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 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.
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 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 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.
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).
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.
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
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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