A Tale of Two Churches

St Paul’s Church, Bow Common, has recently won an architectural award for best modern church, awarded by the National Churches Trust.

Reading this while thinking about a subject for a blog post that would illustrate the variety of material held at the Church of England Record Centre, I thought how wonderful it would be if we had some information about St Paul’s to further illuminate the history of this unique church building.

As I made my way through the files in the Record Centre holdings for St Paul’s, I began to notice that the material was leading me in a slightly different direction to the one that  I had expected.

Files at CERC
Files at the Church of England Record Centre, before work began

Starting at the beginning, the first file on St Paul’s opens with a letter dated 1855 from a Mr William Cotton who writes to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners that he has a plot of ‘about 70 acres of land situated in the large and populous parishes of Limehouse and Stepney which I am about to offer for building purposes.’

At this point, St Paul’s did not yet exist and Cotton does not want to just build a new church, but to create a whole new parish.

While the area at that point had a very small population of  around 100-200 people, Cotton was offering sites for 1300-1400 houses, the rents of which would support the incumbent. The population was largely made up of working people and Cotton was keen that this new parish church be ‘like our ancient parish churches, free to all the inhabitants of the proposed parish.’

It is tempting to speculate about the motivation behind this generous bequest. Cotton proposes that the church will be built at a cost of £5000 and that he will endow it with a parsonage and a stipend for the first clergyman of £150 per annum. There is a clue in one of his letters where he mentions that two of his sons are in Holy Orders, but the material in the files gives us precious few insights into the man himself – that would be a different archive and a different story.

Map showing the land bequeathed by Mr. William Cotton, edged in green
Map showing the land bequeathed by Mr. William Cotton, edged in green

The BBC News website explained that the award-winning church was built around 1960. This made me think that the original church must have been heavily damaged in the Second World War, but the only mention of the church in the files is in the form of an Order in Council of 6th January 1944, deferring restoration of the church of St Paul’s for 5 years until 10th May 1948. This Order was then extended ‘until the Commissioners otherwise direct.’

It was surprising then, to find this note on file dated 8th June 1961:

The new church of St Paul was built to an entirely new design almost entirely on the site of the old church. I do not know whether this can properly be classed as restoration (not needing the Commissioners’ approval) or whether it should be regarded as a new church (requiring the Commissioners’ approval). However, I am inclined to think the former and in any case the church has now been built without the Commissioners’ approval and I imagine it is unnecessary at this stage to seek it.  

Turning the page, I then found this somewhat sheepish letter from the London Diocesan Fund dated 20th July 1961:

I am very sorry that inadvertently the Reorganization Committee did not notice that the Order on the 6th January, 1944, had not been rescinded.

These two finds were very suggestive of the chaos of post war Britain, a wonderful piece of pragmatism on the part of the Commissioners and point to the success of Cotton’s new parish in that the strength of the community necessitated a new church to be built. Exploring the files, it was interesting to be led by the material and to see a story begin to emerge that could only be fully completed by exploring other archives with complementary material. From the glimpses of its history that the Church of England Record Centre holds, it seems that St Paul’s has some more interesting stories to be told.

Amy Finn, Archivist, Church of England Record Centre

Records cited:

ECE/7/1/8947 Part 1

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