Architecturally the church is a remarkable building. It shows how Gothic was coming to be the accepted style for church-building in late Georgian times, although it was not of the archaeologically correct kind that came to be demanded from about 1840 and which underpinned the early years of the Victorian Gothic Revival. This is most evident in the extraordinary steeple where the big East window is described by Cherry and Pevsner as consisting “of a crazy assembly of motifs utterly unworried by considerations of antiquarian accuracy”. The placing of the steeple at the East end is both highly unusual and rather disconcerting.
St Michael’s is the parish church of the Cator Estate, named after John Cator who in 1783 bought the estate of Wricklemarsh House, built in 1724. Cator had little use for the house and demolished it in 1787, re-erecting its portico as part of his new house at Beckenham Park. It stood roughly where Blackheath Park and Pond Road intersect and foundations, probably of the stables, were uncovered when the present church hall was extended in 1991. The first new houses appeared along the fringes of the estate and the earliest ones in Blackheath Park date from 1809.
A church was then considered essential for any new housing development. The Cator estate lay partly in the parishes of Lee and Charlton and partly in the Liberty of Kidbrooke. The last had no church and those of the other two were at some distance. However, parishes were reluctant to change their boundaries, since loss of parishioners and land affected the incumbent’s income, which depended largely on tithes and fees for baptisms, marriages and burials. Both would be reduced if the parish became smaller.
A New Chapel
The solution was a proprietary chapel, paid for either by a benefactor or a clergyman, and then licensed by the Bishop; such chapels sat only loosely within the Church of England. The minister of the chapel earned his living from rents paid by worshippers for their pews and any donations. Thus, to earn a living, he had to attract a congregation by his preaching.
In 1828 J B Cator gave £4,000 and a plot of land at the centre of the estate for a proprietary chapel. On 28 December he laid the foundation stone and it was completed in February 1830 to the design of George Smith (1783-1869) who had been trained at the Royal Academy Schools and then worked for James Wyatt before setting up his own office in the City around 1808. He was well-known in his day and undertook a fair amount of church work although buildings for City institutions were his principal source of commissions.
He was the consultant architect to Morden College in Blackheath and was a founder of the Institute of British Architects. He designed several houses on the Cator Estate, among them Brooklands House where he lived, and also several stations in south London, including the original London Bridge and the station house at Blackheath. The builder of the church was William Moore, a local man.
The first minister, Joseph Fenn, remained until 1876 and set many of the traditions of St Michael’s, including support for missionary work (he had served in South India).
The Parish Church
By the 1870s Fenn and his chapel were anachronisms. The law had been changed to make it easier to create new parishes – several were set up in Blackheath. The custom of renting pews, though it did not end until after World War II at St Michael’s, was widely deplored. After an attempt to set up a parish in 1852, one was approved in 1874 and the chapel was consecrated as the parish church of St Michael and All Angels.
The dedication is puzzling as the chapel had been called either Trinity or St Peter’s Chapel or simply ‘Mr Cator’s chapel’. Fenn became the first vicar but resigned two years later and died in 1878 (his memorial is in the south aisle). Despite later changes, the church is much as he knew it.
The Church Building
Smith used a free interpretation of Gothic for the new chapel, by 1830 the most widely used style for churches. Often a chancel was added to make space for more elaborate ritual, but this was impossible here as, most unusually, Smith placed the tower at the east end, probably as an eye-catcher to make the Cator Estate’s central cross-roads more impressive, and the building extends to the boundary at the other end. It is not true that the placing of the tower was a mistake and that Smith killed himself by jumping off it – he did not die for over 30 years.
There are two bells in the tower, which were restored to use for the Millennium, and frequently ring for 10 minutes prior to Sunday morning services.
Except for the details in Bath stone, the material is white brick – actually light grey when new, it weathers darker. The roofs are in Welsh slate (renewed 1988).
The spire, known as the Needle of Kent, is the most prominent feature and, like the rest of the church, is unlike anything a mediaeval mason would have produced. Exaggeratedly tall and thin, with small but prominent canopied openings at the ‘eye’, the detail is quite unhistorical.
The thirty pinnacles are the notable external decorations of the exterior, at the corners of the nave roof, along the nave roof parapet, around the tower, and around the spire.
Few early Gothic Revival churches escaped significant later external changes, because of Victorian notions of style and worship. St Michael’s was an exception, perhaps because of the way the site was used, which made little outside change possible.
The vestry which commemorates Fenn’s ministry was added north of the tower in 1878-79. It is a utilitarian structure, but the plans are by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), designer of the original New Scotland Yard and the Piccadilly Hotel. This minor commission may well have been by the hand of a pupil. Shortly thereafter in 1881-2 N and S porches were added to the design of the local architect Edward dru Drury b.1841.
In the interior, the lofty narrow proportions surmounted by the timber roof trusses are emphasised by the galleries and absence of a transept.
The architectural evidence at St Michael’s suggests that Smith designed the side galleries with the organ gallery. Galleries became common in churches after the Reformation, to allow more people to sit in relative comfort close enough to the pulpit to hear the sermons which were the central part of most services. Most were removed in the later 19th century, because they were thought to spoil the proportions; but here they were retained and refurbished with new gallery fronts, when the interior was altered in 1881. A memorial in the south aisle to Charles Edward Shaw (d 1879) states that the church was then re-seated. The pine pews are of this date, replacing higher ones typical of 1830. These would have covered the plain bases of the piers, which are now exposed.
The architectural detailing is simple and decoration is concentrated on the reredos in the east and the organ-case in the west. Smith’s reredos is as original and ‘unscholarly’ (to use a Victorian term) as his other work, but is a worthy termination of the view east. It displays the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the symbols Alpha-Omega (beginning and end in the Greek alphabet) and IHS (the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek). The lettering is gilded paintwork later than 1830 in style, and probably dates from 1881, though the custom of placing the central statements of the Christian faith here was by then rare.
The nave windows have quatrefoiled circles in their heads and the glass is plain, with just a deep red narrow ribbon framing each window. If one looks carefully there are also 28 tiny panes of cathedral purple to be found. The large east window, part Geometric, part Perpendicular in style, has slightly more intricate tracery using red with bars of green circlets surmounted by a cinquefoil rose feature in which the five circles (reiterating the five teardrops at the centre of the reredos) contain a sixth which bears the interlocking triangles of the shield of David in red and green. The window gives into the tower, so is lit by the second east window in the tower itself.
The pulpit was added as a WW1 war memorial in 1920 and it is not known what preceded it. Although St Michael’s retains an emphasis on preaching and teaching, it is now rarely used, most sermons being given from the raised dais. The dais was added in 1981 when John Burden, a member of the congregation, re-ordered the east end, removing front pews and, re-using the fittings of 1881 where possible, creating movable communion rails and two movable stalls for the clergy. Current practice is for the clergy to sit with the congregation so those stalls are used only very occasionally.
At the west end, the ornate relief detail of the organ case, also believed to be by Smith, is mostly gilding on papier maché, while the pipes themselves have red and black floral stencilling on a gilded ground.
The organ itself is considerably older than the church. It was bought second-hand and was erected here in the mid-1830s (the exact date is uncertain). It was given a rather fine new case but was otherwise the instrument built around 1740 by John Harris for St John’s Chapel, Bedford Row (to the north of Lincoln’s Inn), and enlarged by Hugh Russell in 1803.
The organ was removed from St John’s Chapel in 1821 and was not re-erected here until some twelve years later so presumably spent quite a long time in store. In 1910, Robert Spurden Rutt did some work to the organ and he undertook a much larger-scale rebuild and enlargement in 1927, including the installation of tubular pneumatic action and a stopkey console. Noel Mander did work in 1955, adding the mixtures and undertaking some revoicing. In 1987 the pneumatic action, which had become difficult to maintain due to the large number of leather parts, was replaced by electric action.
OVERALL, St Michael’s still gives much of the impression of an early to mid nineteenth century Evangelical church, whatever the actual dates. It is this that adds so much to its interest.