“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!”
– Genesis 28:16
Citing from Bishop John Inge’s book A Christian Theology of Place, the Right Reverend Dr Trevor Mwamba opens his Barking Abbey guidebook welcome letter with “The place in which we stand is often taken for granted and ignored in our increasingly mobile society.” Over recent years, the demographics of London areas, particularly the East End, has rapidly evolved from locally-born people to a population made up of people from all areas of the world. As a result, the history of the towns and cities of Britain are gradually fading into obscurity. An example of this can be found in the ethnically diverse town Barking; once home to one of the most important nunneries in the country, Barking Abbey, the commercialised town has almost forgotten its former roots.
Situated at one end of Barking Town Centre Market, St Margaret’s Church, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch (289-304 AD), was originally built within the grounds of the former royal monastery, Barking Abbey. It originated as a chapel for the local people, its oldest section being the chancel built during the reign of King John (1166-1216), eventually becoming a parish church in approximately 1300. The abbey itself, however, is thought to have been founded as far back as 666 AD.
Most of what remains of Barking Abbey is the buried layout on the north side of the church, now named Abbey Green, some of which has been reconstructed. Fortunately, one part of the abbey survives intact. This is the Curfew Tower that was once one of the abbey’s three gateways. Built in 1460, many repairs have kept the Grade II listed building standing, a remnant of the past. On the upper storey, a small chapel can be accessed up a set of stairs, although, this is not used so often nowadays.
Historically, Barking was once a fishing and farming area, as remembered in many of St Margaret’s stained glass windows. A window on the east side, however, depicts a traditional Crucifixion scene flanked by two saints, St Cedd (right) and St Erkenwald, the founder of the abbey (left). In the 7th century, Erkenwald founded two monasteries, one for himself in Surrey and one for his sister Ethelburga. These abbeys were intended to re-introduce Christianity to the British Isles. Whilst Christianity had been made legal during Roman rule in the 4th century, it had begun to fall out of favour.
Ethelburga, later Saint Ethelburga, became the first abbess of Barking Abbey with the intention “to be a mother and nurse of devout women.” (Bede, 731 AD) Ethelburga was a holy, upright woman, constantly concerned for those under her care. Later, she founded the church All Hallows Berkyngechirche (now known as All Hallows by the Tower) in 675.
Barking Abbey was initially a double monastery of nuns and monks who shared the church whilst living in separate quarters. Later, in the 10th century, all double houses were reformed into single-sex abbeys. For the next couple of centuries, many abbesses were appointed by the kings of England, for instance, Matilda of Boulogne (1105-52), wife of King Stephen (c1092-1154), and King Henry II’s (1133-89) daughter, Matilda (1156-89). This ended in 1214 when the Pope insisted the nuns should be allowed to elect their own abbess.
After the Norman conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror (1028-87) took refuge at Barking Abbey whilst he constructed the Tower of London. It is thought the king may have fled here after unfortunate misunderstandings during his coronation. Later, the abbey also became the holding place of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), who was forced to surrender some of her property to Hugh Despenser the younger (1286-1326).
As with all abbeys, monasteries and so forth, Barking Abbey succumbed to Henry VIII’s (1419-1547) Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Following this, the abbey was gradually demolished until only the Curfew Tower remained standing. A lot of the building’s material was reused, for instance, to repair the roof of Greenwich Palace and to construct a new manor for the king in Dartford, Kent.
Due to its almost complete destruction, it is not altogether certain what the layout of Barking Abbey was, however, many rooms have been identified during recent excavations. The abbey’s main church sat at the heart of the site, its size similar to a cathedral: 103 x 30.5 metres (337 x 100 feet).
As well as the church, various chapels would have been found in the abbey, including the one that has been developed into St Margaret’s Church. Three grave slabs, attributed to the abbesses St Etherlburga, St Hildelith and St Wulfhilda, mark the position of the Saints Chapel. Other rooms, including cloisters, parlours, dormitories and the Reredorter have also been identified.
There are so many buildings that have not been excavated and have since been built upon. It is thought that the land belonging to Barking Abbey stretched as far as the River Roding, a tributary of the Thames, as shown in a drawing by Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949) based upon an original sketch produced in 1500.
St Margaret’s Church was fortunate to survive the Reformation and remained a parish church when the abbey was dissolved. Throughout the years, changes have been made to the building, including the plastering of the ceilings during the 18th century. The building was grade I listed in 1954 and has since been extended to house an office and refectory.
Within the church are a number of items that help to preserve the memory of the abbey and the history of the land and building since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Remnants of floor tiles from the original abbey are conserved in a glass display cabinet. From these, the quality and appearance of the masonry can be appreciated.
Other discoveries are also kept in this case, for instance, a Breeches Bible, which predates the King James Bible by approximately 50 years. This was a variation of the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and would have been read and used by people such as Shakespeare (1565-1616) and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). It was the first mechanically printed, mass-produced Bible in England, thus the first made available to the general public. The reason for its name, Breeches Bible, is the wording of verse 7 in Genesis 3:
“Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”
The King James Bible, printed in 1611, changed the word “breeches” to “apron”.
Also within the display cabinet are examples of more recent histories and gifts given to the church. One of these is a book of paintings presented in 2004 by local artist George Emmerson. For a decade, Emmerson had been producing watercolours of St Margaret’s Church, the Curfew Tower and grounds, of which this was the final result. He gave it as a gift to the church as a means of saying thank you for the kindness and help shown to him and it “is a tribute to the clergy and the many people who do voluntary work to keep the church alive and prosperous.”
St Margaret’s also pays tribute to the explorer Captain James Cook (1728-99) who was married to his wife, Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835) in the church on 21st December 1762. This year, 2018, has been a significant year for remembering Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Pacific Ocean upon HMS Endeavour, which set sail 250 years ago. The church holds copies of newspapers about Cook’s demise in Hawaii and copies of the Marriage Register showing James and Elizabeth’s entry.
The church building itself is crammed full of history, from architecture to objects within the sanctuary. Although many renovations and extensions have occurred over the years, remnants of old decor can be seen in one corner of the ceiling where little cherub faces peer down at the congregation.
The timber beams and design of the roof over the North Aisle, which was built around the late 15th or 16th century, suggests the involvement of local ship-wrights. The Norman pillars in this section may have been taken from the abbey and the windows would have once been a traditional medieval style. In 1771, the windows were replaced with Georgian versions but the ones in place today were added in the 20th century.
Many bodies have been interred under the flagstones, which, unfortunately, are inevitably becoming illegible the more they are walked over. Some are now covered up by carpets and it is impossible to tell how many people are buried in total, nor their names. There are records of some of the people, for instance, William Pownsett whose tomb is more prominent. In his will, he asked, “to be buryed yn our lady chaple next unto my pew at Barking.”
On the walls around the building are monuments to those who had significant connections with the church. Some are more elaborate than others, a few including busts of the deceased. An impressive monument to Captain John Bennett (d.1716) remembers a wealthy man who became a captain in the Royal Navy at a young age. Another, featuring a skull, remembers the life of Sarah Fleming (d. 1715). Francis Fuller (d.1637), an official of the Exchequer who owned a number of estates in the parish of Barking is remembered in a monument featuring his bust in an oval niche.
During excavations of the abbey in 1912, an incised stone slab was unearthed in the Nun’s Cemetery. As well as words, it features an etching of a man named Martinus who was the first vicar of Barking from 1315 to 1328. This memorial stone is now kept in the sanctuary safe from the effects of harsh weather conditions that could permanently damage the inscription.
When renovations began in the late 1920s and 30s, George Jack (1855-1931) an architect, wood carver, stained glass artist and furniture designer for Morris & Co, became involved with the repair work. Jack was responsible for the fisherman’s stained glass window as well as a couple of memorial tablets and a pair of candelabra. For the Youth Chapel, Jack carved eight wooden figures of people with some association to the church. As well as two fishermen, these include James Cook, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), St Ethelburga, St Nicholas, St James and St John. They are still in remarkable condition today.
On the Youth Chapel screen below the wooden figures is a contemporary painting by the artist Alan Stewart, which was unveiled by the Bishop of Barking in 2005. Titled Early in the Morning, the painting shows a black Christ in 21st-century clothing surrounded by disciples from a range of ethnic origins. This is to reflect on the diverse population of Barking and those who worship at St Margaret’s Church. The scene depicts Jesus serving breakfast to his disciples by the side of Lake Galilee as told in John 21 after his resurrection.
At the rear of the church is an octagonal stone font with a decorated wooden lid. This was painted during the renovations in the early 20th century. George Jack employed his daughter Jessie to help to paint his design onto the cover. Each of the eight segments features a bird and flowers on a blue background. Around the rim, carefully painted letters spell out the phrase “God hath given to us eternal life and this life is in his son”.
The font, stained glass windows and wooden figurines are some of the most attractive objects in St Margaret’s Church, however, one carving often gets overlooked. In fact, people who attend services for years do not always notice it unless it has been deliberately pointed out.
At the end of each wooden pew is a distinctive carved design that, in some way, resemble leaves or a plant. Due to the similarities between each one, it is easy to miss the intriguing design at the end of one particular pew. Taking the same shape as all the others, this one features the heads of two dogs. The meaning of the carving is unknown but it is thought it could be a family’s coat of arms. This suggests that at one time wealthy members of the congregation may have paid to have their own pew where they would sit during every service they attended.
Although St Margaret’s Church may be tiny in comparison to the original Barking Abbey, its elaborate decor, architecture and age make it stand out from other churches in the area, particularly the more contemporary. It has also had a large share of notable clergymen, many of whom eventually became bishops. Even today’s vicar was once the Bishop of Botswana.
The Right Reverend Hensley Henson (1863-1947) was one of the many significant clergymen associated with St Margaret’s. Ordained in 1888, Henson was the vicar until 1895 when he became chaplain of an ancient hospice in Ilford. He was only 25, the youngest vicar in the country, when he joined the church, putting him in charge of an ever-growing working-class parish, whose population then stood at 12,000. Undaunted, Henson made a favourable impression on the congregation, a colleague later stating: “He came six months ago to a parish dead – 250 a good congregation in the church; and now, when he preaches, every seat is filled – 1100!”
St Margaret’s was only the beginning of Henson’s career; by 1900 he was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey. In 1917, he became Bishop of Hereford and it was only another three years before he also became the Bishop of Durham. During his final years, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) persuaded Henson out of retirement to resume his position as Canon of Westminster Abbey. It is said that Churchill was impressed with Henson’s strong views on ecclesiastical matters and his support of the Church of England.
Other vicars of St Margaret’s have gone on to be bishops including the Scottish Painter George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), who went on to become Bishop of Sheffield, and William Chadwick (1905-1991) and James Roxburgh (1921-2007) who were both Bishop of Barking.
Today, St Margaret’s Church continues to welcome friends and strangers, inviting everyone to various services throughout the week and on Sundays. Visitors and regulars are also encouraged to enjoy tea, coffee, cakes and lunches in their cafe. Surrounded by a graveyard and the remains of Barking Abbey, the church is a beautiful, peaceful place to visit, both outside and within. It truly is a place of history and religion worthy of being used and remembered. It is thanks to places such as St Margaret’s that local history is recognised and commemorated.
8:30am – Said Eucharist
11am – Sung Eucharist
6:30pm – Evensong