St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, is an 18th-century church in Bethnal Green, East London. Both Ronnie and Reggie's funerals were held here on 29th March 1995 and 11th October 2000 respectively. In addition, Charlie Kray's was held on the 19th April 2000, with the whole church and street outside being filled up with thousands of mourners each time. Tony Lambrianou's funeral was also held here in 2004.
The architect of the original church (1743-6) was George Dance the Elder. The church was remodelled by TE Knightley (1861) after a fire and rebuilt following World War II damage by J Anthony Lewis of Michael Tapper & Lewis, who commissioned the sculptor Don Potter to create Stations of the Cross., London, England. It is an Anglican church in the Diocese of London.
History of the Church
As early as 1690 negotiations were commenced for the creation of a separate parish of Bethnal Green. Nicholas Hawksmoor, then a pupil of Christopher Wren, drew up plans for a large, basilica-type church, which was to be built by the “Fifty Church Commissioners”. There was opposition to this, however, from both the local population, who feared the increase in costs to themselves in maintaining a church building and its Rector, and from the Rector of Stepney, whose income from tithes in the area would be lost if it became a separate parish. Negotiations were drawn out and it was not until 13 October 1725 that a portion of Hare Fields (its last remnants are seen in the 15 metres of Hare Marsh remaining off Cheshire St) was purchased for the church at the cost of £200. The reason that the site for the new church was to be so detached from the old village green was that there had grown up, with the Huguenot weavers’ community, a sizeable new commercial hub in west Bethnal Green around Hare St (now known as Cheshire Street).
By now the Commissioners scheme was in financial difficulties and the plans for the church building were abandoned. In 1742 the parish of Bethnal Green was finally authorised and George Dance was commissioned to design a smaller and more reasonable church than that Hawksmoor had done. No detailed description of Dance’s designs survives but his drawings in the Soane Museum show simple and spacious ideas. In 1743 the foundation stone was laid by Ebenezer Mussell but St Matthew’s troubles were not over. The following year work on the half-built church was halted as, once again, funds were insufficient. A petition was made to Parliament and in 1745 an Act was passed to pay all debts and complete the work. The Act began, ‘The want of a place for public worship of Almighty God hath been a great cause of increase of dissoluteness of morals and a disregard for religion, too apparent in the younger and poorer sort.’
The church was finally completed and dedicated on 15 July 1746. In 1859 the interior of the church was destroyed by fire. The night of the fire was so cold that the firemen were covered in sheets of ice as they struggled with the flames. The registers and robes having been saved, a rate was then levied on the Parish to rebuild the church but the work was delayed by builders’ strikes and rows between the architect, T.E. Knightley, and the local committee. Finally the church was reopened on 13 December 1861. A cupola on the tower, iron sanctuary gates, rood figures (now in St John’s church up the road), stained glass, ornate mural decorations, and a huge stone reredos are shown in pictures of this time. In 1940 bombing destroyed or damaged all of this and the church was left as a roofless shell. A temporary church was built within the walls, the architects being Wontner Smith and Harold Jones. This was dedicated either on 24 September 1952 or 27 November 1954, records differing on the date. Many of the furnishings for this church survived from other local bombed churches and a number of them are still in the church today.
In 1957 it was decided to rebuild the church and Antony Lewis was appointed architect. Work began in 1958 and the temporary church was demolished in 1960 and the present church was re-consecrated on 15 July 1961.
The Present Church Building
The enlightened vision of Antony Lewis included commissioning young artists and ensuring that their work was integral to the structure of the building. Thus the church now has Stations of the Cross by Don Potter, a staircase sculpture by Kim James, the Apostles Screen by Peter Snow and an altar by Robert Dawson. Dorothy Rendell painted the tester designed by Lewis himself (as were the light fittings and the font) and the murals in the Upper Chapel are by Barry Robinson. The glass panels are designed by Heather Child. (see Art in St Matthew's)
Apart from these major pieces St Matthew’s houses a legacy from many of the other bombed churches in the area which are no longer standing. The stained glass in the Back Chapel by Lawrence Lee incorporates windows from St Philip’s, Swanfield Street, the crucifix at the east end is from the temporary church, as is the statue of Our Lady of Peace and a number of the carved wooden furnishings. The organ was brought from St Matthias church in Bacon Street. When the “Red” church, St James the Great, on Bethnal Green Road was closed in 1984, a number of the furnishings there were brought to St Matthew’s as well.