13 May 2017

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey,
a Wren church dating back
to the era of ‘boy bishops’

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey … rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During my strolls through London earlier this week [11 May 2017], between Liverpool Street Station and the USPG offices in Southwark, one of the Wren churches I visited was Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey, standing on what is now Queen Victoria Street.

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey, which dates from at least the 12th century, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and rebuilt by the office of Sir Christopher Wren. The church suffered substantial bomb damage from German bombs during the London Blitz in World War II and was rebuilt by Arthur Bailey in 1961-1962.

The church is named after the fifth century Saint Nicholas of Myra, better known to children around the world as Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of both children and fishermen, and the church has special ties with both.

However, this church was never an abbey. The name Cole Abbey is derived from ‘cold harbour,’ a mediaeval name for a travellers’ shelter or shelter from the cold.

The earliest reference to the church is in a letter of Pope Lucius II in 1144-1145.

Documents dating back to the reign of Richard I refer to a new fish market near Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey. In a charter of 1272, the church is referred to as ‘St Nick’s behind Fish Street.’

An inventory of the church’s possessions taken at the time of the Reformation includes vestments for children, suggesting that the church maintained the tradition of electing a boy bishop on Saint Nicholas Day, 6 December.

In the 16th century, several fishmongers were buried here and during the reign of Elizabeth I, a lead and stone cistern, fed by the Thames, was set up against the north wall ‘for the care and commodity of the Fishmongers in and about Old Fish Street.’

After the accession of Queen Mary I, this was the first church to celebrate Mass again, on 23 August 1553. The rector, Thomas Sowdley, had obtained a licence to marry during the reign of Edward VI.

Sowdley was nicknamed ‘Parson Chicken,’ and in the month of Queen Mary’s coronation, he was deprived of his living, was carted through Cheapside and was pelted with chamber-pots and rotten eggs.

Sowdley returned to the parish on the accession of Elizabeth I. A century later, the living of Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey was owned by the regicide, Colonel Francis Hacker, a Puritan who commanded the execution detail of Charles I.

During the Great Plague in 1665, over 90 of the 120 parishioners perished. A year later, the church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. Charles II promised the site to the Lutheran community in London, but lobbying blocked this and the parish was combined with that of Saint Nicholas Olave, a nearby church that was also destroyed in the fire but not rebuilt.

The church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672-1678 at a cost of £5,042, becoming the first church of the 51 lost in the Great Fire to be rebuilt.

Included in the building accounts are the items: ‘Dinner for Dr Wren and other Company – £2.14s.0d,’ and ‘Half a pint of canary for Dr Wren’s coachmen – 6d.’

The post-Fire church was built with its façade to the north on what was then Fish Street and is now Distaff Lane, and the east on Old Fish Street Hill.

The church is a stone box with quoins. Some mediaeval work remains in the south and west walls, the latter of which is of brick and rubble. On top of the body of the church is a balustrade. The windows are arched with square brackets – a favourite device of Wren.

On the north-west corner of the church, the square tower is 135 ft tall and has one bell. It is surmounted by a lead spire in the shape of an upside down octagonal trumpet. There is a small flaming urn on each corner of the tower. The spire has two rows of lunettes and a small balcony near the top, resembling a crow’s nest.

At the very top is a vane in the shape of a three-masted barque in the round. This came from Saint Michael Queenhithe, which was demolished 1876, and was added to the spire in 1962. The pre-war vane was in the shape of a pennant with four S-shapes back-to-back.

Inside the church, the east wall is dominated by three stained glass windows designed by Keith New, who also involved in designing the stained-glass windows of Coventry Cathedral. They are reminiscent of the work of Marc Chagall, and they replace windows by Edward Burne-Jones that were destroyed in 1941. Otherwise, the interior is plain, apart from gilt Corinthian pilasters.

The coat-of-arms of Charles II is among the surviving original furnishings in Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The surviving furnishings from the 17th century include the carved pulpit, now standing on a modern base and without its tester, the font cover, part of the Communion rails, parts of the original Wren-era reredos, now installed on the south wall, and the coat-of-arms of Charles II.

The early Methodist leader George Whitefield preached in Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey in 1737 on ‘profane swearing in church.’

The local street plan changed with Victorian urban redevelopment. The south wall of the church, instead of being hemmed in by buildings, now overlooked the newly built Queen Victoria Street. This created a need to reorder the church, and in 1874 the windows were opened up on the south and the main doorway moved from the north-west tower to the south.

Smoke generated by underground trains so blackened the exterior that in the late 19th century the church became known as Saint Nicholas Cole Hole Abbey.

When the Revd Henry Stebbing was rector, church attendance was down to one man and one woman in May 1881. Then, in 1883, the Revd Henry Shuttleworth (1850-1900) became rector. A Christian Socialist, he installed a bar, established a prodigious musical programme and made the church a centre for debate. By 1891, Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey had the largest congregation of any City church, numbering up to 450 worshippers on a Sunday evening.

A contemporary vicar noted, ‘In St Nicholas Cole Abbey there is good preaching and divine worship is also carried out in the most reverential manner. In other City churches ... as a rule’ the rectors ‘are themselves the most wretched preachers and bad readers.’

Shuttleworth was also Professor of Pastoral and Liturgical Theology, and Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History and English Literature, and in the New Testament, at King’s College, London. He was the model for James Morrell, the Socialist preacher in George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida (1898). He remained rector until he died on 24 October 1900.

On 10 May 1941, in worst air raid of World War II, 1,436 people killed in London and several major buildings destroyed or severely damaged, including Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. The shell of Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey is the scene of the gold bullion heist in the 1951 Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. The church also features in Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net (1954).

But the church remained a shell until it was restored under Arthur Bailey and re-consecrated in 1962. The parish was then combined with that of Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, and Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey served a number of uses, including the headquarters of the Diocesan Council for Mission and Unity, and a church of the Free Church of Scotland (1982-2003).

The Culham Institute, which is involved in religious education in schools, planned to move from Oxford to Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey in 2006. But the move never took place, and instead after an extensive restoration programme was completed in 2014 the building reopened as the Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey Centre for Workplace Ministry, with a supporting café, the Wren.

Under the name St Nick’s Church, Sunday services re-started last November [2016], along with midweek meetings. St Nick’s Church meets each Sunday at 11am. Services are described as ‘contemporary in style’ and there are Sunday clubs and a crèche for youth and children.

But there is no mention on any of the leaflets or handouts of when the Eucharist is celebrated, like neighbouring Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf the church has close links with Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate and the ‘conservative evangelical’ group Reform, and in none of the publicity is the Revd Chris Fishlock described as the vicar or as a priest. It is a long distance from the approach of the Revd Henry Shuttleworth over a century ago.

Inside Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Next: Saint Mary Aldermary.

Postings on London City Churches:

Greyfriars Christ Church.

Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe.

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf.

Saint Botolph-without-Bishopsgate.

Saint George-in-the-East.

Saint Lawrence Jewry.

Saint Margaret Lothbury.

Saint Mary-le-Bow.

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.

Saint Olave Jewry (tower).

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster.

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