Roman Catholic Church of the English Martyrs

1873-6, founded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Edward Welby Pugin, architect

English Martyrs’ Roman Catholic Church 
Contributed by Survey of London on Aug. 4, 2020

The Roman Catholic Church of the English Martyrs was built in 1873–6 on the site of three houses of the 1680s of a three-storey form typical of Prescot Street. Among the occupants of the middle house was Joseph Threlkeld (d. 1758), an eminent silk thrower and a Mercer, who was in Goodman’s Fields by 1727 and at this address by 1733, his widow continuing into the 1770s.1 John Pearson followed by 1775, the house possibly rebuilt as its taxable value had increased. Mrs Pearson ran a school here for twenty years, instructing female boarders in writing, drawing, dancing, geography, and music. At the end of the Pearsons’ tenure in 1798 the house was reported to have behind it ‘a large handsome room, about 50ft by 35ft, suitable for a concert or ballroom, or for a genteel Lady’s School, in which occupation it has been kept with great reputation for many years, or would make an excellent workshop, or warehouse for dry goods’.2 Around 1850, the house and its back room were taken for use by the Sailors’ Orphan Girls’ School and Home, which had been preceded from 1829 elsewhere on Prescot Street by the Sailors’ Female Orphan Home, founded by the Rev. George Charles ‘Boatswain’ Smith, a Nonconformist. In 1839 twenty-five girls lived at the Home at 66 Prescot Street, near the east end of the north side. It declared its aim as being to ‘clothe, maintain, and suitably prepare as servants the destitute orphans of sailors’.3 The Sailors’ Orphan Girls’ Episcopal School and Asylum, a separate Anglican initiative, amalgamated with the Home in 1852 to form the Sailors’ Orphan Girls’ School and Home at this address on the south side of Prescot Street. A larger building was soon required and fundraising resulted in the school’s removal to Hampstead in 1862.4 Robert Taylor Pritchett (1828–1907), an eminent gunmaker known as the Father of the Enfield Rifle, took the house and workshop for a few years after the school’s relocation, having inherited his father’s business supplying arms to the East India Company and Board of Ordnance. Pritchett later had a successful career as an artist and illustrator.5

The flanking houses on the church site were leased by merchants and attorneys in the eighteenth century. From the 1840s until 1866 that to the west was a cigar factory employing 120 men, the garden wholly built over.6

The Church of the English Martyrs owes its foundation to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order of Catholic priests founded in 1816 by Eugène de Mazenod (1782–1861), later Bishop of Marseilles. On a visit to London in 1850 de Mazenod identified Tower Hill as a suitable base for the extension of the Oblate ministry. Evangelism among the poor was a priority and impoverished Irish Catholics, many of them refugees from famine, lived in dense concentration around Royal Mint Street and the docks further south. A counterpart site was also acquired in Kilburn, then ‘pure country’, to provide a retreat.

The broad intention to establish an east London branch had been set, but there was a hiatus before the Oblates’ Tower Hill mission was practically initiated. In the meantime, the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary and St Michael opened in 1856, but it was well to the east on Commercial Road, too far away to serve the Irish immigrants near the docks.7

Father Robert Cooke resurrected the Tower Hill project in 1864 after being appointed the Oblates’ Vicar Provincial, and conducted open-air masses under the railway lines over Little Prescot Street. In February 1865, Charles Walker, a wealthy supporter of many Catholic church-building projects in London in the early 1860s, identified a suitable site for the establishment of a permanent base, probably Pritchett’s Prescot Street house in the first instance. With Cooke’s blessing, Walker put up £1,000 to secure a quick purchase, preventing a sale to a Jewish agent who intended to build a synagogue. The balance was borrowed and a temporary iron and wood church manufactured by Tupper and Co. was put up behind the house in 1866 and opened by Cardinal Manning. This was internally partitioned and used for teaching. The local need for education was such that Cooke prioritised the building of a school over a more substantial church. He also judged that potential donors would be more readily supportive of a school, a point of importance given the Oblates’ debts. Cooke’s scheme succeeded, subscriptions allowing for the building of a permanent school behind the church on Chamber Street in 1870–2.8 Development of the Prescot Street site was not the only preoccupation of the small team of Oblate priests. Difficulties recruiting German-speaking clergy from within the diocese led the Oblates to commit to overseeing the German Roman Catholic Church of St Boniface (see p.xx) for five years from 1870, supposing that their international reach would ensure the recruitment of suitable clergy. Masses for both German and Irish congregations were held at Prescot Street, but tensions between the groups led to ‘open revolt, bitter quarrelling and violent recrimination’ in 1873. The collapse of St Boniface’s converted theatre in that year compounded problems and prompted full separation of the congregations, deemed an ‘absolute necessity’ if the German mission was to prosper.9 English Martyrs and St Boniface were therefore substantial local Catholic building projects seeking funding at exactly the same time. The Oblates withdrew from St Boniface to devote full attention to the congregation and building project at English Martyrs.10

Plans for a new church across the three house plots were advanced in 1872, to designs by Edward Welby Pugin (1834–1875). The foundation stone was laid in May 1873, but difficulties, financial and to do with property acquisition, caused construction to stall for two years – it was not until well into the twentieth century that the freehold for the whole site was secured. Peter Paul Pugin and Cuthbert Welby Pugin oversaw the building’s completion after their older brother’s death, working with his former partner, George C. Ashlin. Building work of 1875–6 was undertaken by W. H. Lascelles of Bunhill Row for £10,000.11

Cardinal Manning returned to open the completed Church of English Martyrs on 22 June 1876, the anniversary of Bishop John Fisher’s martyrdom at Tower Hill in 1535. The naming of the church had local resonance, perhaps also aiming to connect the Irish congregation to an English identity.The Oblates were proud of the church, consistently referring to it hereafter as one of the finest in London notwithstanding its comparatively modest scale.12

The façade of the church, of yellow-stock brick with Portland stone bands and heavily traceried in a French manner with an eight-light and rose window, is rendered strongly asymmetrical by a stone open stage and spire atop an octagonal eastern stair turret, answered only by a gablet-headed buttress to a western turret, thus resembling E. W. Pugin’s St Alexandra, Bootle, of 1866–7. Twin entrance doors have lavishly ornamental surrounds, though want of money meant intended embellishment had to be curtailed. The over-door tympana were decorated in 1961 with gold-leaf and mosaic depictions of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More by Arthur Fleischmann. The whole façade is set back from the street allowing for a basement area with access to a short crypt. Initially used by the Christian Young Men’s Association, this has since housed an arts club.13

The basilica form of English Martyrs was typical of Pugin’s urban churches at the end of his career. The wide and lofty central nave and chancel are united under a strikingly articulated stone-ribbed pointed-arched vault. The compact site was almost as wide as it was long, foiling any attempt at a building of ideal Gothic Revival proportions, and obliging Pugin to conceive unusually deep galleries to maximize capacity. In this and other respects the layout is analogous to that of many Nonconformist chapels. Entering from Prescot Street, one passes under a gallery before the nave and a view of the shallow sanctuary to the south (liturgical east) open up, a transition that protects the congregation from the noise of the street. The stair turrets flank the entrances for gallery access. Two stages of squat polished-granite columns with densely carved foliate capitals support shallow arcades to the groin- vaulted side aisles and a clerestory with traceried windows. Pugin responded to the constraints of the site by building high, with St Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris cited as a precedent. One verdict was: ‘cleverly and judiciously arranged’.14

A large seven-light and rose window rises above and behind the sanctuary. The transepts also have rose windows. Chapels dedicated to the Sacred Heart and Holy Spirit flank the sanctuary, east and west, with altars carved respectively by Mayer of Munich and Richard Lockwood Boulton of Cheltenham, a frequent collaborator in Pugin churches, here contributing a fine piece depicting Pentecost in three panels. Above are two smaller stained-glass rose windows. That to the east, the Sacred Heart window, attributed to Lavers and Westlake, was installed in 1880 along with a now lost grander window illustrating Irish ecclesiastical history, with Pope Celestine and the four provinces of Ireland represented by two nuns and two bishops. Marble and alabaster communion rails, designed by E. W. Pugin and installed by Boulton in 1881, are partially preserved, altered in the 1960s following the Second Vatican Council. On the aisle walls there are coloured panel reliefs of the Stations of the Cross alongside a Pietà by Mayer and a stone and alabaster monument to Father Cooke (d. 1882) by Boulton, its site having been selected by Pugin in 1875.15

The Shrine of Our Lady of Graces beyond the east transept is perhaps the most distinguished feature of the interior of English Martyrs. Constructed in 1883, though installation of the figure of Our Lady was delayed until 1887, this commemorates the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, founded by Edward III in 1350 near by to the south at East Smithfield, on the site later occupied by the Royal Mint. The younger Pugins and Ashlin oversaw its design, and construction costs were fully borne by Susanna Rachel Walker (d. 1883), Charles’s sister. She diverted funds initially intended for a new Oblates’ church on the south coast, electing to adorn this shrine in the most expensive materials. Separated from the rest of the church by a double arch, the shrine has a groined and decorated ceiling and is semi-octagonal to the east, where its centre bay houses a richly sculpted niche by Boulton, the focus of which is a Carrara marble statue of Our Lady of Graces lit by a concealed skylight. Below, the tabernacle and alabaster altar are likely attributable to John Hardman. The flanking bays are brightened by mosaics that recall the founding of the abbey, installed in 1961 and attributed to Fleischmann. A lamp in the form of a ship commemorates St Margaret, who sailed from Tower Hill to Leith. A matching ship hung in the Church of St Mary Star of the Sea, Leith.16

The original sacristy south-east of the Sacred Heart chapel was reorganized in relation to the adjacent school and presbytery in 1900. Impending canonization of Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher prompted a remaking of the sanctuary in 1928–30 as a shrine to the English Martyrs, made to designs by J. S. Gilbert, with J. & R. Thompson of Acton as builders. A stone screen with three pointed arches embraces an altar, though this is not as envisioned by Gilbert. A wrought-iron grille bears armorial escutcheons of martyrs, and there are statues of twelve martyrs in corbelled niches to either side, next to gabled niches hosting our Lady Help of Christians and St Joseph. The stained glass of the south (liturgical east) window, by William Earley of Dublin, was part of this project. It represents thirty-two English martyrs around Christ crucified. As had been noted after an earlier redecoration, ‘Pugin Churches have the great advantage of pleasing the eye in their plainest simplicity and of leaving room for new beauties to shine forth whenever more money can be spent on them.’17

A bomb fell through the roof in 1940, destroying a red-marble pulpit of 1877 by Pugin & Pugin, but little else as it failed to explode. Stained glass was safely in storage and later reinstalled. By the late 1950s, an inner glass screen had been installed to the north to form a porch. After demolition of the presbytery in 1982, the sacristy, office and a confessional were re- orientated around access from No. 30.18

English Martyrs supported an active and devoted congregation well into the twentieth century, but the potential of the church to accommodate large numbers of poor Irish labourers was only briefly realised. The church and school were intended in the 1860s to serve a parish of 6,000, but cholera and the MBW’s slum clearance south of Royal Mint Street after 1875 saw the population of the parish drop to just 2,000, a growing proportion being Jewish following immigration from eastern Europe. Decanting of residents in more slum clearance in the 1950s and ’60s caused a further fall in attendances. Even so, an annual procession that had been instituted in 1895 continued to serve as a high-point of church life until the late twentieth century, drawing former parishioners back for reunions. After the first such procession, the Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom wrote to thank members of ‘the Jewish colony in and about Great Prescot Street’ for their sympathy.19 The Oblates had enjoyed warm relations with Jewish and Protestant neighbours from their arrival, owing in large measure to work co-ordinating the distribution of relief during a cholera outbreak. Late twentieth-century decline in the resident congregation was to some extent countered. As early as the 1970s, a priest was employed to administer mass in Polish, and City workers bolstered lunchtime masses from the 1980s. The church carries on in the early twenty- first century, latterly boosted by visitors from the district’s new hotels. The parish priest lives next door at No. 30, and the Oblates have a retreat to the rear at 62 Chamber Street.20

  1. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Poll Book 1727, p.95; Land Tax Returns (LT): The National Archives (TNA), PROB11/838/95: Daily Advertiser, 31 Aug 1745, p.1 

  2. Morning Chronicle, 4 March 1794, p.2; 20 Aug 1798, p.4: Daily Advertiser, 2 Jan 1776, p.3: 4s£: LT: TNA, PROB11/83/95 

  3. London Evening Standard, 30 May 1839, p.2; 20 Sept 1838, p.1: Globe, 30 May 1839, p.3: Annual Report of the Sailors’ Orphan Girls’ Episcopal School and Asylum, 1847: Census: Roald Kverndal, Seamen's Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth, 1986, p.321 

  4. Express (London), 18 May 1852, p.3: 

  5. Morning Advertiser, 18 May 1852, p.3: Post Office Directories (POD): Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sub Pritchett 

  6. LT: Ancestry: POD: Census 

  7. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), Jean Olwen Maynard, ‘History of the parish of English Martyrs, vol.1, 1865–1870’, _c._2005, pp.13,20–1,28: English Martyrs' Church (EMC), letter from Father Cooke to the Superior General, 21 Oct 1865; Codex Historicus 

  8. Metropolitan Board of Works Minutes, 21 April 1865, p.498; 29 Jan 1869, p.137: Alexander Rottman, London Catholic Churches: A historical & artistic record, 1926, pp.165–9: East London Observer (ELO), 25 June 1870, p.5; 16 May 1874, p.8: Ordnance Survey maps: THLHLA, Maynard, ‘English Marytrs, vol.1’, pp.31,33,54: english-martyrs/ 

  9. EMC, letter from Father Victor Fick to the General Oblates Mary Immaculate, 14 May 1873 

  10. Maynard, ‘English Martyr, vol.2’, pp.6–7,25–6 

  11. The Builder, 31 May 1873, p.435; 7 Nov 1874, p.938; 19 Aug 1876, p.819: Building News, 5 Feb 1875, p.150; 24 Dec 1875: British Architect, 31 Dec 1880, p.288: ELO, 16 May 1874, p. 8: LMA, District Surveyors Returns (DSR): EMC, Codex Historicus; letter from Willes Gladstone Solicitors to Trustees of the Oblates, 21 Feb 1935 

  12. British Architect and Northern Engineer, 30 June 1876, p.352: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 24 June 1876, p.6: EMC, Codex Historicus 

  13. Building News, 5 Feb 1875, p.150: EMC, parish accounts, 1961; Codex Historicus 

  14. British Architect and Northern Engineer, 30 June 1876, p.352 

  15. British Architect, 31 Dec 1880, p.288: EMC, bills from Boulton; Codex Historicus 

  16. EMC, bills from Boulton; centenary brochure, 1965; parish accounts, 1961; Codex Historicus; information kindly supplied by Rory O’Donnell and Robert Drake: 

  17. EMC, Missionary Record, 1903, as quoted in Codex Historicus, p.58; visitation returns, 1932: LMA, DSR; SC/55/07/024/223; SC/55/07/024/222: Maynard, ‘English Martyrs, vol.2’, p.34 

  18. Maynard, ‘English Martyrs, vol.2’, p.34: EMC, Codex Historicus; centenary brochure, 1965; parish accounts, 1959 and 1962; visitation returns, 1963; letters to Father Dunne, 1976; letter from Father Coady, 1982 

  19. Jewish Chronicle, 13 Sept 1895, p.7: Pall Mall Gazette, 5 Sept 1892, p.6: EMC, visitation returns, 1892; Codex Historicus: english-martyrs 

  20. EMC, Codex Historicus; receipts and payments, 1972: information kindly supplied by Oliver Barry 

English Martyrs: the heart of the community (by Cathy J)
Contributed by interviewer2 on Sept. 26, 2018

Five generations of our family have worshipped and attended school at English Martyrs, Tower Hill, and we are of German-Irish origin. Our grandparents were married there in December 1911. Our grandfather was baptised in the German Lutheran Church in Alie St, and he converted later to the Catholic faith. Our Mum and Dad - Jerry & Eva Bills - were also married in January 1941 in English Martyrs Church. Here is their story.

Jerry Bills and Eva Hageman in 1940

Eva Hageman married Jerry Bills (baptised Frances Bills but always known as Jerry) who also played in goal for the Tower Hill football team. They knew each other all of their lives and both went to Tower Hill School.  They started courting in about 1940, and during June of that year Jerry was on the troop ship 'Lancastria' which was evacuating soldiers from France. Our Mum always told us that on the day of this event she had the most awful feeling and went to sit in our church.  She spoke to one of the priests (at that time there was always at least 4 priests resident at Tower Hill) and because they knew Jerry was at sea somewhere the priest lit a candle in the Chancery Light in Our Lady’s Chapel.  The candle was set in a boat hanging over the chapel. (The boat you now see on the there is a new one, the original being stolen back in the 1980s). My mother sat there with the priest for a while in quiet prayer. The ship evacuating the soldiers was hit and suffered the largest loss of life in one action every recorded.  Our father Jerry could not swim but he made it back to England. Because of the loss of lives involved there was a news blackout put on this, but it was a story always well known in our family, and in the families of all those involved.

When our parents heard that Jerry he was being shipped overseas again, they decided to marry. The service was arranged for January 1941 and Jerry got a few days leave to return home.  Eva, who was a dressmaker and made wedding dresses for a lot of girls, made herself a blue suit.  On the day of the wedding English Martyrs Church took a direct hit from a 500lb bomb, which came through the roof and hit the pulpit, situated at the front of the church, quite near to where we now have the baptismal font. The bomb caused a lot of damage, but did not explode.  Because of the timescale, it was agreed the wedding would go ahead but it was impossible to enter the church by the main doors. Instead our parents and family had to get in by going through the Presbytery (sited to the side where the Premier Inn is now), and enter the church through the Sacristy door, which opened out on to Our Lady’s Chapel. They were married there at Our Lady's Chapel by Father Gaffney as the bomb damage meant that they were unable to access the rest of the church.

Wedding day at English Martyrs, January 1941

The war ended and Jerry came home to meet his son Michael, by then three years old, for the first time.  Our parents had three more children - Maureen (born 1947), Catherine (1954) and Jerry (1956).  We all went to English Martyrs school, then located in Chamber Street; our children, and now our grandchildren went to the new school in St. Mark Street (opened in 1970), meaning that five generations of our family have been educated there. Our parents worshipped at Tower Hill all of their lives.  Jerry always collected the Offertory at Mass (usually the Saturday vigil) along with Bill Rushmer. Eva cleaned the church until she became too ill.  Both were buried from there, Eva in January 1984 and Jerry in July 1997.

To them Tower Hill (English Martyrs) was not just a place of worship, it was the heart of their community. This is no doubt true of all of that generation of Tower Hill parishioners as many, including our family, were either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Memories of the oldest parishioner
Contributed by Survey of London on June 1, 2018

The oldest parishioner of English Martyr's Church was interviewed about his life in Whitechapel by Sarah Milne in early 2018.

"I was born in 1925 in Cartwright Street. I've lived almost 93 years in the same parish. I was born there, baptised there, went to school there, married there, and so on and so forth...and I'll get buried from there!

On my maternal grandparents' side I am Irish. I'm English on my paternal grandparents. Funnily enough I know far more about my Irish grandparents than I do about my English grandparents. Believe it or not, my Irish grandfather, Tom Penny, was born in County Cork in 1818. My mother was the youngest of their thirteen children, so I am, as far as I know, the only surviving grandson. Most of my mother's family...I grew up as a child calling people uncle and aunt, but when I got to know a bit more about the family, I realised they weren't uncle and aunt, they were cousins. There was such a lengthy time span you see. And dear old Tom, that is a story in itself. He was born in 1818, joined the British army in Cork in 1843, which I believe was one of the famine years, served twenty years in India in the army, he was discharged because he suffered a wound in the right thigh caused by a jiggle-ball, and he came back to Ireland and married my grandmother and as far as I can make out, they came to live in England in 1863. And they had several addresses in this local area. The strange thing was, he was a very pious Church of Ireland man, whereas my grandmother was a very pious Catholic, a very unusual arrangement. They married in Cork Registry Office, and he laid down the law that she could continue practising her faith but under no circumstances were any of his children to be baptised Catholics. So, they stuck to that arrangement until he died in, I think it was about...1905, when there were just two children left in the house, all the others had been married and gone off. The youngest being my mother, the next oldest sister Nell, and the story is that before they laid the old man out, the grandmother had the two kids round the church and baptised Catholics. All the rest of them were Protestants. They were baptised in English Martyrs in Prescot Street. My grandmother lost no time in doing what she always wanted to do...

My mother and father got married in Tower Hill Church. My mother wouldn't get married anywhere else! My father was Church of England as far as I know. I don't know a great deal about him. I was only five when he died. He died in December 1929, which was when the Great Depression started, the worldwide depression, which was a terrible terrible time for my mother because she had three children. I was the eldest at five, my next youngest brother was three and a half, and my youngest brother was a baby in arms, so it was a dreadful time for her, I mean there were no backup systems, no help at all, all that was available was parish relief. The system was that if people applied for assistance, they would come into the house and you had to sell anything that was not relative to everyday living, that was classified as luxury and that got sold off before you was awarded any help, you know? A terrible terrible time. And of course it was the time when there was mass unemployment, and when we were rolled down the ladder in terms of getting any employment was concerned, I mean the only thing available was domestic service, but that didn't occur in this area. So it was a very grim time, a very very grim time. My mum fought tooth and nail because she was almost being pressurized to give the three kids to the Crusade of Rescue, who looked after orphan children and the like. And she was well against it and she fought tooth and nail to keep us all, and a sterling job she did.

She did eventually...round about 1935...she managed to get a job with the local council as a bath attendant at Mile End, then it was the day of the public baths, I mean nobody, nobody had a bath in this area, nobody at all. It was a pretty hard job, the sort of thing when you went in it was a two class system, the working-, lower price was tuppence and then fourpence meant you had an extra towel or something, and first class was classified. There was a row of cubicles with baths in, and the attendant was outside with the handle controlling the water."

The draw of English Martyrs
Contributed by interviewer2 on July 3, 2018

Interview with a parishioner, 'V', on 29th June 2018

Parishioner V: I have lived in this parish and attended English Martyrs Church for nearly forty years. However, my family's connection goes much further back - to the late 19th Century, and the years when Tower Hill was developing as a parish. My maternal grandparents lived here: my grandfather was a non- Catholic, but he was baptised and converted to Catholicism. He and my grandmother were married in English Martyrs Church in 1893. They had seven children - one boy and six girls one of whom, Mary Wood, was my mother. The family was very poor. They lived in two main rooms; my grandparents slept in one of the rooms and my uncle slept in the other. At that time it was not accepted for boys and girls to share bedrooms, so for sleeping my mother and her sisters were farmed out to other parts of the family so as not to break the rule! In due course the whole family moved to live in the adjacent parish, St Mary and St Michael's, further east on Commercial Rd.

Interviewer 2: You told me that your mother attended the parish school of English Martyrs. How did that happen?

PV: Although we lived in a different parish, my grandfather always thought of English Martyrs as his parish. So he was determined to send all his children to English Martyrs school, which was the building attached to the back of the church, fronting on to Chambers St.

[NOTE: The school moved to its present location in St Marks St in 1970, and the Oblates recently converted it into a retreat centre, called De Mazenod House]

I2: Can you tell me a bit more about your mother's time at English Martyrs School?

PV: The school was run by the Holy Family Sisters, who often worked with the Oblate Order. In my mother's time the headteacher was Mother St Aidan. The nuns lived in a convent in Prescot St, which was eventually knocked down in the 1980s and replaced with the Premier Inn. My mother did all her schooling at English Martyrs. She was born in 1907, started school in 1912, and finished at the age of 14. After that she went into service in Highgate for a short time. But she was not happy there, and came back to East London, where she trained and worked as a book-keeper.

I2: Did you and your parents live and worship in the Tower Hill parish?

PV: No. My parents got married in 1934 and the family was brought up in the parish of St Mary and St Michael's. I was born and went to school there, not at English Martyrs. But we still had lots of connections here and kept in touch with friends my family had known in Tower Hill. The biggest reunion took place during the parish May processions, when everyone like us who had moved away would come back to Tower Hill and take part during the day. Then in the evening the bands would come out, and we all enjoyed meeting up. Finally, my parents decided that they wanted to return to live in the parish so I moved back with them in the early 1980s. They always joked that they had 'emigrated' to the parish in Commercial Rd, and that their true roots were here at English Martyrs. My mother really loved this parish and, like many parishioners, she had a particular love for the Lady Chapel.

Procession Sunday and the East End Exodus
Contributed by Survey of London on June 15, 2018

Interview with the oldest parishoner (OP) continued, including information from his daughter 'F'.

F: “When we used to have the outdoor processions...they were great. It was a lovely day. You used to have the procession and then later on in the evening the band would just come round and play all the old songs while the priest blessed the altars.”

OP: “You could describe it as the highlight of the year in parish life because you had the people who had moved away over the years invariably made a point of coming back. It didn't matter how long they'd been away, and if you'd met them wherever they'd gone to live, they always declared themselves Tower Hill people. They would never say they came from anywhere else.

The procession would go and do a tour of the parish, it was quite a lengthy walk really, especially for the small kids. And then they would come back to the church and there would be a short service of benediction, after which everybody went home and all the relatives who were visiting came to see and one thing or another. Then in the evening the priest would go around blessing all these altars and they'd be accompanied by a drum and [Irish] pipe band."

F: “They used to play all the old songs, it's a long way to Tipperary, Danny Boy and all that...”

OP: “Then we'd all go and have a good drink afterwards.”

F: “But sometimes before you went and had your drink, you'd had a little tipple of sherry or something indoors with the tea with the family, and then you'd come out to see the band and the priest and everyone would be dancing behind them and singing.”

OP: “It used to drive my missus mad getting five kids ready for the procession…"

F: “It was horrendous. She was very precise with everything and everything had to be just so. It was just crazy. But it was lovely at the same time…because Daddy was a Knight of Saint Columba…"

OP: “It was a great day, procession Sunday. It always took place round about June. In May they used to have the indoor procession for the May Queen, and I showed you pictures of my younger daughter when she was the May Queen.”

F: “People used to make altars on their window-ledges, altars in doorways [for procession Sunday]...”

OP: “It was basically [made of] a statue of some sort, it would either be our Lady or the sacred heart, a picture of the pope...Symbols of religion, of the faith...”

F: “Obviously with flowers…All the local streets would have them...”

OP: “Every street on the route would have them. We lived up on the third floor so my mother used to stick out the pope's flag. A yellow and white flag would go out her window.”

F: “They used to be brilliant days. The night before the procession everyone used to go round and look at people's altars. Some of them, they did them beautiful, but it didn't matter, it was all part of it. They used to have their candles alight, and all that, and in the square in the middle of Peabody's, there was a big block there that got bombed in the war…”

OP: “They'd all be disappeared by the Monday [the altars]…”

F: “…And the priest always used to pray on that spot [at Peabody’s] as well on procession Sunday. There was a lot of people that lost family in that block, there was an altar nearby there...”

OP: “The route changed slightly over the years. We used to leave the church and we'd go up Prescot Street, across the road into Hooper Street, across Lambeth Street, [up to Commercial Road] then down Christian Street and come back a little bit this way, and then Pell Street…Pell Street has gone now."

F: “We went over the Tower way first!”

OP: “No we went along Commercial Road first, then down Pell Street, then down the bottom of Thomas More Street, it was then called Nightingale Lane up until just before the war, to two council blocks that we felt belonged in our parish, so we did those and then we'd come back up John Fisher Street for the Peabody lot, and then Cartwright Street and we'd finish up on Tower Hill where they executed the Catholic martyrs, Thomas More and John Fisher. We used to come round this way, [but] when Pell Street disappeared after the war, it was considerably shortened because we'd lost so much ground you know? Pell Street had disappeared and we had quite a lot of people living down there.

These were the days when the great exodus to the East took place from the East End, to Dagenham. We used to go down and visit them...I was never tempted to move out. I can't tolerate suburbia in any of its forms. I've got no reason for it. I just thought I'm a city person and I've never had a desire to live anywhere else. Occasionally I went to visit some of the people who moved out there. I mean I have a sister in law living in Dagenham East at the moment. I’ve got a brother in law living in Hornchurch, I've got a granddaughter living in Buckhurst Hill. One of my own daughters is living in Beckenham, which is very very nice, but it's a bit upmarket. It's a question of horses for courses.”

My Home in Whitechapel
Contributed by Survey of London on Feb. 13, 2019

This is an extract of an account published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1903 by the Dowager Duchess of Newcastle. The Duchess moved to Whitechapel to involve herself in the Catholic Social Union aimed at fostering community amongst working girls. Initially, she rented a property on St Mark's Street, but latterly moved to Prescot Street. Both premises were selected on account of their proximity to English Martyrs.

“After a while we started a Mothers’ Meeting, and opened a Boys’ Club. In 1896 the house [in St Mark’s Street] became too small as the number of workers increased, and I took a larger one, which we called St Anthony’s, in Great Prescot Street…The surroundings of my new home in the Whitechapel district of London are not without interest…

Many a house in the vicinity, now tenanted by the very poor, still shows signs of past grandeur. The inhabitants of this part of London are mostly waterside labourers, and depend for their daily bread on the ships that unlade and lade again in the many wharves and docks that line the river - a precarious living, and one which accounts for the deep poverty of most of our people. The better- to-do class are tailors and tailoresses who work for the City shops, earning more or less as trade is slack and brisk, but who can hardly hope to do anything more than live from hand to mouth, for the rents are excessive and the families generally numerous…

One of the most loveable traits of the Irish Catholics is their untiring devotion to their church. To them the church is their highest interest in life. Their homes may be squalid, but to the church they will give their last penny, and in it they feel at home, for all can point to some part - pulpit, statue, or altar - which was given by them and paid for with their hard-earned and badly-needed pennies… 'Many a shilling have I given towards building that church!’ another will say; or sometimes, ‘I have given many a brick for that church!’”

Interior, March 2018
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Mosiac floor at entrance, March 2018
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Gallery looking north
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Holy Spirit Chapel
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Sacred Heart Chapel
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Interior, March 2018
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Stations of the Cross, March 2018
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Shrine of Our Lady Graces
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Gallery looking south
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Stained glass window depicting the crucified Christ and thirty-two English martyrs
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Carved capitals
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Church doors
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Exterior, March 2018
Contributed by Derek Kendall

English Martyrs, block plan, c.1890 (drawing by Helen Jones)
Contributed by Survey of London