St Paul's Church for Seamen, Dock Street (1847-1990)

see also Episcopal Floating Chapel, St Paul's Whitechapel CE Primary School, St Paul Dock Street Curates, Parish Registers


When the London Docks were constructed in the early 19th century, the lane known as Saltpetre Bank (marking the area's 18th century links with glassmaking) became Dock Street - a sign of the ever-changing nature of the area. It was after visiting her aunt and uncle in this street that the maidservant Elizabeth Canning disappeared on New Year's Day 1753, later claiming to have been held captive for a month in a hayloft, but the verdicts against the accused were overturned and she was convicted of perjury, imprisoned for a month and transported for seven years.

The foundation stone for a church to replace the Episcopal Floating Chapel, the Brazen, was laid on 11 May 1846 by Albert, the Prince Consort. The Illustrated London News [first left] shows him lowering the stone by turning a small handle on a block and tackle. The cost of £9,000 - including £1,250 for the Dock Street site - was met by public subscription, and it was consecrated in 1847. As part of the process, the architect Henry Roberts and several residents of Wellclose Square had issued a householders' certificate of inadequacy of existing churches in the parish of St Mary Matfelon, in which the new church was situated: its patrons, Brasenose College Oxford, gave formal consent, as did the evangelical Rector of Whitechapel from 1837-60, the Rev W.W. Champneys, whos was one of the prime movers, and built three other churches in the area, largely maintained by the Church Pastoral Aid Society. (In fact, as explained below, St Paul's it did not become a parish church until 1864.) The original trustees were Lord Henry Cholmondeley, the Hon. Francis Maude, John Labouchere, Frederick Madan (one of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House) and Charles James Bevan. New trustees were regularly appointed: one of the last, in 1959, was David Sheppard (later Bishop of Liverpool), when he was the Warden of the Mayflower Centre in Canning Town.

The architect was Henry Roberts FSA, Fellow of the Institute of British Architects (1803–76), who was born in Philadelphia but came to work in Britain, in the office of Fowler and Smirke before setting up his own practice in 1830. He had liberal and Evangelical connections, explored below. In 1832 he won the competition to design the Fishmongers' Company Hall by the new London Bridge, and the result, in Greek Revival style showing Smirke's influence, was much admired. His practice (with George Gilbert Scott as a pupil) flourished, with houses for the aristocracy in a range of styles - Jacobean, Tudor Gothic and Italianate. His essays in Gothic Revival churches, however, of which St Paul's was an example, did not meet with the approval of the Ecclesiologists. Reviewing the designs in 1846, they judged it extremely poor - a vulgar attempt at First Pointed....the whole is stale and inspid. It was in Early English style, of stock brick, with stone dressings, and a tower and spire at the north-west which was surmounted, not by the customary cross, but by a weather-vane in the form of a ship (now mounted on the south wall of St Paul's School). The interior was plain, with no chancel and a west-end gallery (the organ was in the first stage of the tower.)

Roberts also designed the vicarage at no.11 next door [left]. with stucco bands and architraves to the ground floor sash windows (it was listed Grade II in 1973). Messrs William Cubitt were contracted to build both the church and the vicarage, which is now tenanted by business students and was visited a few years ago by the Rector and Tony Williamson (who grew up in the house) and his family. Tony died in 2019 – see this obituary.

Henry Roberts was a pioneer of social housing, and honorary architect of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes (originally the Labourers' Friend Society, of 1830, re-established in 1844 with the Prince Consort as President - see its fourth annual report here). He published an influential essay The Dwellings of the Labouring Classes (1850) and four further books; see Professor James Stevens Curl The Life and Work of Henry Roberts, 1803-1876: The Evangelical Conscience and the Campaign for Model Housing and Healthy Nations (1983), and his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (2000). See here for the later story of workers' housing in the parish.

The district, previously quite up-market with its music halls and theatres, and gracious residences around Wellclose Square, was in decline. As the merchants moved out, the houses became tenements and warehouses, the open spaces and gardens filled up with hovels, cafés and doss houses, and vice was rampant. An account of 1857 speaks of

an infernal hole, whole streets teeming with houses of infamy, houses not long built for the industrial classes now let out at a more profitable rent for the pursuit of sinful pleasures. The incumbent reports that he has visited these and helped in rescuing 270 women from their degredation, yet their places are immediately filled by others; that he has often interposed in the fights which go on beneath his windows, that the ears of his family are habitually shocked by the most disgusting language; that, especially between the hours of 11pm to 2am, his rest is broken by screams and fights, while in the summer nights, it is a common thing to see large groups of bared-headed women dancing in a circle with language and attitudes so offensive as to excite pity and shame. For five years the Home Secretary had been respectfully memorialised on this subject....but the incumbent is left in the cruel position of being unaided by vigorous exercise of civil power ...

Disasters at sea were frequent, and disease, alcoholism, penury and unemployment were all around. Mothers went out to work, for a few pence a day, leaving babies in charge of children, so that up to sixty children each day were absent from school. Aoording to the official register for 1870, 85 infants died from being left in the streets. Children were chronically underfed, and the dirty and vicious streets formed their home, school and playground. Houses were overcrowded, insanitary and infested, and clothing in rags and tatters. Maternity hung like a nightmare over houses too poor and untrained to cope with it.

In 1858 the Prince Consort gave a set of communion plate. [Since June 1990 this has been on loan to the Treasury of St Paul's Cathedral, on the direction of the Bishop.]

St Paul's ministers ('perpetual curates': as yet there was no parish created) were also chaplains of the Asylum and Sailors' Home. The first was the remarkable Charles Besley Gribble (1847-58) - see here for more details of his life before and after St Paul's, and his family. While at St Paul's he co-operated with the London City Mission, a non-denominational agency founded by David Nasmith in 1835 of which other Anglican clergy were suspicious. Lower Life in London, by George Perkins (1854) describes the lives of individuals in the Well Street area. On one occasion Gribble cared for two kidnapped sailors from the Friendly Islands. He left the parish to become Embassy Chaplain in Constantinople, where he was involved in complex negotiations with the Turkish authorities; he died in 1878.

Robert Hall Baynes (1858-62) - left in a mezzotint of c1858 by Robert Bowyer Parkes at the National Gallery, which lists him as vicar, writer, criminal - is remembered as a collector of religious poetry, a writer of hymns and religious verse, and editor of various publications (see Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology)though more so in the USA, where two of his hymns [right] still appear in hymnals, than in this country. Son of a Baptist pastor in Wellington, Somerset, he studied at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he was sentenced to four months' imprisonment for obtaining food and lodgings by false pretences (and served other prison sentences in Bristol for theft and assault); nevertheless, he was ordained in 1855 and after curacies at Christ Church Blackheath and St John Hoxton came to St Paul's. During his time in the parish, he opposed the style of worship at St George-in-the-East, but when Joseph Rowe was convicted of 'brawling' in 1860 Baynes denied in court the claim that he had encouraged him to shout out the responses over the choir - and wrote to The Times to make his position clear. He reported 13,541 ship visits in 1861, with 415 meetings held; by the following year, he had three city missioners and two scripture readers under his direction. See here for his comments about religious services held in theatres. On 2 January 1860 a letter to The Times included these words: I was told, not long ago, by the captain of a merchant ship, that he had been to nearly all the large ports in the world, but had never witnessed such open and abandoned profligacy as exists within half a mile from my church in Dock Street.

He left for Holy Trinity Maidstone, and then was Vicar of St Michael Coventry (becoming a canon of Worcester [Coventry's diocese at that time] on the death of Mr Haddan in 1873 - no doubt in 'consolation' for the Madagascar furore - see below) until 1879. In that year he gave a paper to the Monthly Church Conference of the diocese of London 'Is the pulpit of the national church as real a power as it ought to be, and if not, why not?' After a year as Rector of Toppesfield (where W.P. Jay of Christ Church Watney Street later served, from 1889-94) his final post (by exchange of livings) was at Holy Trinity Folkestone; he died in 1895, apparently after falling into the fire at his Oxford lodgings.

In 1870 he had been appointed Bishop-designate of Madagascar, but he resigned the following year. Anglican missionaries, sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), had gone there in 1864, working initially along the east coast around Toamasina, but others had preceded them - hence the conflict. The intriguing story is told more fully here.

Hymn collections edited by Baynes - some including his own texts - were Hymns for the Public Worship of the Church (1858, while at St Paul's); Lyra Anglicana (1862 - also while at St Paul's, and dedicated to the Duchess of Marlborough who had taken a kindly interest in its mission work); The Canterbury Hymnal (1863); and Hymns for Home Mission Services in the Church of England (1879, to be used alongside Hymns Ancient & Modern). Collections of religious verse included English Lyrics (1865, dedicated to the Bishop of Oxford in grateful memory of many kindnesses); The Illustrated Book of Sacred Poems (1867, dedicated to the Archbishop of York); Autumn Memories and other Verses (1869 - his own poems, produced at Coventry and including some illustrations of the church there, and dedicated to the Countess of Aylesford); and Home Songs for Quiet Hours (1874 - dedicated to the East End philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts). He produced a communicant's manual typical of many others of the time in 1869 (later editions added some eucharistic hymns), and for a time he edited (or 'conducted') the Churchman’s Shilling Magazine & Family Treasury. The final illustration above, for All Saints, is typical of the engravings in these works.


The most famous Victorian incumbent, who served for 35 years from 1862-97, was Dan Greatorex. He became Vicar when a parish district was created in 1864 - the machinations behind this, linked to the rise of ritualism at St George's and its mission church, are explained here. Greatorex was a man of pronounced evangelical principles and boundless energy. He founded an astonishing array of schools, nurseries and other institutions, and his story is told in more detail here. His architect brother Reuben, who designed St Paul's School and Church House, Wellclose Square, is a part of this story.  Although work with seamen continued, conducted by lay missioners and various societies, the focus was shifting to more general parochial ministry, including 'rehabilitating victims of vice'. In 1873 Greatorex accepted the status of honorary chaplain to the Home and Asylum at £50 a year (raised in 1874 to £100), and when he retired in 1896 he was granted an annuity of £50. But lawyers advised that there was no need to appoint or pay his successor as a chaplain - an informal arrangement and ad hoc honorarium would suffice!

An 1863 Guide to the Church Services in London and its suburbs lists the pattern of worship as:
Sundays 11am, 3pm and 6.30pm (HC 1st and 3rd Sundays); Thursdays 7pm, and Tuesdays in Advent & Lent 8pm.
The 1879 'Churches' section of Charles Dickens Jr's
Dictionary of London lists the Sunday services as 11am Matins (with 11.45 am Holy Communion on the 1st Sunday), 3.30pm Afternoon Service and 6.30pm Evensong (with Holy Communionon the 3rd Sunday). No midweek or holy day services are specified.  The black gown was worn for preaching (which by this period was becoming a distinctively Protestant badge), and 'Mercer's Collection' was the hymnbook. (William Mercer, Perpetual Curate of St George, Sheffield, produced his Church Psalter & Hymnbook in 1854, with the help of the poet Montgomery who was a member of his congregation; a decade later, it was in use in 1,000 churches, including 53 in London, and selling 100,000 copies annually. Some of his translations survive in use.)

There were two royal visits during this time. The Prince and Princess of Wales came to open the Day Schools on 30 June 1870. On 23 June 1874 the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh came to open the Infant Nursery ('for the children of seamen and others') and Mission Room. There was a Déjeuner (with tickets for those who contributed five guineas to the steward's list), a Presentation of Purses by young people in the Grand Marquee, and a four-day Grand Flower and Rose Show and Exhibition of British and Foreign Birds. See the poster [left] about the Committee for the Systematical Decoration of the Intended Route! In addition to the National Anthem, the choir sang the Russian National Hymn and God bless our Sailor Prince, despite the 'serious doubts about the propriety of the words' expressed by the Bishop of Rochester, who led the proceedings in place of the Bishop of London. [A more recent royal visit was made by Princess Margaret in 1956.]

See here for Victorian curates of St Paul's, and here for baptism and wedding statistics throughout the period.

Nautical memorials
Two Arctic explorers are commemorated in the church.

Tiles set In the north aisle wall mark Rear Admiral Sir William Edward Parry, who had read the lessons for four years and died in 1855.

The west window depicts scenes on the Sea of Galilee - Christ teaching from a boat, Christ rebuking the wind and waves, the miraculous draught of fishes and Christ walking on the water - in memory of Captain Sir John Franklin who, with the crews of Erebus and Terror, perished on an expeditionary voyage.

In memory of Captain Sir John Franklin RN, KCH

one of the founders of this church
who died on board HMS Erebus in lat 69°, 37 42” N, long lat 98° 41” W
erected 1872 Dan Greatorex, Vicar
He rebuked the winds and the waves saying 'He that hath ears let him hear'
'Fear not, from henceforth thou shalt catch men'

'Thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt'

Franklin led the Royal Navy's 1854 expedition to locate the North-West Passage across Canada, to enable ships to sail to the Far East by an alternative route avoiding the problems of rounding Africa. His vessels were equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and several years' supplies of newly-invented tinned food (though some of his sailors suffered from lead poisoning from the sealing process). When they disappeared, his wife pressed for a major search to be launched. Their remains were eventually found by Dr John Rae, tipped off by Inuit contacts. Rae, from Orkney, had been surveying and charting the area on foot for some years, using traditional skills learnt from the Inuits. As the naming of Rae's Straight (the 'missing link' of the Passage) suggests, he should really be credited with the discovery of the Passage, but Franklin's memorial in Westminster Abbey attributes it to him. This is probably because, offensively at the time, but correctly according to recent research, Rae reported that Frankin's expedition had resorted in extremis to cannibalism. Orcadians are pressing for proper recognition of Rae's achievement. The story of the two men was well-told in an episode of Ray Mears' BBC series, and the accompanying book, Northern Wilderness (Hodder & Stoughton 2009).

Many other memorials, and model ships, followed, including the Peril of the Hecla, forced against an iceberg in 1825, and the wreck of the Gossamer off Prawle Point near Dartmouth, where Captain Thompson and others drowned en route to Australia, having attended the church on the previous Sunday.


By 1900 St. Paul's church was in a poor state of repair and the walls were badly stained by damp. Photographs show the interior unchanged: the pulpit and large reading-desk dominated and the altar was small and insignificant. A £1,600 restoration was undertaken, during which the galleries were removed, a raised chancel formed in the eastern bay of the nave, the east wall was painted with Gothic arches to match the old reredos, the reading desk was removed, and the pulpit either replaced or radically altered. The organ, an 1848 2-manual instrument of 14 stops by Gray and Davison of 370 Euston Road (costing £278, with one of the earliest 'piperack' cases), renovated by them in 1865 (which is probably when the pipes were decorated), was rebuilt in 1901 as a 3-manual instrument by Hele & Co of Plymouth [right]. When the church closed, it was transferred and rebuilt by Peter Collins for St Philip Earl's Court, Kensington.

Another memorial to those who perished at sea, on board the barque
Brier Holme off the coast of Tasmania in 1904, was erected; the story is fully told here.

Greatorex' successor as Vicar was
Edward Griffith Parry (1897-1918). He was from a 'Liverpool Welsh' clerical family and, like his brothers, sttended Liverpool Institute. His older brother John, after Corpus Christi College Cambridge, was a curate at St Chrysostom Liverpool, then in Rotherham, and came to London as Vicar of St Stephen Canonbury, then of St Leonard Bromley [by Bow - in the East End] and chaplain to the Stepney Union (writing The Parish Visiting Book in 1895) then became Vicar and Rural Dean of Hammersmith and chaplain to the West London Hospital before retiring to Ilfracombe in 1906. Edward and his younger brother Joshua Powell Parry (who served his first curacy at St Paul's) both went to Jesus College Cambridge. Like John, Edward also served his title in Liverpool, at St Columba's, and a second curacy in Bromley [the south-east London one] before coming here. He married, and a daughter was born at St Paul's in 1899. Charles Booth archive contains an interview with him [B222 pp90-107].

In 1906 he was one of three councillors for Tower Ward (on the City fringes), and in the 1913 London Councy Council elections for the Whitechapel ward (with 5,117 voters) stood unsuccessfully as a Municipal Reform candidate, together with Adolph Ludski; they polled 1008 and 916 votes respectively, but the Progressive candidates Henry Herman Gordon and William Cowlishaw Johnson held onto the seats with 1746 and 1792 votes each. He was a member of the London School Board, representing the Berner Street group of schools; in 1901 his published attendance figures were poor, and the minutes noted that he hopes to attend meetings more frequently. He was also a 'coöptative' [co-opted] governor of the Aldgate Freedom and Lordship Foundation (charities for the needy in the parish of St Botolph Aldgate and the City of London respectively, and jointly run under a scheme of 1897, with a clerk on an annual salary of £50).

The London Standard of 11 January 1912 reported that he laments the tendency to yield to the demand for services that are fleeting, if not flippant; for sermons that excite for the moment; for professional singing by a choir; and for services that must be illustrated by lantern views or kinematograph displays [right: and see here for a Methodist neighbour who some years later embraced the latest technology]. This prompted a further press article a few days later:

The Rev. E. G. Parry, vicar of St. Paul's, Whitechapel. has been called the 'gloomy' vicar because he recently deplored in print the tendency of the age to sensationalism, even in places of worship. Mr Parry certainly deprecates the use of the kinematograph in church, but in an interview yesterday with a "Morning Leader" representative he disclosed himself as a most cheerful, almost a jovial, cleric, with a humorous twinkle in his grey eye.

His is the poorest of poor parishes. Hardly a man in the district but has to send his wife out charring, to supplement the slender weekly emolument of a casual dock labourer. Thus the babies are neglected, and the infant mortality in the parish is terribly high. And so Mr Parry and his wife have the welfare of the creche in Wellclose Square nearer at heart than that of any other parochial institution. It is claimed for the St. Paul's Crèche that it was the first thing of the kind started in London. Though the accommodation, for which the charge is 3d. per day or 1s. per week per child, is limited, 9000 children have already been nursed and fed, and many lives must have been saved.

Thieves in training
Mr Parry's parishioners include a large proportion of professional thieves. At a common lodging-house near St. Katharine's Dock, accommodating exactly 100, 98 of the inmates are convicted thieves. After breakfast, if they have any, it is the practice of the tenants to betake themselves to the lodging-house cellars and put in an hour of strenuous physical culture exercises. The trained thieves of Whitechapel are as supple as eels and as swift-footed as deer. They have to be.
The vicar is the only man in the parish who can safely sport a silk hat after dark. Two or three men have often closed upon him in a dark street
and then, recognising the well-known clerical collar, quietly withdrawn.

An inadvertance
A curate who had not been long enough in the parish to become known was one evening forcibly deprived of his gold watch. The vicar made representations to some of his back-sliding parishioners, and it was explained that "'Aircut" (who was never long out of gaol) must have done it, because the robbery took place on his beat. And the watch came back.

The same year there was a published appeal to churchpeople for the Crèche by one of his West End supporters, describing the daily life of a poor mother in the parish:

... She gets her baby up, washes and dresses it, and leaves it with the boy of ten to take round to the Crèche at 7.30 o'clock, when it opens. As she herself does not get back till 9.30a.m., and then three times a week she goes washing during the day, and is off again to the office cleaning at 6 o'clock till 9 at night, the boy fetches the baby back at 7.30 for the night. The father goes daily to the Docks, hoping with luck to get work; but owing to repeated bad health, the stronger man gets chosen, and he considers himself lucky if he can get in for a couple of days in the week. It is for the sake of helping poor mothers like thtese that we are so anxious to keep the Crèche going. If only some of the happy mothers who have not to toil for their living would help towards paying this debt off, or become subscribers, and send down some of their children's old clothes! - many do not realise what treasures old clothes are!! A West End mother does not know how to make a nice baby frock out of an old pyjama suit. We do. So please send money, clothes, and in fact anything, and we shall, dear mothers, be grateful to you. Address all to the Rev. E. G. Parry, St. Paul's Vicarage, Dock Street, London Docks, E.
I have visited these parts for thirty years, and therefore know what the battle for life means— the squalor may have gone, but the great poverty remains  so help us, please. Yours truly Agnes Little

See here for other curates in Parry's time; there were no more until the 1950s.

Another long incumbency followed: Charles Davey Weekes (1918-48). Ordained in 1898 after ordination training at Ely Theological College, he was the youngest of three brothers who studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. William Haye Weekes, after a curacy in Exeter diocese, went to Bloemfontein, as bishop's chaplain, then variously Rector of Mafeking, and Beaconsfield, and Archdeacon first of Kimberley, then of Bloemfontein. George Arthur Weekes became the Librarian of Sidney Sussex, then Master from 1918-45 (and Vice-Chancellor of the University 1926-28). Charles served his title in Broadwindsor (Salisbury diocese) before going to South Africa as his brother's curate at Beaconsfield for six years, returning to curacies in Bodmin and then at Christ Church, Isle of Dogs, from 1910-18. At St Paul's he had no curates, though when St Mark Whitechapel closed in 1926 (and demolished in 1937) and its parish was added to St Paul's, he was inducted to the new united benefice (by William Willcox, Bishop of Willesden) and worked with E.J. Crosby, its last priest-in-charge, for two years until 1928. He retired to Sunbury-on-Thames and died some years later.

Frederick Walter Crooks was Vicar of the combined parish of St Paul with St Mark from 1948-52. Like many others who served here, he had trained at Trinity College Dublin, and began his ministry in Ireland in 1941, as Dean's Vicar of St Canice Cathedral and curate of Kilkenny, before wartime service as a RNVR chaplain from 1943-46. After two years at High Wycombe, in charge of St Andrew's, he came to St Paul's for four years - see his comments here on inheriting a former Admiral as curate! - before going to Guildford diocese, serving successively as incumbent of Cobham (taking in Ockford and Hatchford in 1954), Haslemere and Epsom, with two stints as a rural dean (of Godalming from 1967 and Epsom from 1969), becoming an honorary canon from 1969-74 when he became Vicar of Shalfleet on the Isle of Wight in Portsmouth diocese, combined the following year with the village of Thorley. He retired in 1980 to Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, holding permission to officiate for the following three years, and died in 2003, aged 85.