The first church was a chapel (often called the Stamford Hill Independent Chapel in local records), initially built sometime between 1773 and 1777 (see note below) apparently by John Devall of Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square as a place of worship for his tenants. John Duval built the terraced houses, now numbered 49-69 (one of which had a plaque saying built in 1760) which still front onto the West side of Clapton Common.  The church building was initially in a large fenced garden, and was a simple rectangular shape, with a high pitched roof . A picture in the Tyssen Collection shows Spring Hill around 1800, and has a small and indistinct picture of the chapel – apparently with a small cupola on the roof at the east end of the church.

The intention was to provide a local chapel for the gentlefolk buying the houses – saving them the long journey to the Parish Church in Hackney.   The Chapel was privately owned (the pew rents were supposed to pay the owner for the upkeep of the building and compensate the clergy).  It was leased for the first 5 years to the Vicar of Hackney. The pew rents proved to be insufficient, and we know that during this period the vestry declined to compensate him for losses. It’s not clear who the subsequent leasors were, although the clergy appointed to the chapel appear to have been appointed by the Vicar of Hackney. The final owner was the Rector of St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, and the Rector or his curate would travel up every Sunday on horseback to hold the Sunday services.

The Clapton Common community grew.  After a group of local citizens met in the Swan Pub in the 1820s and sought enhanced status for the chapel, in 1827 a group of four trustees (Joshua Watson, John Clarke Powell, Henry Patteson and John Diston Powles) bought the church, and it was consecrated as a Chapel of Ease for the Parish of Hackney, and dedicated to St Thomas (possibly because land in the area was owned by St Thomas’s Hospital ?). Money was raised by building and leasing some shops on church property along Oldhill Street and adding more houses to the existing terrace of Georgian houses facing Clapton Common (including the present day vicarage).  The church was extensively altered by Jospeh Gwilt, considerably enlarged, and the little classical tower now at the front of the house added. The trustees apparently spent £10,850 (borrowed)  in these changes.   The tower is apparently similar to that of the Greek Monastery attached to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The new church was consecrated by Bishop Howley, the then Bishop of London on October 22nd 1827. A total of 400 free seatings was provided – at this time the church had galleries on both sides, plus a second  gallery above the organ which occupied the rear gallery in the church.

In 1828 a district was assigned to the church which amounted to the care of about 4,000 souls (and covered over twice the area of the current parish). Repair costs to the church were disallowed by Hackney churchwardens in 1835.

In 1845 an order in council was granted to allow the right of publishing bans and of solemnising marriages.

In March 1855 a meeting of St. Thomas’ congregation held at the ” Swan Tavern “, when action was started for obtaining complete ecclesiastical freedom from the mother parish. The Stamford Hill and Upper Clapton Parochial Association was established to petition for Parish Church status. In 1856 the Formation of Parishes Bill was passed by the House of Commons, and came into effect in July 1856, making St Thomas church a parish for ecclesiastical pirposes.  An order in council dated December 1856 allowed churchings and baptisms in the church.

At this time the area was very different to how it is today.  The common (then called broad common) was surrounded by large houses, largely occupied by wealthy city gentleman.  Most of the surrounding area was fields.

On the 1st October 1864 the famous ‘Erith explosion’  twelve miles away on the River Lea caused significant damage to the church, blowing in the East Window, and damaging the decorations on the East Wall.  Father Kingsford redecorated, installed a new altar and altar rail, and in November 1865 wrote to the church members introducing changes to Holy Communion in line with the practices of the Oxford Movement.  The changes raised a storm of opposition, with people walking out of church (‘slamming the pew doors’) when the vicar appeared in the pulpit wearing a surplice instead of a black gown. Father Kingsford was taken to the Court of the Arches three times by the parishioners with a long list of complaints, and was eventually forced to remove the choir seats and priests desks he had installed, but the rest of the innovations he had introduced remained.

With the continued growth of population in the area, parts of the original parish either became, or were joined to additional or existing parishes including St Matthews in 1866, St Michael’s in 1882, St Andrew’s in 1883, possibly St Ann’s, Hanger? Lane, in 1885 ?, and St Bartholomew’s in 1905.

By 1873 the church was in some disrepair, and it was decided at a vestry meeting that restoration was required. So in 1873 the whole of the interior was remodelled according to the plans of William Burgess at the cost of £2,000 raised by public subscription.   The scheme adopted was partially based on the arrangement of Saint Clement in Rome. The apse prominent in the current church first appeared,  forming a worthy reredos to the High Altar, and the marble ambos and chancel wall an imposing approach.  The trustees of the church at this time also ceded all their claims on the debt of £8,000 and surrendered the ownership of the church and surrounding to the Church Commissioners.   Galleries were removed. During these renovations from 1872 to 1873 the Church meetings were apparently held in Casenove Road. When the church reopened pew rents were also abolished.

In 1878 the Narthex was erected (this was on the site of the current lady chapel, and externally was a low roofed building connecting the church to the next door shops which were on the site of the current parish garden).  In 1884 a parochial mission was held.   In 1896 it is recorded that Incense was used at Christmas.  By 1900 (probably earlier) the church was lit with gas lighting, with hydraulic power (presumably from the London Hydraulic Company) used to operate the organ.  Electric light was introduced to the church in 1902.

In 1909 two Bishops regularly attended St Thomas’s Church – Dr Henry Paget, Bishop of Stepney who lived at 26 Clapton Common, and Dr Turner, Bishop of Islington who lived at 96 Clapton Common. Between 1909-1913 oak panelling with Stations of the Cross were added to the interior.  In 1910 the Blessed sacrament was reserved on the high altar for the first time.  In 1922 electric lighting redone. We have a view of St. Thomas’ sometime before 1927  (see this large JPEG picture) . The interior of the church was renovated in 1930, following the falling of a stone corbel, and the subsequent condemming of the church by the LCC.

In 1934 the Church was repainted.

The church was destroyed on December 27th, 1940, by enemy action (a torpedo bomb exploded on the shop opposite the main door in Oldhill Street).  After the bombing, the Sunday Mass was said in the street outside the church, while workman demolished the unsafe bits of the south wall and roof.  Mass was initially said in the crypt, and then services were moved into the Church Hall, although a small chapel (‘The Oratory’) was made in the server’s Vestry, which had a door leading onto the street.

In 1947 the Vicar paid the Land Charge on St Thomas’s church – which finally returned the land on the Church to freehold.    In 1949 a number of adjustments made, with the elements of the parish given to St Andrews returning, and minor adjustments with St Bartholmew’s parish boundary.

The new church (with the original intact tower) was designed by  the eminent architect Mr. N. F. Cachemaille-Day F.R.I.B.A. and opened in October 1958 by the Bishop of London Montgomery Campell.

The parish garden was created in 1959 with the soil being moved from both 81 Clapton Common and the Day School.


Who was St Thomas The Apostle ?

There is no record why the parish church was named after St Thomas the Apostle – although it might be because St Thomas’s Hospital held land in the area (although not the land the church was built on).  St Thomas is the patron saint of builders and architects, so it was also a suitable dedication for a church built by a builder (although the dedication is first used in 1827).  Thomas is the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek name Didymus which means Twin.

St John the Evangelist seems to have taken a personal interest in St Thomas. He gives four of his sayings (John 11 : 16 ; 14 : 5 ; 20: 24-29) and includes St Thomas among the seven who met the Risen Christ by the Lake o£ Galilee at His third appearance to the Apostles after the Resurrection.  In the Synoptic gospels St Thomas’ name is coupled with that of St Matthew (hence when the sister church was consecrated in 1869, it was given the name of St Matthew).

There is an apocryphal ” Gospel of St Thomas” about Jesus’ childhood, and from the third century the Persian “Acts of St Thomas” which provides the legend connecting him with India.

An old tradition says S Thomas baptised the wise men – the three kings of Tarsus, Saba and Nubia who subsequently gave their lives in martyrdom.

The builder’s set-square is St Thomas’s symbol, commemorating the sale of St Thomas to the merchant Abbanes who came to Palestine seeking a proficient carpenter for Gundaphorus, King of the Indians. Our Lord is said to have appeared in order to effect the sale of the unwilling apostle with these words : ” I, Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter, acknowledge that I have sold my slave, Thomas’. And so after much voyaging St Thomas reaches India symbolised by the enclosing palm branches. In India St Thomas is commissioned by the King to build a royal palace and entrusted with much wealth for that purpose. After two years the King returns to find no palace erected for Thomas has given all the treasure to the sick and poor, needy and distressed. He has begun to build up God’s Church in India. To this day in South India there is an ancient Church claiming to have been founded by St Thomas and using the primitive Liturgy of Malabar. This Syrian Church has maintained its orthodoxy and independence through the long centuries. At Mount St Thomas, Madras is the shrine of the Apostle’s martyrdom. The crown and palms are a symbol of his triumph which earned the prefix ” Saint ” to his name. His reward is the fulfilment of Our Lord’s promise to His apostles that they should sit on twelve thrones as judges (Matthew 19: 28).

At the first Easter St Thomas would not believe our Lord was really alive again until, as he said, he could touch for himself the scars of the sacred wounds. When our Lord met him, he is invited not only to touch Our Lord’s hands and feet but to thrust his hand into the side which the soldier had pierced with his spear. Hence the spear is a symbol of St Thomas’ hesitancy which when dispelled brought forth the shortest and completest act of faith in the whole Bible : “My Lord and my God.’ Bishop Ken’s poem for St Thomas’ Day (December 2lst) describing the apostle’s death, says:
” They on a cross decreed
He, Jesu-like, should hang and bleed ;
And as he hung, they pierced him with a spear.”


Church Furnishings

There were originally two bells in the church tower. The elder was inscribed ‘Pack and Chapman of London Fecit 1773’, while the younger smaller bell was marked 1823 the same date as the bell tower clock (four years before the church was enlarged). In both cases it is possible that the bells might have been made for stock several years before they were installed. The smaller bell was sold in 1958 to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and the larger bell was restored by them.

New pulpit crucifix in memory of Stanley Gresham, priest. The figure came from Oberammergau. Dedicated in October 1960

Two stained glass windows  in the Lady Chapel, dedicated on February 11th 1961. St. Richard, Bishop of Chichester will remind us of the 5 bishops who have lived in the parish: and St. Eanswythe, Abbess of Folkstone of the 2 Religious Communities.

Two fine doors leading into the Church, 1970 as a memorial to Father Dachler

The hanging rood or cross (1921) is the war memorial.  Cost £183 and designed by Martin Travers.

The organ destroyed in the war was rebuilt in 1913.

The High Altar (1923) also survived the bomb and was free-standing before this was common in the C of E.  It was designed by Martin Travers, and carved by Anton Lang, who was the actor who played Christus at the Oberammergau Passion Play.

Sancturary Lamps were presented to the Church in 1910, and supposed to be a copy of those at St Mark’s Venice.

Altar in the North Aisle came from Lambeth Palace and was used by Achbishops Temple and Fisher.

Carved wooden stations of the cross were supplied by Barkeritin and Kral in 1909-13.

The tower clock bears the date 1823.

Clock in the Lady Chapel given in 1928 by Mr Miller.

Lady Chapel priests bell hung in 1958, (was a servants bell from SSM Kelham).

The Banner of St. Thomas and the four-foot wooden statue executed by the late Mr.William Lawson of Faith Craft

Nave Windows

  • St Peter – crossed keys – the keys of the Kingdom
  • St Andew – X cross – crucified on one
  • St James major – water bottle – patron of pilgrims
  • St John – chalice and dragon – Satan flying from poison
  • St Thomas – set square and spear – builder and death
  • St Matther – money bag – tax collector
  • St Philip – staff – died by blow on head
  • St James minor – club – clubbed to death
  • St Simon – saw – sawn to death
  • St Jude – boat – traveller for Christ
  • St Bartholomew – dagger – flayed with knife
  • St Mathias – axe – beheaded with axe
  • St Paul – crossed swords – beheaded by sword

Modern Wall Hangings – Brian Coleman designed and worked these and the banner of St Thomas


Date of the first chapel

This is a matter of some controversy. Most authorities quote 1777 as the date – the trust deed of 1827 refers to a charge on the site computed from Lady Day, 1778.  But a map of the Webbe Estate, dated 1774, in the Tyssen Collection, the church is clearly shown (but may have been shown in anticipation of its building).  The church bell and church clock both have the date 1773 engraved on them – although both of  these could have been made before the church was built.


The trust deed of 1827

The trust deed casts some interesting light on the early church land. It consisted of the land that is now occupied by 37, 39 and 41 Clapton Common.  These houses, and the (two ?) shops on the north side of Old Hill Street, as far as the mews (now no longer present) were built and leased on 99 years leases to help fund the redevelopment of the Church.   The trust deed says that the property was subject to a yearly rental of £56 to Mr Devall. This yearly rental was sold by Mr Devall to the trustees for the sum of £1,000.   Dr Richards was ‘paid’ the sum of £5,450 for the church (‘allowed to remain on bond in the penal sum of £10,900 at 4 per cent interest’).

The details of the trust deed cast light on the early years of the church. The Rector of Hackney agreed to augment the stipend of the curate or minister by a yearly payment of £50 until the church was appointed a District by Her Majesty’s Commissioners for Building Churches (which happened in 1828).  The appointment of the minister was in the hands of the Rector of Hackney – but the trustees having the right of approval, with the Bishop of London appointing if there was any disagreement between the Rector and the Trustees.  The clerk, organist and sexton were to be appointed annually by the Rector (although as there was no graveyard, no sexton was ever appointed).  The pews were let by the trustees, with a certain number of free sittings agreed by both the minister and rector.  The pew rents were expected first to provide a yearly stipend of £150 for the minister, and then be used for paying the salaries of the clerk, organist and sexton, and then finally for paying the interest on the bond.


Church Hall

From 1909 to 1916 the church used an iron hut in the old vicarage (number 57 Clapton Common). After this College House,  81 Clapton Common was used (it was bought for £800 in 1916). Considerable alterations were made in 1928 (G H Burgess architect).  It remained in use until the early 1960s. It was compulsory purchased  and demolished by the council in 1963 so that the Summit estate could be completed.

The Parish Hall extension (when built called College House) was built in 1967, at the cost of £9,435 and finally opened on May 19th 1968.