06 July 2022

Saint George, Holborn,
where Sylvia Plath and
Ted Hughes were married

The Church of Saint George the Martyr, Holborn, on the south end of Queen Square, was first built in 1703-1706 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During last week’s visit to London, when two of us strolled through Bloomsbury and found ourselves in Queen Square and Brunswick Square for the first time, I also visited Saint George Holborn for the first time.

The Church of Saint George the Martyr, Holborn, is on the south end of Queen Square. The church is popularly known as Saint George Holborn and should not be confused with the later nearby Saint George’s Church, Bloomsbury, although the two churches have shared a burial ground, now known as Saint George’s Gardens.

Saint George Holborn was built in 1703-1706 as a proprietary chapel and a chapel of ease to Saint Andrew, Holborn. The church was built by public subscriptions from a group of residents of the newly developed area of Queen Square.

The Gothic porch on the Queen Square façade of Saint George Holborn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The church was designed by the architect Arthur Tooley, who was paid £3,500 to build the chapel and two houses by a group of 15 trustees. By a deed of settlement on 1 July 1706, they drew up an agreement to elect trustees to manage the affairs of the chapel and to appoint a minister, lecturer and clerk.

The trustees included Sir Streynsham Master (1640-1724), one of the 17th century pioneers of the English East India Company. The church was dedicated to Saint George to recall that Streynsham Master was the Governor of Fort St George in India.

By 1713, the proprietors of pews in Saint George’s Chapel entered into negotiations with the Commissioners for Building 50 New Churches to make the chapel a new parish church. The commissioners bought both the lease and the freehold of the chapel, provided money to repair the chapel and to purchase pews for the use of parishioners, and bought a piece of land near Gray’s Inn Road to serve as a burial ground for the parish.

The church was repaired and beautified around 1718 under the direction of Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), a leading figure in the English Baroque style of architecture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and who had worked alongside Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh.

At that time, the magnificent baroque ceiling was introduced, along with the columns and entablature. Other fittings from this ‘reordering’ which remain are the font and reredos. The ceiling is a magnificent example of the English Baroque and with the classical entablature.

Saint George’s Church was consecrated on 26 September 1723 by the new Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson. A new parish of Saint George the Martyr was constituted and separated from Saint Andrew, Holborn, and the two parishes remained united for the care of highways and the poor.

The Revd William Stukeley (1687-1765), who was the rector from 1747 until his death there in 1765, was an antiquarian who had a significant influence on the later development of archaeology, pioneering the scholarly investigation of Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire.

Saint George’s Gardens was one of the first burial grounds to be established away from a church. The land was bought to serve the parishioners of Saint George Holborn and Saint George’s, Bloomsbury. The plot of just over a hectare lay out in the open fields, to the north of the Foundling Hospital, in the parish of Saint Pancras. It was divided in two by a wall demarcating the two parishes. It appears to have attracted many burials of non-parishioners in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but stopped being used after 1855.

The first organ in the church was installed in 1773, and it has been rebuilt over the years.

The Rector of Saint George the Martyr was not provided with a proper endowment by the Commissioners, but received a salary from the quarterly assessments levied on the proprietors of pews. Two Acts of Parliament were obtained in 1816 and 1819 for the repair of the church and to make further provision for the Rector. These Acts provided for the appointment of trustees who were empowered to levy church rates.

Captain James South’s Charity included the Chimney Sweeps’ Sermon Fund and Educational Foundation. The church was once known as the sweeps’ church because kind parishioners provided Christmas dinners for 100 chimney sweeps’ apprentices or ‘climbing boys.’

The church was remodelled in 19th century by John Buonarotti Papworth and Samuel Sanders Teulon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The church was remodelled in the early 19th century by the architect John Buonarotti Papworth (1775-1847). Papworth added a bell-tower and two frontages to what had previously been a plain brick building.

The church was remodelled once again in 1867-1869 by the Gothic Revival architect Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-1873), noted for his use of polychrome brickwork and the complex planning of his buildings. Teulon almost entirely changed the exterior, removed the galleries and added the present columns and roof.

Saint George Holborn has a south-north orientation rather than the traditional liturgical east-west axis. It is of stucco with rusticated lower portion. It has a single storey, rectangular plan with a chancel to the south added by Teulon who almost entirely altered the exterior.

The central round-arched entrance on Cosmo Place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Queen Square façade has a Gothic porch to the right of a pedimented central projecting bay with three buttresses, the central buttress forming a column between two architraved, round-headed windows and an architraved oculus above. The buttresses are surmounted by statues of praying angels. Beneath the windows, four roundels have carved reliefs with the symbols of the four evangelists.

To either side of this bay are three rounded-arched, traceried windows.

The Cosmo Place return has a central round-arched entrance and four windows. Over the west end, small square-plan tower has Gothic canopies and a clock, and the tower is surmounted by zinc covered spirelet with louvred gablets.

The welcoming area inside Saint George the Martyr (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Inside, the column and roof system was inserted by Teulon who took down all the galleries save that to the north which he retained and remodelled. The fine original reredos was retained on the east wall when Teulon reordered the church with a new south chancel with full fittings including a reredos with mosaic inlays. The stalls, pulpit, lectern, parclose screen and altar rails are also by Teulon. The other fittings include font, organ and case.

Saint George the Martyr was united with the Parish of Holy Trinity, Gray’s Inn Road, in 1931 and with Saint Bartholomew, Gray’s Inn Road, in 1959.

The Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath were married in this church on Bloomsday, 16 June 1956.

The church was designated a Grade II* listed building on 24 October 1951, and was restored in 1952 and 1989. The organ has been listed as a historic instrument by the British Institute of Organ Studies.

Today, the church is part of the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) network of evangelical churches, and the vicar or priest-in-charge, the Revd Jamie Haith, describes himself as the ‘Lead Pastor.’

Saint George Holborn is shaded by the trees on Queen Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
6 July 2022 (Psalm 133)

‘It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, Even on Aaron’s beard’ (Psalm 133: 2-3) … Moses and Aaron in a window in Saint Columba’s Church, Drumcliffe, Ennis Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time, and today (6 July 2022) in the calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England recalls Thomas More, Scholar, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Reformation Martyrs, 1535.

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 133:

Psalm 133 is the fourteenth in a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות‎ (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 132.

Many scholars say these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals. Others say they were sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Mishnah notes the correspondence between the 15 songs and the 15 steps between the men’s court and the women’s courtyards in the Temple. A Talmudic legend says King David composed or sang the 15 songs to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple.

One view says the Levites first sang the Songs of Ascent at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple during the night of 15 Tishri 959 BCE. Another study suggests they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Others suggest they may originally have been songs sung by the exiles returning from Babylon, ascending to Jerusalem or individual poems later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.

These psalms are cheerful and hopeful, and they place an emphasis on Zion. They were suited for being sung because of their poetic style and the sentiments they express. They are brief, almost like epigrams, and they are marked by the use of a keyword or repeated phrase that serves as a rung on which the poem ascends to its final theme.

Psalm 133 is one of the shortest chapters in the Book of Psalms, being one of three psalms with three verses, the others being Psalm 131 and Psalm 134. The shortest psalm is Psalm 117, with two verses.

This psalm is often known by its Latin title, Ecce Quam Bonum. It has many settings by composers from William Byrd to Leonard Bernstein, who uses verse 1 to conclude the text in Hebrew of the final movement of his Chichester Psalms, an extended work for choir and orchestra that begins with the complete text of Psalm 131.

Psalm 133 is a short poem on the blessing of harmony between brothers – possibly a reference to the divisions between the two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, with hope for their reunification.

We can imagine this psalm being sung by pilgrims as they came together on the journey up to Jerusalem or made their way up the steps of the Temple. It speaks of brotherly love among the people of God, exemplified in the brotherly love of Moses and Aaron.

The pilgrims came together from many tribes, with many tribal differences. But when they come together to worship God, verse 2 reminds them, it is like the anointing of the first high priest, Aaron, by his brother Moses. At that consecration, the high priest’s hair and clothes were saturated with oil (see Exodus 29: 7), signifying his total consecration to God and the abundance and generosity of God’s blessings.

Mount Hermon in the north was the highest mountain in the northern kingdom, Israel. It is blessed with copious rain, ‘the dew of Hermon’ (verse 3). If Jerusalem or Mount Zion, the sacred mountain in the southern kingdom, Judah, received the same abundance of rain, it would be a true blessing. God’s blessings are the inexhaustible source of life, and are for ever.

‘It is like the precious oil on the head’ (Psalm 133: 2) … olive oil on shelves in a shop in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 133 (NRSVA):

A Song of Ascents.

1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Tackling Poverty.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Niall Cooper, Director at Church Action on Poverty.

Wednesday 6 July 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Lord, please help us to be bold and speak truth to those in power about the hardships of living in poverty.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org