St George’s German Lutheran Church and Goodman’s Fields
By the Survey of London, on 9 August 2019
St George’s German Lutheran Church on Alie Street is located in an area known as Goodman’s Fields in Whitechapel. Though now associated with the recent Berkeley Homes development to the east of Leman Street, for many centuries ‘Goodman’s Fields’ extended much further west, all the way to Mansell Street. It was named after the Goodman family, who held much of the open pasture land regarded as the ‘fields’ in the late sixteenth century. A hundred years later, under the Leman family, the principal streets – Mansell, Leman, Prescot and Alie Streets, were laid out, and the first proper wave of building development took place.
Second and third waves of development saw these streets and others close to St George’s lined with a mixture of substantial mercantile houses, smaller house-workshops, and large factories. However, industries such as sugar refining and gun making increasingly characterised the area, and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, rows of densely occupied terraced houses were constructed on the last remaining open ground. After population dispersal and extensive bomb damage during the two world wars, Goodman’s Fields suffered a loss of identity and a period of decline, becoming home to many large speculatively built office blocks by the early 1990s. In 2019, the area is undergoing a further transformation, with only a limited proportion of the historical built environment remaining, increasingly overshadowed by tall blocks of flats.
The Survey has prepared a new exhibition centring on buildings local to St George’s German Lutheran Church in Goodman’s Fields. It will be displayed at St George’s on 21st and 22nd September, and thereafter migrate around other Whitechapel venues. This post presents a sample of the exhibition, exploring the history of this quickly changing area.
St George’s German Lutheran Church
St George’s German Lutheran Church is the oldest surviving German church in Britain. Since the eighteenth century, St George’s has been a haven for thousands of German Protestants seeking economic opportunity and religious asylum in the Whitechapel area. Sugar refining is interwoven with St George’s history, having served as a major economic driver for the German immigrant community. Dederich Beckmann (c.1702–66), a wealthy sugar refiner, was a key founding leader of the church and donated substantially towards its construction. The site of St George’s was purchased in 1762, with construction beginning soon after. Joel Johnson and Company served as builder, possibly also architect, and the chapel was consecrated on 19 May 1763. Before fitting out was complete, the building was enlarged at its north end in 1764–5. The church’s vestry was also built at this time.
The church’s external appearance does not demonstrate any clear German architectural connection, rather it is in keeping with other English Nonconformist chapels of the period. Composed of stock brick, its Alie Street façade is symmetrically arranged and features a central Venetian window flanked by identical doors. Centred above the window is a lunette, perhaps at one time glazed, that now reads ‘Deutsche Lutherische St Georgs Kirche Begründet. 1762’ (St George’s German Lutheran Church. Founded 1762). The church’s slate roofline was initially crowned by a bell turret, clock, and weathervane. This was dismantled in 1934 when rot and woodworm were discovered after several decades of deferred structural maintenance. A plain cross can now be found where there was formerly the clock’s face.
Several sequences of repairs and restoration works resulted in replacement of all the original windows. Little else has been altered externally. However, the present juxtaposition between the simple church and towering neighbouring buildings reflects broader local shifts that have taken place in recent decades. Extensive restoration was undertaken in 2003–4, following the transfer of St George’s to the Historic Chapels Trust in 1999. In 2019, St George’s continues under the care of the Trust in partnership with the Friends of St George’s German Lutheran Church. Together they host talks, tours, concerts, and other public events to connect St George’s to the wider community.
The arrangement of the sanctuary space reflects the evolutionary process of the church’s use, but also retains its original orientation, laid out in a typical Protestant fashion. Pews and galleries are centred around a main speaking platform, giving liturgical emphasis to preaching and the reading of scripture. This focus became a point of contention when the congregation’s first pastor, Dr Gustavus Anthony Wachsel (c.1735–99) incorporated hymn-singing and other musical performances into the more ‘pious’, word-focused liturgy, earning the chapel the critical nickname ‘St George’s Playhouse’. By 1802, the railed sanctuary had been made smaller, giving congregants closer proximity to the altar, and an organ had been installed. This was replaced by a larger instrument in 1885–6 resulting in the removal of upper galleries, which may have been made superfluous by declining attendances.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the St George’s community faced numerous difficulties under the strong and steady leadership of Pastor Georg Mätzold (1862–1930). During the First World War, anti-German sentiment was high, and many congregants returned to Germany or were interned. Despite these challenges, the congregation continued to meet, and following Mätzold’s death, the much-diminished community turned to reviving their religious home. This work included a reorganization of the chapel interior, in which a committee room was made under the south gallery. Dr Julius Rieger commemorated his predecessor by dedicating the room as the Mätzoldzimmer, as it is still known. During and after the Second World War, the congregation not only continued to meet but increased in size as new German refugees entered London’s East End. In the second half of the century, attendances declined. A plan for re-arranging the interior by the architect J. Antony Lewis in 1970 would have removed much of the intact joinery, including the pews and large portions of the galleries. This, however, never came to fruition, allowing the eighteenth-century interior joinery to remain intact. It is a significant survival.
St George’s Schools
A burial ground east of St George’s church was gradually built over. By 1800, a substantial four-storey parsonage adjoined the church adjacent to which stood a modest clerk’s house, likely constructed when a single-storey school replaced stable and coach-house buildings further east (see the drawn elevation above).
St George’s church foundation included ‘German and English Schools’ from 1765, but an operational school was only formally established in 1805, when the parsonage and clerk’s house were given over for educational use. By 1808 a small school building had been erected, accommodating a mixed class of girls and boys aged seven to fourteen. Pastor Christian Schwabe, who served at St George’s from 1799 to 1843, was instrumental in all this and an experienced teacher. Schwabe moved to Stamford Hill where he established a school for distinguished German families, many of which, with other wealthy German merchants, some involved with sugar refining, supported the new Whitechapel school. Voluntary contributions enabled a proportion of less well-off children to attend on scholarships. The numbers of pupils increased rapidly, and girls were separated from boys after a decade with the girls’ classes moved to the parsonage. Other rooms in the parsonage were given over to a new infants’ school, established in the 1850s.
A two-storey infant school was completed in 1859, funded by W. H. Göschen, a banker who was the son of Goethe’s publisher. Held to be the first of its kind in the city, the school allowed mothers to go out to work during the daytime, ‘an urgent necessity amongst London’s growing German population’. By 1877, 283 children were registered at the infants’ school, and the intake of the junior schools had increased to the extent that the existing accommodation on Alie Street was unsuitable. The whole frontage east of the church was then redeveloped, with E. A. Gruning, himself an immigrant German, being the architect. The most significant benefactor was local sugar baker, James Duncan. The rebuilding was spurred on by the enthusiasm and energy of the Rev. Dr Louis Cappel, minister between 1843 and 1882.
The elementary school closed in 1917 when Pastor Mätzold was deported to Germany. The lower floors were soon used by tailoring businesses, and the upper storeys let out. By 1949 the infant school was disused. In 1983 St George’s converted the first floor into a student hostel/dormitory and retained the basement as a church hall. Both the schools were wholly converted into residential premises in the 1990s.
17 Leman Street
Opening in 1861, the German Mission Day School replaced an eighteenth-century tenement and family-run bakery. Designed by City architect Edward Ellis, the purpose-built school was one of a handful clustered around Buckle Street and the east end of Alie Street, primarily serving the large local German population. This school was supported by a group of German churches and funded through subscriptions from wealthy German individuals. Its initial aim was to educate the poor children of seamen, and it was in some ways a complement to St George’s Infants’ School. It was well attended, with enrolment reaching 150 within a few years of opening. However, by the end of the nineteenth century many German families had moved out of Whitechapel. This, coupled with the establishment of Board Schools following the Public Schools Act of 1868, led to the school’s closure in 1897 and the building being let out for commercial purposes.
By 1903, the former Mission School was in use by the Jewish Working Girls’ Club (JWGC), which began in 1881 as a small sewing circle. It initially met in a house in Prescot Street and moved to the Gravel Lane Board School in Wapping in 1886. After its relocation to Leman Street, the JWGC purchased the freehold through the support of a Jewish-American philanthropist, Mrs Charles Henry, to serve as a goodwill gesture at a time of restricted US immigration policies. The building was lightly adapted for its new use by the architect M. E. Collins to include recreation rooms, a kitchen, scullery and library. The club was successful through the 1920s, with regular attendances of 160 for classes such as needlework, cooking, Hebrew and religion, singing and drill. Reliant on voluntary contributions from the local Jewish community for its operational expenses, the Club experienced periods of financial instability and closed at the beginning of the Second World War.
Soon after the war’s outbreak, the War Office requisitioned the building for use as a hostel for black seamen from British colonies. Many West Africans and West Indians supported the British war effort by joining the merchant navy and serving in perilous situations at sea. Their arrival on British shores, however, posed difficulties. Those who found themselves in East London encountered underlying racism at the docks and were often turned away from other seamen’s hostels. As the Colonial Office hostel, this building provided a place for twelve men to stay for three weeks at a time, with shared spaces including a dining room, kitchen and common room. Despite the good intentions of providing camaraderie and support, those staying often struggled to find work and settle in the country, leading to criticism of the institution’s management. After much debate over the role of the Colonial Office in providing this support, the hostel’s ownership was transferred into private management in October 1949, in part facilitated by the London Council of Social Service. By 1959, the building was in use as a dress factory by H. Bellman & Sons Ltd. The former school was demolished in 2013, the site now contains a twenty-two storey aparthotel.
The Eastern Dispensary
The Eastern Dispensary was one of the oldest institutions of its kind in London. Founded in 1782 to provide free healthcare to poor local residents, the dispensary was first sited on Alie Street. It claimed an ‘on-call’ midwife, able to care for women in their homes, and a resident medical officer, alongside visiting surgeons and physicians of some standing. By the mid-nineteenth century, against the backdrop of a swollen local population, the old Alie Street premises were deemed no longer fit for purpose. Many London livery companies, local merchants and sugar bakers subscribed to the rebuilding project. The ‘new’ Eastern Dispensary opened at 19A Leman Street in February 1859 to designs by G. H. Simmonds, a local surveyor and the secretary of the dispensary who was also involved with the Royal Pavilion Theatre and the Davenant School. He deployed an Italianate palazzo style, but it is not clear that the original exterior design as seen in The Illustrated London News was wholly implemented.
The popularity of the dispensary remained high until the 1930s. It drew patients not only from Whitechapel, but from all around London and surrounding counties to visit clinics, many of which were held in the evenings to ensure patients did not lose income, nor employers man-power. Some alterations to the façade were made in 1929, and further repairs followed in 1936. By this time, attendances were dropping due to the improved general health of local people. The loss of population and staff during the war, as well as bomb damage to the building, precipitated the dispensary’s closure in 1940. Governors hoped to re-open it, but the establishment of the National Health Service in 1946 rendered the dispensary redundant. In 1944, the building was briefly occupied by the Jewish Hospitality Committee, who undertook substantial renovation and restoration, purposing the interior as a canteen and social club for the allied forces. Thereafter the lease was transferred to the Association for Jewish Youth. The building was sold in 1952, and then used for several decades by second-hand clothes merchants, S. Turner & Co.
By 1980 the building was vacant and it suffered some neglect prior to listing in 1986. It was refurbished and insensitively adapted to use as a pub in 1997–8, with little or none of the original interior fittings remaining intact. It is only as a result of this refurbishment that the seven-bay Leman Street façade now does resemble exactly the scheme as published in 1859. Rustication extends across the lower storey, the first-floor windows are pedimented, and the roofline is articulated by a projecting cornice, above which sits an inscribed ‘Eastern Dispensary’ panel. The Dispensary Pub closed in mid-2019 and the building currently stands vacant once again.