11 July 2022
Saint Mellitus Church in
Islington was first built as
a Congregational church
I was in Saint Mellitus Church in Tollington Park, Islington, last week for the funeral of my dear friend Bruce Kent. This north London church near Finsbury Park is a grand Victorian neo-classical building, and on first going into the church I thought it looked more like a Victorian nonconformist church than the inside of a Catholic parish church.
The church in Tollington Park was 150 years old last year (2021), but has only been a Catholic church since 1959.
The church was built in 1871 for the New Court Congregational Church to the designs of the architect Charles Gray Searle (1816-1881). The New Court congregation had first met in 1662 in a building in Bridges Street, Covent Garden, London. The congregation moved in 1696 to a location in Drury Lane and again in 1707 to a location in New Court, Carey Street, off the Strand.
They stayed there until the 1860s, when Carey Street and the area around it were cleared to make way for building the Royal Courts of Justice.
A new church was built as New Court Congregational Church in 1871. At the time, the church was surrounded by ‘Elysian fields.’ The first services in the new church were held on Thursday 18 September 1871: the Revd Alexander Raleigh preached in the morning, the Revd Henry Allon preached in the evening, and their addresses sandwiched ‘a cold collation’ at 2 pm and tea at 5.30.
The architect and surveyor Charles Gray Searle was the fourth child of John Searle, a stone merchant who owned a quarry on Portland and a wharf at Wapping. After training under Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), Searle worked for the New River Company before setting up his own practice as an architect and surveyor at the age of 25.
He was a Baptist, and his nephew Thomas Dence remembered him as ‘the designer of many chapels and churches in London and the provinces and an active welfare worker in the training of young men.’
His other buildings included Palace Gardens Chapel, refurbishing Regent’s Park College, Coleford Baptist Chapel, Heath Street Chapel, Hampstead Chapel, Oaklands Congregational Chapel in Hammersmith, Haywards Heath Chapel, and Trinity Chapel, Lewisham, His sons, Charles Henry Searle and Septimus Cecil Searle, also became architects. Searle was also a voluntary organist at Bloomsbury Baptist Church.
Searle’s church in in Tollington Park is built in yellow brick set in Flemish bond with stone dressings. The roof obscured by a parapet. There are two tiers of windows over the basement: a five-window range to Tollington Park and a seven-window range to the returns.
The principal elevation is the (liturgical) west end to Tollington Park. Steps lead up to giant tetrastyle Corinthian portico with a full entablature, a dentil and modillion cornice, and an oculus with elaborate foliage surround in the tympanum of the pediment.
The portico frames three entrances to the church, which are flat-arched with moulded stone architraves, consoles carrying segmental pediments and panelled doors, and a keyed oculus over each.
The outer bays have flat-arched windows with moulded stone architraves, the lower ones have keystones which link up with the bracketed sills of the round-arched eared and shouldered window above.
The entablature continues over these bays and to the first bay of return, with a balustraded parapet to the outer bays, and the parapet is stepped up behind the portico.
The first bay of the return is similar to the outer bays of the front. The rest of the return in Evershot Road has giant Doric pilasters with two tiers of windows with moulded stone architraves and keystones between; the lower windows are flat-arched, and the upper windows are round-arched.
There are two wrought iron scrolled lamp pendants between the west entrances to the church, and lamp standards with elaborate columns flank the steps up to the portico.
Inside, the church is a single galleried space with an aedicule at the east end of giant Corinthian columns in antis, supporting the entablature with a dentil and modillion cornice. The curved gallery is carried on cast-iron Corinthian columns with elaborate ironwork to the balcony. The panelled roof is coved to the centre. The wrought-iron lighting pendants date from the late 19th century.
The New Court congregation stayed in Tollington Park until selling up in the 1950s, due to dwindling numbers, and their striking neo-classical edifice became Saint Mellitus Church in 1959.
Until then, the Stroud Green area had a Catholic chapel served by the Canons Regular of the Lateran Saint Peter in Chains. They were followed by diocesan priests as the parish grew in the 1950s.
When the Irish community outgrew the chapel, Canon George Groves bought the former Congregationalist church. Gradually the African community grew and the Irish chaplaincy, who had responsibility for the parish in 1990-2000, moved to Camden Square and the parish reverted to the clergy of the Diocese of Westminster.
The most obvious changes in converting the building were made at the (liturgical) east end where an altar replaced the large preaching desk or pulpit. The display pipes of the pipe-organ were replaced by a painted reredos depicting a neo-classical doorway with three windows above.
The large three-manual pipe organ by Alfred Hunter remained in situ, hidden – and rather muted – behind the reredos, its console at the east end of the south gallery.
The organ is part of the area’s rich and eclectic musical history. But by March 2016, it had stopped working altogether. The parish drew up imaginative plans for and the Hunter memorial organ has been lovingly restored, 100 years after it was first installed.