St Matthews - the lost church

Did you know that St. Bartholomews once had a sister church - St Matthews? It was pulled down long ago, but some may still remember . . .

St Matthews, Panmure Road, began life as a mission church on St. George's Day, 1871, when a corrugated iron building, brought from Lower Norwood, costing £268 was opened for public worship.

The church, seated 250, continued for nine years. But the building was unpleasant to worship in; roasted hot in summer, and freezing in winter. By the end of nine years the little iron church had become old, out of repair and draughty. The owner of the land wanted to use it for more lucrative purposes. But the congregation did not want to move. St. Bartholomew's, still a pew rent church with a waiting list, was well filled. St. Philip's Taylors Lane and Holy Trinity Sydenham Park were both close by, but worshippers had become very attached to St.Matthews.

Sydenham Hill was then still home to wealthy families, attracted to the area by the Crystal Palace, who found the walk to and from St. Bartholomew's too long. The then vicar (Canon Yeatman-Biggs) was offered help towards the cost of a new church and land was bought in 1879 within a few yards of the old sitte, at a cost of £789. Poorer houses also asked contributed small amounts each week.

The first half of the new church was opened for worship on St. John Baptist's Day, June 13, 1880. The chancel, the vestries below, and part of the nave cost £4,000. The memorial stone was laid by the Earl of Dartmouth and dedicated by the Bishop of Rochester. Two years later further money was raised. The rest of the nave, the baptistry and the tower cost £4,500. They were dedicated on April 29 1883.

For some time the church steeple was without a bell, the congregation being summoned to worship by large gongs on which it was possible to play chimes and hymn tunes.

A good organ was bought and stained glass windows were gradually added as memorials. A Curate-in-charge was assigned.

St Matthews declines

Everything went well for some years; the congregations were good and there were no money worries. But gradually the wealthy people on Sydenham Hill moved away, and the large private houses began to be turned into boarding houses, institutions and flats. The congregation thinned and the struggle for money began. The First World War helped to change attitudes towards church attendances. 

In 1916, Rev. Edward Hunton Bell became priest-in-charge at a stipend of only £100 a year. He was willing to do so because of a private income. In 1924 the "Chapel of the Angels" was furnished at a cost of £84 and dedicated at St. Matthew's patronal festival.

When Rev. Bell retired in 1929, he expressed great sorrow and disappointment that the St Matthews congregation had thinned. After his departure the church was served by the clergy of St. Bartholomew's and numbers remained low.

Significantly although St Matthew's was a permanent building erected on a freehold site, it was never consecrated as a parish church and was only licensed by the Bishop for services and sacraments. The licence could therefore be withdrawn at any time.

Moreover there was no deed of conveyance to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The Trust Deeds were held by the Southwark Diocesan Trust; and the diocese, through the Bishop and his advisers had control over the building and the site.

During 1938 several diocesan commissions considered the future of St. Matthew's, the last one reporting that it should be closed. The Bishop did offer to hold on if certain conditions, mainly provision of a stipend for the priest in charge, could be fulfilled.

These were not acceptable and a final appeal to the Bishop failed. April 24, 1938 saw the last service. Canon Smith appealed to the congregation to put aside harsh feelings and worship at St. Bartholomew's. 

The following year, the organ, reredos, altar fittings, font, choir stalls, pews, prayer desks, pulpit and stained glass windows were removed. Canon Smith wanted to clear the site as quickly as possible to spare the feelings of the congregation. On April 18 1939 the last stained-glass window was removed. Stripping out had taken four months.

It was difficult to find new homes for stained glass windows, especially the great East window (the Te Deum window), which went to Holy Trinity, Hereford.

As for the remaining items, Pews and chapel furniture went to the Church of Ascension, Mitcham; Sanctuary desks and altar rails to Bishop Andrews' Church, Carshalton; Chairs, kneelers and books to St. Swithuns, Toting; Carpets etc to St. Helier, Morden, Church Hall; Communion vessels to St.Mark, Deptford; Pews andn harmonium to St. Jude's, Bethnal green; Litany desk to All Saints', Blenheim Grove, Peckham. The processional cross, at donor's request went to Beckenham church. The organ was reconstructed at an unknown church.

Stained-glass windows, reredos, altar fittings, surplices and many other articles went to St. Mary Magdalene, Southwark; Choir stalls etc to St. Paul's Greenwich. Font ewer, Psalters and cassocks to St. Bartholomew's and the vestry table was given to the parish hall in Wells Park Road.

By August 1939, only the brick shell and bell tower remained. Finally, the bell was taken away to be re-melted for use in another church.

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