The History of St Michael’s, Sutton Court by Ian Peacock

In 1906 the Vicar of Chiswick proposed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners the creation of the parish of St Michael, Sutton Court from parts of the parishes of St Nicholas, Chiswick and Christ Church, Turnham Green, to serve the burgeoning population of Grove Park. This was the last new Anglican parish to be created in Chiswick.

A new parish
During the nineteenth century Grove Park was primarily an area of market gardens and orchards, supplying fruit and vegetables to the rapidly growing population of London. By the last decade of the century, it was developing apace, and within the next 20 or so years much of the area to the west of Sutton Court Road would be built over. Most of the roads in the part of the parish to the east of Sutton Court Road were built during the interwar years.

The proposed new church from the report of the laying of the foundation stone, Chiswick Times 23 December 1908

By 1906 the population had grown enough to justify the formation of a new Church of England parish, north of the parish of St Paul’s, whose northern boundary was marked by the railway line from Kew Bridge to Waterloo. Two proposals precipitated the building of St Michael’s Church. The first was by the Vicar of Chiswick for the constitution of a new district, to be called ‘the District of St Michael, Chiswick’, comprising parts of the parish of Chiswick and the parish of Christ Church, Turnham Green. This proposal was considered at the Estates Committee Meeting of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners on 11 January 1906. At the same meeting the Committee considered a second proposal that the new church would be funded out of the proceeds of the sale of the site and fabric of the Church of St Michael, Burleigh Street (just off the Strand), as contemplated by the Order in Council dated 7 August 1905, whereby the Benefices of St Paul’s, Covent Garden and St Michael, Burleigh Street were united.

The London Gazette of 31 July 1906 paved the way for this two-fold purpose to be realised, and it also stated that ‘… we further recommend… and propose that the whole right of patronage of the said proposed district and when such district shall have become a new parish then… the nomination of the Minister or Incumbent thereof shall… be forever vested in… the Vicar or Incumbent for the time being of the said benefice of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields.’ The Patron of St Michael’s remains the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The proposals were adopted and churchwardens and sidesmen for the new parish were appointed in January 1908. The Vicar of St Nicholas was very gracious about the loss of part of his parish, though he did remark wistfully, ‘It means cutting off a great part of the parish where several people are of a much more prominent social standing than in much of the parish that will be left to us.’

The sale of St Michael, Burleigh Street raised £20,500. The church had stood on the corner of the Strand and Burleigh Street from 1833 until 1907 but, when its parish was united with St Paul’s Covent Garden, the building was no longer needed and it was demolished and the Strand Palace Hotel was built on its site. Of the money raised by the sale £8,000 went to buy the site and build the new church of St Michael’s, Sutton Court, and £1,800 was used to build the new vicarage. The remainder was expended on building the hall, endowing the parish, and making some charitable contributions.

The old church hall
The Bishop of Kensington (Dr Ridgeway) decided that the new church should be built in the grounds of Little Sutton on the site of a small fishpond, on a new road called Elmwood Road. The first building to be erected was the Hall, opened by Dr Ridgeway on 1 February 1908. Made of wood with a tin roof, this building cost £360 and its builder, Mr W Harbrow of the Iron Building Manufacturers of South Bermondsey, took only seven weeks to finish the job. Because of the spring which fed the fishpond, the hall had to be built on steel piers embedded in concrete, rather than on the usual brickwork, and the foundation piles had to be particularly deep. Ninety years later, the builders of the new Parish Centre also found it necessary to drive in unusually deep piles.

The hall was used for services from February 1908 until the opening of the permanent church. It then had a long life as the church hall until 1996.

The new church
The foundation stone of the church itself (detail of the inscription shown below) was laid by Lord Kinnaird on 19 December 1908, while a ‘large number of parishioners and visitors from other parishes’ sheltered from the unfavourable weather under an awning.

The choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields led the singing. Lord Kinnaird, as well as being a senior churchman, played in nine F A Cup Finals, appearing in all positions and earning a reputation as a ‘muscular’ tackler. He also scored the first recorded own goal in F A history.

Less than a year later the church was complete and its consecration took place on Tuesday 7 December 1909 with the Bishop of London officiating. Both the Chiswick Gazette and The Times optimistically reported that the church could accommodate 625 persons: the actual capacity is around 350. They also reported that the church contained many of the fittings transferred from St Michael, Burleigh Street including the bell, pulpit, lectern, font and communion plate.

Other items transferred were the communion table, desk prayer book, altar service book, oak sanctuary chair, sanctuary stools, oak reading desk, sanctuary curtain and carpet, altar vases, collection plates and boxes and churchwardens staves and numerous other gifts. Some of these are still in use and some have been sold over the years. However, the oak altar, retable and altar rail were new.

Some of the St Michael, Burleigh Street furniture was rejected. Apparently the painted pine choir stalls disfigured the chancel, according to the parish magazine in April 1911, and so they were replaced by oak ones, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners having found some money left over from the sale of St Michael, Burleigh Street. The complete organ was also to have been transferred, but this proved impractical, though many of its pipes and other components were used in the instrument which is still played today.

Few other major changes have been made to the interior of the church since its building, except a new High Altar (dedicated by the Bishop of Kensington on 29 September 1927), the painting of the chancel, and improvements to the lighting on two occasions. Sadly, however, the fine candlesticks used on the altar were among some of the items of church furniture stolen in a burglary, and replaced with those used today.

The building
The style of St Michael’s very much reflects the period in which it was designed, constructed as it was at the height of the Edwardian period in 1908-09. Nonetheless, its design by W D Caröe clearly has its roots in the ecclesiastical architecture of the late nineteenth century. Throughout most of the Victorian period the design of ecclesiastical buildings in England was strongly influenced by the Ecclesiological Society which advocated a Gothic style of church design. Whereas there were variations on this Gothic theme, ranging from decorated early English to Perpendicular, this style continued through to almost the end of the nineteenth century. In the last decade of the century, however, architects such as J D Sedding and Ewan Christian among others began to depart from this design tradition, introducing a variety of design styles.

In the early years of the twentieth century this variety continued in the churches built for the newly emerging Edwardian leafy suburbs. In these areas there was a need to provide good quality but relatively inexpensive churches to suit the new congregations and their developing aspirations. These new churches required practical comforts which included reasonable lighting and heating, good acoustics and, just as importantly, relatively easy maintenance. The design of St Michael’s shows how W D Caröe developed the nineteenth century tradition from his perspective as an Arts and Crafts architect. The church, according to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry in their revised edition of The Buildings of England: London Vol 3 North West, represents ‘one of Caröe’s most interesting churches in outer London’.

The interior looking east, 1966. Photo courtesy of the Brentford & Chiswick Times

The design of St Michael’s shows him at the height of his career. St Michael’s is one of a number of churches built by Caröe between 1902 and 1909 in the emerging London suburbs. All have a similarity in style but each is unique in the particular way he adapted to the position of the site as well as the finances which were available at each of these churches.

Jenny Freeman in her book, W D Caröe: his architectural achievement, describes St Michael’s as a building wherein ‘the emphasis externally is on the craftwork, on careful stone dressings, on subtle variations in the tilework, on the timbering, brickwork and leadwork’. Ms Freeman also highlights Caröe’s interest in local building traditions and how they are apparent at St Michael’s. Its surroundings are ‘still leafy enough to evoke the setting of a simple country church. Yet the building is a highly complex composition of red brick and tile’. The most striking feature of St Michael’s, according to the current Church Architect Patrick Crawford, is undoubtedly the shallow swept tiled arches. Beneath these arches of tiles is, according to Cherry and Pevsner, ‘free flamboyant Gothic stone tracery’.

The architect
William Douglas Caröe was born in 1857 in Liverpool and died in 1938. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in mathematics. After leaving university, he became articled to a Liverpool architect, E B Kirby, but in 1882 was taken on by the noted Victorian architect, J L Pearson. Within a year of joining Pearson, he started taking on his own commissions and soon became so busy that Pearson agreed that he could reduce his hours to devote more time to his own work.

By the turn of the twentieth century he had built up one of the largest architectural practices in England and was appointed the Church Commis-sioners’ Architect. His work was influenced by Pearson, Norman Shaw, and J D Sedding as well as by his partner, Henry Wilson. Caröe and Passmore had been suggested as architects for the new church in a Report of the Estates Committee of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners dated 26 April 1906. Their plans for the new church were submitted on 29 July 1908.

The incumbents
Soon after the new parish was formed, the Reverend L McNeill Shelford was appointed its first vicar. He was the son of the Patron of the Parish, the Revd Leonard E Shelford, Vicar of St-Martin-in-the-Fields. Since then the parish has had eight other incumbents. The longest-serving vicar so far is the late Michael Barney who was at St Michael’s for nearly 20 years. The current vicar, Nicholas Fincham, has been here since 1995.

The Great War
Within five years of the opening of St Michael’s, the Great War had broken out. During that war, 33 men of the parish died, either in action or from disease while serving abroad. Most died in France, although there were also fatalities in Mesopotamia from heatstroke, in Rhodesia and in Australia. Most of the men of the parish were away including the vicar, Mr Shelford, who was a Chaplain to the Forces. In his absence the locum was Canon Woodman until September 1917 and thereafter Mr Palmer. The Memorial to the dead of the parish on the pillars in the nave was designed by Caröe.

The Te Deum east window. Photo by Nick Floyer

The windows
As a memorial to those who died in the First World War it was decided to commission a stained glass window. The artist was Horace Wilkinson, who also designed the small stained glass window in the lady chapel. He was a well-known stained glass designer and there are outstanding examples of his work in Brecon Cathedral, Winchester College and many parish churches. He was born in Camberwell in 1866 and died in Broadstairs, aged 90, in 1957.

The window symbolises the Te Deum. The upper central light shows Christ crowned and robed seated on a rainbow throne. Kneeling at his feet are the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. He is surrounded by circles of Seraphim and Cherubim and the symbols of Alpha and Omega. Above are the symbols of the four Evangelists: the Man – St Matthew, the Lion – St Mark, the Bull – St Luke and the Eagle – St John. The bottom panels depict the three military saints: St George, St Michael and St Martin, plus a host of other figures representing the Holy Church throughout the world, the Noble Army of Martyrs and the Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets.

The window in the North Aisle was designed by the noted stained glass artist Brian Thomas. In the South Aisle, there are memorials to Walter Slade and to Edmund Williams-Ashman and his son Andrew. Walter and Edmund were both long-serving churchwardens. In the north east there is a window in memory of Samuel Manning, vicar at St Michael’s from 1948 to 1959.

The church in 2010. Photo by Rodney Walshaw

The organ and music at St Michael’s
A few of the organ pipes date back to the early nineteenth-century organ built by John Gray for St Michael, Burleigh Street, and many more to the late nineteenth-century additions to that organ. The component parts of the organ were transported from Burleigh Street to Chiswick. However, most of the instrument is based on the reconstruction of 1924, carried out by Browne and Sons of Canterbury. This rebuilding cost around £850. In the intervening years little had been done to the organ, apart from tuning, maintenance, and some repairs in 1966, until the centenary year 2009.

The rebuilding of the organ in 2009-2010 to mark the church’s centenary has been a major project, comprising the electrification and modernization of the soundboards and pneumatic action, the installation of a ‘Trombone’ stop and new electric blowers. Inflation is evident in the cost of these newest repairs, around £100,000, which the parish has raised through numerous fund-raising events, legacies and donations, and a grant from the diocese. The work has been carried out by Griffiths and Cooper, an Isle of Wight based firm.

Music has always been an important aspect of worship at St Michael’s and according to Wippell’s, maker of the choir’s robes, many of their serial numbers date back more than 50 years. Today’s choir of around 30 adults and children is directed by Jan Cunningham and sings a wide repertoire of music at Sunday services and for special occasions. Former choirmasters include Patrick Connolly who served in the 1980s, and John Thackray, a notable musician who died aged just 50 in 1999, having served two separate terms as choirmaster and organist.

The new Centre
Though ‘temporary’, the original hall served the parish for 90 years, albeit with improvements to the stage, kitchen and floor in 1934. However by the early nineties it was clear that more and better space was needed.

In 1997 the new Centre was built in place of the old church hall, and opened by the Bishop of Kensington on 13 April. The Centre was designed by Pierre Fowell Associates and the contractors were H A and D B Kitchen Ltd. It had been financed by the sale of the former church hall of St James’ Gunnersbury, which since the demolition of that church had been the scenery store for the London Festival Ballet. Most of St James’ parish had been added to St Paul’s Brentford, but then the St Michael’s parish boundary was extended westwards almost to Kew Bridge, and so included the hall.

The overall design challenge was to replace the existing 90-year-old wooden and tin-roofed hall with a building that would link to, and be respectful of, the listed church in form, materials and detail and would at the same time relate to the Edwardian street scene.

The building was designed to be flexible enough to host the Montessori school, and to be used for a variety of community activities ranging from the St Michael’s Players to choirs, playgroups, dancing, scout groups, weddings and other functions. It has become a great asset and an integral part of parish life.

St Michael’s in 2010

A century after its consecration, St Michael’s is flourishing. The Vicar of Chiswick in 1906 was right to recommend the establishment of a new parish to serve the Grove Park community.

Based on the history of the church which was published by the Parochial Church Council in 2009 to mark the centenary of St Michael’s Sutton Court.

Ian Peacock has been a parishioner at St Michael’s Sutton Court since 1973 and has recently retired as churchwarden. He is currently Chairman of Mothercare pic and chairs the Westminster Abbey Finance Advisory Committee.

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