The church of St Matthew’s, Westminster was consecrated in 1851, but what was the background to building a church so close to a large abbey and two other, quite large, parish churches?
For hundreds of years since the 11th century, the area around where St Matthew’s Church stands was dominated by Westminster Abbey. In 1681, Henry Purcell was living with his family in Great St Anne’s Street, while he was organist at the Abbey.
By 1711, the population of St Margaret's parish had grown to 20,000 and so the Church Building Commissioners considered that another church should be built in the parish. This church was publicly funded and the land was bought from Henry Smith who was also the Commissioners' treasurer! The church dedicated to St John the Evangelist was built in what is now known as Smith Square
At this time, the roads around Smith Square such as North Street and Cowley Street were also developed.
There was a certain amount of industry west of Parliament Square. The gas works dominated the area between Horseferry Road and Great Peter Street. A French visitor remarked on the gas works when she visited the area in 1842. She admired the machines and furnaces but she was appalled at the working conditions as well as the fumes. The Broadwood piano factory was situated in Horseferry Road near where the junction with Monck Street is today.
The Devil’s Acre
In spite of all the development in Westminster, the area around Great Peter Street had deteriorated and people lived in poor conditions. Dickens described the area as the ‘Devil's Acre’. This was appropriate as a house in Old Pye Street was used to give lessons in fobology or in other words, pickpocketing. In 1855, a lodging house in the area was reputed to have held 120 people. The area was also described as follows:
'It is in these narrow streets , and in these close and unsalubrious lanes, courts and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggles with filth and wretchedness , where vice reigns unchecked and in the atmosphere of which diseases are generated and diffused.'
St Matthew’s, Westminster is built
It was clear that these problems had to be tackled. The Church responded by building four new churches in this part of Westminster. In 1844, the Dean and Chapter decided to give £1,000 towards the building of St Matthew's, Westminster. The foundation stone was laid on 8th November 1849, by Lord Robert Grosvenor, MP, (for Middlesex) and the church was designed by the local architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott. It was designed to have a spire but the money could not be raised. It was consecrated on 30th June 1851.
The first vicar of St Matthew’s
The Rev Richard Malone, the first vicar of St Matthew's, faced a major challenge in his missionary work. It is perhaps indicative of his work that the first person who was baptised was not a young child, but William Brown, aged 27, son of a harness maker.
The baptism register also provides an interesting picture of the occupations of the local people in the early 1850s, reflecting the local employers. They included: a tobacco spinner, commissioner in bankruptcy, civil servants, brewer, piano makers and tuners, teachers, soldiers, lay vicars (for the Abbey) , stone mason, woodcutter, painter and chemist.
The clergy and congregation faced some hostility from members of the local population which consisted of disturbances during services and on one occasion, there was an assault made on someone while they were reading the lesson.
Developments in education and social welfare
Shortly after St Matthew's Church had opened, St. Matthew's School was built immediately adjacent to the church, in St Anne's Street. There had been a Ragged school in Old Pye Street but this school with a church foundation offered a sound education. A training college for National school teachers was in Victoria Street.
The St Andrew's Club was founded in 1866 by a group of architecture students which offered sporting and educational activities for boys which was in direct contrast to the pickpockets' training college! The Club is still in existence in Old Pye Street and is the oldest club of its kind in the country.
Social improvement continued further with the construction of the Peabody flats or 'model dwellings' as they were known, which were financed by the city merchant and philanthropist, George Peabody. They are still being used for accommodation today.
In spite of the poor social conditions in the parish, according to the biographer of the Rev Frank Weston - a young assistant priest at St Matthew's between 1896 and 1898, the church community seemed to be and friendly where 'reunions were more like family gatherings'. He mentioned that it was 'a parish where all was at peace and everything went on as if by clockwork. The services in the church and meals in the Clergy House could alike be depended on, but the first were elaborate and the others were not!'
Frank Weston taught daily in the Church School and there were Catechism classes on Sunday afternoons. In March 1898 he wrote:
'I have in tow about twenty young ruffians, mostly immoral little pagans, only four communicants.'
He used to spend a lot of time visiting parishioners in places such as Rochester Buildings 'learning fresh lessons about the difficulties of life' as his biographer described it. After two years here, he was called to missionary work in Africa and eventually became the Bishop of Zanzibar in 1908. A memorial to him can be seen in the entrance to the church.
Church House, Westminster
The other major development in the nineteenth century in the parish was the establishment of Church House. It was at a meeting at the Mansion House that it was resolved that a Church House should be built as a memorial of the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Church House had humble beginnings as it was initially based in two houses in Dean's Yard. The leasehold of these was purchased outright by public subscription. The inauguration took place on 21st August 1888, on the occasion of the first annual general meeting of the Corporation.
The foundation stone of the Great Hall was laid by the Duke of Connaught on 24th June 1891. Great Smith Street also took shape even more, when in 1893 the new public library and public baths were opened.
Early twentieth century
Before the Second World War, the parish of St Matthew's was a well-populated area with a busy local community. There were always close links between the church and the school and four curates used to visit the school regularly. The original church drew large numbers for the many services, which included daily Evening Prayer sung to plainsong.
In the 1930s, Oswald Moseley used to make speeches standing on top of a car and used be pelted with missiles. The Blackshirts gave black uniforms to the local children and used to chant:
'the rats, the rats, we've got to get rid of the rats'.
They marched off to the East End and later returned, some in ambulances, after they had been injured in the riots. The priests from St Matthew's did their best to protect the children on Sunday afternoons, by enticing them back to Sunday School.
In 1966, St Margaret's church was added to the Abbey Close under the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, and in 1973 the former parish of St Margaret's was divided between St Matthew's and St Martin-in-Fields.
Unfortunately disaster struck in 1977 when St Matthew's was burnt down by an arsonist. All that remains today is from the crossing of the former church to the former altar, together with the beautiful Lady Chapel upstairs. The church was reopened on 29th November 1984 at a service of dedication by Brian Masters, Bishop of Fulham.
St Matthew's Church Hall has been refurbished and was developed into a conference centre in 1999. The parish church today is still evolving and reacting to change just as it did in the nineteenth century.