On the 7th March 2011 the Church of St Michael’s caught fire, the roof promptly collapsed in on itself and the interior was left to smoulder for some time as the building was declared structurally unsafe to enter. All this took place just eleven days after a young, rather good-looking, amateur historian made a new post on his blog about the Victorian New Art of Photography, which included a then-and-now shot of Upper Orwell Street including St Michael’s – as far as I know the last ever picture taken of the church with its roof in one piece.
The fire at the church has caused some controversy, as the building that had been empty since 1997, had recently been acquired by a group seeking to turn it into a Muslim-run community centre, which had unfortunately not insured the building. As the police opinion is that the fire was a deliberate act of arson, accusations have naturally already flared up.
That’s not what this post is about however; Ipswichhistory is more bothered about the loss of an historic grade two listed building in the town, than the politics behind it. So here is a swan song for the church – its very own concise history.
The last ever photo (as far as I can tell) of an intact St Michael’s. Now I just wish I had stood a bit closer.
St Michael’s was built during the early 1880s, the foundation stone being laid on 28th May 1880. It was designed by the Ipswich architect E F Bishopp. If we’re honest, it had never been one of the most attractive churches in the town, but it remains a solid representation of the times that made it; in a Victorian town with prospects to grow in population, both overall and in terms of the size of its Church of England congregation.
Large areas of slum housing existed around the church when it was first opened and it was built with an aim to serve the people who lived there. Upon opening in 1881 the church had space to seat 360 people. By the 1930s it had grown its capacity to 750, which gives some idea of how important a centre of community it had become. Groups run inside the church included: Girl guides, Brownies, Bible study groups, the 25th Ipswich Scouts and Cubs, and a Mothers Union, among others.
Towards the end of the 20th century the size of its congregation began to dwindle, thanks to ever depleting church attendance. This was also not helped by the fact it was very close to three other Church of England congregations at St Helens, and the parish churches of Holy Trinity and St Pancras.
St Michael’s struggled on into the 1990s, partly because of its unusually Low Church character; at its end, it could claim to be the only church in Suffolk that had never used anything other than the Book of Common Prayer. It finally closed its doors for good in 1997.
The church was already a sorry sight before the fire after being left vacant for so many years; the windows were boarded up and the roof was beginning to come away.
The remains of Blackfriars (left).
One afternoon, while I was cycling home, I stopped at St Michael’s to take photos of the burnt-out building. Just before I reached the church I passed through Black Friars Court – a space between some ugly housing where some of the remains of the 13th century Black Friars church and friary buildings are situated. As I stood in front of St Michaels snapping away, it struck me that this building was facing the same fate as Blackfriars; vandals had brought down both, although in St Michael’s case not under instructions from Henry VIII. The Church of St Michael was surely not to be fixed up and refurbished, at least not to what it used to resemble. Its more likely destiny now is to be flattened to make space for new buildings. Goodness knows this area of the town could do with some development, but it’s also sad to see the former hub of a community, where so much was celebrated and cherished for so many years, demolished. It’s even a little sadder than watching it slowly crumble as an empty building.
So, goodbye St Michael’s and good luck.