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Alarm bells ring out at historic, crumbling East End church

PUBLISHED: 10:51 23 August 2010 | UPDATED: 10:51 23 August 2010

Rev Kevin Sculley has launched a campaign to raise money to fix St. Matthew's Parish Church's bell tower, Bethnal Green.

Rev Kevin Sculley has launched a campaign to raise money to fix St. Matthew's Parish Church's bell tower, Bethnal Green.

Archant

WORSHIPPERS may have to watch their back while they pray as their historic East End church has begun to crack and crumble. The vicar has a dilemma.

He must find £30,000 immediately, but needs at least three times that for ‘urgent’ repairs to the bell tower.

The Rev Kevin Scully has already had to cordon off part of the churchyard to protect his flock from falling masonry.

Architects inspected the 18th century structure at St Matthew’s in Bethnal Green and found cracked stone and loose brickwork.

It was a shock to Mr Scully, who has been the vicar there for a decade. He is now putting all his energy into restoring this listed architectural gem and will talk endlessly about his pet project to fix up the church in the heart of his urban parish.

“The church had only put aside £5,000 to repair the tower,” he told the Advertiser.

“But the damage was far greater than we realised and the architects said the building is entering an ‘accelerated phase of deterioration’, so the pressure is on.”

From the outside you can see cracked bricks and chipped stonework. Some bricks look like they could fall out on poor parishioners below, like a tooth coming loose.

On the church roof you can see a brick already fallen from the bell tower. Rust and algae has infiltrated the battered stonework and loose cement.

But the community is rallying, even among non-Christians.

“We’ve received donations from Muslims, non-religious businesses and even people who no longer live in the area,” Kevin explained. “They all understand the importance of our presence in the community.”

Schoolchildren from nearby William Davis Primary have even clubbed together to help the cause with their own pocket money and fundraising in the school. The Giltspur Singers held a concert in July to aid the church.

But there’s a long way to go. St Matthew’s needs £100,000 to stop it crumbling away.

If the vicar can raise £30,000 in the parish, then English Heritage and the Lottery Heritage Fund will more than double it with a £70,000 grant to cover the rest.

St Matthew’s has attracted the infamous in its day. It was the place of worship for the Kray twins in the 1950s and 60s which also hosted their funeral services four decades later.

The church has survived fire and bombing over the centuries. Its interior was gutted by a huge blaze in 1859.

It was destroyed a second time in 1940 during the Blitz which devastated the East End. The roof caved in, wrecking the inside, leaving just the outer walls and tower standing.

Another 20 years was to pass before a new church was built inside the surviving walls and was rededicated in July, 1960.

“We’d love it if our building wasn’t falling apart or surrounded by scaffolding,” added the former Australian journalist-turned vicar.

But parishioners do love it. The listed structure towering over St Matthew’s Row, off Bethnal Green Road, attracts large congregations each Sunday which include all ages.

Even so, St Matthew’s also attracts unwanted attention.

“We get vandalism and other problems typical of this area,” he points out. “I was attacked two years ago in the churchyard by some youths, which was a real low point.”

St Matthew’s houses various items from other churches not lucky enough to survive the Second World War, which include the organ brought from the ruins of St Matthias church in nearby Bacon Street.

Now a fundraising committee is starting a second ‘push’ for cash next month, once Kevin Scully knows whether his church is to get the grants he needs.

The Parochial Church Council was worried the campaign would distract people from the primary function of the church, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. The community is rallying.

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