Monday, 1 November 2010

Stepney, London

In many ways St Dunstan in Stepney is the church that started me off recording churches but in a purely genealogical direction. My earliest direct line ancestors lived and died in Stepney and St Dunstan was their parish church and the family vault is in the churchyard. In 2005 it occurred to me that Stepney is not that far from me, a visit to the church to see if I could find the vault would be a useful exercise and so I set off on a spur of the moment visit.

Of course it didn't occur to me that London's atmosphere is a harsh environment for stone nor that, since the last person to be interred there died in 1816, the chances of finding anything were remote. Naturally when I finally found St Dunstan although there were lots of vaults practically all the inscriptions were illegible. Not to be defeated I decided to search the interior for any family traces but found it was locked. There was however a notice stating that visiting could be arranged by prior arrangement, so I took note of the details, shot a few poor exteriors and returned home.

Once home I contacted the named person and made an appointment for the following week but the interior held no family clues although it did have various monuments to unconnected people. Following this visit  I realised that a sizeable number of families in my tree lived in towns and villages within visiting distance from me and created a database of those families that lived in my four closest counties: Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.

At first I was only interested in monuments and monumental inscriptions that were directly connected to people in my tree but as my church visits continued the architecture and fittings of the churches began to fascinate me.

Up to this point I was saving my pictures in my family tree programme and so had no collection of the churches I had visited but then I discovered Flickr and, perhaps more importantly, the Groups on Flickr and my interest evolved.

I'd already got Arthur Mee's books for the four counties and instead of just recording family tree members I started recording anything I found interesting which has actually led to me finding more family connections than if I'd stuck to my original scheme!

Unfortunately I don't have the relevant Pevsner or Mee to see what he/they has to say about St Dunstan although I think I've just bought the relevant book on Amazon, so you'll have to make do with pictures.

I still haven't got the relevant Pevsner but a detailed description can be found here.

St Dunstan

I just had a look at their website and the interior is not at all  as I remember it - dark and gloomy - but looks quite interesting. I totally understand why a Stepney church is appointment only but I don't like accompanied visits, preferring the freedom to explore alone so I suspect I wont be going back. 

UPDATE: Aug 2012; I did go back, it's open Monday to Saturday 10 til 4 during the summer, and whilst I'm too old for OMG: OMG this church is fascinating and I got to see some of the Olympic park - albeit post Olympics and pre Paralympics. I see I neglected to post Mee's entry so I've added it now.

It is pleasant to see one great transformation the centuries have brought about in Stepney: the graveyard round its old church has been made into a public garden. Three centuries ago it was made the great place it is to receive the victims of the plague. In 1625 alone 3000 plague victims were buried here, and 40 years later they were buried at the rate of over 100 a week in the Great Plague year. It is recorded that 100 gravediggers were buried here from plague. The church is 15th century and its tower has a famous peal of ten bells. The arcades have pointed arches on clustered columns, one arch resting on the head of a hideous ogre with its tongue out. The flat roofs of the aisles form two regiments of 15th century beams, and the south aisle has angel corbels. The pews are 18th century. By a door to the vestry is a 13th century coffin lid, and in the chancel is a stone panel carved with the Annunciation.

The most remarkable possessions of the church are two old stones, a Saxon Calvary found built into the wall, on which we can clearly see the Madonna and St John by the Cross; and a stone from a city destroyed centuries before the Saxon cross was carved. It is inscribed to Thomas Hughes of 1663, and on it are these lines:

Of Carthage wall I was a stone,
O mortals read with pity!
Time consumes all, it spareth none,
Man, mountain, town, nor city.

A lofty wall monument to Joseph Somes tells us that he was a seafaring man of last century and that "by the sedulous application of a powerful mind he raised himself to the position of the most extensive shipowner in this great commercial country." A fine relief below has on it two sailing ships, one entering dock and one leaving. There is another ship carved on a 17th century stone in memory of Sir Thomas Spert, who founded Trinity House 400 years ago and was the proud commander of the ship which bore Henry the Eighth to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

High on the chancel wall, gay with gilding and colour, kneels Robert Clarke in a black cloak, with his daughter Frances wearing a high starched collar as in Stuart days; and in the nave kneels Elizabeth Startute with a daughter and her husband, ruffs framing their shining faces. In a niche is an 18th century bust of John Berry, wearing a lace cravat and a long wig falling over his shoulders; and in the sanctuary is a relief of the Good Samaritan in memory of old Benjamin Kenton, who has lain beneath since 1800, having done much to help hospitals for the poor. Here, too, is a recessed altar tomb with a vaulted canopy to Sir Henry Colet, twice Lord Mayor of London, whose famous son founded St Paul’s School more than 400 years ago. Near by lies Richard Pace, Dean of St Paul’s soon after Colet, who rose high in favour at Court and from Stepney vicarage went out an Ambassador to Venice with tragic consequences, for, failing in his efforts to secure the Papacy for Cardinal Wolsey, he fell into disgrace and his misfortunes affected his brain. In the end he died here, neglected and forgotten.

In the churchyard under a fine tomb lies the Commander-in-Chief of Queen Anne’s fleet, the "brave and fortunate" Sir John Leake. We read that he destroyed scores of ships, seized all the French settlements in Newfoundland, destroyed their fisheries, and took a fleet of 90 cornships to the relief of Barcelona when the French were besieging it. Queen Anne rewarded him with diamond rings. On another tomb here is an odd epitaph to Betsey Harris, "who died suddenly while contemplating the beauties of the moon in 1831."

Here also lies Roger Crab, one of the most extraordinary characters of the 17th century. He lived through the middle 60 years of it and witnessed the dramatic events of that time; and he made himself known through all England by a life such as would have filled the front pages of every stunt paper in London today. He wrote an account of it himself, which he called The English Hermit, or the Wonder of This Age:

Being a relation of the Life of Roger Crab, living near Uxbridge; taken from his own Mouth; shewing his strange, reserved, and unparalleled Kind of Life, who counteth it a Sin against his Body and Soul to eat any Sort of Flesh, Fish, or living Creature, or to drink any Wine, Ale, or Beer. He can live with three Farthings a week. His constant Food is Roots and Herbs; as Cabbage, Turnips, Carrots, Dock, and Grass; also Bread and Bran, without Butter or Cheese: His clothing is Sackcloth.

Crab begins his story by saying that, seeing he is become a gazing-stock to the nation and a wonderment to his friends, he will indite a few lines as the Most High shall direct him, and he goes on to describe his ideas and experiences, telling us that once, when in prison, his keeper brought him nothing to eat, but "a dog brought him a bit of bread." In explaining why on moral grounds he would not touch meat, he declared that butchers were excluded from juries, and as the receiver was worse than the thief the buyer was worse than the butcher. His tomb at Stepney has vanished, but in this garden he lies.

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