CHAPTER II. THE CHURCH AND
Description of the church.
The Church of St. Dunstan stands in the churchyard on the east
of Stepney High Street. It consists of a clear-storied nave of five
bays, with wide aisles, western tower, and a choir of two bays,
with a presbytery without aisles projecting eastward. There are also
vestries adjoining the presbytery on the north, and north and south
porches to the nave.
There is no chancel arch, but the choir is sufficiently defined by the
meeting of the open high-pitched roof of the nave with the nearly flat
chancel ceiling between the fifth and sixth bays from the west, and the
presence of stairs formerly leading to the destroyed rood loft (see plate 4.)
The point is also marked on the north side by a heavier pier between
the fifth and sixth arches.
The main alley of the church has a pitched roof covered with tiles, and
is ceiled internally. The aisle roofs are flat and leaded.
Externally the church has been "restored" with such completeness that
scarcely a vestige of old wrought stone work remains visible. The fabric
is of various dates, but though the rubble walls in large part are probably
much earlier, the bulk of the detail is coarse "Perpendicular" of various
dates ranging through the fifteenth century. Of this period—naturally
the most prolific in works of architecture—there are many features of
similarity to those at St. Dunstan's in the neighbouring churches of
Bow, West Ham, Barking, the old Tower of Hackney Church, and
The interior has recently been entirely denuded of plaster, and despite
several interesting disclosures made in the process this is in many respects regrettable.
A chronological detailed description of the church being well-nigh impossible owing to the confusing effect of restorative zeal, perhaps the
best course is to treat each feature in sequence from west to east.
The Western tower is 92 feet high, and in its lowest stage opens to the
nave by a "Perpendicular" arch. Above is the ringing loft, and again the
clock chamber, reached by a stone newel stair in the north-west corner,
which continues to the tower roof. The stair turret is wholly internal.
The large belfry contains ten bells (see p. 51). The tower roof, within
modern battlements, has a curious louvred arrangement, which seems to
incorporate the base of a former lantern now destroyed.
In the "extra illustrated" copy of Lysons' Environs of London in the
Guildhall Library are three engravings of Stepney Church; two of these
are dated 1795 and 1809 respectively, the other, apparently earlier, is
undated. There is also an original drawing dated 1794. All these illustrations are in remarkable agreement, unusual in such cases, and each
shows the tower roof surmounted by an octagonal cupola of pleasing
design, ' ogee' in shape, apparently lead covered, and rising above an
open arcaded stage standing upon a louvred base (the latter quite possiby
that still existent and now hidden from view by the raised parapet). Surmounting the cupola is shown a gilded ball and vane terminating with a
crown as finial.
In the 1795 view the roof over the nave is shown to be covered with
lead, the chancel has an additional roof—as at present—which is covered
with tiles. But it is evident that the chancel roof was also leaded in the
first case, and that it was of the usual 15th century character, the lead
covering being laid on the rafters and boarding which now appear only
as an inner ceiling over the chancel; for we read that at a meeting of the
Vestry, held on April 1,1656—
"the Churchwardens and others findeing a dropping downe of Raine in severall
places over the Chancell by which the people were disturbed and that there was
feare of the decayeing and Rotting the Timbers in that Roofe to ye greate danger
& damage of the people they did by themselues & Workemen take a vewe upon
the leads ouer the Chancell, which they found very defectiue, The charge of
which (in case the Lead bee taken vpp and new cast) is estimated by the said
Workemen att £45, otherwise to bee only layde with a new Crowne peece & the
two Gutters new layde With sodering and Workemenshipp as itt now lyes will
cost £18, And the Timber Worke not valued, The considerac'on of this is left to
the vestry." (fn. 1)
The matter was further considered at a meeting held on April 28th following, & the necessary works ordered, for which payment was authorized at a meeting in the following January. The exact nature of these
works is not specified, but it may be that instead of the extensive repairs
being made to the old lead flat, the additional roof, more steeply pitched
and covered with tiles, was constructed. The chancel roof of the Chapel
at Stratford Bow, which was of the same style and date, was treated in a
similar manner about 1755. (fn. 2)
The nave aisles were, until the 1899 restoration, filled with galleries
which have been removed; the present seating of the nave is largely
made up of old oak panelling of various 18th century types.
Both the aisle walls have been raised, probably when the present flat
roofs were constructed. The character of the masonry changes about
two feet below the present wall plates—below, it is random rubble, but
the upper portion is partly brickwork and coursed. Externally at this
level there are traces of a string course. The south aisle roof has fine
carved braces, and the two eastern bays of this aisle were remodelled in
the early 15th century period, evidently to form a chantry chapel, the
walls being either rebuilt or increased in height and the windows
In the north aisle of the nave the windows are of three lights with depressed four-centred untraceried heads, splayed jambs, and segmental
rear-arches. Those in the south aisle are three light segmental pointed,
also without tracery, in square jambs with through-arches and hollow
chamfer. The window in the west wall of this aisle has formerly been
similar, but is now reduced.
The clear-storey has small, square-headed, two-light windows beneath
segmental arches, & may be of "Decorated" date—Perpendicular clearstories are generally larger. The nave is ceiled in oak with a flat fourcentred barrel vault. Most of this is new, having been destroyed in the
fire of 1901, together with the choir roof and organ.
The vaulted north and south porches are modern. The doorways, however, are good examples of fifteenth century date, and must always have
been protected by porches of some description, being well preserved.
Beside each is a stoup. A highly interesting Norman rood, now fixed on
the north wall of the chancel (see plate 8 and description on p. 36), formerly surmounted the south door, and is shown on page 19.
In the engravings of the Guildhall ' Lysons' before-mentioned there are
shown north and south porches to the nave, though these can scarcely
be the original porches, as they are seemingly constructed of slight
wooden framing with hipped roofs. The Norman rood shows clearly
above the roof of the south porch. The drawing before referred to, entitled "Stepney before the alterations 1794," also shows the western
porch. The northern and southern porches originally had glazed sides,
for in the Vestry minutes, June 18, 1619—
"It is ordered that the Porches one upon the South side, the other upon the North
side, be repaired—the ffloores made even, and paued and the glasse windows
In a print in 'Maitland' 1755, and also in the view on page 19, the
south porch is represented with glazed sides.
In 1610 a western porch beyond the tower was erected in the "Tuscan"
style by Mr. Richard Phillips, churchwarden. It is represented in a
print (no date) in 'Lysons' published in 1811, and no doubt was
demolished because it fitted so ill with the rest of the building. It never can
have been required, the base of the tower forming every shelter requisite.
From wall to wall, passing in front of the fifth piers from the west,
stood the ancient screen, the aisles continuing two bays beyond and
forming chapels. In the south wall still remains the staircase giving
access to the loft, and from thence to the roofs. This has been altered to
serve the galleries, but the position and extent of the original openings
are still visible. In the spandril between the two arches springing from
the bulkier pier in the north arcade is a narrow arched opening from
nave to aisle. A heavy beam with braces here provides a start for the
lower ceiling of the choir and presbytery, and the two remaining bays
of arcade are unclearstoried. The first arch eastward from this is depressed and of different outline to the remainder. Traces of a string
course are noticeable some distance below the present roof, possibly
marking the roof level of the 13th century church.
In the north aisle the second window from the east is the only one remaining in the church with curvilinear tracery. It is a two-light window
with splayed jambs and simple flowing tracery of the 14th century
or " Decorated " period.
The two choir bays of the south aisle are now fitted as a chapel and divided from the main alley by a screen. The roof here is slightly higher
and the three windows have moulded jambs and pointed arches almost
equilateral in proportion, filled with Perpendicular tracery. At the east
end of the north aisle is a door leading to the vestries and a squint to the
high altar discovered during a recent restoration. On the eastern respond
is now placed the Norman rood before mentioned.
The north wall of the presbytery is pierced by the squint and by a door
to the vestries, which was disclosed during the 1899 restoration (see
East of this and to the north of the high altar is the tomb to Sir Henry
Collet 1510. Above is an arched window opening containing part of the
The east window of five lights with lean Perpendicular tracery is very
broad and low in proportion. Its jamb shafts with their caps are of 14th
century date, & indicate the presence of an earlier window in this space.
On the south wall are triple sedilia, "Early English " in style, but so exceedingly well preserved as to be objects of suspicion—an old print in
the vestry shows these much mutilated. As a liberal coat of whitewash
has recently been applied, it is impossible to see how much of the old
work remains. The window above is of the date of the early 15th century
alterations, it is shown in the view on page 19, but was restored during
the last century.
There is no piscina, its usual position being usurped by the tomb, with
Greek Doric columns, to Benjamin Kenton. This was taken out by the
Rector during the late restoration in the hope of discoveries, but as
nothing was found it was replaced. West of the sedilia is a doorway now
blocked and used as a cupboard.
Towards the top of the south wall of the presbytery and choir are traces
of sharply-pointed arches at a higher level than the present. These would
seem to be the rear-arches of earlier windows. Similar traces, not so well
defined, exist in the north wall.
The vestries contain no work of architectural interest, but several good
engravings and prints of the church in earlier times. Above is the organ
loft. The organ destroyed in the recent fire had good Renaissance woodwork, some of which is preserved. In the gallery over the western entrance is also preserved a very fine oak poppy-head bench-end.
The present ritual arrangement of the church as shown on the plan does
not coincide with the original. There is no screen, and the choir seating
occupies one bay of the true choir and part of the presbytery, the nave
having encroached one bay on the choir. An oak pulpit is placed on the
north side, against the first pier from the east, and the font at the west
end of the nave before the tower arch.
Church repairs and restorations.
In the early days the expenses of church repairs were met by a "landscot" upon acreage, and a rate upon houses in the parish.
In this way extensive repairs were met in 1632, 1676, and 1684, when
according to the vestry minute of November 18th, "There shall be a
Levie made in the severall Hambletts of this Pish, amounting to the full
summe of six hundred Pounds, for and towards the payment of the Debts
of the Church, the new building the Vestry house, the new building
two Church Porches, and other necessary Repairs of the Church.
And that the proportions in each Hamblett be as followeth, viz—
|In Ratcliffe||One hundred and fifty Pounds.|
|In Limehouse||One hundred and fifty Pounds.|
|In Wapping||Seventy and five Pounds.|
|In Popler||Seventy and five Pounds.|
|And in Mile End||One hundred and Fifty Pounds.|
And that the severall Levies be afterwards carried to the Chancellor of
the Lord Bishop of London, to be confirmed accordingly."
The 1806 Restoration
Again in 1734 £234 was raised for repairs. In 1806 "The Church was
repaired both within side, and without, at the expense of at least £5000,
on this occasion all the monuments were repaired, and the inscriptions
restored with much care." (Harleian MS. Vol. I. 36). Unfortunately the
vestry minutes of this date being lost, no details of this extensive restoration can be given.
The 1828 & 1846-8 Restorations
In 1828 the Church was "thoroughly repaired and beautified" (Lewis'
In 1846-8 a restoration was recorded in an inscription upon the window
over the east end of the nave which was destroyed in the great fire of
October 1901 and not replaced.
This restoration was begun in the incumbency of the Rev. Daniel Vawdrey, and finished in that of the Rev. Richard Lee. It was not however
until 1852 that the accounts were settled; the total cost was £3610.
It was probably at this restoration that the east wall was refaced, unfortunately of brick instead of rubble, like the rest of the Church, and the
galleries much reduced. A notice of this restoration occurs in the Rev.
J. H. Sperling's Church Walks in Middlesex, 1849, together with architectural details of the fabric.
In the restoration of 1901 the east wall was refaced with rough stone
to correspond with the remainder of the Church.
The 1871-2 Restoration
On the north wall at the west entrance is a brass, which records the restoration of the Church, and the erection of the porches and second
vestry in 1871-2, during the incumbency of the Rev. J. Bardsley.
It was at this restoration that the whole of the Church was refaced, a
new organ built, and the west window filled with stained glass.
The 1885-6 Restoration
At the restoration during the Rev. J. F. Kitto's incumbency (1885-6), in
addition to cleaning and painting, the choir seats, a new pulpit and east
window were added, the ground lowered all round the Church, and the
main approach widened and deepened so as to bring it down to a level
with the Church; before that two steps led down to the west door.
The total expenditure was £3783.
The 1899 Restoration
The restoration of 1899, during the incumbency of the present rector,
the Rev. A. E. Dalton, is commemorated on an inscribed brass tablet by
the west door of the nave. The work included the removal of the galleries, stripping the plaster from the walls inside the Church, remodelling the seats, rebuilding the organ, rehanging the bells, and placing the
altar in the south chapel, at a total cost of £5,600.
The 1901 Fire
The account of the great fire of October 1901 had better be given in
the words of the Rector, as published by him in the Parish Report of
"October 12th, 1901, will be a day long remembered in Stepney. At
6.20 a.m. the alarm was given that the Church was on fire, and it was
soon found that owing to the morning being very foggy, and the fire
being at the east end, right away from the road, it had obtained a strong
hold ere it was discovered. How long it had been burning we shall never
know. There was no smell of fire when the Church was closed at 9.30
the evening before. It originated from a gas jet in the stoke-hole under
the vestry floor, that had been there for thirty years, within a foot of a
wooden ceiling, which was protected only by a thin sheet of iron.
Probably this had gradually worn thin, and the wood above it become
more charred, till at last it ignited. Once through the vestry floor, the
fire laid hold on the cupboards of cassocks and surplices, and within ten
minutes of the alarm being given the flames were through the roof of
the choir vestry. A wooden staircase carried them up to the organ chamber, which was a literal furnace before the first engine arrived, & thence
the flames reached the roof, along which they raced with terrific speed.
In a very few minutes 18 engines and 120 men of the Fire Brigade were
on the spot, & though at first they feared the whole church was doomed,
yet their energy and skill were equal to the task, and by cutting through
the roof just before the fire reached the tower, they got it under control,
and before 8 o'clock it was all out.
Of the vestries only the bare walls remained, their contents being entirely destroyed, except the plate and registers, which were preserved
intact by their safes.
The organ was entirely gone, including the fine old front carved by
Grinling Gibbons. Of the roof we have preserved only the main beam of
the chancel arch, two out of the four big beams of the chancel, & the ten
rafters next the tower. One bay of the north aisle roof was also destroyed.
The altar was burnt owing to a portion of the organ falling upon it, and
the choir stalls were considerably damaged by falling tiles, but otherwise the internal fittings were only damaged by smoke & water, thanks
to the excellence of the old roof, none of which fell in.
The east window was three-fourths destroyed, and two other of the
stained glass windows considerably damaged."
The subsequent restoration
The repairs rendered necessary by this fire are also detailed in the following account by Mr. Dalton:
"We have endeavoured to replace everything as it was before the fire,
putting the roof back timber by timber in good English oak, only boarding it with oak instead of the deal of comparatively recent date. This
and the new vestry doors have all been cut from the unburnt portions of
the old oak timbers. The timbers of the roof, which were not touched
in the restoration of 1899, were found to be very rotten, & before many
years much repair must have been undertaken. Thus two corbels, each
12 x 15 inches, on which the centre beam of the nave roof rested, and
which had been bedded 12 inches into the wall, were so completely
rotten that not two inches of them remained. Now we have a roof sound
and solid (the new chancel beams weighed two tons each) & one which
we hope may last for another 400 years."
Stepney Church in 1795.
A new altar was provided, and the choir seats restored in the places injured by fire.
The east and south windows in the chancel, and the east window of the
north aisle, were replaced.
The two vestries were entirely re-roofed, and fitted with oak and pitchpine presses.
A new organ was supplied by Messrs. Norman & Beard.
The Church was also fitted with electric light.
This was all carried out at a cost of over £7000—a considerable portion of which large sum (£5156. 12s. 3d.) was covered by insurance.
The Church was reopened on the 6th October 1902 by the Bishop of