1; by 1882 also, the feet of the pipes in the organ case towers had been replaced with new ones of zinc. A new console was provided, which survives to this day, displaying Gray and Davison's ivory name-plate.
The cost of the works were £200 [£20,374.46 at 2012 values], plus £1.11s.6d for an organ stool (which still survives in the gallery). However, it seems that on 1 January 1887 a debt of £78.7s.6d. was still outstanding, and although on 19 December 1882 a sum of £5.9s.0d. was paid in cash, the balance of £72.18.6d. [£8,128.46 at 2012 values] seems to have never been paid to Gray and Davison, whose connection with the parish was severed after their last tuning of 24 June 1886.
After Gray and Davison's departure, no professional work was done to the organ from 1886 to 1959.
Two factors should be mentioned which contributed to the possibility of the 1959 restoration:
Firstly, in the 1930s there were plans for a destructive rebuild which would have made subsequent restoration impossible. Thankfully, lack of parish resources made such action impossible.
Secondly, admirable emergency repairs for the sum of £46 [£1,524.40 in 2012 values] were carried out by W.J. English in 1946/47 which halted the continuing deterioration of the organ.
Mander's work in 1959 was oriented towards the restitution of Byfield's tonal scheme as far as possible, and a thorough renovation of the mechanical action. Mander's changes were: Provision of a new Mounted Cornet on the Great, replacing that removed by Russell (but not the echo Cornet on the Swell, which has never been replaced). A secondhand Clarion (supposedly 1817, but actually ca.1870) on the Great, replacing Gray and Davison's Gamba. The provision of a bass octave for Russell's Choir Cremona, using the existing holes of Byfield's Vox Humana. The opening out of footholes closed by years of cone-tuning, and the provision of tuning slides. The provision of an electric blower, and the removal of all hand-blowing equipment, including the lever and feeder bellows.
The resulting specification was as close as possible to the original. The restored organ was reopened on 22 October 1959.
Restoration of the organ case took place in two stages. In 1960 some broken carving was repaired and the case was stripped to reveal the original rich mahogany. Details of the case were gilded. In 1975, the organ was cleaned and the front pipes (Byfield's original Open Diapason) were regilded.
The 1991 overhaul provided new roofs to Great, repaired G&D actions, restored Great Sesquialtera to original composition; and replaced stopped rank on the Great Cornet with a copy of the contemporary example at St. George, Gravesend, the 1959 pipes having deformed sufficiently to make them untunable. The tuning system is now Young's.
The present specification (2014)
- Open diapason 8 ft Byfield, mostly. (facade pipes)
- Open diapason 8 ft Russell
- Stopped diapason 8 ft Byfield
- Principal 4 ft Byfield
- Twelfth 2 2/3 ft Byfield
- Fifteenth 2 ft Byfield
- Sesquialtera IV Byfield/Goetze and Gwynn
- Cornet treble 8 ft Mander/Goetze and Gwynn
- Trumpet 8 ft Mostly Byfield
- Clarion 4 ft Victorian/Mander
- Stopped diapason 8 ft Byfield
- Principal 4 ft Byfield
- Flute 4 ft Byfield
- Fifteenth 2 ft Byfield
- Cremona 8 ft Russell/Mander
Swell: Byfield stops extended by Gray and Davidson
- Double diapason 16 ft Byfield/Gray & Davidson
- Open diapason 8 ft Russell/Gray & Davidson
- Stopped diapason 8 ft Byfield/Gray & Davidson
- Principal 4 ft Byfield/Gray & Davidson
- Fifteenth 2 ft Byfield/Gray & Davidson.
- Trumpet 8 ft Byfield/Gray & Davidson
- Oboe 8 ft Byfield/Gray & Davidson
- Grand Bourdon 16 ft Gray and Davidson
- Great to Pedal
- Swell to Pedal
- Choir to Pedal
- Swell to Great
The organ retains more of its tonal qualities than any comparable instrument of its date. 60% of the pipework is original Byfield. It is important for the understanding of 18th century church music and has attracted recitalists from far and wide. Nevertheless its original purpose of providing accompaniment for services at St. Mary's remains paramount.
A detailed description of the organ is to be found in the monograph by Austin Niland 'The Organ at St Mary's, Rotherhithe', published by the Positif Press ISBN 0906894115.
Photographs of the organ inside and out can be found on the parish website.
Michael Topping 1765–1780 One of the subscribers to John Bennett's 'Ten Voluntaries for the Organ or Harpsichord' (1755), an indication of the sort of music intended to be played on the Rotherhithe organ.
Frederick Topping 1780–1787
Martha Tibbatts 1787–1814
Josiah Ferdinand Reddie 1815–1820
Robert Willson Nottingham 1820–1851
Eliza Nottingham 1851–1880 Sister of the above.
William Webb 1881–1883
Mr Dray 1884–1886
Arthur Charles Chappell Haverson 1886–1891
Charles W Stephens 1891–1893
Gordon Black 1893–1894
Charles William Cobon 1894–1913
Frederick A Kempster 1913–1915
Frederick William Brock 1916–1930
Grace L Knott 1930–1957
Ethel Stone 1957–1959
Austin Niland 1959–1961
Charles S. B. Poupart 1962–1963
Eric Harding 1963–1966
Alan Lowson 1967–1968
Donald F Hammond 1968–1971
Alan Lowson 1972 —
Stanley W. F. Hammond (jointly) 1978 —
Richard Copley 1986
Ronald Colee 1990
Alan John Phillips 2003–2014
YouTube videos on the organ, recorded by Alan John Phillips
Voluntary in D minor (Op.5 no.6) – John Stanley (recorded on the Rotherhithe organ) The Cornet is one of the most characteristic colours of the English eighteenth-century organ. This organ used to have two, one on the Great and an Echo Cornet inside the Swell box, but since Russell’s remodelling, this has been lost. The Cornet we have now was made by Noel Mander, and reconstructed by Goetze and Gwynn. This voluntary shows off the Cornet in its usual flamboyant manner, with almost continuous semiquavers from beginning to end.
Voluntary in D minor (Op.5 no.8) – John Stanley (recorded on the Rotherhithe organ) This voluntary is in three movements. The first uses a 4 foot flute as solo stop, accompanied by the Swell Open Diapason. There was originally a Nason stop on the Great, a 4 foot flute, but this was removed by Russell and replaced by another 8 foot Open Diapason. I use the only 4 foot flute we now have, that on the Choir. The slow movement in the middle is entirely on the Swell, and does not go below fiddle G, the lowest note of the original compass. The finale is a vigorous fugue on full Great, with episodes on the Choir.
Voluntary in D (Op.6 no.5) – John Stanley (recorded on the Rotherhithe organ) This voluntary in three movements demonstrates three different reed stops. After the customary diapason movement on the Great, the second movement uses the Great Trumpet echoed by the Swell Trumpet, with the box closed, both of which are original Byfield stops. The slow movement which follows uses the Swell diapasons in alternation with the Choir Cremona, one of Russell’s stops. As the original Swell only went down to fiddle G and the Cremona to tenor C, the bass line of this movement is played on the Great Stopped Diapason.
Voluntary 2 in C (1812) – William Russell (recorded on the Rotherhithe organ) This consists of two movements. The first is a slow movement for Swell Oboe and Great Diapasons (including Hugh’s Open Diapason), followed by a lively movement contrasting the Swell Oboe with the Choir Cremona (another of Hugh's 1829 additions).
As befits a church near the merchant activity on the river, there are several maritime connections. The communion table in the Lady Chapel and two bishop's chairs are made from salvaged timber from the warship HMS Temeraire. The ship's final journey to the breaker's yard at Deptford was made famous by Turner in his evocative painting The Fighting Temeraire, now in the National Gallery.
- "Prince Lee Boo's tomb : London Remembers, Aiming to capture all memorials in London". Retrieved 2014-03-27.
- Howard Colvin, Biographical Dictionary of British Architects
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for "Teddeman, Sir Thomas".
- Austin Niland 'The Organ at St Mary's, Rotherhithe', published by the Positif Press, 1983, ISBN 0906894115.
- The London Organ Day souvenir programme, Saturday 11 May 1996.
- Official website
- History of St Mary's
- Diocese of Southwark
- The Interesting History of Prince Lee Boo, brought to England from the Pelew Islands From the Collections at the Library of Congress
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