Part of ‘Faith Flows in Newham’ a research project by Dr.Colin Marchant.
Research Fellow at the University of East London, Centre of Institutional Studies. November 2008.
This ‘island district’ is set between the Royal Victoria Dock and the Thames to the south of Canning Town in the London Borough of Newham. Originally marshland running from the Thames and Roding it underwent massive industrialisation in the mid- 19th Century as the banks of both rivers filled with industries like Thames Ironworks, Tate and Lyle and S.W.Silver and Son [giving the name Silvertown by 1859] and the London Docks. The 1867 and 1893 Ordnance Survey maps of the area show clearly the arrival and in-filling of roads, railways, factories, docks and housing. The story is given in the commentary attached to the maps. Details are gathered in the History of the County of Essex Volume 6. Population movement to the suburbs, two world wars, industrial run-down and dock closures in the 20th Century have led into immigration and regeneration which has dramatically changed both the physical environment and the composition of the contemporary population. Evidence of faith flows here have been sparse, difficult and largely non-rooting. They can be seen in the underlying, pervasive beliefs of paganism; the initial influence of Christianity, the struggle to keep faith alive and relevant within the industrial revolution, the missionary efforts of the Victorian era, the disappearance of faith buildings and now the impact of globalisation and multi-faith.
Any evidence of human faith in a supernatural world before the coming of Christianity lies in the river gods and nature religion of the widespread and underlying paganism. Burial sites at Bow and ‘the goddess of the Roding’ are nearby connections. There is no known evidence of early human settlement in West Silvertown but those passing through the marshes or rivers would have lived with the open skies, stars, sun and moon, seasons, life and death and entered into the superstition, sacrifices and rites of early history.
Christianity reached Newham in 1135 .Cistercian monks from France came along the river Thames and up the Roding to found Stratford Langthorne Abbey 2 miles north of Silvertown. Old maps record West Ham Abbey Marsh and Plaistow Level stretching down to the Thames. Stratford Langthorne, Barking and Waltham Abbeys covered and controlled virtually the whole of Newham until the closure of all monasteries in 1538 by Henry VIII Worship, teaching, agriculture, commerce and care were all part of their contribution to the sparsely population and rural areas now known as Stratford, Canning Town, Custom House and Silvertown. Abbey Mills can still be seen from West Ham station, excavations for the Jubilee line led to the discovery of 650 graves and preparations for the Olympics have uncovered more of the ruins and sites. For 400 years the ‘white monks’ of Stratford Langthorne Abbey ran a hospital, bakehouse, slaughterhouse, chapel and mills on the 20 acre site. Another 400 acres included houses, sheep pastures, forest rights, and even responsibility for flood control stretched across the area from the Roding to Epping Forest[Wanstead Flats] and right down to the Thames.
Parishes and Buildings
Church of England parishes replaced the Abbeys from 1538 with the intention of a church building and resident vicar centring faith and life in every place. Parishes, missions and Non-Conformist chapels did not arrive in West Silvertown before 1860. All the buildings and programmes struggled and closed within 80 years. The 1867 map numbers sites for future factories between the Victoria Dock and the Thames but the only houses [less than a dozen] are at the Tidal Basin end of the North Woolwich Road. The only church building was the distant St.Marks Parish Church The 1893 map has three large blocks of houses surrounded by docks, factories, and wharfs all linked by both roads and railways and two church buildings in West Silvertown…St. Marks Parish Church was opened 1862, began a school [both sites on the 1867 map] and was the ‘mother parish church’ for all Silvertown life but declined rapidly after the 1939-45 war and by 1965 the congregation had shrank to ‘four old ladies at evensong’ with a vicar featured in the Newham Recorder for collecting funeral fees as chaplain to the local cemeteries- the building is now the Brick Lane Music Hall.. From St.Marks the St.Barnabas Mission Church in West Silvertown was established by 1893, struggled to survive, was badly damaged by the 1917 Silvertown explosion and closed in 1926. Nearby a Baptist Tabernacle is marked on the 1893 map. This work also struggled, became a branch of West Ham Central Mission, was led by Sister Vera, and was closed as war broke out in 1939.
A group of German Christians, here for work, met in homes, worshipped in their own language and tried to form a local German Methodist Church in 1881 but eventually settled in Star Lane, Canning Town. Three different expressions of Christian faith reached into West Silvertown from Canning Town at the turn of the 19/20th centuries.. St. Lukes Parish Church in Tidal Basin [now a community centre] had an extensive social programme which majored on children and sport. The Dockland Settlement [later the evangelical Mayflower and now the Pentecostal River Church] in Canning Town drew thousands of East Londoners into a network of buildings and activities Both were Church of England, had large staff numbers, were often patronising, did much ‘for rather than with’ local people and found it difficult to bring a personal faith to the working-class population.. The Primitive Methodists was a working class movement engaged in ‘open air preaching, street processing, house to house visitation and benevolent activities’ They formed groups in local factories, rented houses to hold meetings, ran Sunday Schools, engaged in personal evangelism and temperance work. By the 1880s they had 986 members and 2742 children in Sunday Schools in 14 East London congregations with only four ministers between Poplar and Beckton Their leader, R S Blair, told the story in ‘Pulling Down and Building Up’ This group witnessed and worked in local factories, met in ordinary homes and gathered in lively congregations all round West Silvertown. None of these efforts rooted physically in West Silvertown, all gathered individuals or families from the community and gradually withered between the two world wars and had either disappeared or shrunk to a forlorn remnant by the 1960s.
Church Planting and Community Work
For 30 years the whole of Docklands declined, lost industries, saw docks closed, people moved out, community life struggled and faith in anything disappeared. In the 1980s the Newham Dockland Churches Group began to work out a mission strategy for church and community work in the old districts of Custom House and North Woolwich and the emerging Beckton-all of which were undergoing renewal or regeneration. Canning Town and West Silvertown were not included in either the strategy or the new buildings and workers that followed. But as regeneration moved westwards and developments like Britannia Village in West Silvertown became reality the churches again sought to plant congregations and restore faith in the communities. An ecumenical initiative was first. In 1998 West Silvertown Urban Village Churches Project reported ‘Since March 1997 the Revd Graham Routley has been working as the Churches Community Development Worker in what is designated as the West Silvertown Urban Village. This is a half-time appointment made by the Barking Church leaders, an ecumenical group on which are represented the major denominations; Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, United Reformed and Baptist Churches.
The West Silvertown Development incorporates Britannia Village and is sited along the south side of Victoria Dock. There will eventually be a mixture of private and rented houses totalling approximately 1100 units. There is no church and the Church Leaders were concerned to have a Christian presence there so that people if they wished could be put into contact with a local church, pastoral care could be given and community building measures be encouraged.’ This was a short-lived effort with a part-time, outside worker and by 2000 the Project disappeared with the departure of the leader. The Royal Docks Community Church was a London Baptist Association Thames Gateway initiative for ‘a new church for a new millenium’ The mission statement was ‘to establish a new church serving the communities of the Royal Docks area’ .It began in a Britannia Village house in 1998 with the Rev Penny Marsh, moved to worship in the Britannia Village Primary School in 2000 and in 2004 set up the Bridge Community Project.at The Hub. Penny Marsh left in 2007 leaving a 10 strong congregation and the Community project. Dave Mann, with an outstanding track record in church and community work in nearby Bonny Downs, East Ham took over the work in 2008 and moved in with his family..
Ethnic congregations have come and gone in West Silvertown, they include the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Using school or community centre they gather congregations from a wide area and do not become a neighbourhood church. They are part of the rapid growth in Pentecostal congregations in Newham [150 at the last count] as the population has diversified and changed.
Globalisation, immigration and people movements have brought both varieties of Christianity and all the world faiths to Newham. Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh homes are now part of West Silvertown but so far they move away from the district for their faith, cultural and community gatherings.
The Victoria County History of Essex
Old Ordnance Survey Maps of Silvertown 1867 and 1893
East London Timeline Historical Map177 1805-1874