29 October 2022

A church in London says
goodbye to the legacy of
an 18th century slave trader

An empty niche in Saint Botolph without Aldgate once held the bust of Sir John Cass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was visiting Saint Botolph without Aldgate last week in my search for the story of Dame Dorothy Comberford and the Poor Clare nuns of the Minories, where she was one of the last Abbesses.

I wrote about Saint Botolph’s after a visit in early 2020. But I noticed last week that, since that visit, the bust of the 17th-18th century slave trader Sir John Cass has been removed from the church porch in response to a growing awareness of his involvement in the slave trade.

The bust was removed on 18 June 2020 with the approval of the Archdeacon of London after a vote at an emergency meeting of Saint Botolph’s parochial church council. The niche in the porch that once held his bust is now vacant, with a simple sign explaining the decision taken by the parish.

The decision to distance the parish from the former benefactor and from his involvement in the slave trade followed a similar decision by Sir John Cass secondary school in Stepney to change its name and a decision by the Cass Foundation in the City to of London remove a similar bust.

‘We voted unanimously to seek permission to remove the bust’, the Rector of Saint Botolph’s, the Revd Laura Jørgensen, said in a statement to the East London Advertiser.

‘We apologise for the years spent celebrating the legacy of a man without understanding the origin of his wealth, gained through slavery and human exploitation,’ she said. ‘Removing the bust is an important step in acknowledging that history, but it’s not the end of our journey. We are a diverse congregation and promise to do all we can to eradicate racism, discrimination and inequality.’

John Cass was born near Aldgate in 1661 and was a City alderman and sheriff before being elected an MP in 1712. He had set up a school in Aldgate for 50 boys and 40 girls in 1710 and rented buildings in Saint Botolph’s churchyard.

Cass’s name is linked with many institutions in the East End and the City. His foundation set up in 1748 gives grants to promote education in inner London, including the secondary school in Stepney Way and a primary school in Aldgate both named after him.

The secondary school has since changed its name to Stepney All Saints’ School. Two universities also adopted the name Cass for centres of learning with funding from the foundation.

The Metropolitan University’s Cass School of Arts was embroiled in controversy five years ago when the Aldgate and Whitechapel campuses were occupied by students to stop them being closed. The protest stopped the arts school being transferred to the university’s main campus in Holloway. The school also changed its name after the protest.

City University’s business school in Clerkenwell adopted the name Cass in 2002 following a donation from the foundation to promote education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It set about reviewing of all its historic funding sources to find out if there are any other links with slavery.

The foundation commissioned an independent academic in February to look into links to the slave trade. It reaffirmed its ‘abhorrence of racism and discrimination’ in an initial statement following George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests around the world.

Statues or busts of Cass have also been removed from the University of East London Stratford Campus; the façade of 31 Jewry Street in the City of London, headquarters of Sir John Cass’s Foundation, where the statue was a fiberglass replica of the original; and Sir John Cass Redcoat School, Stepney.

The parish has distanced itself from the legacy of Sir John Cass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The statement in the church porch in Saint Boltoph’s reads:

‘Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, there was an immediate global response which highlighted structural racism, both in the United States and here in the United Kingdom.

‘After the toppling of the Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the spotlight fell on other prominent people who traded in enslaved people and who were honoured with statues. One such person was John Cass (1661-1718). Having founded a school in the churchyard of St Botolph’s in 1710, John Cass endowed it under his Will to provide education to Portsoken’s poor children.

‘John Cass made much of his wealth from the exploitation and death of others in the transatlantic slave trade. It is estimated that he invested today’s equivalent of at least £1 Million Pounds in the Royal African Company. John Cass was involved in the management of the Royal African Company which transported nearly 150,000 enslaved women, men and children from Africa to the Caribbean. There are references to John Cass in this church, for example on the board to your left which records the names of the Aldermen of the Portsoken Ward. He is part of the history of St Botolph’s and as its current custodians we have a duty to speak out against the devastation brought about by the enslavement of human beings made in the image of God.

‘In this niche stood, since 1966, a bust of John Cass. It was a focal point of honouring him at the annual Founder’s Day service held here. The Parochial Church of St Botolph without Aldgate, on the learning the source of John Cass’s wealth, petitioned for a faculty from the Church of England to remove the bust. We leave this space empty, for now, as a sign of our repentance that we had not seriously understood his role in the Royal African Company, and that we had not thought to do a basic search for him.

‘We believe that racism and oppression are a denial of the glorious Gospel of love preached by Jesus Christ and to that end we are to anti-racism, acknowledging where we have fallen short, and doing our best to highlight and address the issue of modern slavery today.’

On Founder’s Day in February each year, the pupils of the Sir John Cass schools wore red quills in their lapels and made their way to Saint Botolph’s Church for a remembrance service, when each pupil receives an orange and a bun recalling the founder’s generosity.

Cass was active in public life in the City of the London as a merchant, builder and politician. This career began when he was elected Alderman for the ward of Portsoken, one of the 25 wards of the City of London.

He was a Conservative MP for the City of London in 1710-1715, and was elected one of the Sheriffs of the City in 1711. In addition, he was a member of the newly-formed Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, set up to oversee building new churches for the expanding population of the City. He was treasurer of both the Bethlem Royal and Bridewell Hospitals in 1709-1715. He was knighted in 1713, became Master of the Carpenters’ Company and in 1714 moved to the Skinners’ Company.

In 1709, Cass founded a school in buildings in the churchyard of Saint Botolph’s in Aldgate, attended by 50 boys and 40 girls. His health began to fail by 1718, prompting him to write a new will in which he hoped to secure future provision for the school, leaving it all the property he had acquired since making his first will.

While completing his new will, Cass suffered a brain haemorrhage and died with only three pages of his new will signed. His heirs contested the latest will in the Court of Chancery and their action continued for 30 years. His will was finally upheld, and the Sir John Cass Foundation was established in 1748.

Cass was buried in the churchyard of Saint Mary Matfelon in Whitechapel. The church was destroyed by fire in 1880. Today, all that remains of the church are a few graves and a small external arch on Whitechapel Road. The churchyard and church area were turned into Saint Mary’s Park, which was renamed the Altab Ali Park in 1998 in memory of the young Bangladeshi clothing worker murdered in 1978.

The bust of Sir John Cass was removed in 2020 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Saturday 29 October 2022

Saint Clare Street, off Minories, London, stands on the site of the former Abbey of the Minoresses of Saint Mary of the Order of Saint Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship, today recalls James Hannington, Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, Martyr in Uganda, 1885 (29 October), with a Lesser Festival.

Before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

Since Monday, I have been reflecting in these ways in the morning:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection based on six churches or church sites I visited in London last week;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

St Clare House, Minories … a reminder of the Poor Clares’ presence near the Tower of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

James Hannington was born in 1847 into a Congregationalist family and became an Anglican before going up to Oxford. He was ordained and, after serving a curacy for five years, went with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) to Uganda. He was consecrated bishop for that part of Africa in 1884 and a year later began a safari inland from Mombasa, together with other European and indigenous Christians. The ruler of the Buganda, Mwanga, who despised Christians because they refused to condone his moral turpitude, seized the whole party, tortured them for several days and then had them butchered to death on this day in 1885.

Luke 14: 1, 7-11 (NRSVA):

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8 ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

St Clare Coffee and Bar, Minories … a reminder of the Poor Clares’ presence in this part of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Abbey of the Minories and Holy Trinity Church:

Minories is one of the more peculiar street names in London. Minories takes its name from an Abbey that once stood at the north end of the street, called the Abbey of the Minoresses of Saint Mary of the Order of Saint Clare.

The Minoresses, in turn, took their name from the Latin Sorores Minores, meaning Sisters of the Minor Order of Saint Francis, the women’s section of the Franciscan order founded by Saint Clara of Assisi.

The Abbey in Minories was established by Edmund ‘Crouchback’, Earl of Lancaster and brother of Edward I, some time before 1291, perhaps as early as 1281, to house nuns brought from Spain to England by his second wife Blanche of Artois, the widowed Queen of Navarre. She was a niece of King Louis IX of France and his sister Isabella, who founded the Poor Clares’ Abbey of Longchamp.

The Abbey of the Minoresses of Saint Clare without Aldgate was known variously as the Abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Aldgate, the House of Minoresses of the Order of Saint Clare of the Grace of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Minoresses without Aldgate, Saint Clare outside Aldgate, or the Minories, London. It was in the parish of Saint Botolph, outside the mediaeval walls of the City of London at Aldgate.

The Poor Clares of Aldgate had a mitigated form of their Rule that allowed them to own property. They lived an enclosed life on a site often said to be of five acres, although it may have been as little as half that size.

An early benefactor, Sir Henry le Galeys, Mayor of London, endowed a chantry in the chapel of Saint Mary in the nuns’ church, where he was buried. Substantial endowments came later from figures such as Queen Isabella, widow of Edward II, Margaret, Countess of Norfolk, and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

These royal connections gave a certain cachet to the house, attracting women of noble birth and the daughters of wealthy merchants. After the death of her husband, Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick, in 1401, Margaret Beauchamp (née Ferrers), went to live in the Abbey with three matrons. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, placed his young daughter Isabel in the Abbey, but had a house right next to the conventual church and had access to the abbey through a private entrance.

The Abbess sent a gift of distilled water of roses to the Tower of London for Elizabeth of York, the wife of Henry VII, in April 1502. The Queen gave a gift of money to three nuns and a servant of the Abbess.

The Minories … a public house takes its name from the nuns and their former abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Abbey suffered more than once from the plague and other epidemics, and it is said 27 nuns of the abbey died of the plague in 1515. Soon after, the convent buildings were destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt by 1520, with contributions from Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, the mayor and aldermen of London and private individuals.

One of the last abbesses was Dame Dorothy Comberford (1524-1531). At the Tudor dissolution of the monastic houses, the abbey was surrendered in 1539. The last abbess was Dame Elizabeth Salvage.

By the time the Minoresses surrendered their Abbey to Henry VIII in 1539, they had grown wealthy through renting their lands, exemption from taxation, and the plentiful bequests they had received in the Medieval period.

Following the Dissolution, the Abbey landholdings passed first to John Clerk, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Henry VIII’s ambassador to the Duke of Cleves, but the king seized the bishop’s own London residence in compensation. It also came to house officers of the Tower of London.

Later, Edward VI gave the lands to Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and father of Lady Jane Grey, in 1552. In 1554 it reverted to government use, housing the Ordnance Office and its stores, transferred there from the Tower of London.

By 1598, the abbey precinct was used as armouries and coach-houses. In 1686, the area became part of the Liberties of the Tower of London.

Meanwhile, around 1563, the nuns’ chapel became a parish church, the Church of the Holy Trinity, Minories, and this was the last religious building on the site. All the ancient monuments were removed, a gallery, a new pulpit and pews were installed, and a steeple was built.

The church became a Puritan stronghold, where both John Field and Thomas Wilcox preached. The church survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt in 1706, retaining the north wall of the mediaeval abbey church. Until 1730, the church claimed the rights of a royal peculiar, outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, and the right to perform marriages without licence. Some of the surviving abbey buildings were destroyed by fire in 1797.

A mummified head found in the church vaults in 1849 was said to be the head of Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, who was executed in 1554. The head was displayed in a glass case in the vestry, but later went to Saint Botolph’s without Aldgate, where it was interred in a vault and eventually buried in the churchyard in 1990.

Holy Trinity Church closed in 1899, and the pulpit was moved to All Saints’ Church, East Meon, Hampshire. The building survived as a parish hall until World War II, when it suffered severe bomb damage. A wall remained until final clearance of the area in the late 1950s.

The coffin of Anne de Mowbray, 8th Countess of Norfolk, who died aged eight, was unearthed at the abbey site in 1964, and was reburied in Westminster Abbey.

No evidence of the abbey church or any other parts of the Abbey remains today. St Clare, a coffee shop on Minories, St Clare Street, running east off Minories, Saint Clare House and the Minories public house are all are reminders of the abbey and its name. The end of St Clare Street marks the site of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Minories.

A drawing published in 1907 of the west front of the Church of Holy Trinity, Minories (Edward Murray Tomlinson, A history of the Minories, London, London: by London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1907)

Today’s Prayer (Saturday 29 October 2022):

The Collect:

Most merciful God,
who strengthened your Church by the steadfast courage
of your martyr James Hannington:
grant that we also,
thankfully remembering his victory of faith,
may overcome what is evil
and glorify your holy name;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr James Hannington:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week has been ‘Theology in Korea.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for everyone seeking to put their faith into practice. May we be inspired by Scripture and work to serve our communities.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Minories seen from the door of Saint Botolph Without Aldgate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Minories stands on the site of the former abbey estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)