14 August 2022

Saint Mary-at-Hill Church
and a reminder of the old
lanes in the City of London

Saint Mary-at-Hill stands between two of the most ancient, cobbled and narrow lanes of the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us spent a few hours in the City of London one evening last week, and I found time to visit a number of City churches, including Saint Mary-at-Hill, a parish church off Eastcheap, between the steep, cobbled street known as Saint Mary-at-Hill and Lovat Lane, among some of the city’s most ancient lanes.

The Church of Saint Mary-at-Hill was founded in the 12th century as ‘Saint Mary de Hull’ or ‘Saint Mary de la Hulle,’ and an ‘ancient church’ on this site is mentioned in a legal document dated 1177.

Billingsgate Quay was an important harbour in the 10th and 11th centuries. The route north into the old city led past the church, and the steep rise up from the River Thames gave it the name of Saint Mary at or on the Hill.

The north aisle was rebuilt at the end of the 15th century, and a south aisle and steeple were added a little later. The churchwardens’ accounts from the 15th century refer to side chapels dedicated to Saint Stephen, Saint Katherine, Saint Ann and Saint Christopher.

A new rood was installed at Saint Mary-at-Hill in 1426, at a cost of £36, a very considerable sum at the time. Half a century later, the church paid ‘Christopher the Carpenter’ 20 shillings to take down the spire in 1479, and 53 shillings to rebuild it.

The organ-builder Mighaell Glocetir worked at Saint Mary-at-Hill from 1477 to 1479. The choir of the Chapel Royal sang there from 1510. The composer Thomas Tallis was the organist at Saint Mary-at-Hill in 1538-1539.

John Stow, writing at end of the 16th century, described it as ‘the fair church of Saint Marie, called on the Hill, because of the ascent from Billingsgate.’

Sir Christopher Wren redesigned the interior and east end of Saint Mary-at-Hill after the Great Fire of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The church was severely damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666, which started nearby in neighbouring Pudding Lane. The church was only partially rebuilt and Saint Mary’s parish was united with the parish of Saint Andrew Hubbard, where the church was not rebuilt.

Sir Christopher Wren redesigned the interior and east end of Saint Mary-at-Hill, retaining its medieval walls on the other three sides, and the west tower to which he added a lantern.

Wren’s design included a Venetian window at the east end, now blocked up, and a pediment, now broken. His interior displays four free-standing Corinthian columns, supporting barrel vaults in a Greek cross pattern, and a coffered central dome. The church is 96 ft long and 60 ft wide.

Saint Mary-at-Hill was one of the first churches rebuilt after the Fire, and was completed in 1677 at a cost of £3,980. Robert Hooke supervised the rebuilding project while Wren was concentrating on Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Hooke was responsible for building the internal wall under the tower at the west end. The original north and south walls were rebuilt and the building was extended a little to the east, with an ornate main frontage of exposed stone.

Several accounts recall the Costermongers’ Festival held there every October. It was also known as the ‘Fish Harvest Festival’ or ‘Harvest of the Sea,’ associated with the fish market then at Billingsgate. Another tradition was the Beating the Bounds, where parishioners and children processed around the boundaries of the parish on Ascension Day.

A hoard of coins, now known as the Mary Hill Hoard, was found in a basement near Saint Mary-at-Hill in the 18th century. The hoard included the only known example of a coin from the Horndon mint.

Saint Mary-at-Hill has been much altered since, although some of its mediaeval fabric survives. The Church of Saint Mary-at-Hill has a large double-faced clock extending several feet into the street.

George Gwilt rebuilt the west wall in 1787-1788, and replaced the tower in brick.

James Savage installed round-headed iron-framed windows in the north wall in 1826-1827 and replaced the vaults, ceilings and plasterwork. On the street of Saint Mary-at-Hill, the adjacent Grade II brick and stone rectory was designed by James Savage in 1834, and incorporates a late 17th century vestry.

A skull and crossbones carving in the pediment above the door of the former rectory, designed by James Savage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Savage added a cupola to the dome in 1848-1849, and cut windows through the chancel vault. The 17th century woodwork was sympathetically augmented in 1849, and adapted by Gibbs Rogers.

The parish was further united with the parish of Saint George Botolph Lane in 1904, and Saint Mary-at-Hill received the sword rests, plate, royal arms, ironwork, organ and organ case from Saint George.

The church survived the Blitz in World War II unscathed, and was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950. In the post-war decades, the poet Sir John Betjeman said of the church: ‘This is the least spoiled and the most gorgeous interior in the City, all the more exciting by being hidden away among cobbled alleys, paved passages, brick walls, overhung by plane trees …’

The church was severely damaged by a fire in 1988, and the roof and ceiling required rebuilding. Much of the woodwork, including box pews, survived the fire, but it has not been reinstated and remains in store.

The organ, built by William Hill of London in 1848, is the largest surviving example of his early work and reputed to be one of the 10 most important organs in the history of British organ building. It was partly restored after the 1988 fire, but its complete restoration did not begin until 2000. The church is a popular venue for regular concerts and recitals.

The Great Churchyard is now a pretty courtyard garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Great Churchyard is now a pretty courtyard garden, totally enclosed on all sides. It is only accessible either through the church or through the small alley at the far end of the churchyard that leads onto the street of Saint Mary-at-Hill.

A plaque recalls ‘the burial ground of the parish church of St Mary-at-Hill has been closed by order of the respective vestries of the united parishes of St Mary-at-Hill and Saint Andrew Hubbard with the consent of the rector and that no further interments are allowed therein – Dated this 21st day of June 1846.’

When it closed for burials in 1846, the parish then bought burial rights ‘in perpetuity’ at West Norwood Cemetery.

The Church of Saint Mary-at-Hill has a large double-faced clock extending several feet into the street … the building in the background, 20 Fenchurch Street, is known popularly as ‘The Walkie-Talkie’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Canon Wilson Carlile (1847-1942), founder of the Church Army, was the Rector in 1892-1926. Bishop Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the priest-in-charge in 2014-2019, was also Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons (2010-2019), and since then is the Bishop of Dover. She is the first black woman to be a bishop in the Church of England.

In my all-too-brief visit to Saint Mary-at-Hill, I missed the approach from Lovat Lane, off Eastcheap and Great Tower Street, which offers a view of the tower and the west door and an impression of what the narrow City lanes once looked like.

The name Lovat Lane is recent. The lane was originally called Love Lane and was changed around 1939 to avoid confusion with the Love Lane further north off Wood Street. Many early references attribute the original name the lane being frequented by prostitutes. The new name Lovat was chosen because of the quantity of salmon delivered to Billingsgate Market from the fisheries of Lord Lovat.

Sir Christopher Wren retained the west tower, adding a lantern (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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