Swedish Lutheran Church, Prince's Square (1729-1911)

The first Swedish congregation in London was formed in 1710. They rented an Anabaptist chapel in Ratcliff Highway for worship, under the oversight of Dr. Jesper Swedberg, bishop of Skara (father of Emanuel Swedenborg). They obtained the lease on a plot of land, 100' x 70', for their own church in Prince's Square, paid for by King Charles XII [right: Rocque map 1746, Horwood map 1792]. The first stone was laid in May 1728, and the building was consecrated the following Michaelmas, at a cost of £1204 17s. 6d. [engraving left by Bejamin Cole, c1750].

It was opened by Queen Eleanora (1688-1741) [left], Charles' sister and successor, and named after her - Ulrika Eleanora Church. Built on Lutheran principles, it was a small and plain church, with galleries. The oval painting over the altar was of the Last Supper; all the woodwork was of high quality. The church was perhaps modelled on the adjacent, and very similar, Danish Church in Wellclose Square, but was one bay shorter. The interior is pictured right (the second photograph after the closure of the church). See further S. Evander and L. Sjöström Svenska Kyrkan i London 1710–2000: En historia i ord och bilder (London 2001).

The Swedenborgian Monthly Observer and New Church Record for 1858 includes, under the title Anteckningar (Notebook) these interesting 'Notices respecting respecting the Swedish Church in London' by G.W. Carlson, Stockholm, 1852:

When the first Swedish congregation was organising itself in London, in 1710, and desired to be under Episcopal authority, it turned to Dr. Jesper Swedberg; partly on account of his reputation in the Church at home for piety, learning, and zeal; partly because he was already religious overseer of Swedish congregations in America.

In a letter which Swedberg writes to them in July, 1710, he promises willing compliance with their wishes, and offers some advice, bidding them cultivate mutual affection and confidence, and Christian prudence, which he thinks particularly desirable in a foreign country, among people of all kinds of religions and opinions, adding that he would emphatically recommend that the ministers do not engage themselves too much in contentions about religion, but preach God's words in their purity, and inculcate the practical virtues.

In another letter from him, 1st Aug. of the same year, he wishes, on concluding, "that God may bless them all both small and great for His Son Jesus Christ's sake". The Bishop sermonizes unsparingly in his correspondence with the Society. Specimens might be given, but they would closely resemble that printed a year or two ago in the Intellectual Repository from his volume of sermons.

When his son's mission is remembered, the following expressions, written 1715, read strangely:— "It cannot but be a great joy to us that, with our countrymen, the evangelic doctrine spreads so widely, and is now preached not only in England and Portugal, but also in the great New World of America, among the heathens, where our Swedish countrymen have already three extensive congregations, each with its church and minister. Thus it seems that it is gradually being fulfilled what God promised the heathen in His Holy Word, by grace in Christ Jesus, and what Christ himself hath said, 'And the Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations' (Matt xxiv. 14)." In a dateless letter, which seems, however, to have been written 1715 or 1716, and addresses the king, he seeks to forward the material interests of the Society:— "Furthermore as timber is rather dear in England, it would be a notable assistance to the congregation if it graciously pleased your Majesty to permit to be felled, for the above-named purpose, on some Crown-forest situate by the sea-side, 200 pieces of timber, which are required for the preparation of the church and the erection of the steeple, that the means which would otherwise have to be expended for this object might be spared to meet other demands."
The only other detail that concerns Swedenborg's father is in a determination of the Society to submit themselves to the Royal pleasure in the selection of a pastor, for they "receive a salary for him from the King, and would besides withdraw themselves from the usurped Episcopal authority." The compiler of these notices has no clew [sic] to the motive for this anti-episcopal resolution. The worthy busy Bishop seems to have taken no part in their affairs for some years before this, which took place in 1728, when the present church was built. The congregation had previously met in what had been an Anabaptist's prayer house in Ratcliff Highway.

, who gave Swedenborg the Holy Supper on his death-bed, had been co-adjutor with the preceding pastor for two years, when he was called to the pulpit in 1760. The record of such church transactions as Ferelius took part in, shows that he was a zealous and well-meaning, but a heady and precipitate person. His residence at 13, Princes Square, may be worth knowing, as Swedenborg, when in London, occasionally attended Divine service in the Swedish Church, and used after it to dine with Ferelius or some other countryman. Yet he expressed to them "that he had no peace in the Church by reason of the spirits, who gainsaid what the preacher laid down, especially when he mentioned three persons in the Divinity, which, in fact, was just like three Gods." Ferelius was promoted in 1772 to some pastorate in Sweden, which seems to have been a common manner of exit for the ministers of this chapel. On the 5th of April, in that year, Ferelius gave his farewell sermon; and this is the day too on which Swedenborg was committed to the vault.

One other character is of interest in connexion with Swedenborg. This is Mathesius, who persuaded Wesley that Swedenborg was insane. Mathesius came to London 1768. In 1770 he became minister to the Danish congregation, and five months before Swedenborg's death he was made assistant to Ferelius.The irregular and unseemly management, on Mathesius's part, of Church meetings, provoked a complaint thereon addressed to the King by some indignant members of the flock, in 1777. The main grievances set forth were these:—The employment of Church money on his own authority; personalities from the pulpit; lack of order in reports and minutes; refusal of access, by members, to the Church books; that meetings were held without previous orderly summons; that reports were signed with members' names, they being ignorant thereof; that he, the pastor, went into the country without due leave; that he was the occasion of discord within the congregation, by incensing the lower classes against the higher, and persuading them they possessed privileges, in the management of Church affairs, to which they had no title; lastly, they complained of his irregularity of procedure in the purchase of a pastor's residence, &c.
The authorities in Sweden directed that this statement should be laid before the accused, whose reply was to be forthcoming within a month; that he should be suspended till further notice; and that he should receive a rebuke from Envoy Baron Von Nolcken for unbecoming behaviour towards him. In his reply, Mathesius contests the assertions made, and hopes his Majesty will graciously permit him to resume his office. He subsequently aided in the promotion of those projects to which he had at first offered so active and inorderly a resistance, and, by this change of colour, regained the support of the Envoy. He was again admitted to his post. In 1785 he returned to Sweden, and died there in 1808.

The articles of the church were subsequently drawn up by Baron Gustav Adam von Nolcken [sometimes spelt Nollekens], the Swedish Ambassador, and subscribed with the sign manual of Gustavus III, with the royal seal affixed. Among its provisions were:
- allegiance to the King of Sweden, so far as it does not interfere with that to the King of England
- the Swedish Ambassador to be the protector and intercessor of the congregation at the courts of London and England, and chairman of the vestries
- the minister of the church to be chaplain to the embassy
- the congregation to belong to the diocese of Upsal [Uppsala]
- te church affairs to be governed by the minister, three trustees, and twelve churchwardens

The church served the growing Scandinavian population who settled in the area in the years after the Great Fire of London in 1666 – wealthy timber merchants, embassy staff and a growing number of sailors and shopkeepers. It was also used by Swedish-speaking Finns. When the Danish church closed in the early 19th century, members, and the Danish government subsidy, were transferred here.
All seats were free. The main source of income was an annual £300 government allowance from Sweden plus a charge of 1½d. per ton on all Swedish ships entering the port of London; but members who paid contributions acquired voting rights. A reading room was set up at 33 Prince's Square, where Swedish books could be obtained, or ordered at cost price from Sweden.

The historian (and Huguenot archivist) John Southerden Burn,
The History of the French, Walloon, Dutch and Other Foreign Protestant Refugees &c (1846) listed the ministers as
-  Dr Martin Hegardt (1710-12), afterwards Dean of Lund in Sweden; Charles XII lived two years in the Dean's house at Lund, and stood sponsor for one of his sons
-  Olaus Nordborg M.A. (1712-23)
-  Dr Jacob Serenius (1723-35), afterwards Bishop of Strängnäs in Sweden*
   [according to Daniel Lysons in The Environs of London, vol 2 (County of Middlesex), 1795, he was the author of a dictionary of the Swedish language, and his portraint hung in the vestry]
-  Tobias Elias Biork (1735-49)
-  Dr Carl Noring (1749-61)
Arvid Ferelius M.A. (1769-73) [note the comments about him above]
A(a)ron Mathesius M.A. (1773-84) [note the comments about him above]

-  Andreas Leufvenius (1784-90), died in London and buried in the vault of the church
Samuel Conradi Nisser M.A. (1791-1802)
-  Dr Gustaf Brunnmark (1802-14)
-  Olif Svanander (1814-15), died in Africa
Lars Christian Tunelius (1816)
-  Dr Johan Peter Wahlin (1818-32)
-  Cornelius Rahmn (1833-40) - who established an Auxiliary Missionary and Tract Society, in connection with the Missionary Society at Stockholm
Gustaf Wilhelm Carlson M.A. (1840-) [author of the notes above]

As noted above, the scientist, mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) [left] was its most famous worshipper. He had lodged locally, in Wellclose Square, and elsewhere in London, and was buried in its vaults. His body lay in state at the home of Mr Birkhard, the clerk of the Church, in Ratcliff Highway. The funeral service was conducted by Pastor Ferelius: see below for the subsequent fate of his remains. His followers founded The New Church, which continues to this day, with a distinctive theological stance.

Also buried here (or, according to some accounts, at the Danish Church) was the Swedish botanist Doctor Daniel Solander FRS (1733-82) [right], who had sailed in the Endeavour with Captain James Cook on his first Pacific expedition, between 1768-1771, having previously been assistant librarian at the British Museum where he catalogued the natural history collections. Solander Gardens is named for him. (Nearby Betts Street was named after Captain Cook's wife.)

The Literary Panorama of 1808 includes this note:
King of Sweden's Birth Day.—Nov. 1, the Swedes in London celebrated the anniversary of their sovereign's birth with great demonstrations of loyalty. Te Deum was sung in the Swedish church, in Prince's-square, and an appropriate sermon preached by the chaplain to the legation. After service the Ambassador invited a number of his counrtymen to dine, at his house in Albemarle-street, at which the healths of the Kings of Sweden and Great Britain were drank, as usual, by the company standing. The poor of the congregation had an extra allowance for the day; and the collection for the Swedish Patriotic Fund lately established in London, to give relief to the wounded Swedish soldiers, and to widows and orphans of the slain in the different engagements with the French in Pomerania. as also to the Swedish prisoners in France, was very liberal.

The burial ground became overcrowded, and was closed. G.A. Walker, in Gatherings from Graveyards, noted in 1839The grave digger, an old Swede, narrowly escaped with his life, on two occasions, from the falling in of the ground. There is a vault underneath the church, which is never opened, unless for burial; the entrance is secured by a very heavy stone slab, which, after every funeral, is securely cemented down.

The 1878 Vestry map [left] shows adjacent streets, and the encroachment of industry.

Jenny Lind (1820-87), the 'Swedish Nightingale', also attended worship here from time to time.

Elizabeth Stride, one of Jack the Ripper's victims, was Swedish, born in Torslanda, a small village near Gothenburg. At 1am on 30 September 1888 Louise Diemschutz, steward of the International Working Men's Educational Club, was driving his pony and cart into the yard at the junction of Fairclough and Berner [now Henriques] Streets - a site which is now part of the playground of Harry Gosling School. He stopped when his pony shied, and discovered a body by the gate. This was Elizabeth Stride ('Long Liz'). Her body was less mutilated than those of the Ripper's other victims, so perhaps he had been disturbed. It was brought to the mortuary at St George-in-the-East, and the inquest held in the Vestry Hall. Sven Olsson, the clerk of the Swedish church, who lived at 33 Prince's Square [left - later 6 Swedenborg Gardens], and ran a reading room for Swedish seamen, knew her and had provided her with refuge and financial support. Olsson was born in the village of Övraryd, and married Mathilda (Thilda) Amalia Jonasdotter in Aguannaryd in 1866 before they came to London. One of Thilda's half-brothers was Joel Gustaffson, later Wirling, who lived with them in Prince's Square and was the organist of the Swedish and Danish churches from about 1880-82. The Olssons later returned to Sweden, settling in Osby. Stefan Rantzow, a musician from that area, visited St George's in 2008 with descendants of Elizabeth Stride. Articles about their visit appeared in the Swedish press.
The pastor at that time (1887 until his retirement in 1903) was Johannes Palmér, and he wrote several letters back home about the events, and also published 'Reminiscences' of his time in London.

Stefan [left] has sent us several interesting reports of his ongoing researches, in Sweden, into the story of Elizabeth Stride's connections with the Swedish church in London. The first relates to two of the clerk Sven Olsson's daughters. Stefan has a distant family relationship with the Bengtsson family, and worked for a time in the Brio publicity department, so was given a tour of the now-empty building mentioned. The second is about documents relating to the priest and clerk of the Swedish church at that time.

Sven Olsson had four daughters, two of whom were Tekla Hilma Dagmar Olsson, born on 18 December 1879 in London, and Regina (Nina) Teresia Viktoria, born in London on 4 June 1882. In 1914 they started to work in a store, named 15-Öres-Bazaren (later named Ivar Bengtssons Slöjdaffär). The store was on the north side of a long red-painted wood building, founded by a man named Ivar Bengtsson who also was the founder of the famous toy factory Brio [best known for wooden train sets - right]. In 1920 Brio gave them each 100 Swedish crowns as a Christmas bonus. In February 1936 15-Öres-Bazaren started to sell out their goods because it was decided that the store should close. The store was demolished and a new Brio office block built on its spot. Tekla and Regina was transfered from 15-Öres-Bazaren to a new store, located at the bottom floor in Brio's office block, which first opened its doors in November 1936. (The rest of the 15-Öres-Bazaren house was destroyed in a fire in 1943). They worked in the Brio store until the early 1940s, and then as homeworkers for the firm. Regina died on 22 May 1950 and Tekla on 6 July 1966.The Brio store was closed in the late 1960´s but reopened in 2009. The Brio head office moved from Osby to Malmö in 2006; the Osby site is now a toy museum.

December 2014: I recently visited the archive of material from the Swedish Church in London, which was transferred to Uppsala in 2011. It contains items dating back to 1710, and includes all the material from 1866 when Elizabeth Stride moved to London until her murder in 1888. Some of this is previously unexplored, and I spent a good deal of time making copies.

From 1886 Elizabeth appears from time to time in the Fattigvårdsbok, in which the priest or clerk noted the names of poor Swedes in the East End and how much money they were given; and her last payment was ten days before her death. The archive also contains some of the private diaries of Johannes Palmér, the priest from 1887-1903, including a mention of her murder in his entry for 30 September 1888. There is also a letter written by Palmér to the clerk Sven Olsson, asking him to go down to the mortuary at St George-in-the-East to view the body and give information to the police. His diaries are written in old-style Swedish (with some expressions that have passed out of use), mixed in places with English – including roads, streets and buildings which have gone or were renamed. They give a good view of the life of the church and the poverty that surrounded it. In one letter he wrote to the chief of Scotland Yard saying that he must place more policemen around the church because the poor were stealing from it. He found the beggars irritating, and in another letter calls them 'parasites'. There are also notes of visits by several Swedish royals; preaching at the Crystal Palace; and at the end of 1888 a request to the clerk Sven Olsson to light all the candles and gas lamps in the church because the nights were very foggy. Palmér was frequently in contact with the famous Dr Thomas Barnardo, discussing the situation of poor and sick people in the East End.

In 1894 Johannes Palmér came into conflict (unspecified) with his clerk, and in a letter to Axel Welin, a Swedish inventor and industrialist, he said that he was going to leave the church. Several other letters were written by Sven Olsson, complaining that he had to use his own money to buy soap and cleaning materials for the church, the windows of which were very dirty. He was sometimes paid by the church in coal, used for heating both the church and the reading room located in his house at 33 Princes Square; his sense of frustration about this is very apparent!  Another paper, containing many names, declared their support for him, and gave assurance that if he left the church they would provide a lifetime pension, because he had small children at home. But does this relate to the conflict with Palmér?

July 2015: Stefan arranged a meeting with the Jacobson brothers and Sally and John Edmonds – Sally is related to John Thomas Stride, the carpenter from Sheerness who married Elizabeth Stride in London in 1869. Joined by local historians and representatives of the newspaper Torslanda Tidningen, they visited sites in Gothenberg, starting at the church where Elizabeth was baptized (and her parents Gustaf Ericsson and Beata Carlsdotter were buried: their graves are gone, but the grave of the priest who baptized her, Carl Gustaf Schoug, is still there). They visited the house nearby in Stora Tumlehed where she was born – currently vacant but they had access to the keys – and then the Haga area in Gothenberg where she lived: in Pilgatan, where in 1865 she was registered by the police as 'Female Prostitute number 97', and Husargatan where she worked as a maid from November 1865 to February 1866, though this area was extensively redeveloped in the 1960s and 70s (despite protests), as was the Majorna area where she had previously worked. Stefan later visited this area and located the site of the house on which there is now a playground and pre-school.

Prince's Square in its heyday and its demise [remaned Swedenborg Square in 1938] -
the last days of the church

The church was set in a square of 18th and 19th century terraces, similar to neighbouring Wellclose Square but half the size. It had been the home of many merchants and seafarers; some of them had 'Negro' servants or slaves - see here for details of baptisms at St George-in-the-East.

An advertisement in the Public Ledger for 1761 read

RUN AWAY FROM CAPTAIN STUBBS. Yellowish Negro Man, about Five Feet Seven Inches, a very flat Nose, and a Scar above his Forehead, he had when he run away, a white Pea-Jacket, a pair of black Worsted Stockings, and a black Wig. Whoever will bring the said Negro Man to his above-mentioned Master, Capt. Stubbs in Prince's Square, Ratcliffe-highway, shall receive Two Guineas Reward.

The Briant cabmans' yard on the north side of the square had a long history.  In 1794 Richard and James Briant, wharfingers of 51 Lower East Smithfield, insured this and other properties. Their parnership ended two years later, each continuing separately in business. In 1812, Richard Potter was sentenced to a public whipping near to Chester's Quay for the theft of a 'head of hemp' (14lb 14oz, value 13 or 14 shillings) which he had separated from the main load in one of their wagons and concealed on its tilt; he offered no defence. James, described as a gentleman, insured property in Regent Street, Mile End, in the 1820s, but in 1846 his will was proved in London Diocesan Consistory Court, and the following year that of his widow Elizabeth, both of 34 Prince's Square - indicating that they had considerable property. Directories of that decade refer to Richard Wippell Briant, carman, of 41 or 42 Princes Square and also at London Dock, and Robert Frederick Briant, wheelwright, of the same address. Goad's insurance map of 1899 [right] shows that their premises remained, on the north side of the square.

As elsewhere in the area, housing developed check-by-jowl with workshops and a range of institutions. Among them in its latter years was the Judean School & Athletic (Temperance) Club, founded in the early 20th century by the brothers Dave and Barney Sticher in a stable loft at no.74 (later 54-56), where a number of Jewish boxers trained and made their debut - see here for more details. According to the police inspector who reported on this patch for the 1896 Booth survey [digitised image of the page here], Mayfield Buildings, accessed from the NW corner of the square and running up to Cable Street, was The worst place in the subdivision, not a male in the street above school age that has not been convicted. Thieves, prostitutes, rough Cockney Irish. Broken dirty windows. Bareheaded women. Doors open, black shiny doorposts, 3-storied houses. 'Has been the ruin of Princes Square, a quiet country-like place.' It was not, however, marked black on the map (the 'most vicious' category), and his assessment is at odds with records of the time which show the tenants to be the 'working poor': see this site, a fascinating account of the life of a German street musician's family, for full details. Right is Goad's insurance map of 1887 showing the Square, with Prince's Street and Britten's Court leading into it from St George's Street.

See here for mid-19th century temperance work in Prince's Square.

When the timber trade moved south of the river to Surrey Docks, in the latter part of the 19th century, the church went into decline. The 1888 Religious Census of London records its Sunday morning attendance as 61 (and its minister as the Revd A.R. Frost). The Swedish Seamen's Church in Lower Road, Rotherhithe opened in 1899. Closure of the Prince's Square church was mooted in 1908 [left in that year, and in 1910]. The Swedish Government sent the warship Fylgia to collect Swedenborg's remains [right, leaving the church], which were reburied in a pink granite sarcophagus in Uppsala Cathedral (except, legend says, for his skull, which a sailor stole). The church closed in 1911 and the congregation moved to a new building in Harcourt Street, Marylebone - below], taking most of the contents.

The trustees offered the building for sale, but there were no takers. There was a campaign to save the building and develop the land as a children's playground. In 1917 the MP for Limehouse, Sir William Pearce, said I am anxious for the success of the endeavour to save the Swedish Church. The building has much dignity and artistic merit and will be useful as a museum for the local assembly. The open space round the church is simply invaluable as a playground in a densely crowded neighbourhood of very poor people.  London County Council was willing to take on the grounds, but not the building. It deteriorated rapidly [left 1919 - and looking north 1921], and was demolished in 1921. The LCC bought the site in 1923 for £3,000, for the Metropolitan Gardens Association to create a public garden, but it fell into decline. Yet it was a potentially pleasant environment, as suggested by the 1930 photograph and the 1932 drawing, in pen and black ink with blue and green ink wash, by William Gaunt (1900-80) [both right].

The Blitz claimed more of the houses [left: south and west sides of the square in 1945, and two 1961 views, the second looking towards Britten's Court], but others stood until the 1960s when slum clearance claimed the rest, and St George's Estate [right] was created in the1960's - a fuller account of the loss of the square and the building of the estate is given here.

The historic links survive only in the names 'Swedenborg Gardens' [two views left] and 'Solander Gardens', plus the siting of the font from the Swedish Church, which was placed in the park on 18 June 1960 [right] and dedicated to commemorate the site of the church and the 250th anniversary of the Swedish congregation in London. Pictures of this event show HRH Prince Bertil handing over the memorial to the Mayor of Stepney, Mrs A. Elboz. A nearby plaque also commemorates the anniversary. The surrounding area was re-landscaped, with recreational areas, a children's playground, and paths and fencing, at a cost of £160,000 by Wapping Neighbourhood.The unusual angle of the rear wall of the Texaco petrol station probably marks the original geography of the square. More recently, in the area east of the font some inscriptions commemorating Swedenborg and Solander have been added at the base of the trees.

Porvoo Agreement and Common Statement, between the Anglican churches of the British Isles and the Baltic and Nordic Lutheran Churches (including the Church of Sweden, which signed in 1994), has created close working relationships between our churches - including the mutual recognition of ministries and sacraments, and enabling Lutheran ministers to serve in Anglican churches, and vice versa.

The two Swedish churches in London - at Harcourt Street, Marylebone - now Grade II listed [first left], and the Swedish Seamen's Church and hostel in Rotherhithe [1899, rebuilt 1930 and remodelled 1966 - second left] work together as part of Svenska Kyrkan i Utlandet (SKUT), the Swedish Church Abroad, under the oversight of the Bishop of Visby. They also hold occasional services in Icelandic (the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland is a fellow-Porvoo church). The parish motto remains rosa inter spinas - a rose among thorns: a phrase widely used in other contexts, and originating in a Marian antiphon, Just as the rose amongst thorns adds beauty to them, so the Virgin Mary adorns her offspring, for she brings forth a flower that gives a life-saving fragrance.

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