A gothic church for the poor next to a canal

SPIRAL RAMPS LEAD up to the Ha’penny Bridge, which allows pedestrians to cross the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, where it runs between Delamere Terrace on one bank and Blomfield Road on the opposite one. A few yards west of the bridge and south of the waterway, there is a Victorian gothic church with a tall tower decorated with layers of red brickwork separated by layers of white masonry and topped with a white spire. It is St Mary Magdalene’s church.

The church was designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881) and completed in 1878. It was built in what was then an area with poor quality housing, where several hard-up families lived crowded together under one roof. The parish in which it is located began life as an offshoot of All Saints in Margaret Street (near Oxford Circus). Like All Saints, St Mary Magdalene’s was established as an Anglo-Catholic church. Its website, grandjunction.org.uk, revealed that Anglo-Catholicism:

“… emphasises the Catholic heritage and identity of the Church of England. In the mid-nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism was very controversial and provoked riots. Anglo-Catholic churches were often built in very poor areas, and their clergy believed that their services, full of light, colour, music and ritual, were likely to appeal to the poor.”

Like All Saints Margaret Street, the interior of St Mary Magdalene’s is a masterpiece of Victorian gothic extravaganza, a riot of colour. The nave has a magnificent painted ceiling which includes faces of various saints. This was painted by Daniel Bell, a Victorian artist. Sculptures of saints carved by Thomas Earp (1823-1893) look down on the nave. The floor of the vast nave is decoratively tiled. Street did not believe in fixed pews such as are found in many other Victorian churches and were rented out to parishioners to raise money. He believed in ‘free seating’, especially in a church like St Mary Magdelene’s that was built to serve the poor. The apse is unusual in that it is polygonal, reminiscent of apses that the widely travelled Street had seen in French and Flemish churches.

An unusual feature of this out of the ordinary church is that although the nave is flanked by a south and a north aisle, the latter is barely wide enough to accommodate one person, whereas the south one is almost as wide as the nave. The reason for the narrow north aisle was related to building regulations in force when the church was being constructed.

If it is open, and it was when I visited the church, it is worth entering the undercroft. This area beneath the church is flanked on its south side by a chapel that was undergoing restoration in February 2022. This is the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre created to commemorate the church’s founder and first vicar Fr Richard Temple West (1827-1893). Containing much decorative artwork and resembling a mediaeval chantry chapel, it was created by the architect Ninian Comper (1864-1960).

Outside the church, there is a WW1 memorial, added by Martin Travers in 1929. It is a gold-coloured crucifixion with a stone base on which are inscribed the Latin words “Infinitum est”, which is neither classical nor biblical; it means ‘It is not finished’, which are ominous words on a war memorial and are most portentous on a memorial to the first of (so far) two world wars.

Added on to the west end of the church, there is a modern extension, which houses a pleasant refreshment outlet called the Grand Junction Café. This is a good place to rest for a while after the excitement of seeing inside the spectacular church.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s