23 September 2023
All Saints’ Church in
Margaret Street is one
of the finest examples of
Victorian Gothic style
I was in London earlier today for the annual reunion and celebration day of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street.
Bishop Michael Marshall was, first, priest-in-charge and, later, rector of Holy Trinity Church from 1997 to 2007. But three decades earlier, from 1969 to 1975, he had been the Vicar of All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London, which I visited last Saturday afternoon (23 September 2023).
All Saints’ Church is midway along Margaret Street, which runs parallel to the east end of Oxford Street. This Anglo-Catholic church in Fitzrovia, in the heart of the West End, is known for its architecture, for its style of liturgy, for its interior, rich decoration and beautiful fittings, and for its musical tradition. It a ‘hidden gem’ in central London, many regard it as one of the foremost examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture, and it is a Grade I listed building.
All Saints’ Church was designed in 1850 by William Butterfield (1814-1900), an architect strongly associated with Gothic revival church building and the Oxford Movement. But its origins lie in the Margaret Street Chapel, which had stood on the site from the 1760s.
The chapel had ‘proceeded upwards through the various gradations of Dissent and Low-Churchism’ until 1829, when the Tractarian William Dodsworth (1798-1861) became the incumbent. Dodsworth resigned in 1839 and later became a Roman Catholic, as did his successor, the Lichfield hymn-writer, Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880), who was at the chapel from 1839 to 1845.
Oakeley is best known for his translation of the Christmas carol Adeste Fideles (‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’). He later described the chapel as ‘a complete paragon of ugliness.’ Before resigning, he conceived the idea of rebuilding the chapel in what he considered a correct ecclesiastical style, and had collected a sum of almost £3,000 for the project.
All Saints’ Church owes it building to the Cambridge Camden Society, founded as the Ecclesiological Society in 1839 and which changed its name in 1845. The society was formed with the aim of reviving historically authentic Anglican worship through architecture.
By 1843, its 700 members included the Archbishop of Canterbury, and its monthly magazine, The Ecclesiologist, reviewed new churches and assessed their architectural and liturgical significance.
While Oakley was still at Margaret Street in 1841, the society proposed building a ‘model church on a large and splendid scale’ that would embody the society’s values. It was to be in late 13th and early 14th century Gothic style and built honestly of solid materials. Its ornament should decorate its construction, and its artist should be ‘a single, pious and laborious artist alone, pondering deeply over his duty to do his best for the service of God’s Holy Religion.’
Above all, the church was to be built so that the ‘Rubricks and Canons of the Church of England may be consistently observed, and the Sacraments rubrically and decently administered.’
The congregation at All Saints agreed that the Ecclesiological Society’s model church could be built there, although, at just 100 ft sq, the site was small for a church, choir school and clergy house.The proposals from the Cambridge Camden Society for a model church were approved in 1845 by the Revd William Upton Richards (1811-1873) of All Saints, the Very Revd George Chandler, Rector of All Souls’ Church nearby and Dean of Chichester, and Charles James Blomfield, Bishop of London.
The project was supervised and largely sponsored by Alexander Beresford-Hope (1820-1887), who was from a well-known Irish family and later an MP and son-in-law of the Marquis of Salisbury. Beresford-Hope chose Butterfield as the architect, although the two often disagreed about important aspects of the work.
During his career, Butterfield designed almost 100 churches and related buildings, including the chapels of Balliol College and Keble College, Oxford, and Saint Barnabas Church in Jericho, Oxford. He built in a highly personal form of Gothic revival, and All Saints’ Church remains his masterpiece and a pioneering building of the High Victorian Gothic style in church architecture.
The site was bought for £14,500, the last service at the old chapel was held on Easter Monday 1850, and the foundation stone of the new church was laid on All Saints’ Day 1850 by Edward Bouverie Pusey, a key figure in the Oxford Movement. The new church was consecrated on 28 May 1859.
All Saints marked a new stage in the development of the Gothic Revival in English architecture. It is built of brick, in contrast to Gothic Revival churches of the 1840s, typically built of grey Kentish ragstone. Previous architecture in the 19th-century Gothic Revival had copied mediaeval buildings, but Butterfield departed considerably from mediaeval Gothic practice, and he was innovative in using new building materials such as brick.
The Ecclesiologists originally extolled the virtues of rough stone walls, but they were converted by the brick churches of Italy and North Germany. Butterfield’s chosen pink brick was more expensive than stone, and the bold chequered patterning seems to have been based on English East Anglian tradition.
At All Saints, Butterfield felt a mission to ‘give dignity to brick,’ and the quality of the brick he chose made it more expensive than stone. The exterior of All Saints employs red brick, heavily banded and patterned with black brick, with bands of stone and carved elements in the gate, the church wall and spire. Decoration is built into the structure, making All Saints the first example of ‘structural polychromy’ in London.
All Saints’ Church is particularly celebrated for its interior decoration. Every surface is richly patterned or decorated: the floor in diaper patterned tiles, wall surfaces in geometrical patterned brick, tile, and marble, as well as tiles with painted decoration, large friezes executed in painted tiles, a painted ceiling, and painted and gilded timberwork behind the altar.
The vast tiled panels on the north wall were painted by Alexander Gibbs and manufactured by Henry Poole and Sons. They are rich with Biblical symbolism and depict a variety of important figures and themes from the Bible and the Early Church.
The rear of the chancel features a series of paintings on gilded boards, within a delicately carved brightly patterned Gothic screen. The immense reredos was originally completed by William Dyce in 1853-1859. But it suffered from the polluting effects of London air, and was reproduced by Sir Ninian Comper in 1909 on wooden panels in front of the original. Starting at the base with the depiction of Christ’s earthly life, the eye is drawn up to Christ in glory, the free movement of the figures there contrasting with the more static figures beneath.
The great silver pyx, designed by Ninan Comper, was given by the Duke of Newcastle in 1928 as a memorial to choristers killed in World War I.
The Lady Chapel (1911), at the east end of the north aisle, was designed by Ninian Comper in late Gothic style. It was enlarged in 1971 by Ian Grant as a memorial to the Revd Kenneth Ross (1908-1970), eighth vicar of All Saints (1957-1969). The reredos is of Caen stone and alabaster, and shows the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels and saints. It was restored by Peter Larkworthy in 1978-1980.
The north wall is dominated by a large ceramic tile frieze designed by Butterfield, painted by Alexander Gibbs, and fired by Henry Poole and Sons, installed in 1873. It depicts a variety of scenes from the Old Testament, a central Nativity scene and depictions of Early Church Fathers.
The designs that adorn the walls and pillars owe much to John Ruskin who, in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), advocated the use of chequers, zig-zags, stripes and geometrical colour mosaic. Matthew Digby Wyatt’s Specimens of Geometrical Mosaic of the Middle Ages may also have influenced some of the detailing.
Butterfield’s tiled floor, made by Minton, is deep red with black checks and a white stone diaper, while the north and south aisles have a triangular variation on this pattern. The roof, now repainted, was originally in chocolate and white with blue detailing.
The stained-glass windows are limited by the density of buildings around the church. The original windows were designed by Alfred Gérente (1821-1868), but his work was later replaced. The large west window, originally fitted with glass by Gerente in 1853-1858, was replaced in 1877 with a design by Alexander Gibbs based on the Tree of Jesse window in Wells Cathedral.
The glass in the clerestory dates from 1853 and is the work of Michael O’Connor, who also designed the east window of the south chancel aisle which depicts Christ in Majesty with Saint Edward Martyr and Saint Augustine.
The Baptistry in the south-west corner has marble tiling that features an image of the Pelican in her Piety in the ceiling tiles.
The church stands within a small courtyard. Two other buildings face onto the courtyard: one is the vicarage and the other, formerly a choir school, now houses the parish room and flats for assistant priests.
Soaring above the courtyard is the 227-feet spire – higher than the towers of Westminster Abbey.
After seeing All Saints, John Ruskin wrote: ‘Having done this, we may do anything … and I believe it to be possible for us, not only to equal, but far to surpass, in some respects, any Gothic yet seen in Northern countries.’ However, Ruskin did not ‘altogether like the arrangements of colour in the brickwork.’
The architect Charles Locke Eastlake said Butterfield’s design was ‘a bold and magnificent endeavour to shake off the trammels of antiquarian precedent, which had long fettered the progress of the Revival, to create not a new style, but a development of previous styles.’
The author and columnist Simon Jenkins says All Saints is ‘architecturally England’s most celebrated Victorian church.’ The architectural historian Simon Thurley lists All Saints among the 10 most important buildings in Britain.
In the 1970 BBC Television programme, Four With Betjeman – Victorian Architects and Architecture, the poet Sir John Betjeman visited All Saints. In his view, ‘It was here, in the 1850s, that the revolution in architecture began … It led the way, All Saints Margaret Street, in church building.’
The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the interior as ‘dazzling, though in an eminently High Victorian ostentatiousness or obtrusiveness … No part of the walls is left undecorated. From everywhere the praise of the Lord is drummed into you.’
The choristers of All Saints sang at the coronations of Edward VII (1902), George V (1911), George VI (1937) and Elizabeth II (1953). The choir school closed in 1968, and the boys’ voices were replaced by adult sopranos.
Several pieces have been commissioned for the church, including Walter Vale’s arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and All-Night Vigil. Rachmaninoff heard Vale’s adaptations when he visited All Saints in 1915 and 1923.
All Saints’ organ is a four-manual Harrison and Harrison instrument with 65 speaking stops, built in 1910 to a specification drawn up by Walter Vale.
The organists have included Richard Redhead, the composer of ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Bright the Vision’, Walter Vale (1907-1939), William Lloyd Webber (1939-1948), John Birch (1953-1958), Michael Fleming (1958-1968) and Harry Bramma (1989-2004).
Recent vicars have included David Michael Hope (1982-1985), later Bishop of London and Archbishop of York. The Revd Peter Benedict Anthony has been the Parish Priest of All Saints since 2021.
The style of worship at All Saints is Anglo-Catholic, including ritual, choir and organ music, vestments and incense. As a traditional Anglo-Catholic parish, All Saints has passed resolutions accepting only male episcopal and priestly sacramental ministry.
On Sundays, High Mass is at 11 am, there is a Low Mass at 5:15, and Evensong and Benediction at 6 pm. On week days, from Monday to Friday, Low Mass is at 12 noon and 6: 30 pm. On Solemnities and certain Feast Days, High Mass is at 6:30. On Saturdays, there is Low Mass at 12 noon and the Vigil Mass at 6:30.
All Saints’ Church is open from 11 am to 7 pm, Monday to Friday.