Wednesday, January 10, 2018

On the listing of our chapel

I am a libertarian. I believe private property is private property and government should not stick its nose into private affairs. So I continue to resent the fact that Historic England saw fit to list our chapel so preventing its demolition when we are rebuilding on the site.
   There are two ironies here. The first is that the chapel was listed by accident' The Ealing Civic Society wanted the next door building, now demolished, to be listed. Historic England deemed it of no historic merit but their eyes fastened on the chapel hidden at the back and gave us a listed status.
   The second irony is in their reason for listing. I quote from the listing.

 The chapel at the former St Helena's Home, built by John Ninian Comper in 1912-3, should be designated for the following principal reasons: * It is a rare instance of a complete building by this nationally important architect and designer, and is one of the first manifestations of his mature style. * Despite a degree of alteration and the loss of the original fittings, its interior is of intrinsic architectural quality; * It was built as the chapel to a reformatory for 'fallen' women, an institution epitomising both the puritanical and the progressive aspects of Victorian and Edwardian sexual and social mores.

Reformatories for 'fallen' women - at first mainly ex-prostitutes - were in existence from at least the C13. These institutions were not (in theory at least) prisons, but rather voluntary reformatories to which women committed themselves for a fixed period of penitential activity before either emerging to begin new careers as respectable members of society, or else taking permanent vows and remaining within the order for life. Suppressed at the Reformation along with other religious houses, women's reformatories sprang up again in secular form during the C18, in response to the social problems created by urbanisation: the London Magdalen House, established by a group of City merchants in 1758, was the first British example. During the Victorian period, stricter codes of gender ethics saw the concept of fallenness extended to other 'problematic' women, including unmarried mothers, rape and incest victims, petty criminals, alcoholics, vagrants and the 'feeble-minded'. Christian groups came once again to the fore: Nonconformists and low-church Anglicans focused on home visiting and street-level evangelism, while Tractarian Sisterhoods founded quasi-monastic 'homes' in rural or suburban locations, where inmates could escape from their impoverished and often brutal home environments for a fixed period of penitential seclusion. The regime of labour (often laundry work) and spiritual discipline was sometimes harsh, but the aim was to combine vocational training with moral rehabilitation, allowing these outcast women eventually to return to normal society on more advantageous terms. In some cases at least, a remarkably broad-minded attitude prevailed in respect of the inmates' past lives: as one late-C19 woman missionary remarked, "I am certain that no-one among us would ever have the courage to cast the 'first stone' if we could know the awful straits which bring so many of our sisters into sin."

Various sources are cited but not a document in our possession which is IIRC the annual report of St Helena's for 1919. It says that the majority of their women were not prostitutes but those accused of, but not sentenced for petty crimes such as theft. They point out that time in the home was more cost effective than prison and far more likely to produce reformation. 
  So contra Historic England this was never a chapel for fallen women. It has been stripped of its high church anglo-catholic interior, altar and crucifix by iconoclastic Presbyterians. I will grant it is a fine example of a basilica, the first Roman empire buildings to be used for worship when Christians were free from state persecution and could  move out from catacombs and caves. I love it. But I would have had it demolished. Perhaps I am descended form a long line of Philistines?  And antinomians.

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