In 1907, the church of St Peter Le Poer in Old Broad Street in the City of London was demolished and the site sold. The original St Peter's dated from 1792, but records show that there had been a church on the site since the 13th century.
The unusual name is traditionally explained as a reference to the poverty of the area – although by the beginning of the nineteenth century it was one of the richest in the city – or its proximity to the monastery of St Augustine, whose monks professed poverty.
The money raised from the sale of the site was used to build two churches in North London – the new church of St Peter Le Poer and St Benet Fink in Tottenham. On 2 November 1909, the foundation stone was laid. This can be seen outside the Church, below the East Window. The building was designed by Caroe and Passmore and was consecrated on 28 June 1910 by the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram.
St Peter-le-Poer was built beside the existing mission church. This corrugated iron building stood on the site now occupied by the vicarage and garden. After the completion of the new building, the old church was moved bodily down the slope to become the church hall.
The area to the east of the church, known as the "Freehold", experienced most development in the first ten years of the 20th century; during the same period that local Christians were working hard to establish a permanent church building in the area. The scattered farm workers’ cottages of the late 1800s became absorbed into a larger housing development, built to accommodate the families of labourers working on the development of the London Underground and the building of Alexandra Palace. The area also provided housing for people who worked in the less desirable services of the Friern Barnet asylum, the isolation hospital, the St Pancras and Islington cemetery, and the Friern Barnet sewage works.
In many respects, the new Church of St Peter Le Poer continued to serve people from a "poor parish" as did its City of London namesake.
Caroe the architect
Before forming his own practice, W.D. Caroe was chief assistant to the great Victorian architect, J.L. Pearson, and worked on Pearson’s Truro Cathedral.
Caroe's first church was a Scandinavian chapel (1884) in Liverpool and his work included repairs to many historic church buildings. This clearly influenced his approach to the design of his own buildings where we can see that he brought a special sensitivity in combining historical references with “modern” liturgical thinking. Although placed within a tradition, his buildings were contemporary and exhibited many personal touches.
Caroe's work falls loosely within the Arts and Crafts Movement, and he was a brother member of the Art Workers’ Guild.
St Peter-le-Poer is one of his mature works where you can appreciate his mastery of form, structure, materials and architectural detail. Simple internal volumes demonstrate his clarity of vision, which is supported by robust, well-crafted details executed in excellent traditional materials.
The red brick walls sit below long gabled tile roofs. At the west end, there is a most original gabled tower surmounted with a spike.
Inside, the central nave and barrel roof above run continuously along the length of the building. The nave is flanked by two wide aisles. The space is well lit from large, clear windows in the aisles. The unity of space which Caroe achieves contrasts greatly with the typical spatial subdivision of most high Victorian churches.
Caroe worked on a series of churches from 1886 to 1912. His buildings throw particular light on the central concerns of the Catholic revival at the end of the 19th century.
As you walk around St Peter Le Poer, you may notice how items from different centuries have been incorporated over the years. Here are some of the things to look out for:
- The hanging Crucifix (also known as the Rood Cross) was brought from the mission church in Hampden Road. The pulpit, bells, and the altar in the Lady Chapel with a marble mensa, all come from the City church;
- The alabaster font takes a central prominent position emphasising the rite of baptism, and this also comes from the church at Old Broad Street;
- The statue of Saint Peter was made by Clement Jewitt, who was for many years a member of the choir, and it is generally believed that the face is his face;
- The churchwardens’ staves are made of ebony and surmounted by silver cockerels – one of the symbols of Saint Peter.