13 August 2022
Saint Dunstan in the East
has a new life as a green
oasis in the City of London
In the evening, the City of London becomes an oddly quite place, as the bankers and hedge fund dealers leaven and peace descends on the City. But even in the day, the bombed-out ruins of the church of Saint Dunstan in the East and its gardens provide a beautiful and tranquil oasis in the heart of the city.
Two of us spent a few hours in the City of London earlier this week, and I found time to visit a number of City churches, including the ruins of Saint Dunstan in the East and its hidden gardens, which remain unknown both to city workers and tourists seeking out the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, or views across the Thames to the South Bank and the Shard.
The Church of Saint Dunstan in the East is a 1,000-year-old ruin and a just stone’s throw from the Tower of London but it is not well-known to tourists and, unlike its famous neighbour, it has the allure of an undiscovered urban sanctuary.
The church was originally built ca 1100 and was named for Saint Dunstan, a tenth century monk who was Archbishop of Canterbury in 959-988. It was designated ‘in the East’ to distinguish it from Saint Dunstan in the West, in Fleet Street. A new south aisle was added in 1391.
A school attached to the church was recognised in 1466 it was recognised as one of the five grammar schools in London.
The church was repaired in 1631 at a cost of more than £2,400. But, like so much of the City, the church was severely damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Parts of the damaged church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1668-1671, and a new tower and steeple were added in 1697-1699 to designs by Sir Christopher Wren.
Wren’s tower was built in a Gothic style sympathetic to main body of the church, but with heavy string courses of a kind not used in the Middle Ages. The needle spire is carried on four flying buttresses similar to those of Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle.
The restored church had wooden carvings by Grinling Gibbons and an organ by Father Smith.
In 1817, it was found that the weight of the nave roof had thrust the walls seven inches out of the perpendicular. It was decided to rebuild the church from the level of the arches, but the state of the structure proved so bad that the whole building was taken down.
The Father Smith organ was moved to Saint Alban’s Abbey, and the church was rebuilt to a design in the perpendicular style by David Laing, then architect to the Board of Customs, with the assistance of William Tite. Wren’s tower was retained in the new building.
The foundation stone was laid in November 1817 and the church re-opened for worship in January 1821. The new church was built of Portland stone, with a plaster lierne nave vault, it was 115 feet long and 65 feet wide and could accommodate between 600 and 700 people. The cost of the work was £36,000.
Later, Charles Dickens described Saint Dunstan in the East as his best-loved churchyard in London.
Saint Dunstan’s College, started by the church in 15th century, moved from the City in 1888 and was re-founded on a new site at Catford, in south-east London.
During World War II, the church was severely damaged in the Blitz in 1941. Wren’s tower and steeple survived the bombing, and these, along with the north and south walls, are all that still stand today.
The ruin was designated a Grade I listed building in 4 1950. But, in the re-organisation of the Church of England in the Diocese of London after World War II, it was decided not to rebuild Saint Dunstan’s.
The City of London decided in 1967 to turn the ruins and the gardens into a public garden. A lawn and trees were planted in the ruins, with a low fountain in the middle of the nave, and the garden opened in 1971.
Today, trees grow through windows and vines wind themselves around the walls of Saint Dunstan in the East, while palm trees provide a curious tropical addition in this unusual green spot on a sun-kissed summer’s afternoon.
The parish is now combined with the Benefice of All Hallows by the Tower and occasional open-air services are held in the church, such as on Palm Sunday prior to a procession to All Hallows by the Tower along Saint Dunstan’s Hill and Great Tower Street.
The tower of Saint Dunstan’s now houses the All Hallows House Foundation, an independent educational charity that makes grants to benefit young people in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and the City of London.
Saint Dunstan in the East has become a popular venue for parties and wedding receptions and a stunning spot for moody photoshoots.
• Saint Dunstan-in-the-East, Saint Dunstan’s Hill, London EC3R 5DD. Nearest stations: Tower Hill, Monument. Opening times: All year, daily, 8 am to 7 pm or dusk if earlier.