East London religious buildings at risk, warn English Heritage

Sandys Row Synagogue received a significant grant from English Heritage last year for urgent repairs. Photo: Sandys Row Synagogue

Architecturally unique churches, temples and other places of worship in Hackney and Tower Hamlets are suffering from high levels of neglect, according to a new survey by English Heritage.

The report, published today, shows that 21% of places of worship in the two boroughs are in poor or very bad condition.

East London’s local religious buildings fared far worse than average in the countrywide survey. More generally, across the whole of England, 11% are showing similar signs of decline.

The numbers of listed places of worship in poor or very bad condition in Hackney and Tower Hamlets are particularly unusual, as higher levels of neglect were generally registered in rural areas.

Listed synagogues were highlighted by the report as an area of particular concern. Of the 32 surveyed nationally, 11 were found to be at risk.

One such building mentioned in the report is Sandys Row Synagogue in Spitalfields. Originally constructed in the 18th Century as a French Huguenot chapel but later converted by Dutch Jews, the Grade II listed synagogue has been described as ‘a little known architectural gem in the heart of Spitalfields.’

The physical condition of the synagogue became a matter of some concern in recent years, after it was discovered that vital roof supports had rotted away and the structure was in danger of collapse.

Last year, the building received a grant of around £250,000 from English Heritage, allowing essential works to be carried out. Jack Gilbert, spokesperson for the synagogue’s governing board, described the award as a ‘major milestone’ and a ‘fantastic starting point,’ but warned that the building faces ‘other urgent issues’ that need to be addressed.

Also singled out by the report were the St Mary and Old St Mary churches in Stoke Newington. The buildings, which date from 1858 and 1563 respectively, are both Grade II listed and described as ‘significant’ by English Heritage.

The survey notes that the churches ‘require maintenance and management that is stretching local resources.’

Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of the Churches Conservation Trust, said: “The report is helpful in producing the first register of places of worship at risk.”

Mr Truman described England’s neglected religious buildings as being ‘of significant national and community importance.’ “Alternative and diverse community-led approaches, ranging from conservation to shared use, must be the priority to keep these buildings open and in use,” he added.

English Heritage also paid tribute to the efforts of congregations and community volunteers in raising money needed to maintain the country’s places of worship.

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, encouraged those concerned by the decline of religious buildings to take action. He said: “I urge everyone who cares about their local church, chapel, synagogue or other place of worship to lend a hand.”

“Don’t be put off by what might seem like an impossible challenge – the key is to do small things really well.”

“Finding somewhere to serve cups of tea might achieve just as much as a major building project. Clearing gutters could save the need for a whole new roof or renewing damp walls at a cost of thousands of pounds.”

You can read more about English Heritage’s campaign to conserve historical religious buildings here.

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