28 February 2023

Artillery Lane Synagogue:
a former chapel restored
as offices in Spitalfields

The Artillery Lane Synagogue opened in 1896 and closed in 1948 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my recent walks around the East End, I visited a number of synagogues and former synagogues, and plan to write about them in the coming days and weeks.

In my blog posting on Friday, I was writing about the former Spital Square Poltava Synagogue at 2 Heneage Street, and its assoications with people whose origins can be traced to Poltava in present-day Ukraine.

Dome House is an office block at 48-50 Artillery Lane, Spitalfields, near Liverpool Street Station, and was once Artillery Lane Synagogue.

Artillery Lane runs east from Bishopsgate for about 450 ft and then turns south-east for a further 200 ft and then east for a further 150 ft, where it meets the junction of Crispin Street and Bell Lane, almost opposite White’s Row. Originally, only the first 300 ft at the west end was known as Artillery Lane; the central section was Artillery Street; and the last 150 ft at the east end was Raven Row.

The Artillery Lane building was leased to a Jewish congregation in 1896, and opened shortly afterwards as a synagogue. It remained a synagogue until 1948, when the freehold was sold and the building was converted into a warehouse. It is now an office building known as Dome House.

The exact date of the erection of the chapel and its full history are uncertain. Many Nonconformist congregations met in Artillery Lane, and it is often uncertain which one used this building.

There was a French Charity House in Artillery Lane in 1695. However, the Artillery Lane Chapel probably did not begin as a French church. In a deed of 1729, two chapels are mentioned in or near the Artillery Ground, one a French chapel, the other a dissenting meeting-house. The first was l’Eglise de l’Artillerie in Parliament Court, which later become Sandy’s Row Synagogue; the other may have stood on the site of Artillery Lane Synagogue, now present Dome House.

A Baptist congregation with the Revd Nathaniel Hodges were in Artillery Lane in 1707 and remained there until 1739, when their afternoon service moved to Pinners’ Hall, Broad Street. However, a Baptist meeting in Artillery Lane is recorded until 1757.

An Independent congregation moved to Artillery Lane with the Revd Mordecai Andrews in the late 1740s. His successor, Edward Hitchin, built a new chapel in White’s Row ca 1755, and it was in use by 1759.

Hitchin’s congregation may have moved to White’s Row partly because of the dilapidation of its chapel in Artillery Lane. It may then have been rebuilt by a congregation of Independents under the Revd John Richardson. By 1760, they were worshipping in Artillery Lane, and they remained there until at least 1773.

There was a Calvinist, possibly Independent, meeting in Artillery Lane in 1810, and a short-lived Baptist church was on the street in 1811-1813. Another Baptist congregation moved into Artillery Lane in 1833, and it was led by the Revd George Moyle until 1847. Later, this became the Ebenezer Baptist Chapel led by the Revd James W Massie or Messer, and there was a succession of Baptist and Congregational chapels throughout the 19th century.

The building on Artillery Lane was leased to a Jewish congregation in 1896 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The building on Artillery Lane was leased to a Jewish congregation in 1896, and opened shortly afterwards as a synagogue. This was an affiliated synagogue of the Federation of Synagogues, and at its height it had up to 250 members.

When the synagogue closed in 1948, it was incorporated into the Ezras Chaim Synagogue in Heneage Street nearby, and the old building was converted into a warehouse.

The site of the building is irregular, roughly a truncated triangle, so that the front wall on the north- east side lies obliquely to the back wall at the west which is, more or less, at right angles to the side walls, the north being only half as long as the south.

It seems the two storeys of rooms on the south side were formed within the original meeting-room, reducing its width and probably eliminating one side of the gallery, of which the north-east and north sides survived until 1950. This gallery of four steppings was supported by widely spaced Doric columns of wood, and approached by staircases in the north-east and south-east angles. The preacher's desk was placed against the windowless west wall. The ceiling had a flat expanse broken in the centre by a large saucer dome rising to an octagonal lantern.

The front, of brick with a later face of stucco, had seven bays, two storeys high, dating from the mid-18th century. From the left, the first, fourth and sixth bays contained doorways, each of the three doorways having a wooden doorcase and a triangular-pedimented.

Each of the other bays had a segmental-headed window of squat proportions. Above was a range of seven arch-headed windows, those in the fourth and sixth bays being blind recesses.

The freehold of the building was sold in 1948 and the front was demolished in 1950 and replaced. The present frontage of Dome House is a replica of the original.

Dome House is effectively formed of two interlinking buildings that sit ‘back to back’ known as 48 Artillery Lane, which is two-storey over ground and first floors and 2 Parliament Court, which is four-storey and with a basement.

The entrance foyer is from the Artillery Lane frontage with a feature spiral staircase leading to the first floor, all of which sits beneath a domed roof light that floods this section of the building with daylight and that gives its name to the building. The entrance from Parliament Court provides access to a second stair and lift core that serves all floors in the building.

Dome House is a four-minute walk from Liverpool Street station and a 10-minute walk from Shoreditch High Street and Aldgate East.

Dome House takes its name from the domed roof light that floods the building with daylight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (7)

‘Though the day is past … there yet remains one effort to be made’ … High Street in Wexford at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Writing in the Rambler on 30 October 1750, Samuel Johnson ascribed these words to a fictional hermit:

‘Happy are they … who shall learn … not to despair, but shall remember, that though the day is past, and their strength is wasted, there yet remains one effort to be made; that reformation is never hopeless, nor sincere endeavours ever unassisted; that the wanderer may at length return after all his errours, and that he who implores strength and courage from above shall find danger and difficulty give way before him.’

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

27 February 2023

Saint Olave’s Church: ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’ of
Dickens and burial place of Mother Goose

Saint Olave’s Church on the corner of Seething Lane and Hart Street, near Fenchurch Street station in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my walks through London last week, I visited Saint Olave’s Church, on the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane, near Fenchurch Street station, in the late afternoon.

Saint Olave’s is both a local parish church and the Ward Church of the Tower Ward of the City of London. It is one of the smallest churches in the City of London and one of only a handful of mediaeval City churches that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The poet John Betjeman described Saint Olave’s as ‘a country church in the world of Seething Lane.’ The church was a favourite of the diarist Samuel Pepys, and Charles Dicken once described the church as ‘Saint Ghastly Grim.’

The north side of Saint Olave’s Church, facing onto Hart Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Olave’s Church is first recorded in the 13th century as Saint Olave-towards-the-Tower, a stone building replacing an earlier, probably wooden building. It is dedicated to the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II of Norway, who fought alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred ‘the Unready’ against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014.

Saint Olaf was canonised after his death in 1030 and the church of Saint Olave’s is said to have been built on the site of the battle.

Saint Olave’s was rebuilt in the 13th century and then again in the 15th century. The present church dates from around 1450. A major benefactor of the church in the late 15th century was wool merchant Richard Cely, who held the advowson of the church. When Cely died in 1482, he left money for making the steeple and an altar in the church.

Queen Elizabeth I held a thanksgiving service at Saint Olave’s on Trinity Sunday, 15 May 1554, while she was still Princess Elizabeth, to celebrate her release from the Tower of London.

The churchyard of Saint Olave’s Church claims the burial of ‘Mother Goose’ and 357 plague victims (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Olave’s survived the Great Fire of London with the help of Sir William Penn, the father of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and is men from the nearby naval yards. Penn had ordered the men to blow up the houses surrounding the church to create a fire break. The flames came within 100 yards or so of the building, but then the wind changed direction, saving the church and a number of other churches on the east side of the City.

The church was a favourite of the diarist Samuel Pepys, whose house and Royal Navy office were both on Seething Lane. A regular worshipper, he referred to Saint Olave’s in his diary as ‘our own church.’ For 14 years, from 1660, Pepys recorded parish affairs in his diary, often falling asleep in the sermons by the Revd Daniel Mills.

When his wife Elizabeth died in 1669, Pepys had a marble bust of her made by John Bushnell and installed on the north wall of the sanctuary. He was buried next to his wife in the nave in 1703.

The gateway with its skulls and crossbones inspired Charles Dickens to to refer to the church as ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The gateway to Saint Olave’s churchyard, with its skulls and crossbones, led Charles Dickens to refer to the church as ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’. The gateway is dated 11 April 1658 and the Latin text is from Philippians 1: 21: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (NRSVA).

Saint Olave’s has a modest exterior in the Perpendicular Gothic style, with a squat square tower of stone and brick that was added in 1732.

In The Uncommercial Traveller (1861), Dickens described the 17th century gateway with its carved skulls and crossbones in the tympanum as ‘one of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim.’ He recalls visiting it after midnight during a thunderstorm to see the skulls ‘having the air of a public execution.’

The Norwegian connection was reinforced during World War II when the exiled King Haakon VII of Norway worshipped there.

Inside Saint Olave’s Church, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church was gutted by German bombs in 1941 during the London Blitz. The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950. It was restored in 1954, when King Haakon returned for the rededication ceremony, when he laid a stone from Trondheim Cathedral in front of the sanctuary.

Saint Olave’s has retained long and historic links with Trinity House and the Clothworkers’ Company. It is the official church of the Ward of Tower, and of the Clothworkers’ Company, the Trinity House, the Wine and Spirit Trade, and the Environmental Cleaners’ Company.

The interior of Saint Olave’s only partially survived the wartime bombing, and much of it dates from the restoration in the 1950s. It is nearly square, with three bays separated by columns of Purbeck limestone supporting pointed arches. The roof is a simple oak structure with bosses.

Most of the church fittings are modern, but the significant survivals include the monument to Elizabeth Pepys and the pulpit said to be the work of Grinling Gibbons.

A memorial in the tower recalls Monkhouse Davison and Abraham Newman, the grocers of Fenchurch Street who shipped crates of tea to Boston in late 1773. The crates were seized and thrown into the waters during the Boston Tea Party, one of the causes of the American War of Independence.

The molten bell metal was recast into new bells in the 1950s by the same foundry that created the original bells – the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1662 and 1694 – and the new bells were hung in the rebuilt tower.

The 1781 organ was destroyed in the Blitz in 1941. After the war, a Harrison & Harrison organ was installed into the rebuilt church.

The monunment of Andrew and Paul Bayning, dressed in their robes as aldermen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Perhaps the oddest burial at Saint Olave’s is the ‘Pantomime character’ Mother Goose, whose burial is recorded by the parish registers on 14 September 1586. The churchyard also has the grave of one Mary Ramsay, popularly believed to be the woman who brought the Plague to London in 1665.

The Great Plague broke out around Drury Lane and spread rapidly, and 357 victims are buried in the churchyard. Their names were marked with a ‘P’ for ‘plague’ in the church register of burials.

• Saint Olave’s Church has been a place of Christian worship and sanctuary for almost 1,000 years and is one of the few surviving mediaeval buildings in London. The Rector is the Revd Arani Sen. The Choral Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays at 11 am and the mid-week Eucharist is at 12.30 on Tuesdays.

Inside Saint Olave’s Church, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (6)

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

I recently came across this prayer by Samuel Johnson:

Almighty and most merciful Father, Creator and Preserver of mankind, look down with pity on my troubles and maladies. Heal my body, strengthen my mind, compose my distraction, calm my inquietude, and relieve my terrours; that if it please Thee, I may run the race that is set before me with peace, patience, constancy and confidence. Grant this O Lord, and take not from me thy Holy Spirit, but pardon and bless me, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

26 February 2023

The former Congregational Church
was once a landmark in Wolverton

Foundation House on the Square in Wolverton was once the Congregational Church … notice the two crosses on the upper storey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The United Reformed Church presence in Wolverton dates back to the Congregational Church built in Wolverton in 1878, and the church on the Square was once a landmark building in the town.

The Square was laid out on land owned by the LNWR railway company. Radcliffe Street and Stratford Road were laid out in the 1860s, and the Catholic Church of Saint Francis de Sales was built on the corner of these two streets in 1867. Buckingham Street and Aylesbury Streets were developed in the 1870s and 1880s, and Moreland Terrace was built in the 1890s.

The Congregational Church bought a large plot on the south side of the Square in 1878, but it was not until the late 1880s that shops and houses were built on the other three sides of the Square.

The Congregational Church commanded the south side of the Square and the west side was made up of houses of mixed size. It was called Market Street, indicating initial plans for the Square to have a market.

The Congregational Church was expanded in 1890 to accommodate a growing congregation. The red-brick church had a commanding position at the top of the Square, and there was a manse on Moon Street.

Meanwhile, the old Market House beside Glyn Square remained in use until 1906, when it was largely destroyed in a fire. The old school on Creed Street became available that year, and the market immediately moved there. After that, there were no further discussions about using the Square as a market.

The War Memorial erected in 1921, with the former Congregational Church building in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Wolverton’s War Memorial was unveiled in front of the Congregational Church in the Square, on Saturday 10 July 1921 in the presence of a large crowd. The memorial was made of Portland stone, stood at 28 ft 8 in, and the cost of £500 was met entirely by public subscription.

Later views of the church show the tower and the corner of the memorial garden.

One of the pioneering ministers in the Congregational Church in Wolverton was the Revd Constance (Todd) Coltman (1889-1969), the first woman to be ordained in a mainstream Church in Britain.

I have written in the past about this pioneering woman. She had been brought up as a Presbyterian and was a suffragist and a pacifist. When she tried to explore a vocation to ordained ministry she met resistance from the Presbyterian Church of England. She then applied to Mansfield College, the Congregational college in Oxford, and was accepted because of her deep sense of God’s call, although there was no certainty that she would be ordained by the Congregationalists.

She was ordained alongside her fiancé, the Revd Claud Coltman, into the ministry of the Congregational Union on 17 September 1917. They married the following day, and Constance and Claud later ministered in Wolverton from 1932 to 1940.

A plaque recalls the former Congregational Church in Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The 1890s Congregational Church on the Square was last used on 5 April 1970. The church was pulled down in 1970 as part of the authorised demolition of Wolverton landmarks during the development of Milton Keynes. The church was replaced by the Merit Supermarket, with the upper floor reserved for church activities.

The United Reformed Church was formed by Congregationalists in England, Wales and Scotland, English Presbyterians and members of the Churches of Christ in unions and mergers in 1972, 1981 and 2000. Three years later, West End United Church on Church Street was formed in 2005 by Wolverton Methodists and the United Reformed Church in Wolverton, and since then it has used the former Primitive Methodist Chapel built at the west end of Church Street in 1907.

The Roll of Honour from the former Congregational Church is now in Milton Keynes Museum. The old Congregational Church on the Square, Wolverton is now the premises of the local-based charity Milton Keynes Christian Foundation. Foundation House, on the corner of the Square and Aylesbury Street provides space for growing people and community. As well as being the home of the Christian Foundation and a base for a number of social enterprises, it has a range of spaces for activities that benefit our local community.

Two crosses on the upper floor and a plaque on a side wall clearly mark this out as the former Congregational Church in Wolverton.

Since January 2022, the minister of West End United Church is the Revd Jo Clare-Young, who trained at Westminster College, Cambridge. She is the Minister of Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church, the Mead Centre, Newport Pagnell, and West End United Church, Wolverton.

Crosses on the upper storey mark the former Congregational Church in Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (5)

Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald’s statue of James Boswell (1740-1795), the biographer of Samuel Johnson, in the Market Square in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This morning [26 February 2023] is the First Sunday in Lent, and later this morning I hope to be present at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Wolverton.

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

In the days leading up to Lent last week, I quoted from poems by John Keble and Christina Rosetti on love. Johnson wrote in the Rambler on 4 January 1752: ‘It is always necessary to be loved, but not always necessary to be reverenced.’

In his biography of Johnson, Boswell recalled the following conversation:

I regretted that I had lost much of my disposition to admire, which people generally do as they advance in life.

Johnson: ‘Sir, as a man advances in life, he gets what is better than admiration – judgement, to estimate things at their true value.’

I still insisted that admiration was more pleasing than judgment, as love is more pleasing than friendship. The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love, like being enlivened with champagne.

Johnson: ‘No, Sir, admiration and love are like being intoxicated with champagne; judgement and friendship like being enlivened.’

Continued tomorrow</b>

Yesterday’s reflection

In Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, on the First Sunday in Lent two years ago

25 February 2023

Emily Young’s five angels
on columns at Saint Paul’s
are not dancing on needles

Angel I by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’

‘How many angels can stand on the point of a pin?’

Whichever way you phrase the question, it remains a metaphor for wasting time discussing trivial topics that have no practical value, or asking questions whose answers hold no consequence, at times when we have more urgent concerns to debate.

It seems the phrase was first used in a theological context by 17th century Protestant theologians to mock mediaeval scholastics such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas and their prolonged detailed approach to theological questions.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, written ca 1270, asks several questions about angels such as, ‘Can several angels be in the same place?’

However, the idea that questions such as this had a prominent place in mediaeval scholarship is debatable, and it is not clear that theologians in the past ever asked questions like this.

The American philosopher Professor Helen S Lang (1947-2016) wrote that although the question of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle, or the head of a pin, is often attributed to ‘late medieval writers, ‘in point of fact, the question has never been found in this form.’

The idea that scholastic theologians wasted their time debating angels dancing on pins may just be a fabrication, concocted to discredit scholastic philosophy at a time when it still had a significant role in university education.

The first reference to angels dancing on a needle’s point may occur in the writings of the English Puritan, William Sclater (1575-1626). He claimed that scholastic philosophers occupied themselves with such pointless questions as whether angels ‘did occupie a place; and so, whether many might be in one place at one time; and how many might sit on a Needles point; and six hundred such like needlesse points.’

Perhaps he first introduced the ‘needle’s point’ into a critique of mediaeval scholastics because he enjoyed creating the pun on ‘needless point’.

A little later in the 17th-century, William Chillingworth (1602-1644), in his Religion of Protestants (1637), accuses unnamed scholastics of debating ‘whether a Million of Angels may not fit upon a Needle's point?’

Dorothy L Sayers argued that the question was ‘simply a debating exercise’ and that the answer ‘usually adjudged correct’ was stated as, ‘Angels are pure intelligences, not material, but limited, so that they have location in space, but not extension.’ She compares the question to that of how many people’s thoughts can be concentrated upon a particular pin at the same time. She concludes that infinitely many angels can be located on the head of a pin, since they do not occupy any space there.

Angel II by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Nevertheless, I cannot escape thinking about the points in these needless arguments every time I see Emily Young’s sculptures of five angel heads in stone on five columns in Saint Paul’s Churchyard, London.

The sequence of heads are mounted on columns under the arcade of a new classical-inspired building to the north west side of Saint Paul's, redeveloped as part of the redesign of Paternoster Square at the top of Ludgate Hill.

Emily Young’s five angels’ heads are placed dramatically on columns in the arcade of Juxon House and almost face the west front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

In previous blog postings, I have looked at Emily Young’s open-air exhibition at ENO Southbank and her sculpture ‘Archangel Michael The Protector’ in the gardens of Saint Pancras Church, Euston Road.

Emily Young was once described by the Financial Times as ‘Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor.’ Her works are instantly recognisable and accessible. She deals in spectacular lumps of stone – quartzite, onyx, marble, alabaster – to which she gives an identity by carving a face but leaving the remainder of the rock displayed in its raw, craggy intensity, as if the face had grown or evolved organically.

The Financial Times says: ‘Her sculptures meditate on time, nature, memory, man’s relationship to the Earth.’

Emily Young was born in London in 1951 into a family of writers, artists and politicians. Her grandmother, the sculptor Kathleen Scott (1878-1947), was a colleague of Auguste Rodin, and widow of the Polar explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, known as Scott of the Antarctic. Her works include a statue of Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic, now in Beacon Park, Lichfield.

Kathleen Scott later married Emily Young’s paternal grandfather, the politician and writer Edward Hilton Young, 1st Lord Kennet. Emily Young’s father, Wayland Hilton Young, 2nd Lord Kennet, was also a politician, conservationist and writer. Her mother is the writer and commentator Elizabeth Young; her uncle was the ornithologist, conservationist and painter, Sir Peter Scott.

She was still a student when she achieved fame (or notoriety) in 1971 as the inspiration for the Pink Floyd song See Emily Play written by Syd Barrett. But the song has earlier origins in the 1960s. She was 15 when she met Syd Barrett at the London Free School in 1965. ‘I used to go there because there were a lot of Beat philosophers and poets around,’ she said many years later. ‘There were fundraising concerts with The Pink Floyd Sound, as they were then called. I was more keen on poets than rockers. I was educating myself. I was a seeker. I wanted to meet everyone and take every drug.’

As a young woman, Emily Young worked primarily as a painter, while she was studying at Chelsea School of Art in 1968 and later at Central Saint Martins. She travelled around the world in the late 1960s and 1970s, spending time in the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, France, Italy, Africa, South America, the Middle East and China, encountering a variety of cultures and developing her experiences of art.

In the early 1980s, she abandoned painting and turned to carving, sourcing stone from all around the world. Travelling from a London childhood, to a European education, to a life lived as an artist round the world, she began to interact with the timeless quality of stone to produce breath-taking sculptures of luminous intensity and great beauty.

As well as marble, she carves in semi-precious stone – agate, alabaster, lapis lazuli. These not only reflect and refract the light – but glow with a passionate intensity (as Winged Golden Onyx Head), revealing the hidden crystalline structure of the material and the subtle layers the time has laid down, showing the liquid qualities of hard rock.

The primary objective of her sculpture is to bring the natural beauty and energy of stone to the fore. Her sculptures have unique characters because each stone has an individual geological history and geographical source. Her approach allows the viewer to comprehend a deep grounding across time, land and cultures. She combines traditional carving skills with technology to produce work that is both contemporary and ancient, with a unique, serious and poetic presence.

She told an interviewer: ‘I carve in stone the fierce need in millions of us to retrieve some semblance of dignity for the human race in its place on Earth. We can show ourselves to posterity as a primitive and brutal life form - that what we are best at is rapacity, greed, and wilful ignorance, and we can also show that we are creatures of great love for our whole planet, that everyone of us is a worshipper in her temple of life.’

Angel III by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Emily Young’s work echoes a sculpting tradition that looks back to humanity’s earliest relationship with stone. She fuses this sense of tradition with a distinctly contemporary approach, creating a strong paradox between the age-old principles of carving and a progressive, widely informed attitude to form and composition.

She recently explained: ‘So my work is a kind of temple activity now, devotional; when I work a piece of stone, the mineral occlusions of the past are revealed, the layers of sediment unpeeled; I may open in one knock something that took millions of years to form: dusts settling, water dripping, forces pushing, minerals growing – material and geological revelations: the story of time on Earth shows here, sometimes startling, always beautiful.’

Emily Young now divides her time between studios in London and Italy. Her permanent installations and public collections can be seen in many places, including Saint Paul’s Churchyard, Saint Pancras Church, NEO Bankside, and the Imperial War Museum in London; La Defense, Paris; Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire; the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; and the Cloister of Madonna Dell’Orto, Venice.

After years of being feted as ‘Britain’s foremost female stone sculptor,’ the art critic of the Financial Times called her ‘Britain's greatest living stone sculptor.’ The Daily Telegraph has written: ‘Emily Young has inherited the mantle as Britain’s greatest female stone sculptor from Dame Barbara Hepworth.’

The Financial Times said recently: ‘Emily Young is remarkable in that she now stands quite alone in her field, not just as the pre-eminent stone-carver of her generation, but as virtually the only sculptor of her kind at all, a true carver working with figurative imagery, of any real and sustained distinction.’

Angel IV by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Juxon House was designed by Sidell Architects and occupies a highlight prominent site immediately beside the steps of Saint Pauls Cathedral. It forms one side of the Paternoster Square development, with a mixture of shops, restaurants, bars and cafés.

The design of Juxon House was intended to be highly sensitive. Although a contemporary steel structure internally, the façade is faced with Portland Stone and incorporates elements of a classical nature such as piers, pediments and entablatures in an arrangement of arcade, giant order and attic storey.

Ornament is introduced in the Corinthian capitals at the arcade level. These capitals were designed by the Cambridge-based sculptor and stone carver Tim Crawley with a simplified contemporary treatment suitable for the new building, rather than reproducing the more ornate and detailed Baroque models of the cathedral façade.

Angel V by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (4)

The dining room in Samuel Johnson’s house in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Johnson’s diaries and letters reveal that fasting was one of his regular spiritual disciplines, especially during Lent, and he regretted that abstinence from lacticinia (milk foods), which included butter, cheese and eggs, was never strictly enforced in England because of the lack of oil and other products that could serve as substitutes.

In a commentary on what he saw as a common disregard for proper Lenten discipline, he compared Lenten practices in England with those in the Habesha or Abyssinian (Ethiopian) Church:

The severity of their fasts is equal to that of the Primitive Church. In Lent they never eat till after sunset; their fasts are the more severe because milk and butter are forbidden them, and no reason or necessity whatsoever can procure them a permission to eat meat, and their country affording no fish, they live only on roots or pulse.

He also observed:

They fast all the Holy Week on bread and water; … thus Lent is observed throughout Abyssinia, men, women and children fasting with great exactness.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

24 February 2023

Heneage Street Synagogue:
a forgotten East End link with
Ukraine and a massacre

The Spital Square Poltava Synagogue was at 2 Heneage Street in the East End from about 1935 until 1972 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my recent walks around the East End, I visited a number of synagogues and former synagogues, and plan to write about them in the coming days and weeks.

In the past I have written about a number of synagogues and Jewish sites in London, particularly in the East End, including the site in Old Jewry of the Great Synagogue; the site of a mediaeval synagogue at Threadneedle Street; Bevis Marks Synagogue; the former Creechurch Lane Synagogue; the former Great Synagogue, Duke’s Lane; Kehillas Ya’akov, Commercial Road, Stepney; the former Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, Whitechapel; the former Brick Lane Synagogue; Sandy’s Row Synagogue; and Princelet Street Synagogue.

By the early 1890s, there were shuls (synagogues), chevrot (benevolent societies) and steiblech (informal places of worship) all over the Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Saint George’s area.

There are records of shuls in Artillery Lane, Brick Lane, Commercial Road, Duke’s Place, Fashion Street, Fieldgate Street, Goulston Street, Gun Street, Hanbury Street, Heneage Street, New Court, Old Castle Street, Old Montague Street, Pelham Street, Princelet Street, Sandy’s Row, Spital Square, Spitalfields, Union Street and White’s Row. The Etz Chaim Yeshiva or ‘Tree of Life’ Rabbinical Seminary was in Thrawl Street, off Brick Lane.

Among the chevrot, the Chevra Mikra was at 46 New Court, Fashion Street in the 1890s, while the delightfully named the ‘Society for Chanting Psalms and Visiting the Sick ‘was at 113 Old Castle Street. Another chevra had the intriguing name of the ‘Society for Giving Alms to the Poor to Avoid an Evil Death.’

By the early 20th century, the East End was a pulsating centre of Jewish life with a Jewish population of about 250,000 people and about 150 synagogues. Most of these people were Yiddish-speaking first-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, unlike other, longer-established Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Britain, which had come in earlier generations from the Low Countries.

Spital Square barely exists today but was once home to the Spital Square Synagogue, founded in 1858 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

During my recent walks around the East End, I have visited a number of synagogues and former synagogues, and plan to write about them in the coming days and weeks.

The Spital Square Poltava Synagogue was at 2 Heneage Street in the East End from about 1935, when it moved there from Spital Square, until it closed in 1972.

Heneage Street runs east about 500 ft from Brick Lane to Spelman Street, and at one time the street extended another 150 ft beyond Spelman Street. It runs parallel, to the south, to Chicksand Street, and, to the north to the eastern section of Princelet Street, previously known as Booth Street.

The synagogue was at Numbers 2 and 2a, on the south side of Heneage Street. Before moving to Heneage Square, the synagogue was formed in the 1920s through the merger of two older congregations: Spital Square Synagogue and Poltava Synagogue.

Spital Square Synagogue, formerly the German Synagogue on New Broad Street or Old Broad Street, was founded in 1858, and included a benefit society known as Hevra Bikur Cholim.

The Spital Square Synagogue hosted the meeting in 1887 at which the Federation of Synagogues was formed, initially known as the Federation of Minor Synagogues.

The Poltava Synagogue was founded by 1915 at 50½ Hanbury Street, later the address from the late 1920s of the Glory of Israel and Sons of Klatsk Synagogue.

The Poltava Synagogue took its name from Poltava, a city on the Vorskla River in central Ukraine. It is the capital city of Poltava province and the surrounding district, and has a population of almost 280,000.

After they merged, the newly-formed congregation moved to Heneage Street. In time, it merged with Ezras Chaim Synagogue to form Ezras Chaim, Ain Yacov and Poltava Synagogue. After World War II, as the Jewish population moved out of the East End and synagogues began to close, it incorporated some of these smaller synagogues, including the Artillery Lane Synagogue in the 1950s.

Eventually, the Poltava Synagogue on Heneage Street closed too in 1972, and amalgamated with Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue. Some of the former members and their families may still be affiliated for burial rights to the West End Great Synagogue.

The last regular service at Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue was held on 22 September 2007. However, the synagogue reopened for services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2008 and, for a while, other services were held from time to time. By 2014, the synagogue closed its doors for good, and in March 2015 the synagogue building was sold to the East London Mosque.

Today is the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In recent months, Poltava been overwhelmed by an influx of internally displaced people. During the Seven Years War, the decisive battle of the armies of Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden took place near Poltava in 1709.

Poltava has a place in literary history as the birthplace of the writer Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852). Famous Jews born in Poltava include Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (1884-1963), historian and longest-serving President of Israel (1952-1963), the radical American journalist Philip Jaffe (1895-1980), and Alina Treiger, the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in Germany after World War II.

On this Friday evening, I also think of how the name of the Poltava Synagogue recalls an ignominious event in the history of Ukraine. At the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish community accounted for 10 per cent of the city’s population. When the Nazis occupied the city, the Jews of Poltava were imprisoned in a ghetto and were then murdered in mass executions and buried in mass graves.

The former Poltava Synagogue on Heneage Street remains an eye-catching building and still looks rather special. It has been converted into flats and stands across the street from the Pride of Spitalfields pub.

Shabbat Shalom

The former Poltava Synagogue on Heneage Street remains a striking building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (3)

Trinity College, Cambridge … Samuel Johnson stayed there in February 1765 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

During the many pleasant times I have spent in Cambridge in recent years, I have stayed at Sidney Sussex College during summer schools and conferences organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

I am reminded this morning [24 February 2023] how in February 1765, Samuel Johnson visited Cambridge and stayed at Trinity College, where he had lengthy discussions about John Milton, who had been an undergraduate at Christ’s College in the previous century, and Isaac Newton, who was a Fellow of Trinity College although he had never been ordained.

Shortly after that visit to Cambridge, in a Lenten meditation looking forward to Good Friday and Easter Day, Johnson wrote:

I purpose again to partake of the Blessed Sacrament; yet when I consider how vainly I have hitherto resolved at this annual commemoration of my Saviour’s death, to regulate my life by his laws, I am almost afraid to renew my resolutions.

Since the last Easter I have reformed no evil habit; my time has been unprofitably spent and seems as a dream that has left nothing behind. My memory grows confused, and I know not how the days pass over me. Good Lord, deliver me!

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

23 February 2023

Three anchors in Tamworth
recall Colin Grazier’s role
in breaking the Enigma code

The Anchor sculpture in Tamworth commemorating Colin Grazier from Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Three anchors seem, at first, an unusual collection of objects for a sculpture in the middle of Tamworth. After all, this is one of the most inland towns in the Midlands, and about as far from the coast and sea as one can get.

This striking sculpture in the middle of Tamworth dominates the public square facing the south side of Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, the town’s parish church.

The sculpture by the Polish sculptor Walenty Pytel commemorates Colin Grazier from Tamworth, whose bravery helped to break the Enigma codes and hasten the end of World War II, and two of his colleagues, Tony Fasson and Tommy Brown.

Able Seaman Colin Grazier (22) from Tamworth and First Lieutenant Tony Fasson (29) from Scotland drowned on 30 October 1942 while they were seizing vital Enigma codebooks from a German U-boat.

The men served on HMS Petard, a Royal Navy destroyer that had attacked the U-559. They swam to the stricken submarine after its crew surrendered. Colin Grazier had married his childhood sweetheart Olive just two days before joining his ship, HMS Petard.

Grazier and Fasson died when the U-boat sank, but not before passing the Enigma documents to NAAFI canteen assistant Tommy Brown (16), who had also boarded the vessel. He survived, but died two years later in a house fire.

The captured material enabled the codebreakers at Bletchley Park to crack the German Naval Enigma cipher, allowing essential supply ships to avoid U-boat attacks.

Colin Grazier and Tony Fasson were later recommended for posthumous awards of the Victoria Cross. However, the Admiralty wasconcerned this might draw unwanted attention from German Intelligence, and instead ordered posthumous awards of the George Cross, the highest civilian award for bravery. Tommy Brown was awarded the George Medal.

Due to the Official Secrets Act, their mission remained a secret for 30 years. Colin Grazier and his two comrades helped save hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping from torpedoing and of course no-one can estimate the countless lives their actions saved. Their deeds that day paved the way for the build-up of forces for the Normandy Invasions.

Bletchley Park was arguably the most successful intelligence operation in history, the secret workplace of the remarkable people who cracked Germany’s Enigma Code. Almost to the end of the war, the Germans had firm faith in the Enigma ciphering machine. But, in fact, the codebreakers were deciphering almost 4,000 German transmissions daily by 1942.

It is now recognised that Grazier, Fasson and Brown heroic actions shortened World War II by at least 12 months.

The anchor memorial created by Walenty Pytel was unveiled in 2002 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The journalist and author Phil Shanahan led an award-winning campaign by the Tamworth Herald to bring attention to Tamworth-born Colin Grazier, his two colleagues and their heroic efforts of 30 October 1942. The campaign won the Campaign of the Year Award in 2000 and funds were raised to provide a permanent memorial.

The anchor memorial created by Walenty Pytel was unveiled in October 2002, on the 60th anniversary of the action against U-559.A Portsmouth shipyard donated the chain which links the anchors representing the three heroes.

The text on the memorial reads:

Colin Grazier

This memorial is dedicated to Able Seaman Colin Grazier of Two Gates Tamworth, who gave his life recovering vital Enigma codes from a sinking German U-boat.

His extraordinary bravery together with that of Lt Tony Fasson and Tommy Brown (all of HMS Petard) changed the course of WWII, saving countless lives worldwide.

While undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest war heroes, Grazier was also one of the least known. Details of his actions remained secret for decades, depriving him of the true recognition he so richly deserved. This tribute was erected in the Year 2007 following a campaign in the Tamworth Herald which attracted worldwide interest. It was made possible with the support of local ex-service and civic organisations.

Erected in memory of all Tamworth people who died for their country.

The Polish-born sculptor Walenty Pytel is a contemporary artist based in the United Kingdom and is recognised as a leading metal sculptor of birds and beasts. He was born in 1941 in German-occupied Poland during World War II. Because of his blond features the Nazis kidnapped him from his mother Jadwiga Pytel and had him adopted by a Gestapo officer and his childless wife. However his mother, who had escaped from a prison camp, snatched him from outside the couple’s home and fled Poland with him to Italy.

Pytel came to England at the age of five and later studied graphic design at Hereford College of Arts. He opened two studios in Hereford in 1963, initially focusing on paper sculptures for window displays but turned to metal two years later.

His creations are often inspired by nature and his work includes the Jubilee Fountain in New Palace Yard, Westminster, ‘Take Off’ at Birmingham Airport, and one of Europe’s largest metalwork sculptures, ‘The Fossor’ (1979), at the headquarters of JCB in Rocester, Staffordshire.

The museum at Bletchley Park has a section dedicated to Colin Grazier and Tamworth has an avenue, an office block and an hotel named after him.

The Colin Grazier Hotel on Church Street is beside the Colin Grazier sculpture and Saint Editha’s Church and is a Grade II listed building dating from the early 18th century, with later additions.

Over time, it has been a house, a police station, an office, and a hotel., it is in brick with stone dressings, a cornice over the ground floor, a top modillioned cornice, and a tile roof with coped gables. It is in early Georgian style, and has two storeys, seven bays, and a rear gabled wing with an attic. There are two doorways with architraves, friezes and cornices. The windows are sashes with keystones, and in the windows in the upper floor have rounded heads.

The rear gabled wing has a single-storey extension that includes a late 19th century cell block.

The Colin Grazier Hotel on Church Street is beside the Colin Grazier sculpture and Saint Editha’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (2)

Good advice from Samuel Johnson in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Samuel Johnson once declared: ‘Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’

I imagine too when one tires of demanding social justice, one is tired of life.

Johnson said: ‘By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.’ His biographer, James Boswell, quotes this pious Anglican of the 18th century as saying:

‘Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.’

Continued Tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

22 February 2023

‘Who is Our Neighbour?’:
a six-week study course
for Lent 2023 with USPG

‘Who is Our Neighbour?’, a six-week study course for Lent 2023 produced by the Anglican mission agency USPG

Patrick Comerford

Lent began today on Ash Wednesday (22 February 2023).

One way of marking Lent this year is following ‘Who is Our Neighbour?’, a six-session Lent study course ‘Asking what it is to be a good neighbour’ and produced by the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

I have edited this 48-page Lent Study resource and have also written the introduction:

Introduction: Who is Our Neighbour?

‘Who is our neighbour?’ This is a key question that is at the heart of the Parables in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

It is almost as difficult to choose our neighbours as it is to choose our family members. I may ignore them, they may pass me by on the street, we may fail to catch each other’s eyes as we leave our homes and close our doors – but we are still neighbours.

We seldom get to know our neighbour by design or through some great, planned-out exercise or scheme. We move into a house or flat with the assurance from the previous tenants or occupants, or from the letting agent, that the neighbours are wonderful.

Films and television dramas have idealised neighbourhoods and neighbours. The reality is that, neighbours, like families, are not always ideal. It’s only when we are faced with a time of need or a crisis moment that we realise who our good neighbours truly are.

During the pandemic, as many of us spent more time at home than we expected, we started to get to know our neighbours. Sometimes we get to know our neighbours by accident. But the results are often surprising – on both sides of the ‘neighbourhood fence.’

At a casual level, that friendly smile, that morning greeting, that check-in call, became more sincere and led to shared replies and responses. Sometimes, sadly, people realised their neighbours were worse than expected. But, in most instances, we learned something new from each other: what we share and how we differ; how we have needs and skills to share; how we all contribute to the variety and diversity that make up the beautiful mosaic that is our society and our world today.

The Church as a body learns about our neighbours in similar ways. In mission, we give and receive from each other, without asking who the giver or the receiver is – because, in reality, in the Body of Christ, Christ is both the giver and the receiver.

When we grow closer as neighbours, we realise what we share, what we have in common, how our differences contribute to our understanding and to the beauty of life. I can never return to thinking I am self-contained or self-sufficient. As we become better neighbours, we mature in empathy, we became more aware of our own dependence on others, and on the need to help our neighbours at their points of need.

Little gestures make a big difference: not just the small and the snatched greeting, not even the shared lift or the offer to help with child-minding, but the realisation that I am not fully human until I see my needs in the needs of others, to see my humanity in the humanity of others.

Neighbours bring unexpected gifts and I bring the unexpected to them.

My neighbours teach me not only who they are, but open me to the potential of who I am. Their needs and my needs become incarnational signs – sacraments if you like – of how we can serve humanity and of who we can be.

The six studies in this Lenten Study are inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10: 25-37). In some Orthodox traditions of iconography, the man who is mugged, beaten up and left on the side of the road becomes an image of fallen humanity, the world in need, the world that has become the victim of its own selfishness in the journey of life, but also the victim of capricious and powerful decision-makers.

Those who pass by the victim on the roadside of life are you and me, the faithful members of the community of faith, the religious, those who say we believe but who need to put our belief and faith at the service of our neighbours, the needs of society, the needs of the world.

But in that tradition of iconography too, the Good Samaritan is depicted as Christ himself. It is often an unexpected image of the neighbour. The rejected becomes the one who comes to the aid of the rejected, the comfort-less find comfort in the one who has come to bring hope and light to the world.

The parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us not to ask but to answer the question, ‘Who is our neighbour?’ That lies in both me and the other person.

I too am a neighbour. My neighbour is not just the focus of my compassion and concern; my neighbour also teaches me what it means to serve. To be a good neighbour, I need to both give and receive, as Christ both gives and receives.

The Church is both the giver and the receiver in mission. In identifying and serving the needs of others, we find not only who our neighbours are, but they too welcome us as neighbours. We become Christ-like, as we should, for as the Church we are the Body of Christ.

The six studies in this Lenten Study are from Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Caribbean, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and the Diocese of Europe. Our theme this Lent is informed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but you are invited to draw on other readings too, offering shared experiences in the Church, in all its diversity, of what it is to be a good neighbour today.

Patrick Comerford

Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSVA):

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26 He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27 He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28 And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30 Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37 He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

All 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.

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (1)

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) … a portrait by Joshua Reynolds

Patrick Comerford

The Season of Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday. Later today I hope to be present with the Parish Choir at the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford at 7 pm.

In previous years, my Lenten reflections have journeyed with the saints, looked at Lent in Art, reflected on the music of Vaughan Williams, and similar themes.

This year, I am planning to take time each morning reflecting once again on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Perhaps I am sympathetic to Johnson because of his origins in Lichfield. Perhaps I am drawn to him because he recalled that when he lived in in London he went ‘every day to a coffee-house.’ But he was also a pious Anglican, a regular communicant, and he writes regularly and carefully about his observance of Lent and Easter.

At early age, his mother encouraged him to learn the Book of Common Prayer by heart, including its many rich Lenten collects. The Book of Common Prayer invites us ‘to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and Repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.’

Samuel Johnson once declared, through his amanuensis James Boswell, that unless we set aside certain days for particular remembrances, we will probably fail to remember.

Johnson was generally negative about religious verse and his own devotional poems, marked by earnestness and humility, were composed mainly in his later years. There are several meditations and seven Latin prayers, the majority of them based on the Collects in The Book of Common Prayer.

David Nichol Smith, in Samuel Johnson’s Poems, says these verses ‘are preserved for us in sufficient numbers to rank [Johnson] as a religious poet, though a minor one.’

The Collect of Ash Wednesday in its traditional version in The Book of Common Prayer prays:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent; Create and make in us new hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Johnson translates this into Latin as:

Summe Deus, qui semper amas quodcunque creasti,
Judice quo scelerum est poenituisse salus,
Da veteres noxas animo sic flere novato,
Per Christum ut veniam sit reperire mihi.

His translation is dated 13 April 1781 and was first published in Works in 1787 (see Poems, pp 229-230).

Translated back into English, this reads:

Almighty God, who dost always love what thou hast made, before whom as judge to have repented of one’s sins is salvation, grant that with my soul made new I may so lament my former sins as to be able to obtain forgiveness through Christ.

Johnson has condensed the original without losing very much and has made it a personal prayer. But his emphasis is a positive one, so that he begins with an affirmation of God’s love rather than asserting that God does not hate. It is a twist in emphasis that reveals much about Johnson’s piety and his confidence in the love of God.

Yesterday’s Reflection
Continued tomorrow

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square, Lichfield, at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

21 February 2023

Saint Editha among the icons
by Ian Knowles in Saint John’s
Catholic Church in Tamworth

The icon of Saint Editha by Ian Knowles in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

After a number of attempts over many decades, I finally managed to visit Saint John’s Church in Tamworth for the first time last Sunday.

Recently, the two Roman Catholic churches in Tamworth, Saint John’s Church in the town centre and Sacred Heart Church in Glascote, have undergone major refurbishment. Part of this work included commissioning icons by Ian Knowles for the sanctuaries in each church.

Saint John’s Church received four of his six half figures – Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Elizabeth, to grace the sanctuary, while Sacred Heart Church has a new monumental Cross hanging in the sanctuary.

Inside Saint John’s Church in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint John’s Church was built in 1829, on the corner of Saint John Street and Orchard Street in the centre of Tamworth. The church is more of historical interest as an ambitious town church at the time of Catholic Emancipation than for its heavily compromised architectural qualities.

The church was designed as a large neoclassical church by Joseph Potter (1756-1842) from Lichfield, who supervised the alterations to Lichfield Cathedral in 1788-1793 and who was also the architect of Holy Cross Church, Lichfield (1835), and Saint Mary’s College, Oscott (1835-1838).

Saint John’s Church was remodelled and extended and given a distinctly post-war character in 1954-1956, and its brick exterior makes it look like a 20th century church.

I have long been interested in visiting the church, not only because of the earlier involvement of the Comberford family in Catholic and recusant life in Tamworth until the late 17th century, but because Saint John’s recently received interesting icons by Ian Knowles.

Finally, after many years, I was able to visit Saint John’s Church last weekend, before Sunday’s lunch in the Castle Hotel celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Tamworth and District Civic Society.

The sanctuary and altar in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, with the four icons by Ian Knowles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

For his commission for the icons in Saint John’s Church, Ian Knowles researched the life and story of Saint Editha, the patron saint of Tamworth, who gives her name to the town’s Church of England parish church, Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, which I visited earlier on Sunday morning, including a visit to the Comberford Chapel in the church.

Describing his commission for the icon of Saint Editha and the other icons in Saint John’s Church, In Knowles says: ‘Sometimes saints really are lost to us in all but name, but where possible it is important to try and be as tuned in as possible to the saint as a living person whose commitment to Christ was lived out with such luminosity.’

Before beginning his work on this series of icons, Ian Knowles realised that it ‘is not clearly identifiable which St Editha this is.’

He found the earliest mention associating Saint Editha with Tamworth is the celebration of a Mass in her honour there in the ninth century.

Saint Editha is mentioned as Saint Ealdgyth in the Secgan, an 11th century Anglo- Saxon list of where English saints are buried and where their relics are venerated. Her relics are listed as being buried at Polesworth on the River Oncer or ‘Anker’. Ian wondered whether Saint Editha of Polesworth is the same as Saint Editha of Tamworth.

Polesworth is near Tamworth, and during the Norman period had the same feudal lord in the Marmion family. According to legend, Saint Editha of Polesworth appeared in a dream to Marmion of Tamworth Castle in the 12th century a to remonstrate with him over the eviction of her nuns from the monastic foundation he had suppressed.

Inside Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The main source for her life is in the ‘Life and Miracles of St Modwenna’ by Geoffrey, Abbot of nearby Burford in Staffordshire (1114-1150). He identified Saint Modwenna with Saint Monenna, an Irish noblewoman, abbess and saint. He believed that St Eadgyth who was a her companion during her travels in England and on pilgrimage to Rome, was the same as his Saint Eadgyth or Saint Editha of Polesworth.

Other sources suggest Saint Editha was the daughter of Edward the Elder, sister of King Aethelstan who had his court nearby in Tamworth and whose unnamed sister was married briefly to Sitric, King of Dublin and York.

In his research, Ian Knowles also came across the story of Saint Eadgyth of Aylesbury, also known as Eadridus. She is said to have been a daughter of Penda of Mercia, who converted to Christianity, marking the beginning of the evangelisation of the Mercians.

As a result of his research, Ian Knowles has tried to summarise the life of Saint Editha. He concludes she was born into the royal Mercian household, a daughter of King Penda, and entered the monastery at Whitby with other English noblewomen, perhaps under the influence or at the direction of Saint Modwenna but certainly her eventual companion.

Her father King Penda gave her a parcel of land in now Polesworth near Tamworth to found a monastic settlement, and this became a small community who lived a semi-hermitical life. She was buried in Polesworth, and later was venerated in Tamworth when it became the seat of the Mercian royal court.

The four icons by Ian Knowles depict Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Ian Knowles doubts that he can ‘push much further than this’ in identifying who Saint Editha is. He describes her as a person of sufficient faith that miracles were associated with her in her lifetime, and she inspired other women to join her in her community.

The four icons by Ian Knowles in the sanctuary in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, depict Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist (the church’s patron) and Saint Elizabeth, the mother of Saint John the Baptist.

On a future visit to Tamworth, I must endeavour to visit Sacred Heart Church on Silver Link Road, Glascote Heath, to see his Tamworth Cross in the sanctuary.

Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church, Tamworth … built in 1829 and rebuilt in 1954-1956 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)