History Behind The Space, E14
Walking along Westferry Road on the Isle of Dogs, a striking building jumps out at you. It’s now known as The Space, E14.
Built in 1859 and designed by T E Knightley, it was a church; St Paul’s Presbyterian Church which was in use until 1972.
Taking a closer look, it’s truly a feast of colour and texture, the multi-coloured bricks and varied depths meaning sunlight plays across the surface continuously offering up new angles to appreciate.
According to the architectural historian Pevsner, it was based on the West Facade of Pisa Cathedral (constructed 11th century) and seeing them side-by-side you can see the resemblance.
Connection with The Great Eastern
The foundation stone for St Paul’s was laid by John Scott Russell, the Scottish Civil Engineer. He, along with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, worked on the Great Eastern; the largest ship ever built when launched in 1858, a year before the church opened.
The Great Eastern was built at Millwall and a short walk from The Space you can find the preserved slipway. The ramp used to launch the massive – all-iron – construction.
Unfortunately for Brunel and Scott, the launch was a disaster. Brunel had wanted to launch the ship quietly on 3 November 1857, but its huge size – over 6 times bigger than anything seen previously – attracted large crowds. Apparently 0ver 3,000 tickets had been sold to spectators, oops.
Construction of Great Eastern at Millwall, August 18, 1855 | National Maritime Museum @ Flickr Commons
Over the course of the day the ship only moved 4 feet and tragically a man was killed while several others were injured. It would only be on 31 January, 1858 that the Great Eastern finally floated. It led to the bankruptcy of Scott and eventually a stroke and the death of Brunel in September 1859. You can read more about the history and launch from Historic England.
But back to the Church…
As a church, St Paul’s went through some ups and downs too, expanded to double its capacity in the early 1860s. However, in 1866 the congregation had fallen to just 6 people! Thankfully by the next year it had jumped back up to 100.
Because of the rise of containerisation, when the London Docks closed in Wapping 1967, the effects were felt across the whole of the industry and the area felt the decline. The church was deconsecrated in 1972 and the Millwall Docks finally closed in 1981 along with the Royal Docks further East.
The building was then used for a brief period to test crane equipment, the evidence for this still seen on the South elevation where a window was replaced with large double doors. Seen on the right hand side, painted red, in the image below.
Image from Google Street View
In a state of dereliction in the 1980s, the building was bought by the St Paul’s Art Trust. They restored and transformed the building into a theatre and today it’s Grade II listed.
Thank you to the brilliant, thorough history of the building and its architecture by Steven J Pilcher, which you can read in full here.