Barking and District Historical Society

Go to content

Main menu

St. Margaret's Church

Articles > Barking & Dagenham > St.Margaret's Church

St. Margaret’s Church
Barking, Essex

C.J. Dawson, F.R.I.B.A., July 1918

The following account of St. Margaret’s Church was written by Charles James Dawson (1850-1933) towards the end of the Great War (1914-1918).  Dawson, who was Surveyor and  later Architect to Barking Urban District Council, intimately knew every corner of the church and took great interest in the fabric and history of this splendid building. He includes his own recollections of the church in the 1860s and early 1870s. This  manuscript was issued in typescript about 30 years ago.


When the Vicar mentioned to me a short time ago that he thought the people of Barking should know more of the building and history of their old parish church, he honoured  me by an invitation to undertake that work; at first I felt somewhat diffident in taking on so important a task, but after consideration and the fact that as Honorary Architect I am responsible for the works of restoration that have been carried out at  different times during the past thirty years, I could not do otherwise than obey.

In attempting to deal with this subject one can hardly do so without in the first place making at least a brief reference to the once grand old Benedictine Abbey that stood  within a few yards of this church; and within the precincts of which stood this church as you see it now, as far as its general outline is concerned, and an earlier but no doubt smaller church that occupied a portion of the site of this church, and both  were therefore contemporary with the old Abbey. I mention this because one is apt to think of the Abbey that was swept away centuries ago as of an age remote to this church. True, it would be if one considered the Abbey from the date of its founding in  the year 666, but that building was destroyed by the Danes in one of their raids in the year 870, and was not rebuilt until a century after; and in about the 12 th Century it was again  rebuilt and was afterwards added to from time to time as late as up to the 15 th Century; and it is therefore with that building we are concerned, the pulling down of which was commenced  in the year 1541, a date that I ask you for the moment to remember. This pulling down was so complete that only a few fragments now remain above ground, but these, aided by the exploration of such of the foundations that remained under ground that was  carried out by the Barking Urban District Council in 1911, under the supervision of Mr. A.W. Clapham on behalf of the Morant Club, and my eldest son on behalf of the District Council, were sufficient to admit of the preparation of a complete plan of the  Abbey Church, and the greater portion of the other buildings connected therewith; this with the lucid and valuable report of Mr. Clapham as published by the Morant Club and which, with the plan, can be obtained in book form, is such that should be read  by the people of Barking especially. I could not suggest a more interesting pastime than a visit to the site with that book, as also the small book with the green cover containing those interesting accounts of this church by the Rev. J. Eisdell (our former  Vicar), and of the Abbey by our fellow townsman, Mr. George Jackson, which were read at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society in 1907, and at last, but not least, that very excellent book entitled "A Sketch of Ancient Barking and  its Abbey", written by Mr. Edward Tuck, published in book form by Messrs. Wilson & Whitworth, in 1888; and to read them with the aid of the few fragments of the old buildings that remain, and the plan of the buildings that the District Council caused  to be outlined on the ground, which are intended to remain as a reminder of the magnitude and importance of that once noble pile of buildings that made Barking famous as a great religious centre for a period of nearly 900 year.

The Venerable Archdeacon Stevens, himself a keen archaeologist, upon being made Suffragen Bishop of this diocese elected to be called Bishop of Barking, this in itself is sufficient to shew how much importance he attached to the ancient history of Barking  as a great religious centre.

In determining the age of parish churches erected in the Middle Ages, one is generally confronted with the absence of any documentary record of them, therefore the only guide as to the date of their erection is by the style of architecture employed, and  especially to the details of mouldings and other matters, and as this effects our consideration of the subject, I would point out that ecclesiastical architecture in England is accepted as commencing with the Norman Conquest when the Normans introduced  their style of architecture which prevailed between the years 1066 and 1154. Then followed the Early English Gothic style from the year 1154 to 1307, then the Decorative Gothic style from 1307 to 1387, and lastly the Perpendicular Gothic style from 1387  to nearly 1600.

This church, which measures 134 feet, extreme length from East to West, and 64 feet extreme width from north to south, consists of a chancel, north and south chancel aisles, nave, western tower, south aisle, two north aisles, north porch, and vestry.  The tower is in four stages, and measure from the ground level to the top of the embattled parapet 75 feet; it contains a peal of 8 bells, the heaviest one weighing 23 cwt, and a clock with two dials measuring 7 feet in diameter. The floor of the church  is now about 18 inches below the level of the ground, which shows how much the ground has made up since the church was built.

The eastern end of that portion of the present chancel that projects beyond the ends of the north and south chancel aisles is of quite different architecture to any other part of the church, and the two small narrow windows with their pointed arches and  deep splays on the north wall certainly give the idea of being Norman of the middle of the 12 th Century. This is accentuated by the fact that there still remains ample evidence of  there having been two similar windows exactly opposite in the south wall, the blocking up of which can still be clearly seen from the vestry roof, whilst the external face of the east wall suggests reasonable evidence of similar windows prior to the existing  perpendicular one having been put in at some later date, and which may have been done to improve the lighting of the chancel owing to the blocking up of the two windows referred to, and of a large window in the east end wall of the south chancel aisle  for the purpose of erecting at a later date the existing vestry.

This portion, it would be reasonable to assume, formed part of the earlier church, the remainder of which was pulled down for the erection of the present and presumably larger church, which (with the exception of the portion of the chancel referred to)  is in the Perpendicular Style of Gothic that prevailed between 1387 to nearly 1600, and which I shall endeavour to show was not built all at one period.

Owing to past neglect and afterwards the mutilation of the building in 1770, when the stone caps of the octangular columns of the nave and chancel arcading were cut off, and substituted by plaster caps of a different design and at a lower level, and the  part cutting away and cementing over the bases of the columns, it would have been hopeless to have obtained an accurate idea of the original work, but happily a small piece of two of the moulded stone caps that at that time had been hidden by a gallery  at the west end of the nave still exist, owing to which, and in a few instances where the stone bases had not been quite destroyed, it has been possible to obtain an accurate copy of the original ones, and which are sufficient to establish an idea of  their date, (…) as also those of the three arches to the lower stage of the tower (…).  At the same time (1770) the stonework to the whole of the windows of the south and north aisles, and the clerestory, were removed and substituted by  round headed wooden ones, and the wagon headed enriched plaster ceilings to the nave and chancel and the flat plaster ceiling to the aisles were put up.

In building a church upon the site of an existing one, the usual method would be to leave as much of the older church intact until sufficient of the new church had been built, for the purpose of carrying on the church services throughout the building  operations, and as a portion of the chancel of the earlier church has been preserved and incorporated in this church it is reasonable to assume that the building of this church was commenced from the west end; therefore the tower would be the first to  be commenced, and judging from the superior architectural treatment of the tower to that of the nave, I should think it was the work of a different architect. If this theory is correct it would probably account for the variations in the shape of the arches  of the nave.

In Mr. Clapham’s sketch of the Abbey, he quotes that:- "Between the years 1433 and 1473 the Gate Tower served as a belfry for the parish church before the erection of the western tower".

It is therefore probable that the two upper stages of the western tower were not built until a later date than that of the two lower stages, and from the appearance of the tower I should think that this was so, as not only do the windows of the upper  two stages appear to be of a later date than the large west window, but the external facing stones of the walls are rubble work, whilst those of the lower stages are squared.

In the carrying out of the restoration work at various times during the past 30 years opportunities have been afforded me of becoming acquainted with parts of the church that have been, or are now, hidden from view, more especially the windows , also  those parts of the building above the plaster ceilings. The result of my observations leads me to put down the following order in which I consider this church was built, viz:-

The eastern end of the chancel projecting beyond the east ends of the north and south chancel aisles (being part of the earlier church referred to) as of the middle of the 12 th Century.

The tower, nave, inner north aisle and south aisle, and the north and south chancel aisles, is of the Perpendicular Style of Gothic of about the first half of the 15 th Century.

My opinion is that what I have just described, completed the church at that time; it did not include the present outer north aisle, porch and vestry, and that the present arcading dividing the two north aisles, which is so different to any other part  of the church, stands on what was the outer north wall of the church, which was afterwards taken down to construct the outer north aisle, and I am inclined to the conclusion that this aisle was built piecemeal at various times, probably as funds permitted.  What has led me to this conclusion is the following, viz:-

The east end for the length of the chancel aisles is quite different to the rest; it is faced externally with ashlar work, i.e. squared and dressed stones several of which have Norman ornaments cut in them, and were probably derived from the pulling down  of the earlier church referred to, whereas the rest of this aisle is faced externally with coursed rubble, also the new large window in the east end wall which is a replica of the previous window as ascertained by a few, but sufficient, fragments found  in the wall when taking out the wooden window placed there in 1770,and the smaller but much richer designed window near-to on the north wall, now blocked by the Bennett Monument, but a portion of which can be seen from the outside, where the walling has  been cut away for that purpose. Both of these windows are so entirely different to the rest of the windows of this aisle that have been restored, and which are a faithful replica of the original windows as ascertained from fragments discovered in taking  out the wooden windows of 1770. In most cases as much of the original stonework as was practicable was not moved from its original position, such as the jambs, arch, cills and hood moulds.

Then again the widths of the piers to the arcading varying so much, still further lead me to the conclusion that this aisle was not all built at one time.

With regard to the dates of the erection of this aisle, I should be inclined to put the eastern end referred to at after the middle of the 15 th Century, and the remainder as having  been commenced in the year 1501, my reason for this is that in the restoration in 1907 of the first window, west of the north east entrance, an oyster shell was found in the wall with that date scratched on its surface, this can now be seen in a small  glass case hanging near to.

The arcading at the east end of this aisle in design is clearly late Norman, and has been generally accepted as such on account of the round columns and responds with their truncated bowl shaped caps, and the opinion of some archaeologists has been that  this work had been removed from the old Abbey, but in examining the caps referred to I find that they are not genuine, being cast in plaster of Paris, and that the original stone caps as far as my examinations went had been completely cut away, and could  not have been the same depth as the plaster ones, and I should say not like them in design; this fact does not however preclude the idea that this arcading is not Norman or Early English Gothic, and I am still strongly of opinion that it is one or the  other, and probably obtained from the pulling down of the earlier church.

I have already mentioned the erection of the Abbey was about the 12 th century, and was added to from time to time until the 15 th  century, and that the pulling down was commenced in the year 1541; and I have also mentioned that the erection of this parish church of St. Margaret’s was from late in the 12 th  century to the year 1501. It will therefore be seen that this church and the Abbey were contemporary with each other, and that during that period this parish church stood and still stands within the precincts of the abbey. The entrances to the precincts  consisted of three gate towers, the principal one having been on the south side of this church and presumed to be where what is now known as Heath Street. Another was near the north end of Back Lane, a portion of which remained until the year 1885 when  it was taken down. The other, which we are all so well acquainted with, still remains as the only entrance to the precincts of this church.

In Morant’s History of Essex it states:- "There were three chantries formed in this church, one at the altar of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the second at the altar of King Edward, and the other at the altar of Ethelburga". It is  possible that the north and south chancel aisles, and the east end of the outer north aisle formed these three chantries.

The vestry appears to have been the last part of the church to be built, for which purpose it was necessary as before mentioned to block up the two windows in the south wall of the chancel, and a large window in the east end wall of the south chancel  aisle, the jambs and arch of the upper portion of that window are still intact, above the plaster ceiling ….

The north entrance porch was no doubt built at the same period as the outer north aisle, and although this has been cemented over, according to the incised date of 1835 in the gable, there is sufficient of the front entrance archway to obtain the design  of it.

It will be noticed that there is no south entrance porch to this church, this is peculiar, as generally this is the most important entrance to a church and especially so in this case, as from all accounts the chief gateway to the precincts of the abbey  was on the south side of the church yard. I find in "Brandons Book of Parish Churches of the Middle Ages" that out of 62 churches illustrated in that work 55 of them have the principal entrance on the south side. I am inclined to think, however, that  originally there was a south porch possibly where the present window is at the west end of the south wall of the south aisle, as when cutting away for the new window fragments of the old window were discovered that were of a later date than the other  windows of that aisle, in fact, exactly similar to the west window of the outer north aisle, and may have been substituted for the south porch after the chief gateway referred to had been pulled down.

The plaster ceilings that have hidden from view since the year 1770, the open oak timber roofing are excellent examples of classic architecture, but are out of all character with Gothic architecture. I have had the opportunity of getting between them  and the roofs, and have ascertained the designs and condition of the hidden roofs, which are as follows, viz:-

The roof over the nave is nearly flat and consists of heavy moulded tie beams, bracketed at each end and carried 4’6" down wall posts that rest on stone corbels. These tie beams carry heavy moulded ridge purlin in centre, also with bracketed ends  and moulded intermediate purlin and moulded wall plate, on each side, all carrying plain heavy rafters and boarding, covered with lead on the outside. As far as could be determined this roof was in good condition, and but little damaged by the plaster  ceiling which is carried on deal ribs suspended by iron rods from the oak beams.

The present clerestory windows occupy the same position as the original ones, a portion of the inside jambs of which still exist.

The roof of the south and the inner north aisles, which terminate at the arches at the west ends of the south and north chancel aisles, are also flat and covered with lead; as far as the examination went only one length of a heavy moulded oak beam measuring  11¾" deep and 7¼" wide, and the moulded oak wall plate was discovered and this was in the south aisle only; the remainder of these oak flats having been reconstructed with fir timber, probably in 1883; the oak remnants mentioned are sufficient to  show that these roof flats were originally constructed with moulded oak tie beams resting at each end on moulded oak wall plates carrying longitudinal moulded oak purlins, with oak rafters and oak boarding….
The roof of the chancel, which is steep pitched, and covered with plain tiles is constructed of what are called trussed rafters, i.e. each pair of rafters is fitted with a collar about two thirds up the vertical height of the roof, diagonal struts between  collar and each rafter, and short vertical struts from wall plate to rafter on each side, these giving seven planes or faces to the roof as seen from the inside; there is evidence from the number of nails in the underside of these to show that it had  been boarded and probably panelled with oak mouldings. The plaster ceiling is carried on deal ribs suspended from these timbers.

The roof over the north and south chancel aisles, and the outer north aisle, are also steep pitched and covered with plain tiles, and similarly constructed to the chancel, excepting that they have in addition moulded oak cambered tie beams with short  oak king posts with moulded bases and caps cut out of the solid; these carry a longitudinal plain chamfered plate close up to the underside of the collars to rafters, and each post is fitted with a curved oak brace from each of the four sides. The wall  plates are chamfered, but in the case of the outer north aisle they are in addition moulded and have carved patteras 22" apart, most of which is however missing.

I have searched through the architectural books in my own library as well as the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to see if I could find an illustration of a roof constructed in this manner, and in only one instance have I succeeded,  and peculiarly enough that happened to be Barking church, but not this Barking, but Barking in Suffolk.

The roof of the north chancel aisle still has a small portion of oak boarding and two lengths of chamfered moulding attached to the underside of the rafters, showing that the roof was boarded inside and panelled out with the chamfered moulding. The king  posts, curved braces, and the longitudinal beam to this, and the south chancel aisle, still show the colouring of a zig-zag ornament on them, and the oak boarding, the colouring of a florid design….

The oak timbers of these three roofs are crude in workmanship, but otherwise are in a fair condition, and quite capable of reparation.

The outer north aisle has a second set of rafters on the north side evidently put on at a later date so as to form an eaves gutter, to replace what had originally been a parapet wall with lead gutter at the back.

In the east end wall of the south chancel aisle, the inside segmental arch and a portion of the jams and jamb mullions of a window opening 7’ wide still exist, for a height of 3’6" above the ceiling line, being the remains of the large window  already referred to as having been blocked to allow of the vestry being erected at a later date.

The priest’s doorway has been discovered in the outer wall of the south chancel aisle, and a portion of the filling on the outside has been cut out for the purpose of inspection.

Prior to the restoration of the large west window of the tower and the western entrance doorway under, about thirty years ago, the three archways of the tower were blocked up, and there existed an oak floor to the tower about level with the cill of the  window referred to, and cutting right across the three archways; this floor at that time formed the ringing floor of the belfry; there seems no doubt that the floor was an original part of the tower as the doorway to it and the short arched passage from  that to the turret staircase which still exist are original parts of the tower. Originally the view of the west window from the entrance to the church must have been greatly impeded, therefore the floor, as also a gallery at the west end of the nave that  had probably been erected in the 18 th century, were taken down to remedy what was looked upon as a defect.

The altar piece which is now covered with curtains, is carved and moulded wax polished oak of a classical and good design, its date is probably early 18 th century. I am under the  impression that I remember the panels having had written thereon the Commandments, the Belief, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Behind the north side of the altar piece is a niche with a pointed arch. This at one time was fitted with a door as there is a rebate all round the opening for that purpose, and there was a moveable shelf inside, as is shewn by the grooves in the side  walls. No doubt this was an aumbry, to contain the utensils belonging to the altar.

There is a shallow niche in two stages in the north wall of the chancel, and another in the east wall of the north chancel aisle, both of perpendicular design.

There is an elaborately designed niche at the west end of the inner north aisle, and was presumably used for a holy water stoup.

The stained glass window over the altar has a monogram and date 1845 in the left hand bottom corner, which is no doubt the date of this window.

At a later date there was a chapel outside the east end of the inner north chancel aisle. This was called the Campbell Chapel, and was formed over the Campbell Vault, the top of which is still to seen. There is a small water colour sketch in the Barking  Public Library, taken from an illustration dated 1800, which shows this chapel as being constructed in red brick. The Campbell family were residents in the then parish, and Sir James Campbell founded a free school here, for a stone to his memory was taken  from what was the Old National Girls’ School, and is now in the entrance porch of the new Church of England Infants School. This stone is dated 1649. No doubt that when this chapel was pulled down the present stone mullioned window at the east  end of this aisle was put in, probably about the year 1845.

My recollections of the Church in the 1860s & early 1870s

The gallery already referred to was at the west end of the nave and occupied the whole width; it contained three family pews enclosed on three sides with high panelling,  and a door to each, the front consisted of an ornamental wrought iron railing (which is now fixed in front of the large west window) under this was wood panelling upon which was written the names of benefactors, and in the centre was a clock. At the rear  of the pews was the present organ, and this with its gilt pipes and ornamental front going up to the ceiling gave a very pleasing effect to the church. On each side of the organ was the choir.
Two large ornamental brass chandeliers were suspended from the ceiling of the nave which gave a very pleasing effect to the interior; these were taken down and disposed of for helping to meet the expenses of the church. This action caused considerable  feeling at the time.

The pulpit which has now been cut down in height, was originally a double decked one, the upper being used for preaching, and the lower one for the church services, with a desk for the church clerk at the side, but at a slightly lower level.

The responses and Amens were at that time given by the clerk and not as now by the Choir.

The clergyman always preached in a black cassock, he going into the vestry at the close of the church service to change from his white surplice.

The christening pew which was enclosed with high panelled framing was on the north side of the wide pier with the unglazed window to the arcading of the north aisle.

The font was near to the christening pew; it had a stone base of the Elizabethan style of architecture, and which is now stored at the west end of the north aisle. This was taken down for erecting the present font about the year 1872.

The beadle, who was an important individual, wore a uniform of blue cloth trimmed with gold braid and buttons. He was armed with a stout cane, which he used lavishly, and not without cause and effect, as in those days the fisher boys were oftentimes unruly,  and I have known the service stopped whilst the police came in to quell the disturbance.

During the winter months one of the bells was regularly tolled for 30 minutes at 8 o’clock in the evening, and at 5 o’clock in the morning of each day. Whether this had been continued down from the time of the curfew I am unable to say,  but it was always called the curfew bell. It was discontinued in 1885, for the purpose, I understood, of saving the expense which amounted to the sum of 80/- [£4] for the six months.

At the close of the Sunday morning service bread was doled out to the poor, from a pew under the gallery.

C.J. Dawson

Some References:

Clapham, A.W. The Benedictine Abbey of Barking: a sketch of its architectural history and an account of recent excavations. Essex Archaeological Society Transactions New Series Vol. 12 pages 69-

Cromwell, Thomas. 2001. Victorian "restoration" and St. Margaret’s Church, Barking: an essay for the Architectural Association. 33pages. Includes many references to Dawson and his repairs.

Eisdell, J.W. 1915. St. Margaret’s Church Barking…and Barking Abbey…: papers read at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Societyand by J.W. Eisdell and George Jackson, 1 st  June 1907. E.J.Baigent.  56 pages.

Tuck, E. 1899. A Sketch of Ancient Barking, its Abbey and Ilford.

Back to content | Back to main menu