All Saints Church, Trewsbury Road, cannot now be seen to best advantage. The most visible part is the unattractive west end, which was never finished. The rest of the exterior (now obscured by more recent building), and the interior, are of exceptional quality, and the building is listed Grade II.All Saints’ Bell, which was hung on an external wall under a small shelter at the NW end, has not been heard for many years, perhaps since World War II. It was recently taken down for cleaning and restoration. On removing the corrosion and bird droppings the restorers noticed the remains of an inscription round the waist of the bell. It read “ROYAL EXCHANGE 1844”. Apparently, this discovery caused great excitement amongst bell historians. Research was undertaken to discover how a bell, clearly destined for the Royal Exchange, ended up in a church in Sydenham that was not built until 1903.
The Royal Exchange was destroyed by fire in 1838, and was rebuilt during the early 1840s. It stands between the Bank of England and the Mansion House, at the heart of the City of London. The bells of the Royal Exchange have been an integral part of the sounds of the City since at least 1601. When the Exchange was rebuilt it was agreed that a suitably impressive peal of bells should be part of the design. However, there was protracted controversy over the quality of the bells, experts disagreed and acrimoniously questioned each other’s competence, new bells were cast, and still there was disagreement.
The company that cast the bells, Mears of Whitechapel, invoiced a bell to “The New Church at Sydenham” on 21 Dec 1844. The term “New Church” is misleading. St Bartholomew’s, then only 12 years old, was often referred to as the new church, but it already had a bell. However, in 1845 the Episcopal Chapel (on the corner of Sydenham Road and Trewsbury Road - see illustration) was “thoroughly repaired… when a small spire in the early English style was added”. If there was a spire, there should surely be a bell to go in it. From the end of the 18th century, Christ Church, as the chapel was then called, was a chapel of ease for the fairly distant parish church of St Mary’s, Lewisham. The congregation had little money to buy a bell, so they bought a reject, or “scrapper”, one of the bells originally intended for the Royal Exchange.
When All Saints (the dedication was changed to avoid confusion with Christ Church, Forest Hill) was built in 1903, and the Episcopal Chapel became All Saints Church Hall, the bell was moved to the new church. It is likely that around this time the spire on the chapel was removed. The restored bell will soon be reinstated and, after fifty years of silence, a sound that first summoned the faithful of Sydenham to prayer nearly 160 years ago will be heard once again.