24 January 2020

Elsyng Spital and the sites
of two mediaeval churches
in the City of London

The ruins of Elsyng Spital and two mediaeval churches stand on in island surrounded by modern developments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Salters’ Hall in London earlier this week, I was surprised not only to learn about its role in doctrinal divisions among the 18th century heirs of the Puritans and that Salters’ Hall was once used as a Presbyterian chapel, but I was surprised too to find that the ruins of two mediaeval churches stand close by in the pedestrianised area beside the Salters’ Garden.

The ruins of a mediaeval church and its tower are labelled in a public notice on the site as ‘The Tower of St Elsyng Spital.’

But who was Saint Elsyng that she gave her name to a mediaeval hospital or almshouse?

Indeed, there never was a Saint Elsyng. The tower and the ruins are the surviving remains of the tower and church that were part of the mediaeval hospital known as Elsyng Spital.

Elsyng Spital was founded on the site was a priory church belonging to a Benedictine nunnery, Saint Mary-within-Cripplegate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The first church on this site was a priory church belonging to a Benedictine nunnery, Saint Mary-within-Cripplegate. It may have been founded before 1000, but by 1329 the community had fallen into decay. The land was acquired by William Elsing, a London merchant who founded a hospital or almshouse on the site, Elsyng Spital, in 1331.

Elsyng Spital stood on the street known as London Wall, and William Elsing intended it to provide shelter and spiritual and physical care for homeless, blind people, paralysed priests, people who could not look after their own needs, and wandering beggars.

The complex included the church, tower, cloisters, hospital or almshouse buildings with a long hall or common dining room, and a cemetery. It stood close to the city wall built in Roman times. A part of the Roman walls of London survives as the boundary between the hospital grounds and the Salters’ Garden.

Elsyng Spital included a church, tower, cloisters, hospital or almshouse buildings with a long hall or common dining room, and a cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

At first, the almshouse housed 32 residents, but this soon rose to 60 and then to 100. However, Elsing was worried about the secular priests who served the almshouse wandering about the City. In 1337, he petitioned to have them replaced by Augustinian Canons. Three years later, the Augustinian Canons and a prior were elected in 1340 with the assent of the Dean and Chapter of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Elsing died during the Black Death in 1349 and was buried in the church.

Elsing’s hospital, the chapel and the Augustinian priory survived until the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Tudor Reformation in 1536.

Most of the hospital buildings were turned into a private house, and within five years this belonged to Sir John Williams, the Master of the King’s Jewels, in 1541. A year later, on Christmas Eve 1542, the building burnt down.

The parishioners of Saint Alphage’s Church bought the former church of Elsyng’s Spital to serve as their parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

When Saint Alphage’s Church on the neighbouring site became derelict, the parishioners bought the former church of Elsyng’s Spital to serve as their parish church.

The original 11th century church dedicated to Saint Alphage commemorated an Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed by the Danes in 1012. The church is said that to have been built before 1068, although the earliest mention of this church dates from ca 1108-1125.

Saint Alphege or Saint Alphage London Wall was built directly on London Wall, and was also known as Saint Alphege Cripplegate, because of its proximity to Cripplegate. The churchyard lay to the north of the wall.

The church was closed by Act of Parliament at the end of the 16th century and its ruins were demolished when the Priory Chapel attached to Elsyng Spital was taken over by the parish church.

Part of the property was sold on, and used for the foundation of Sion College in 1630. The church was repaired in 1624, and the upper part of the steeple rebuilt in 1649. It was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 but not destroyed.

The churchyard to the north of the London Wall was still open in 1677, but was built over later, and the site of the earlier church became a carpenter’s yard.

Further repairs were made to the parish church in 1684 and 1701. The parishioners applied to the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches in 1711 for funds to enlarge the building, and in 1718 petitioned Parliament for funds. But neither initiative was successful. The steeple was in such a condition by 1747 that the bells could not be rung, and four of the six bells were sold.

The church was found to be unfit for use in 1774, and a committee was set up to arrange its rebuilding. This was done at a cost of £1,350, retaining the tower, and the new church opened on 24 July 1777.

The original site of Saint Alphege or Saint Alphage London Wall, also known as Saint Alphege Cripplegate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The rebuilt church had two fronts; an eastern one in Aldermanbury, and one to the north facing London Wall. George Godwin described them as ‘both equally remarkable for want of taste in the arrangement, and of beauty in the effect.’

The east front had a Venetian window between two pilasters, elevated on a basement; this arrangement was flanked by two doorways. The door and window surrounds and pilasters were stone, the rest brick. The façade to London Wall had two Doric columns, flattened against the wall, supporting an entablature and pediment. Between the columns was a doorway, its lobby leading into the mediaeval tower.

The interior of the church was described by Godwin as ‘merely a plain room with a flat ceiling, crossed from north to south by one large band at the east end.’ The pulpit was, unconventionally, placed against the west wall, so that the congregation faced away from the altar.

The outline of the mediaeval church is marked out in Saint Alphage Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The tower and porch were again in a poor state by 1900, and the north entrance was rebuilt with a neo-Gothic façade in 1913.

The church was damaged in an air raid in World War I. The parish was amalgamated with the parish of Saint Mary Aldermanbury in 1917. The church was rebuilt in 1919, but was then scheduled for demolition that year. The bells went to Saint Peter’s Acton, the nave was demolished in 1923, leaving the tower and the porch.

Until World War II, the tower was maintained with an altar and chairs as a place for prayer. The remains of the church were designated a Grade II listed structure in 1950. The surviving remnants consist of the ruin of a central tower, built of flint and rubble masonry, with arches on three sides; the south wall is missing. The amalgamated parish was united with Saint Giles-without-Cripplegate in 1954

The area along London Wall suffered damage from German bombing during World War II, Parts of the 11th century church were exposed when the surrounding buildings were destroyed, and now forms Saint Alphage Gardens.

A plaque from the former churchyard in Saint Alphage Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Today only the church tower remains from the original 14th century buildings of Elsyng Spital. Fore Street and other streets in the area were realigned in the post-war rebuilding of the City. The development of London Wall Place and the Barbican complex provided for a newly created garden area laid out around the ancient walls.

New high walks were built on new walkways planned as a ‘new pedestrian experience’ in the 1960s, with shops along the walkways 40 ft above ground level. However, few people ever used the walkways and none of the shops ever opened. They remained empty from the day they were built until after the turn of the millennium.

With the development of two large office blocks – 1 London Wall Place and 2 London Wall Place – the stone walkways were demolished and everything for the pedestrian now operates once again at street level, and new narrower and functional walkways give this area an open and spacious feeling.

A plaque on the Roman Wall survives from the churchyard’s conversion to a public garden in 1872 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Salters’ Hall and the debates
that divided Presbyterians
in 18th century London

Salters’ Hall, designed by Sir Basil Spence, opened in 1976 … but its story dates back to 1394 and earlier (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to London earlier this week, I visited a number of synagogues, including Bevis Marks Synagogue, the former Fieldgate Street Synagogue and the former Brick Lane Synagogue, and a number of churches that I had not visited before.

One of the most unusual places I visited was Salters’ Hall at 4 London Wall Place, the successor to an earlier Salters’ Hall that was an unusual venue in the history of Puritan dissent and its divisions in the early 18th century. Today’s hall also has has an interesting link with Coventry Cathedral.

The Worshipful Company of Salters is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London, ninth in order of precedence. The company began as the Guild of Corpus Christi, which was granted a Royal Charter of incorporation in 1394.

By then, Bread Street in London was the home of many salt traders, replacing the original tenants who traded in bread and after whom the street was named. As trading in salt became more important in large cities and near ports where much salt was imported, these Salters began to group together to look after their own interests and welfare.

As well as living in the same street, the Salters also regularly attended the same church, the Parish Church of All Hallows, Bread Street. But there were many disputes between the Salters, and Richard II agreed the best way to stop these disturbances and bring revenue to the Treasury was to issue licences to all traders in the form of letters patent that included a set of rules bringing the traders back into line and limiting their power.

The king granted a licence for the foundation of the Fraternity and Guild of Corpus Christi in the Church of All Hallows, Bread Street, and to convey property to the Fraternity. At that time, the Fraternity was composed entirely of those who followed the trade of Salter, whether or not they lived within the parish.

Over the years, membership expanded to include other professions, and further charters granted the company the authority to set standards and regulations regarding the products of its members.

The coat of arms of the Salters’ Company was granted in 1530 and 1591 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

All Hallows’ Church in Bread Street served as the place of worship and central meeting place, where all the Salters gathered for business and entertainment until 1454, when the fraternity was bequeathed a plot of land by the Sheriff and Alderman, Thomas Beamond, on which the fraternity built ‘Saltershalle.’

The hall was used as the charitable headquarters, centre of administration, centre of supervision of apprentices and an estate office. A fire broke out in Saltershalle in 1533 but it was successfully put out. The hall was rebuilt after a second fire destroyed it in 1539 and then rebuilt again following another fire in 1598.

In the 16th century, the company was also granted a coat-of-arms in 1530, followed by a crest and supporters in 1591. The company’s motto in Latin is Sal Sapit Omnia, meaning ‘Salt Savours All.’

The hall on the original site was eventually too small for the increasing number of company members, and in 1641 a new hall was bought at London Stone in the Parish of Saint Swithin. This hall was burnt to the ground during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was rebuilt in 1668.

The entrance to today’s Salters’ Hall … its predecessor was the centre of Presbyterian debates and divisions in 1719 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Salters’ Hall on Saint Swithin’s Lane became the meeting place of Presbyterians in the 1700s and in 1719 it was the site of the ‘Salters’ Hall controversy,’ which became a notable turning point in religious tolerance in England, and divided all the dissenting traditions that were the spiritual heirs of the Puritans of the Cromwellian era – Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists.

The dispute arose in controversies over the ministry and teachings of the Revd James Peirce (1674-1726), a leading Presbyterian and dissenter. Peirce was the minister of James’s Meeting in Exeter when he was accused of holding Arian or Unitarian views and denying traditional teaching about the Trinity.

The Western Assembly considered a compromise by admitting the orthodoxy of the declarations of faith made by the parties in September 1718. But the 13 trustees who held the property of the four Exeter dissenting meeting houses or chapels and controlled their finances appealed to London for further advice.

After much negotiation, the London dissenting ministers of the three denominations – Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists – met at Salters’ Hall to consider a draft letter of advice to Exeter.

The Revd Thomas Bradbury (1677-1759), an uncompromising Calvinist theologian and Presbyterian minister, was the leading figure among the conservative theologians. Another key figure in the debates that lasted for months was John Barrington (1678-1734).

The conference met at Salters’ Hall on 19 February 1719, a day after the royal assent was given to the repeal of the Schism Act. Bradbury proposed some days of fasting and prayer and that a deputation should be sent to Exeter to offer advice on the spot. However, this was voted down.

At a second meeting in Salters’ Hall a week later on 24 February 1719, Bradbury moved a preamble to the letter of advice, incorporating words from the Westminster Assembly’s catechism. This was rejected in a 57-53 vote.

At a third meeting on 3 March 1719, the proposition was put again, but the moderator, the Revd Joshua Oldfield, refused to take a second vote. Over 60 ministers went up into the gallery and subscribed a declaration of adherence to the first of the Anglican 39 Articles and the fifth and sixth answers of the Assembly’s catechism.

The non-subscribing majority, numbering 73, met again at Salters’ Hall on 10 March 1719, and agreed on a position that was sent to Exeter on 17 March. Bradbury and his supporters met separately on 9 March and sent their advice to Exeter on 7 April.

The Exeter trustees took matters into their own hands and excluded Peirce and his colleague from all their meeting-houses. Bradbury played a role in a pamphlet war that followed, which was both political and religious in tone.

A year later, John Barrington, who had been a Whig MP, was made an Irish peer with the titles of Viscount Barrington of Ardglass, Co Down, and Baron Barrington of Newcastle, Co Limerick; the titles died out with the death of the writer Patrick Barrington in 1990.

The surviving 19th century gates of Salters’ Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Salters’ Hall continued to be used as a Presbyterian chapel in the 1720s, but by then England’s Presbyterians were dividing between the Calvinists and the non-subscribers who would later become Unitarians.

In the following century, it was decided in 1810 that the hall at Saint Swithin’s that had stood for 142 years was no longer suitable for the needs of the Salters’ Company’s needs and a new hall was designed. The foundation stone of the fifth building was laid on the same site and the new hall was completed in 1827.

Salters’ Hall was home of the company until it was bombed by German aircraft during the Blitz on 10 and 11 May 1941, and most of the fifth hall was destroyed. For the next 35 years, the Salters’ Company was without a hall and was based at 36 Portland Place in the West End.

The company remained there until a new hall was completed, and this opened in 1976. The present hall was designed by Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976), best known as the architect of Coventry Cathedral, who died the same year the Salters’ Hall opened.

The present Salters’ Hall on Fore Street is one of the only Livery Halls in the City of London built in a truly contemporary style. It provides the Salters’ Company with a magnificent ash panelled banqueting hall, committee and court rooms and office accommodation.

The Salters’ Garden was designed by David Hicks in the early 1990s to commemorate the company’s 600th anniversary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Beside the Salters’ Hall, the Salters’ Garden was designed in the early 1990s to commemorate the company’s 600th anniversary. It was designed by David Hicks, and is laid out as a knot garden, with a formal geometrical pattern, a fountain and a decorative urn near the remains of the Roman Wall.

The wall and the grounds of the garden are designated as a scheduled monument and protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

Currently, the Salters’ Company supports the chemical industry and supports education in chemistry, for example by awarding scholarships to chemistry students.

Salters’ Institute, the educational charity of the company, was set up in 1918 as the Salters' Institute of Industrial Chemistry to support chemistry students after World War I. It provides prizes for students of chemistry, chemical engineering, biology and physics, as well as science technicians. It also runs activities promoting the study of science, particularly chemistry.

The Salters’ Company supports the chemical industry and supports education in chemistry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)