Roman Catholic chapels and churches in the parish

Virginia Street Chapel (1760s-1856)

The short remaining stretch of Virginia Street, south of The Highway, is now part of the News International site, but before the building of the Docks it ran down towards the river. The chapel closed in 1856 when St Mary & St Michael was built on the Commercial Road, which is outside our parish, and whose story is fully told elsewhere, both in A History of St Mary & St Michael's Parish (Terry Marsh Publishing 2007) and here.

The emergence of a Roman Catholic presence in East London
In Queen Anne's time there were said to be 20,000 Catholics in London, and this was the figure given by the vicariate in the returns of 1746, but numbers were beginning to increase.  Although the Penal Laws, prohibiting Roman Catholic worship, remained in force until the last quarter of the 18th century, it was possible for wealthier Catholics (who tended to live in Soho, 'Little Ireland') to attend various embassy chapels [right: Sardinian chapel, Lincoln's Inn Fields] and 'mass houses' in Westminster and the City, and - though it was more dangerous, even as attitudes relaxed - for the increasing number of Irish immigrants to meet clandestinely in local chapels and houses.  A doorkeeper would check them in and lock the door, giving a signal when it was safe for Mass to begin. Looking back to the previous century, Mr Hodges in a Catholic Handbook of 1857 says not long ago aged Catholics in this district were in the habit of speaking of the bed in the priest's room, where they heard Mass, such an appendage being considered a necessary protection against an intrusive informer.
See here for the 1746 trial of Thomas Sockwell, a wig-maker, for exercising part of the Office and Function of a Popish Priest at his home in Penitent Street, with prayers in Latin, crucifixes, 'wax images' and rosary beads - he was acquitted.

According to 'W.Y.', writing three generations later in the Catholic Miscellany of April 1823, in the days of Bishop Richard Challoner (1698-1761) who from 1758 was the Vicar Apostolic of the London District (covering the whole of south-east England),
the Catholics of the neighbourhood were accustomed to assemble on Sundays and holidays, at a house in Branch-place, Cable-street; and obtained admittance by producing tickets, which were occasionally changed to prevent the intrusion of spies. Here the divine mysteries were offered up, and in this house the holy sacraments were administered to the faithful.  A public house, the Windmill, in Rosemary-lane, was also converted into a house of prayer, and here Catholics met and assisted at the holy sacrifice of the mass, unsuspected by the pursuivant or by the informer.

We now come to the Catholic chapel in Virginia Street. Strange as it may appear, this chapel owes its origin in great measure to the project of a Portuguese Jew, named Emanuel; this man represented himself to doctor Challoner, and to the embassador from the court of Portugal, as a Catholic priest, and by means of papers which he had surreptitiously obtained, passed for a considerable time unsuspected; through his exertions the chapel was erected and placed under the protection of the king of Portugal, whose arms were fixed over the principal entrance, and it assumed the name of the Portuguese hospital. Emanuel was afterwards discovered to be an impostor, he was consequently driven from the chapel, and some years afterwards died in the poor-house of Whitechapel, in a state of wretchedness and abject poverty.

This story may be untrue - though Bernard Ward, in Catholic London a Century Ago records that he was shown a copy of the 'W.Y.' account which included the owner's marginal note I have heard his mass. Another theory is that the chapel began as a hospital for foreign sailors, under the protection of the Portuguese ambassador. There had also been, according to Robert Seymour's 1735 Survey of the Cities of London & Westminster, an Anabaptist chapel on the corner of Virginia and Penitent Streets, off Ratcliff Highway; it is likely that this is the site they took over. (A few yards of Virginia Street, off The Highway, remain, but there is now no trace of Penitent Street.) At any rate, it was established by the early 1760s, and dedicated to St Mary & St Michael. Its entry, conveniently, was in King’s Head Alley, which in its early years enabled escape through the warren of adjacent courts. Fr James Webb was appointed by Challoner as the first priest.

Final prosecutions under the penal laws
Fr Webb was one of the last to be convicted and imprisoned for his priesthood under the penal laws. William Payne, the 'Protestant carpenter', and his mob engineered prosecutions in order to claim the statutory £100 reward. Most cases failed because if the accused remained silent it was hard for the prosecution to prove that he was a priest, even if this was well-known. (Fr John Baptist Maloney, arrested in 1765, admitted his priesthood in writing, so the judge had no choice but to convict and sentence him to life imprisonment - though several years later he was banished, and fled quietly to the USA.) Fr Webb was arrested the same year, and spent seventeen months in Newgate.

He was brought to trial on 25 June 1768 before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield at the Court of King’s Bench, Westminster, who was clearly determined that the case should fail (though his stance on the anti-slavery cause was less enlightened). He pointed out Payne's financial motive, rubbished his evidence, and instructed the jury to acquit if they had the slightest doubt. The chapel doorkeeper from Virginia Street, a tall and neat figure, remained tight-lipped; 'W.Y.' recalled how he had told him with pleasure, years later, that the judge asked his name. Tyte, my Lord, he had replied. An appropriate name, for a very tight man you are, said the judge. Fr Webb was acquitted and released.

A survey
In 1767, during the period of Webb's imprisonment, the Anglican bishops had attempted to defuse public hysteria (which had been whipped up by the press) by asking their clergy to report on the numbers - without names - of 'Papists or reputed Papists' in their parishes, with gender, age, occupation and some indication of how long they had been resident. This was to refute fears of mass immigration, threatening national security, and Roman Catholics on the whole were happy to comply and give this information. 

The results confirmed the Bishops' impressions. 426 were counted in Wapping, 381 in St George-in-the-East and 326 in St Paul’s Shadwell. The Rector of Stepney listed only 82, but said there were 80 others who refuse to give an account of themselves. As for occupations, most men were listed as 'labourers', and the women as 'wives' or with subsistence jobs such as oyster-selling. Only a few had dock-related jobs - sailors, sailmakers, coal heavers, lightermen or lumpers. (Further north, as St Mary, Whitechapel, a few of the 60 Catholics were sugarhouse men and weavers, and 14 of the Stepney Catholics were weavers, but most weavers lived in Spitalfields or Shoreditch.) St George-in-the-East had the largest number of well-settled married Catholic couples, drawing a living from a small business or skilled trade (including an elderly schoolmaster and his wife, though this remained a banned profession). There were some shopkeepers and chandlers (which meant they sold a bit of everything: these were low-capital, rapid-turnover enterprises). Wapping’s 18 Catholic bakers, all unmarried, will have been live-in journeymen. Women on their own typically worked as washerwomen, mantle makers or milliners; one was a midwife. Only 29 Catholics were listed for Limehouse, and 33 for Poplar and Blackwall – among them a very old man reputed to be a priest. Some were known to have lived in East London for 30-40 years, others to have moved in only a few weeks previously. But apart from a handful of children, none of them were locally born.

However, other sources give higher figures - for example, 4,000 in the congregation at Virginia Street by 1780. Multiple Sunday masses would have made such numbers possible even in relatively small buildings.

Changing times - despite the Gordon Riots
The Catholic Relief Acts of 1778, 1782 and 1793 removed most of the effects of the penal laws, and among other provisions made the legal registration of chapels safe and possible. (They also enabled Roman Catholics to swell the depleted ranks of the redcoats sent to fight in the American Revolution!) In 1773, when Fr Michael Coen replaced Fr Webb, an 84-year lease on the Virginia Street chapel and adjoining house was granted in the name of James Talbot, Esq., gentleman (he was Bishop Challoner’s coadjutor bishop), at an annual rental of £46 10s to the freeholders, the Wakerbarth family. Baptismal and marriage registers were kept from this date. (From 1753-1837 most Roman Catholics complied with Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act and married in Anglican churches, but some had a Catholic ceremony as well, of which a record might have been kept.) Baptism registers for 1773-1800 and 1832-56 (when SS Mary & Michael was built) are extant. After 1837 births, marriages and deaths were recorded by the new civil system. Roman Catholic diocese were not established until 1850, and parish boundaries were not set until the following century.)

However, in 1780 Anti-Catholic sentiments were whipped up by the arch-Protestant Lord George Gordon [right], whose mobsters destroyed many places of worship, including the Virginia Street chapel, and the one in Nightingale Lane, East Smithfield, as well as the Sardinian chapel []ipctured above] and those around Moorfields. To his shame, the Secretary of State had instructed priests to dissuade their Irish parishioners to stay away, for their own safety, and avoid exacerbating the disturbances. Fr Coen reported that he had complied with this, even though (as he reported to Hodges) he could have could have assembled, within the space of one half-hour, 3000 men from amongst the ballast-getters, coal-heavers, etc., and by their assistance have protected the chapel; but he thought it right rather to yield to the wishes of the Government. One of the clergy, who remained upon the spot to the last extremity, with difficulty escaped from the infuriated mob.

The Riots were a complex phenomenon. They began with a march to Parliament to deliver an anti-Catholic petition, and resulted in five days of mayhem, not helped by the lack of a proper police force, and only finally quelled by the army. In the process they became a vehicle for wider working-class grievances. Convicts were liberated from Newgate Prison (now the Old Bailey), and The Clink (which never re-opened); impressed sailors were set free from 'crimping houses' and debtors from 'sponging houses'.  A few of London's emerging black population were involved, including the former slaves John Glover, described as
a copper coloured person, who was seen torching Newgate with the cry Damn you, open the gate or we will burn you down and have everybody out, and Benjamin Bowsey - see more here. The house of Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice (see above) was also attacked.

In the event, 326 rioters were tried, but only 19 death sentences were given, and some of these (including Glover's and Bowsey's) were not carried out. As Edmund Burke commented, If I understand the temper of the publick at this moment a very great part of the lower, and some of the middling people of this city, are in a very critical disposition, and such as ought to be managed with firmness and delicacy.

Gordon himself fought off a treason prosecution, but died of an illness in Newgate many years later (by which time he had converted to Judaism), convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette.  See below on Charles Dickens' portrayal of the Riots.

Into the 19th century
The chapel was rebuilt with some government compensation, in the plainest style, totally devoid of any ornament - poor and unpretending (Bernard Ward). By 1805 the congregation numbered 7-8,000, with only three priests (Frs Coen, Delaney and Serjeant). It had become as numerous as the older chapel at Moorfields, but its congregation was much poorer - 'dock labourers and the like'.

According to Bernard Ward, having a committee of laymen conducting the mission (the usual arrangement) caused problems. Dr Douglass, Challoner's successor as Vicar-General, recorded an example, and also comments on embellishments to the chapel:
1808, August. Much disturbance at Virginia Street Chapel, between the Committee and Chaplains of the said Chapel, concerning the alterations of the Chapel and the music introduced into the choir. The same being inflamed and at last breaking into an absolute fall out, Chaplains against Committee, I assisted at the Committee held on 25th inst., and reconciled both parties. Those who had used intemperate language at former meetings arose and begged pardon publicly for the same and for the offence they had given. Peace and harmony were restored. May discord never enter more among them! ... Mr. Berger, a German, having acquired a large fortune by success in business, made a present of more than twelve hundred pounds to Virginia Street in gratitude to Almighty God for granting him that success, and by this money the alterations in the Chapel were made and an organ and High Mass were introduced.

The Society of Charitable Sisters
was founded in 1814 in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, with Bishop Poynter, the Vicar Apostolic (succeeding Dr Douglass on his death in 1812), as patron and Fr Thomas Dobson of Virginia Street chapel as chaplain. Here is their annual report for 1818.

According to the Orthodox Journal and Catholic Monthly Intelligencer (ed W.E. Andrews), in March 1817 Dr Poynter preached for the Charitable Sisters, and the London Mission Fund, on Matthew 18.5, with persuasive eloquence, resulting in the largest ever collection taken in the chapel.  (Subscribers were requested to apply to the chaplains, Virginia-street; M. Sidney Esq., treasurer, Star and Garter-yard, Ratcliff-highway; or to Mr. D. Gibson, secretary, No. 53, Ratcliff-highway.)

In A Text-book of Popery (D. Appleton 1831) John Mockett Cramp used the London Mission Fund, established 'for the purpose of providing funds for the education of Pastors for the mission, and also to assist in the erection of chapels, or any work that might promote the interests of religion', as an example of teaching and practice which promoted justification by works. The Fund said each person becoming a member enjoys the benefit of having the holy sacrifice offerd up from him the first Sunday in every month at Virginia-street chapel; and he also participates in the benefit of four masses, that are celebrated every week in the Bishop's College for its members and benefactors .... Such are the advantages, and such are the objects that are aimed at by this institution; objects that should induce every Catholic who is sincerely attached to the faith of his ancestors, to seize with gladness this opportunity of propitiating the favour of the Almighty, and laying up for himself immortal treasures in heaven. Cramp also took exception to various expressions from the writings of Bishop Challoner, including his Garden of the Soul, which among other things prayed God to send before us a stock of good works, on which we may live for eternity. On such passages, said Cramp, no comment is required: their design and tendency are sufficiently apparent.

In 1834 Fr T. McDonnell, of Birmingham, made this comment - which was reported as being generally accurate, in Fraser's Magazine for Town & Country vol XIX (Jan-June 1839) p264:
Times have changed very much, and we are not insensible to the exertions of those liberal, enlightened statesmen, that brought about the change. We have now a large chapel at Moorfields, which all the world (!) frequent, and where, for years, the truths of religion have been without fear announced ...  Virginia Street, once an hospital for foreign sailors, was at first nothing more than a room for the priest. This has swelled into one of the most capacious chapels in London; and the few that knelt and prayed in the priest's room, to hear mass, has increased to the ten thousand of the actual present congregation.

The 1838 Catholic Directory & Annual Register gave the following details:
VIRGINIA-STREET, Ratcliff-highway.—Mass every day at 10 o'clock; on festivals of obligation at 8,10, and 12 o'clock; on Sundays at 8, 9, 10, and 11 o'clock. A discourse after the Gospel at High Mass. Vespers at 3 o'clock on Sundays only, after which catechetical instructions.—Chaplains, Rev. Messrs. Richard Horrabin, James Foley, and James Doyle.
The Chaplains of Virginia-street Chapel, are the spiritual directors of the East London Catholic Charity Schools, and have daily to attend the London Hospital, Mile-end-road, the receptacle of all accidents in the docks, wharfs, and ships, from Black-wall to London Bridge, as well as fifteen workhouses; the chief of which are St. George's in the East, Wapping, Ratcliff, Stepney-green, Aldgate, Crutched-friars, Barking, St. Dunstan's, and St. Olave's.
N.B. The Boys' School is now under the superintendence of two Christian Brothers, and contains seats for 180 Boys.  The girls' school will accommodate 200 children. The late change and consequent alterations, &c., have involved the managers in a considerable debt, which, with the strictest economy, it will take them a long time to liquidate, unless some kind friends of the charity should come to their assistance, which God grant.  Vide notice of these Schools in the sequel.

The Metropolitan Roman Catholic Total Abstinence Association
met in the 1840s on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Temperance Hall, Prince's Square, and also on Wednesdays at Glass House, East Smithfield. In 1843 Virginia Street Temperance Festival was held. It is interesting that some Roman Catholics were part of this movement, more usually associated with  'Protestants'.

The Society of the Divine Infant Saviour

The Society was established in December 1847, with the objects of 'Educating, Clothing and Apprenticing the Children of the Poor in the Virginia Street District, East London', under the patronage of Bishop Wiseman, with Fr John Mogul as Director. In vol 1 of The Rambler: Journal of Home and Foreign Literature, Politics, Science, Music, and The Fine Arts (1848) the following enterprising advertisement appeared:

for the Benefit of the above Society
on board that fast, commodious, and spacious Steam-Packet THE COMET, Capt. Hollingham, Commander,
on WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21st, 1848, "Coronation-day of the glorious Pope Pius IX"

 The Friends and supporters of the Society are respectfully assured that no exertion shall be spared to make the 21st June, 1848,
one of the most delightful, cheerful, and happy days of their existence.
An abundant and exquisite Repast will be provided in the gorgeous Banquet Hall of Rosherville's romantic Gardens,
surpassing combination of ingenious art and fertile nature.

A Full Band will be the whole day in attendance, gladdening the Banks of Old Father Thames,
and setting all hearts in joyous unison with the loveliness of the surrounding scenery.

The vessel will leave the Adelphi Pier, Strand, at 9 a.m. precisely, calling at the Tunnel Pier at half-past 9, and Brunswick Pier, Blackwall, at 10.

Tickets, 6s. each, Pier-dues, admission to Rotherhithe, and Banquet, included. Children (under ten years) half-price.
May be had of the Steward; at the Chapel house, Virginia Street; of Mrs. Muldary, Virginia Street; Mr. Ringrose, bookseller. Sherrard Street; Mr. Pagliano, Golden Square; Mr. Nind, Sabloniere Hotel, Leicester Square; Mr. Reardon, Quadrant, Regent Street; Mr. Augarde, 51 Oxford Street; Mr. Murphy, Star Street, Wapping; Mr. Madden, ditto; Mr. Jones, bookseller, Paternoster Row; Mr. Orpwood, ditto, Bihopsgate Street; Mrs. Wycherly, Back Road, St. George's East; Mr. Grimm, King's Head, Leather Lane, Holborn; Mr. Hewitt, Chymist, Well Street, Wellclose Square; Mr. Edward Moore, Chelsea; Mr. Lodge, ditto; Mr. Atchison, ditto: Mr. Smith, Artichoke, Cambridge Road; Mr. T. Tieghe, Limehouse.

N.B. Dejeuné on table at 2p.m.
Long live our holy, beloved, and immortal Father, Pius The Ninth!

In 1878 many of the passengers on beard the paddle steamer SS Princess Alice - subject of the worst-ever Thames shipping disaster - were heading for Rosherville Gardens. They were cleared in 1939, and later the railway line was turned into a road; more details here.

A new church
Collections for a replacement church had begun as far back as 1815, as the congregation grew, but began in earnest about 1850 under Fr (later Dean) Horrabin, with an awareness that the Virginia Street lease was due to expire in 1857. Meanwhile, from 1849 Mass was also celebrated in Johnson Street (where the Anglican St Mary's church was being built) - at first in a tent, and then in the newly-opened school of St Patrick and St Austin. 
In 1851 the Law Times reported this case of a disputed will, Gilpin v. Magee, heard in Vice-Chancellor Cranworth's court. Residuary legatees claimed that various sums left for a variety of Catholic causes, including 19 guineas to the Rev. John Moore, priest of Virginia-street chapel, to be applied as be may think fit towards the erection of the new Roman Catholic chapel in such district, but not for the purchase of land, were for superstitious purposes and might involve secret trusts, but the court decided that correct processes had been followed.

The foundation stone of the Commercial Road church, St Mary & St Michael, was laid by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, who then dedicated the new church on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1856. The architect was William Wilkinson Wardell (a former Anglican). It is built of Kentish ragstone with Caen stone dressing.

Charles Dickens and the Gordon Riots
Dickens' East End writings are mentioned here. He only wrote two historical novels - A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (serialised in 1841) which was set in the time of the Gordon Riots. His abhorrence of public executions is shown in this extract, where the fictitious characters are among those being led to the scaffold [illustration by 'Phiz' - Hablot Knight Browne]:
Barnaby would have mounted the steps at the same time — indeed he would have gone before them, but in both attempts he was restrained, as he was to undergo the sentence elsewhere. In a few minutes the sheriffs reappeared, the same procession was again formed, and they passed through various rooms and passages to another door — that at which the cart was waiting. He held down his head to avoid seeing what he knew his eyes must otherwise encounter, and took his seat sorrowfully, — and yet with something of a childish pride and pleasure, — in the vehicle. The officers fell into their places at the sides, in front and in the rear; the sheriffs’ carriages rolled on; a guard of soldiers surrounded the whole; and they moved slowly forward through the throng and pressure toward Lord Mansfield's ruined house.

It was a sad sight — all the show, and strength, and glitter, assembled round one helpless creature — and sadder yet to note, as he rode along, how his wandering thoughts found strange encouragement in the crowded windows and the concourse in the streets; and how, even then, he felt the influence of the bright sky, and looked up, smiling, into its deep unfathomable blue. But there had been many such sights since the riots were over — some so moving in their nature, and so repulsive too, that they were far more calculated to awaken pity for the sufferers, than respect for that law whose strong arm seemed in more than one case to be as wantonly stretched forth now that all was safe, as it had been basely paralysed in time of danger.

Two cripples — both mere boys — one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square. As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied. Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town. Four wretched women, too, were put to death. In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them. It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

One young man was hanged in Bishopsgate Street, whose aged grey-headed father waited for him at the gallows, kissed him at its foot when he arrived, and sat there, on the ground, till they took him down. They would have given him the body of his child; but he had no hearse, no coffin, nothing to remove it in, being too poor — and walked meekly away beside the cart that took it back to prison, trying, as he went, to touch its lifeless hand.

English Martyrs, Prescot Street

English Martyrs Church was built in Prescot Street in 1876 to designs by Pugin, with mosaics by Arthur Fleichmann. It had a branch of the Catholic Social Union (founded in 1893 by Cardinal Vaughan), led in the 1890s by the Dowager Duchess of Newcastle, who having no home ties to hinder her came to settle for a time with two Catholic ladies who had started a girls' club, at what became known as 'Gertude House' in nearby St Mark's Street. She wrote about her experience in the Pall Mall Magzine 1903 (vol 29, p454). English Martyrs' Primary School - replacing Tower Hill RC Primary in Chamber Street [hall right, after closure] - is now behind the church, close to the site of the former St Mark's church, designed by Broadbent, Hastings, Reid & Todd (1969); pictured is the procession at its opening by Cardinal Heenan in 1970, in South Tenter Street. Here are pictures of parish events from the 1930s to the present day.

Other Roman Catholic churches

See above for details of St Mary & St Michael, in the Commercial Road, and here for provision for German Catholics.

Lithuanian Catholics ran St Casimir's mission church at 101-105 Cable Street (on the corner of Christian Street) from 1901 to 1912, when it moved to its present site at The Oval, Hackney Road in Bethnal Green; the Cable Street site became an early cinema.

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