Some years ago, a set of handwritten notes apparently written by George Binks in 1898, came to life and were published in the May 1977 edition of Sydenham Life. In them he states that he "preferred not to accept the office of Churchwarden, but to serve as a Sidesman", a position he held with great dedication for many years.
At the request of a number of friends, I have consented to set down, in a narrative form, my reminiscences of St. Bartholomew's hoping that they may be of interest to the young generation and new comers to Sydenham who, from what they see of Sydenham today, can form little idea of what it was like when I became acquainted with it.
My acquaintance with Sydenham dates back to the year 1829, when I resided at Peckham Rye. I was a great walker in those days and my favourite walk was to Sydenham, then a simple village at the foot of a densely wooded hill. The whole of Sydenham Hill was at that time covered with trees and bushes, which extended as far down as Hillcrest Road; comparatively few houses formed what is now known as Upper Sydenham, and Sydenham proper - a mere village - lay east of the Brighton railway, and is now known as Lower Sydenham.
For more than twenty years I knew Sydenham as a frequent visitor; and in March 1853, I came to live in West Hill, having built there the house in which I have since resided.
For more than twenty years I knew Sydenham as a frequent visitor; and in March, 1853, I came to live in West Hill, having built there the house in which I have since resided.
St. Bartholomew's Church at that time served both Sydenham and Forest Hill. There was no other church in the parish nearer than St Mary's Lewisham; Christ Church, Lower Sydenham being at that time a Dissenting Chapel. St. Bartholomew's, as I first knew it, presented a very different appearance internally, from that which it presents today. It had a plain ceiling, with tiny clerestory windows, and the pillars were of brick and plaster. It was seated with what are now termed old-fashioned high pews, and lighted with candles. The seat occupied by the Clerk, the reading desk, and the pulpit, one above the other in the form irreverently styled 'a three decker'. There was a small gallery over the western entrance, in which the organ was located. There was no choir in those days, and the singing, such as it was, was led by the children of the National Schools, who were also accommodated in the gallery. The late Dr. Westbrook, then a comparatively young man, was the Organist.
The Incumbent was the Rev. Charles English, and he had, as curate, the Rev. Mr Pearson, whose salary the Incumbent paid out of his own pocket. All other expenses of the Church were paid by the old Parish Church at Lewisham, until the abolition of Church Rates,when St Bartholomew's was formed into a separate parish. Occasionally the Vicar (Rev. Henry Legge) visited St Bartholomew's and preached and took part in the service. The Vicar usually paid us a visit also on special occasions connected with the church.
When Church Rates were abolished an attempt was made to collect a Voluntary Rate, but this was by no means a success, and it was abandoned.
We got about £300 in debt in connection with the Church Expenses: there was no fund out of which to pay the Organist, the Clerk, or the pew-opener, Mrs Cleeve, who was pew-opener to the Church for many years, as was her mother before her. Another servant of the Church, whose name was Redmond, combined the offices of Sexton and Beadle. In outward apparent these two offices were very far removed from each other. As sexton and grave-digger, Redmond was very humbly clad, but as beadle he was quite a gorgeous personage, in his cocked hat, plush breeches and waistcoat, embellished with brass buttons.
As an illustration of the loose way in which the pew rents were collected in those days, I may relate the following little incident: I called upon Mr English one afternoon, and seeing a slip of paper on his desk bearing my name. I said, "What is the matter?" He replied, "I want your pew rent." I said, "It has been paid three or four months, and I have got the receipt." I then examined his rent book and found that he was £30 short. I next went, at the request of Mr English, to the Parish Clerk, who was responsible for the collection of the seat rents, and questioned him about the arrears. His reply was that he had not had time to balance his accounts. I told him I should recommend Mr English to "sack" him if he did that sort of thing. He replied, "You can't! I am the servant of the Parish and not of you or Mr English."
The sexton assumed the same attitude of independence and defiance, as the following incident with show. He was called to account by Mr English for digging a hole in the Churchyard and burying in it a still-born child, which was, of course, an illegal act. However, he was by no means penitent for his misconduct, but, on the contrary, very impudent to Mr English, for which I took him sharply to account. We could not get rid of the sexton, however, any more than we could the clerk, for both were appointed by the Parish Vestry.
In those days the principal officers of the Church were the late Mr Mayow Adams, Mr Parsey (who carried on business as a builder in the High Street) and Mr Kingsford. Although I myself took an active part in the affairs of the Church, I preferred not to accept the office of Churchwarden, but to serve as a Sidesman, which I did for many years.
We spent some thousands of pounds on the improvements of the Church: we built a new roof, the old one having become dangerous, and the present chancel was erected as a memorial to the first Incumbent, the Rev. W Bowdler. When these alterations were proceeding, the seat-holders had to give up their sittings, and services were, for the time being, held in Christ Church, Lower Sydenham, which had at this date become a licensed Chapel of the Church of England. When it came to re-letting the seats at St Bartholomew's, I suggested that, for the future, the seat rents should be paid in advance, and this was agreed to. Another suggestion of mine was that any seats, whether rented or not, should be filled up if they were not occupied by the holders at the time the service commenced. This proposal aroused some opposition, and I was asked who was to look after this arrangement, if adopted, and show strangers into the vacant seats. I said I would, and from that time Mr Redpath and I stood at the doors and showed visitors into the vacant seats.
Another suggestion of mine was that a collection should be taken at every Sunday service, with the object of paying off the debt and raising a fund for lighting the Church with gas. This was done until the debt was disposed of and then - well, the collection was continued and has never since been dropped. We had to thank this regular collection for getting us out of debt, and we were not ungrateful as to discard so good a friend. I may add that in those days we used to stand at the doors with offertory bags, and not go round the pews, as at the present time.
In 1865 the Rev. Augustus Legge, who had become Vicar of St Bartholomew's, started the Parochial Charities for the supply of coals, clothing, blankets and other comforts for the poor during the winter months. I took this matter in hand, at the request of Mr Legge and during the first year I got together a fund of £76. This year (1898), when I gave up the work, the total amount subscribed was was £390. It will thus been seen that the fund grew considerably, and I earnestly hope that it may be generously supported in the future; for although I am no longer officially connected with them, I have not lost my interest in Parochial Charities.
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