St Matthias Old Church, Poplar

A short walk from Poplar DLR Station, you can find St Matthias Old Church set in Poplar Recreation Ground.

I’ve always thought it looks like a sort of friendly witch’s hut, but as we’ll discover, looks can be deceiving.

St Matthias Old Church Poplar

St Matthias Old Church History

The clue is in the name; old. But from the outside St Matthias doesn’t look it, having been remodelled in 1866.

The Chapel became a Parish church and was covered in Kentish Ragstone. It was designed by William Milford Teulon who also added the bell tower and stone tracery.

All this change means that actually from the outside you don’t really get a sense of the red brick 17th century Chapel.

St Matthias Old Church - ceridwen / St Matthias Old Church, interior / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ceridwen / St Matthias Old Church, interior / CC BY-SA 2.0

Residents of Poplar had been asking for a new place of worships from the early 1630s, gathering local contributions. However, the Chapel of St Matthias was mainly funded by the lord of the Manor of Poplar, a man called Gilbert Dethick who left £100 towards the cost in 1639.

The chosen plot was on land own by the East India Company who had almshouses on the site. They agreed to give the plot for nothing and contributed ’60 loads of stones’ (Survey of London)

Because of disruption during the Civil War, it wasn’t completed until 1654. It’s the only Interregnum church still standing in London and the oldest in Poplar.

The Church Today

St Matthias Old Church Poplar

St Matthias Old Church isn’t actually a church, but a community centre.

In the 1970s – with a still healthy sized parish – they merged with the flailing congregation St Anne’s Limehouse.

With only one church now being necessary, there was a showdown between the older St Matthias and the beautiful St Anne’s, consecrated 1730 and designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

St Anne's Limehouse - History of St Matthias Old Church Poplar

St Anne’s church won and the congregation of Poplar went to Limehouse.

In 1977 the building was declared redundant and deconsecrated. It later fell into a derelict state and was vandalised.

Thankfully, the building was saved from demolition in the 1990s when the LDDC and English Heritage restored the church and its usage was changed to community centre.

The Surrounding Green Space

As mentioned previously, the East India Company (1600 – 1874) had a huge part to play in the history of this chapel and the surrounding area.

Although St Matthias – then Poplar Chapel – was used by the local community, it was also the main chapel of the East India Company itself, which had a dockyard nearby (today, the redeveloped site by East India DLR Station).

Inside the former church are memorials to members of the East India Company. However, accessible outside in the churchyard there are some impressive (and listed) tomb monuments.

St Matthias Old Church Poplar

The monument above is Grade II listed and commemorates Captain Samuel Jones and his family. Jones was a celebrated naval leader in the early 18th century and his monument records that he ‘engaged a superior force of the French off Cape Rwella in 1706 and off Beachy Head in 1707, and with signal bravery and conduct put them to flight’.

The one below – surmounted with an obelisk balancing on four balls – commemorates a distiller, Daniel Coppendale (c1669–1722).

St Matthias Old Church Poplar

Nearby is a slightly later, chest-shaped monument. You can just about make out the name Thomas Lambert (c1768–1844), a builder and coach operator.

St Matthias Old Church Poplar

From the late 1850s onwards the East India Company’s power was diminishing. Property was handed over to the crown and their old almshouses were demolished. The Company was finally dissolved by Act of Parliament in 1874.

Poplar Church was consecrated as St Matthias and the surrounding area known as Poplar Recreation Ground.

A Tragic Local Memorial

Also in Poplar Consecration Ground – though not connected to St Matthias Church – is this moving memorial

Poplar Memorial - St Matthias Old Church History

On 13 June 1917, a bomb dropped by a German plane fell on The LCC school, Upper North Street, killing 16 five year olds and 2 slightly older children. The total killed that morning from bombs was 104, but the news of so many young children killed created a huge outpouring of public sympathy.

The funeral on 20 June was therefore a major public event, with over 600 wreaths being brought to the nearby parish church and King George V providing a note to be read aloud.

Unveiled on June 23 1919, it was paid for by a huge fund of over £1,400, so much that some of the extra money was donated to a local children’s hospital. The Mayor said ‘These boys and girls as truly suffered for their country as any men who have perished in the trenches, on the high seas or in the air’.

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11 Comments

  • Stewart Francis

    Reply

    Thank you, Katie, As ever, fascinating and beautfully described and photographed!

    December 30, 2020 at 10:02 am
  • Myra Fryer

    Reply

    Dear Katie
    Thank you for your interesting informative and fun posts. I have really enjoyed them. Being cooped up and not being able to go anywhere I have been able to travel around our lovely city vicariously via the blog. When I can I have a list of places to visit thanks to you and will certainly do a tour. Keep up this lifesaver !! Best wishes for the new and hopefully improved year. Kind regards
    Myra

    December 30, 2020 at 12:06 pm
  • Terri Caylor

    Reply

    Dear Katie
    I really love your weekly newsletters, they have really kept me going, I share them with work colleagues and have encouraged them to sign up. I am looking forward to the day when I can join you on your guided walks with my lovely sister. We were both born and raised in London, its in our bones.
    Thank you so much and I wish you every success with your business, I know this year has been particularly tough.
    Terri

    December 31, 2020 at 10:17 am
  • Dave Paskell

    Reply

    That’s a fascinating bit of history about a former Church that nearly didn’t survive. I continue to be impressed by your curiosity regarding London’s history Katie, and the stories that subsequently emerge about people, places and architecture. I am certain I would be less wise about my home City if I hadn’t read your regular postings, so keep it up, thank you!

    January 1, 2021 at 2:54 am
  • Caspar Verney

    Reply

    Dear Katie,

    Going on thge principal that if you don’t ask then you don’t get, can I please ask you about the monument to Samuel Jones?

    Your very clear photograph shows me what is written on the front and gives tantalising hints of inscriptions on the sides – is it at all possible to get photgraphs of whatever it says on each side (and the back if there is anything there), please?

    Many thanks,
    Caspar

    January 31, 2021 at 12:22 pm
  • Katie. I went to Poplar Technical College in Poplar High street – now New City College – 1959-1963.
    From the bus stop in East India road we all cut through the park to school. The church was still open then.
    I recall our school packing out St. Matthias church on special festival and saints days,
    We were told that the pillars were made from ships masts, and the ceiling was covered with old ship flags.
    Some were decaying or in tatters & would overhang from their poles.
    As the school was Marine affiliated, we were lectured in the church about many of the east India company’s exploits,
    usually by naval commanders borrowed from the Sailors Home in Limehouse.
    p.s. another interesting local fact is that west of Poplar high street is the ‘original’ China Town.
    I would often buy my chop suey lunch from tiny shops, in street names such as;- Ming street/Noodle street/Pennyfields.

    August 31, 2021 at 1:09 am

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