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History

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The History of the Church of St Peter in Ely.

For centuries the everyday life of the Cathedral and the city of Ely depended upon the River Great Ouse. In the Middle Ages clerics and pilgrims came from far and near, up the steep paths, now Fore Hill and Back Hill, from landing on the river bank to the monastery. Goods came by barge from Kings Lynn in the north bearing timber, coal and iron products to the Ely docks. From Peterborough came bricks, and from Cambridge and the south, other types of merchandise. Out from Ely, especially to Kings Lynn, went exports of baskets, malt and grain. River traffic was considerable even in the late 1920s. In 1845 the railway was extended to Ely and the station was built at the foot of the hill by the river.

Thus a large part of the city's population lived in Ely's riverside area, south of the Cathedral. It was usual in those days for workers to live as close as possible to their places of work. Many small dwellings were crowded together in the narrow flat space between the river and the Cathedral precincts but there was no place of worship nearby. The Cathedral was away up the hill and served an entirely different need. Ely city was divided into two parishes and both churches were on the hill: Ely St Mary, serving districts to the west of the Lynn Road, and Ely Holy Trinity which served those to the east of it and to the south of The Gallery. This latter parish included Broad Street and the riverside area, but its principal church, housed from 1566 to 1938 in the Cathedral's Lady Chapel, seemed remote from the needs and life of the workers living along its southern border.

However, in the late 1880s, Catharine Maria Sparke, widow of Canon Edward Bowyer Sparke, decided to build a church in memory of her husband, who had been keenly aware of the need for a church for Ely's riverside district. The church was to be a mission church in the parish of Holy Trinity. Already before its foundation, there existed in the parish a Guild of St Peter, which offered to ordinary working people a simple rule of Christian living. It was presumably envisaged that members of this Guild would form the core of the new mission church's congregation. The new church was built at a cost of £5,000 on land that had previously been an orchard. On St Peter's Day, 1889, the foundation stone was laid, and on Monday 30th June, the following year, the church was dedicated to St Peter by the Bishop of Ely, Lord Alwyne Compton, and opened for worship. Maria Sparke established two endowed Trusts: one for the building and establishment of the Church and the other for the provision of a priest or curate under the direction of the Vicar of Holy Trinity and his successors, who would be responsible for holding services in accordance with the Doctrines and Liturgies of the Church of England.

Ely, Holy Trinity, serving the urban area described plus the village called Queen Adelaide, was a training parish in which there were usually two or three curates working under the direction of its Vicar. Initially, the Vicar and curates all shared responsibility for ministry at St Peter's, together with extra-parochial clergy from the Cathedral and Ely Theological College. The notion that there should be a priest-in-charge specifically assigned to St Peter's developed rather later, but there exists a continuous listing of such priests-in-charge extending from 1911 into the 21st century.

In 1892-93, a young curate of Holy Trinity, the Revd. Salisbury Price, who had taken an interest in the St Peter's project both before and after the church was built, transformed its internal appearance by commissioning 1) a rood screen by the young Ninian Comper and 2) an East Window by the celebrated glass-artist Charles Kempe. A third astonishingly generous adornment of St Peter's, the Pipe-Organ by William Hill and Son, was given rather later, by the Upcher family, into which the daughter and heiress of Edward and Maria Sparke had married.

That the First World War was deeply traumatic for Ely's riverside district, as much as for all Europe, is painfully evident from a War Memorial recording the names of the twenty-one young men, killed in the battles of 1914-18, who had learnt their catechism at St Peter's. During the War, because most of the younger clergy had left to become chaplains to the armed forces, St Peter's was left in the care of, at first, the Vice-Principal, and then the Principal, of the Theological College. Canon Goudge, the Principal, was later to become Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. His daughter, the novelist and children's writer, Elizabeth Goudge, recalled in her autobiography the cramped living conditions which she and her father encountered when visiting in the Broad Street area.

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Dating from the year 1926, a fine photograph shows a flourishing robed choir of men and boys assembled along with their lady organist near the church porch during the curacy of the Revd. Frederick Bywaters. Little did they know that St Peter's was soon to experience a crisis threatening its very existence. Its Victorian financial endowments had by then lost much of their value, and the Church of England in general was suffering from a lack of adequate funding for its numerous clergy. Soon, Parliament's rejection of the 1928 proposal for a Revised Prayer Book was to cause consternation to many people of a more or less High Church persuasion, including the then Vicar of Holy Trinity, Ely, who was a staunch advocate of it. He left Ely for a living in Scotland; the priest-in- charge of St Peter's also left soon afterwards, and an interregnum ensued in which the Bishop seized the opportunity to amalgamate Ely's two parishes, Holy Trinity and St Mary's, thus cutting costs while achieving, so it was hoped, 'concentration of effort'. Exactly how St Peter's, in its perilous financial state, escaped permanent closure at this time would require extensive research to discover, but it appears that once again a Vice-Principal of Ely Theological College stepped in as 'priest-in-charge'.

The Cathedral Lady Chapel continued to provide a home to the 'Holy Trinity' part of the United Benefice until 1938, after which members of its congregation were expected to join that of St Mary's, or alternatively St Peter's, where some of its liturgical furnishings and equipment found a home. From 1930 consistently until 1974 a succession of stipendiary curates was allocated to St Peter's by the Vicar of Ely's United Benefice in accordance with the Trust Deed. The amalgamation of Holy Trinity parish with St Mary's cannot be assumed to have been popular at St Peter's. A letter of protest against it is extant in the Cambridgeshire County Archives, many of the signatories of which had addresses in Ely's riverside district. However, St Peter's throughout the 1930s and well into the post-war period continued to benefit from access to the multi-functional parish room of Holy Trinity. The Guild of St Peter's seems to have fizzled out before the Second World War, but other Church organizations arose in the United Parish, which were accessible to members of St Peter's, notably a Sunday evening Youth Fellowship which celebrated its twenty-first birthday in 1959. St Peter's Sunday School, which functioned in Broad Street Girls' Junior School until the early 1950s, joined forces in the middle of that decade with the one run by St Mary's at Central Hall in Market Street.

St Peter's came through the Second World war under the care of William George Harwood, a practical handyman as well as a priest, whose curacy was unexpectedly extended to cover the years 1940-47. A sixteen-year-old called John Harnwell arrived at St Peter's around the middle of that period and, after having trained as a motor-mechanic during his National Service, in 1948 rejoined its altar-serving team, of which he remained a member until his death in 2016. He is greatly missed for the incalculable amount of voluntary work he contributed to St Peter's in that period.

The Revd. Geoffrey Alder Field, who served as Priest-in-Charge from 1950-54, left a lasting mark on St Peter's in another way. It was he who extended the high altar to its present, unusually wide, dimensions, donating the new set of altar-frontals required. He also adapted a richly-carved credence table, originally from Holy Trinity, to form a Lady Altar, set against the Comper Screen. From the 1950s also date the 'Stations of the Cross' plaques around the walls and the pair of statues representing two English Catholic saints of the Reformation Era, 'Saint' Thomas More and 'Saint' John Fisher – startlingly unexpected ornaments for an Anglican Church. These, together with a 'Sacred Heart' statue abandoned in St Peter's in the 1980s by a former member of the congregations on her final decision to 'go over to Rome', once evoked the astonished comment from a Roman Catholic visitor that 'This Church is almost pre-Vatican 2!'

How far back in its history does St Peter's attachment to Anglo-Catholicism, in fact, go? Probably we would not recognize the Prayer Book services conducted in the first half-century of its existence as markedly High Church in character. There is no mention of a thurible in the Inventory of 1925. On the other hand, the magnificence of the Comper Screen proclaims the Oxford-Movement allegiance of at least one of the earliest clergymen to minister there, and evidence also exists in a Register of Services of a push towards more frequent celebration of the Communion at St Peter's in the 1920s. By the time in the 1940s when John Harnwell first remembered it, the church boasted an array of altar-servers which ranged from 'Subdeacon' and 'Master of Ceremonies' down to 'Boat Boy'. The personnel was recruited largely from students at the Theological College, which maintained a close association with St Peter's until its closure in 1964.

The departure of the theological students from St Peter's and likewise the young women who attended the church out of admiration for them, came as a severe blow. Also detrimental to the flourishing of St Peter's in the subsequent period was a marked decrease in the population of the neighbourhood. Many properties were left derelict, as businesses were closed down and old family homes abandoned as beyond repair. Large areas of the riverside quarter were given over to car-parking and goods-storage: a timber yard, a coal yard, a large supermarket, garages providing car-repairs and maintenance. The congregation of St Peter's dwindled, over the next thirty years, and retreated from the nave into the choir stalls. A tiny nucleus of lay people, comprising members of the Vince family, plus John Harnwell and his wife Nellie, Gladys Redditt, a former Sunday school teacher, and Doris Baker, the organist for fifty-four years from the nineteen-thirties to the 'eighties, kept St Peter's open by sheer determination through the difficult years that followed. A bleak two-year period in the late 'eighties is remembered when repair of the heating system could not be afforded.

But help was at hand. Since 1974, it had no longer been young stipendiary curates who were assigned to St Peter's by the Vicar of the United Benefice of Ely, but retired clergy living locally. One of these, the Revd Jack Lisney, died in 1993, soon to be followed by his widow, Margaret, who in her will bequeathed a large sum of money to St Peter's, sufficient to put the finances of its Trustees on a firm foundation again, and enabling the church to purchase the house in Broad Street next door to its precincts, now a valuable asset both for the Church and the community it serves.

Throughout its years of difficulty, St Peter's maintained the staples of High Anglican worship: congregational singing of the Merbecke setting of the Communion Service together with a range of traditional hymns, latterly from the New English Hymnal; the use of incense was retained from the glory-days of the Theological College. Core members of the small congregation were members of the Society of Mary, and had an attachment to Walsingham, and this presumably accounts for the inclusion of Marian devotions, ever since, as an introduction or appendix to the Sunday morning Eucharist, which otherwise strictly conforms to the prescriptions of Common Worship for a Communion service, albeit with permitted variants harking back to the Book of Common Prayer.

St Peter's congregation in the late 20th century generally disliked modernist tendencies in the Church, steadfastly resisting suggestions from St Mary's that it should install a nave altar, or rip out pews and put in loos. The Trustees' minute book also reveals great anxiety, in the 1990s, about what was considered an 'untoward' innovation: the ordination of women to the priesthood of the Church of England. But, as a proprietary chapel, St Peter's was not allowed to pass any Resolutions on this issue independent of its Parish Church, and the Team Rector of what had become the Ely Team Ministry was known to take the opposite view to that prevalent at St Peter's, and, indeed, very soon his wife received ordination and other women priests were later to receive appointments within the Team, which had expanded to include the villages encircling Ely.

St Peter's remained part of the Ely Team Ministry until 2013 when, in an Interregnum, the Bishop took action and arranged for care of St Peter's to be transferred to the Dean and Chapter of Ely Cathedral. However, after five years, this arrangement has now come to an end and the new plan is for the Trustees of St Peter to appoint and finance a part-time stipendiary priest, who will be directly responsible to the Bishop, through his Archdeacon or other nominated delegate.

The congregation has been growing slowly, but encouragingly, since the the 1980s. It is a very diverse group of individuals: certainly not simply a bunch of cradle-Catholics. It still includes within its core, some people who feel unable in all conscience to accept the ministry of women as celebrants at the Eucharist. But our new-comers tend to be untroubled by this issue. Typically they have come to St Peter's searching for a special something which has seemed lacking in another, maybe more popular, church that they have been attending. They may have left that previous church in anger over some controversial preaching, or liturgical changes. Perhaps they are in search of something resembling the Church of their youth, untainted by modernity, or they may see St Peter's as a half-defunct renovation-opportunity. They come to us from a great array of different Christian traditions. A fair proportion live very locally; nearly all within the city of Ely; just a few travel in from outlying villages; their daily work may take them all over the world, or be confined to their own home.

Certainly St Peter's has the potential to revive, if only sufficient pastoral attention could be paid, in a spirit of true Christian love, to its existing congregation and newcomers as they arrive, including some of the numerous people who become acquainted with the church through living near or through secular meetings held within its precincts. Ely is growing rapidly, and the population-figures of St Peter's original catchment-area have now probably returned to something like those of the late nineteenth century.

After long decline, Ely's riverside area has at last been recognized as having many advantages as a place to live: the beauty of the walks along the river and into town has no equal for many miles around, and the proximity of the neighbourhood to the railway station is a huge attraction for anyone needing to travel regularly to Cambridge, London or abroad. Pollution from the old Gas Works no longer blights the area. Industrial enterprises have been encouraged to move further from the centre of Ely, and the recent redevelopment has, as a matter of policy, included much new house-building on brown-field sites near the riverside. Slum-clearance by demolition has been replaced by the restoration of old properties into desirable residences along with the provision of a new public park where there was once a timber-yard.

At present, St Peter's congregation is almost exclusively composed of  Christians of long standing and its appeal to such people is nothing to be ashamed of. Howeve, we acknowledge that new developments in its outreach will be required in order for it to cater adequately for families with young children or for adolescents stepping out into the challenges of modern life. Can we do this?

St Peter's well maintained and heated church building and church rooms permit one to indulge in a certain amount of optimism about the future. A five-year strategic plan, formulated in 2016, drew attention to the potential of the meeting room as a regular café venue; it also has the potential of serving as a crèche. The same plan also suggested that the church's tradition of choral singing could be developed somehow and maybe therein lies the way ahead for St Peter's sharing of its blessings with children and adolescents. But many other possibilities may suggest themselves. We can only hope and pray: God's will be done in whatever is attempted.

First three paragraphs: former guidebooks to the church (revised); the remainder by Janet Fairweather, chiefly on the basis of research for the 125th anniversary exhibition of 2014.