St. Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield

Six Original Etchings by Charles Bird, R.P.E., with Letterpress description

Bristol: Frost and Reed. 1896.

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This narrative provides a colorful description of the priory church during the very last stages of Webb's restoration. Charles Bird was apparently a Victorian sketch-artist, but so far my Internet searches have yielded little useful information about him.

Poor Rev. Sir Borradaile Savory clearly did not impress the author with his speculations on the tale of Dives and Lazarus from the Gospel. Charles Booth, the great journalist and social reformer of Victorian London, corroborates Bird's impression:

Sir Borradaile Savory is a man of perhaps 35 to 40, big, clean-shaven, well-groomed. He seems to be a man of simple and enthusiastic nature, who enjoyed his life, and would do his best to see that other people did the same. He is apparently rich [The Rector makes it a rule never to deliver a gift himself], and last year spent nearly £850 in the parish. He is not particularly clever, I suppose, but is none the less a good fellow for that.

Charles Booth, interview with Reverend Sir Borradaile Savory, rector of St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield. Contains printed extract concerning services, clergy and meetings nd, service of Guild of St. George of England, 23 April [1898], 8 May 1898

From notebook B246, pp74-89 on http://booth.lse.ac.uk/cgi-bin/do.pl?sub=retrieve_catalogue_notebook&args=b246
(archive at the London School of Economics)

Sir Borradaile Savory

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With the exception of the Norman Chapel of St. John in the Keep of the Tower of London, St. Bartholomew's, Smithfield, is the oldest church in London, and one moreover, which from the time of its foundation in 1123 has been continuously used as a place of worship. 

Rahere, its founder -- and be it noted the founder also of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, which gives relief to about 150,000 sick folk every year -- was the Ecclesiastical Father O'Flynn, in not leaving gaiety all to the laity of the Norman period; and Henry I., amongst whose courtiers Rahere was to be found, highly appreciated the worthy priest's witty conversation. After the loss of the White Ship, an event which wrapped the King in such funereal gloom that, as every little schoolboy knows, he never smiled again, the tone of the Court changed, and devotion became the fashion. Rahere, like Othello, finding his occupation gone, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Whilst there he was taken ill with malarial fever. During his convalescence, according to the legend, St. Bartholomew appeared to him in a vision, ordering him to build a church in Smithfield, one of the suburbs of London.

Rahere's tomb, by Charles Bird

Rahere, accepting this as a message from heaven, returned home and established the Augustinian Priory, of which St. Bartholomew's was the church.

North Ambulatory, by Charles Bird

In 1133 the King granted to the Priory a charter of privilege, in the concluding paragraph of which he adjured "All his heirs and successors, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that they maintain and defend this sacred place by royal authority." Thus was commenced the magnificent church of St. Bartholomew, of which the Norman and Transition Norman parts, the choir and transepts, were built before the close of the twelfth century, the nave probably being erected during the next hundred years.

When the dissolution of the monasteries took place, Henry VIII., like the anticipatory plagiarist of some of our modern politicians that he was, looked upon the wishes of his "pious ancestor" as having been written in Pickwickian sense, and sold the Priory to Sir Richard Rich, for the good of the State, and pocketed the money -- L'etat c'est moi. He, however, salved his conscience with the condition that the chancel was to be left to serve as a parish church. Sir Richard proceeded to "develop" his property by pulling down the nave and the various canon's houses, etc., for building materials, whilst the choir was handed over to the parishioners, who bent all their energies during subsequent years to "beautifying and adorning" the church. At the same time they were not above "making a bit" by putting such portions as they thought they could do without to a profitable use. Thus, they let at a rental, the north transept to a blacksmith, who set up his forge therein, the Lady Chapel was hired by a fringe manufacturer, who took off the roof, raised the walls fifteen feet, covered them inside with canvas, and papered them, thus turning the beautiful fifteenth-century building into a three storeyed house, the crypt being utilised as a coal and wine cellar. In the north triforium were established the parochial schools, whilst a Non-conformist "academy" called in the vestry minutes "The Protestant Dissenting Charity School," occupied the south triforium until well into the present century. Part of the south transept tumbled down and the rest was utilised as a vestry. Meanwhile the interior of the choir was rendered chaste and beautiful; the tracery was taken out of the windows (unimpeded light is such an advantage!), the walls were covered with several good coats of whitewash, and comfortable square pews were erected in which the congregation could realise that the Sabbath was indeed a day of rest, in this taking for their example the clergy who, in their "three decker," are thus described by Cowper, "Sweet sleep enjoys the curate in his desk, The tedious rector drawling o'er his head, And sweet the clerk below." But all things come to an end, and during the reign of the Rev. John Abiss (sic), who, by the way, was rector from 1819 to 1883, the dry bones were stirred. Since 1864 the work of restoration has gone on surely if slowly, until now only £1,000 are required to give back to the choir of St. Bartholomew's, at any rate, a somewhat completed suggestion of its ancient glories. The south transept was re-built and re-opened by the Bishop of London in 1891; the new north transept was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the presence of the Prince of Wales and his family on June 5, 1893, and last June the Lady Chapel, with its crypt, were opened by the Duke of Newcastle. These last are in an unfinished state, and it is to properly restore this fine piece of late Gothic that the £1,000 is required. St. Bartholomew's is seated as a collegiate chapel, the returned choir stalls being placed at the west end under the organ loft, whilst the seats for the congregation run along the sides of the building. It has no reredos or backing of any kind, nor is it vested save for a super frontal (the colors used are those of Sarum), the altar itself is of wood, and was the gift of the sister-in-law of the late rector, the Rev. W. Panckridge, the mosaic footpace on which it stands being given by the patron of the living, the Rev. F.P. Phillips, who also gave the oak choir stalls. On the north side of the Sacrarium is Rahere's tomb. Upon it lies his effigy, in which he is represented with tonsured head, his habit being that of an Augustinian canon. On the other side of the sanctuary, in one of the arches of the triforium, is a projecting bay window in the Perpendicular style, which was probably built for the purpose of watching the founder's tomb (there is a similar chamber opposite St. Alban's Shrine in St. Alban's Abbey); on the central panel beneath this window is carved the rebus of Prior Bolton, a crossbow bolt passing through a wine tun. The service yesterday consisted of Matins and choral celebration, the sermon forming a part of the latter. The setting of the "Te Deum" was the familiar "Smart in F," which was very fairly performed. The music at the celebration was the melodious, if not very profound, "Tours in C." The sermon was preached by the rector, the Rev. Sir Borrodaile Savory, Bart., the subject being taken from the gospel of the day, the story of Dives and Lazarus. During his discourse, the preacher suggested that Lazarus was probably a leper. This idea, perhaps mentioned to impress some of the medical students in the congregation from across the way, is hardly probable. Dives was not a man who was likely to have lepers hanging about his doorstep.

There is a little or no ritual at St. Bartholomew's except on the part of the celebrant, who was attended by two servers in red cassocks and cottas. Coloured stoles are used, the candles on the altar are lighted, and that is all. In order, however, to give the service the appearance of being a "high" celebration, two of the clergy were also in the sacrarium; but their presence was merely ornamental. All the adult members of the choir, with one exception, communicated, the "odd man out" lounging gracefully in his stall during the absence of his confrères.

West porch, by Charles Bird

North transept, by Charles Bird

In looking through the registers, my attention was drawn to a somewhat important deed which has been recently discovered, and which is now published for the first time. Had the existence of this document been known of at the time, it might have materially influenced the decision of the judges in the several great ritual trials. This find was an inventory of certain "ornaments of the minister" which were evidently parish property, and which were handed over by the retiring churchwarden, one Maurice Thorne, to his successor, Philip Scudamore. The date of this inventory is 1574, sixteen years after Elizabeth had ascended the throne.

Amongst the items are the following (the spelling is modernised): "A burial cloth of red velvet, a pulpit cloth of the same material, a blue velvet cope, a blue silk cope, a white linen alb with head piece for same (an amice), a vestment (a chasuble) of tawny velvet, a vestment of red 'rought' velvet, a vestment of green silk, with cross guard of red velvet, a cross banner of red taffeta, 'gilted,' and two stoles of red velvet." All these were parish property, and the presumption is that they were in use at the church, or there would have been no need otherwise to keep them. I make no comment upon this document other than to say it is a rather difficult one to explain away. There is not a shadow of doubt that it is absolutely authentic.

The dark days are over now, and St. Bartholomew's restored by its talented architect, Mr. Aston Webb, to something of its ancient glories, is a church to which every Londoner should make a pilgrimage. The Americans go there in shoals.

Prior Bolton's window, by Charles Bird

(Reprint from The Daily Mail, of June 8th, 1896; author is listed as "Anthropos.")

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Photographs and text copyright Tina Bird, 2003-2007
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