Emmanuel church (1) - origins of the Church of England in Forest Gate

Monday 27 August 2018

This is the first of a two part article on the history of Emmanuel Church and of the CofE in Forest Gate. The second half, on the rise and fall of the Church of England locally will appear next.

There have been literally dozens of churches and religious buildings in Forest Gate over the last 170 years of its existence as a significant community. None is probably better known, or more familiar to today's residents, than Emmanuel church, sitting as it does on the key cross roads of Forest Gate - the junction of Upton Lane with Romford and Woodgrange roads.

This is its story, told in two parts - and we are totally indebted to a one-time curate of the church, Andrew Wilson, for being able to retell it. (see footnote for details).

John Fothergill, the Forest Gate botanist (see here for details), planted an acorn on the site of the church, during his residence at Ham House (now West Ham park). It grew into a fine oak, and was mentioned in the Katharine Fry/Gustav Pagenstecker history of West Ham (see here for details).

John Fothergill, whose acorn was
 planted on the site of Emmanuel church
The tree gave Upton Lane the nickname of One Tree Lane at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.

The coming of the railway to Forest Gate in 1840 lead to the beginnings of its rapid population growth. A decade later a decision was made to build a Church of England church in the area, to service its burgeoning community.

It was originally conceived as a chapel of ease (a sub-church, for those who were unable to reach a more established church - in this case, West Ham parish church) and it was consecrated on 22 May 1852.

The area to be served by it was from land half in the then parish of West Ham and half in the old East Ham parish. The existing dividing line between the two parishes was along roughly what is Green Street, today.

The area covered by Emmanuel church's parish.
The dotted line is what is now Green Street,
and the boundary between the old
West and East Ham parishes
The two parishes paid £50 each towards the establishment of this hybrid church, which was referred to as being a "consolidated chapelry" (because it was carved out of two existing parishes).

The right to nominate a vicar of Emmanuel alternated between East and West Ham parishes until 1962 - when the church, itself, joined to form a new parish, by merging with St Peter's of Upton Cross (see later for details). Nomination rights for selecting the vicar then transferred to the Bishop of Chelmsford.

The alternating of vicar nominations process caused problems during most of the 110 years the arrangement operated. Broadly, West Ham church has a "low" church tradition, and East Ham, a more formal "high" church tradition. So, the seeds of the on-going conflict soon became apparent.

The territory assigned to the Emmanuel parish (see map) was considerable. Rapid population growth in Forest Gate led the church, itself,  later to spawn "daughter" churches within the parish, to cope with speedily growing parishioner numbers.

The Emmanuel parish boundaries extended roughly from Wanstead Flats in the north, to Plashet Road in the south and from Water Lane in the west to High Street North, in the east. Unsurprisingly, pretty much the area we know today as Forest Gate!

The "daughter" churches - some of which have not survived - included St Saviour's, St Marks, All Saints and parts of St Edmunds, St James' and St Peter's Upton Cross (see later for details).

The original Emmanuel church building cost £4,235 to construct - the bulk coming from the pocket of the Rev Tuile Cornthwaite of Walthamstow. The Church of England Commissioners only supplied £150.

The eminent church architect George Gilbert Scott designed the building. It was of an early English decorative style, built with Kentish rag stone and York stone.

Architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, signs
off the construction of the church
The original church (it has been subsequently much altered) was built to accommodate a congregation of 500 (see illustration). The titles on the steeple were in two colours - with 'V' shapes. The stripped steeple lead to Emmanuel colloquially being referred to as the 'Harlequin church'.

As well as a church, a new school was planned (see here for article on early education in Forest Gate). Samuel Gurney (see here) gave land on the corner of Woodgrange Road and Forest Street for the Emmanuel National school (see here). An infant's school followed in 1864.

The vicar and wardens of Emmanuel were the school's first trustees - until they passed responsibility on to St Saviours (one of the daughter churches) in 1888. By this time, the school's numbers were in decline, as state run School Board schools proved to be more popular. The Emmanuel school closed in 1894.

The Gurney family (Quakers) again gave land for a vicarage for Emmanuel, in 1876. It was built three years later, at a cost of £2,480. It was located on the site, currently being redeveloped by Mura estates on Earlham Grove, next to the Community Garden. See photo, below. It remained the parish vicarage until 1950.

The Earlham Grove vicarage, built in 1876
On completion, the vicarage was immediately deployed as a soup kitchen, during a particularly severe winter. This early version of a food bank gave out soup at 1d per quart, together with sacks of donated coal to poor local parishioners.

The soup kitchen was later moved to the grounds of Emmanuel school, and was in operation until 1883. This was the time of maximum housing development in Forest Gate.

By the 1880's the 500 seater church, designed by Gilbert Scott, was proving to be too small for the rapidly expanding congregation - and it was extended. - adding a further third to its eating capacity in 1886. Further expansions were objected to locally, as they would have meant disturbing the occupants of the graveyard!

The extended church, post 1886 - with a
perpendicular extension, adding another
200 to the seating capacity

The Emmanuel Institute - the building on Romford Road, facing the church - was built in 1882, as a Sunday school and remained as a location for church events for 80 years before being rented, then sold, to Wag Bennett, as the weightlifting/bodybuilding gym, for which it subsequently became famous (see here and here for details).

Emmanuel Institute, built 1882 -
later to become Wag Bennett's gym

Forest Gate Nurseries in 1996, land
owned by Emmanuel church for expansion
that did not occur - now Ralph Jackson
House, on Romford Road
As a Sunday school, the building regularly attracted over 500 pupils, with 35 staff, in the 1880's. The land next to the Institute, also belonged to Emmanuel, which had unfulfilled plans to turn it into a library and a reading room. They didn't materialise, and for many years the space was occupied by a small garden centre and is now Ralph Jackson Court, a block of flats.

Footnote: This article is almost wholly based on a now out of print booklet That big church on the corner - a history of Emmanuel church, Forest Gate, by Andrew Wilson (then assistant curate, now rector of St John of Jerusalem church, Hackney), 1995, to whom we are most grateful.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder who was Ralph Jackson? I live in this block, Ralph Jackson House now.
    P.S. it's a pity that the area between th3 Community Centre and my block is a delivery area for Iceland and a parking lot... Would be great to have a small communal garden here instead ��


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