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)

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Sunday 14 August 2022

Erasmus Darwin House, Beacon Street, in front of Lichfield Cathedral … Ralph Vaughan Williams was a direct descendant of Erasmus Darwin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity. Later this morning, I plan to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford.

Before the day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘End of the beach’ at Platanias in Rethymnon … but do we know how to read the signs of the end of the times? (see Luke 12: 54-56) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 12: 49-56 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’

Today’s reflection: ‘The Song of the Tree of Life’

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.

This morning [14 August 2022], as I find myself at the beginning of a new week, I am listening to ‘The Song of the Tree of Life.’

I first heard ‘The Song of the Tree of Life’ on Begone Dull Care (Lammas Records, LAMM 107D), a recording by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral, directed by Andrew Lumsden, then sub-organist at Lichfield Cathedral and since 2002 the Organist and Director of Music of Winchester Cathedral Choir, and accompanied on the organ by Robert Sharpe, now the Director of Music at York Minister.

Of course, Vaughan Williams was a direct descendant, through his mother, of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who lived in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield.

This recording by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral was made in June 1998 in Hawkesyard Priory, Armitage, near Rugeley and six miles north-west of Lichfield. This is one of the architectural gems of Staffordshire and was built in the late 19th century by Josiah Spode IV (1823-1893), who was also a keen organist. Spode House later became a Dominican Priory, and the church was built between 1896 and 1914 for the Dominicans by the architect Edward Goldie.

I knew the place well in my late teens and early 20s, when the Folk Masses in the priory chapel were popular with many of my friends from Rugeley, Brereton and Lichfield. It was the early 1970s, and at that age I enjoyed the music of English folk rock bands such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Lindisfarne and Jethro Thull. Their music provided an interesting bridge to both the music of Vaughan Williams, which I was introduced to in rural Shropshire, and the Folk Masses at Spode House, which had become a popular venue in rural Staffordshire for retreats, short courses on church music, theatrical groups, youth organisations, prayer and reflection.

The friars included Father Donald Proudman, who had died before I ever got to know the place; the saintly and philosophical Father Columba Ryan (1916-2009), who was immersed in the history of the house, who was a CND supporter until his dying days, and whose father was the last British dragoman in Constantinople; and Father Conrad Pepler (1908-1993), the founding warden, who we did not know had provided a Roman Catholic funeral in Cambridge for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The monastery and the conference centre closed when the last Dominicans moved out in 1988. The place became a nursing home and the hall fell into disrepair and was boarded up until 1999, when the hall was bought by the Whorton family who were determined to return the building and the estate to its former glory. The transformation of the Hall and outer buildings was completed in 2007, and the estate includes Hawkesyard Hall, Saint Thomas’s Priory Golf Club, Armitage Park conference and events centre, and the home of the Wolseley National Car Rally. The Priory Church is now used on Sundays by an Old Catholic group.

At a lengthy lunch in Lichfield some years ago, some of us recalled so many of our friends who loved going to Hawkesyard for the folk masses and the extended Sunday afternoons that inevitably followed. There were six underground tunnels at Hawkesyard, built to allow the estate workers to move quickly around the area, and we were convinced that two tunnels lead to Lichfield and Armitage. But was I really the one who was so fearless to lead a group of us through those unexplored tunnels and vaults? And are the tunnels still there?

This morning’s song by Vaughan Williams, ‘The Song of the Tree of Life,’ is a revised version of one of the songs from his setting of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as an opera.

Yesterday, as I was reflecting on ‘He who would valiant be,’ I mentioned how, from his childhood, Vaughan Williams had been attracted to the sturdy and simple prose of John Bunyan, with its sincerity and spiritual intensity. Vaughan Williams described his Pilgrim’s Progress as a ‘Morality’ rather than an opera, although he intended the work to be performed on stage rather than in a church or cathedral.

The opera, which includes 41 individual singing roles, was first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 26 April 1951, conducted by Leonard Hancock and directed by Nevill Coghill.

He prepared the libretto, with interpolations from the Bible and also text from his second wife, Ursula Wood. His changes to the story included altering the name of the central character from Christian to Pilgrim.

Vaughan Williams adapted the words of ‘The Song of the Tree of Life’ from Revelation 2, and they say:

Unto him that overcometh shall be given the Tree of Life
which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.
On either side of the river groweth the Tree of Life,
the Leaves of the Tree are for thy healing.
In the midst of that fair City flows the river of Water of Life, clear as crystal.
Who so will, let him take of the Water of Life freely.
Who so drinketh of this water shall never thirst.
Take thou the Leaves of the Tree of Life.
So shalt thou enter in through the Gates of the City.

In these words, the author of Revelation, Bunyan, and Vaughan Williams link the death on the Cross with the Tree of the Life, the Crucifixion outside Jerusalem with the hope for the New Jerusalem.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, we find a return to the idea of a spiritual journey that also attracted Vaughan Williams to Walt Whitman in A Sea Symphony. His music to Bunyan has a moving restraint, an inner spirituality, a strength and a conviction that show the composer gripped by the text and responding in an inspired and ecstatic fashion.

Vaughan Williams is generally said to have been an atheist or an agnostic. But if this song shows where Vaughan Williams placed his hope how he trod the pilgrimage of life, then he shared in the hope for Easter that we should all be sharing in this season of Lent.

Candles lit in the choir stalls and chapter stalls in Lichfield Cathedral, waiting for Choral Evensong (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
open our hearts to the riches of your grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Gracious Father,
revive your Church in our day,
and make her holy, strong and faithful,
for your glory’s sake
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday 14 August 2022:

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Human Trafficking in Durgapur.’ It is introduced today by Raja Moses, Project Co-ordinator of the Anti-Human Trafficking Project, Diocese of Durgapur, Church of North India, who writes:

Lord, we pray for your blessings and intervention in the areas of life where there is severe abuse of human beings by way of human trafficking, which is a type of modern-day slavery.

Father, we pray for the Anti-Human Trafficking Programme of our Diocese. We pray for those who lead the programme; that they would lead with wisdom and discernment. We pray for our mission-field workers who tirelessly work even sometimes at the cost of their own lives being threatened by human traffickers and anti-social elements in the areas where they work.

Lord may your protection be upon each of our field workers. May they who serve in the area of Anti-Human trafficking, come to know you and your love more personally. We pray for your provisions in the area of resources, both material and human. As we reach out to rescue and rehabilitate the women and children who are victims of human trafficking in places like Malda, North and South Dinajpur, we pray that your Holy Spirit would guide, protect and lead our Anti-Human Trafficking Team.

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

Lord of all,
May we uphold the dignity of all your children.
Let us be defenders of what is right
and friends to the dispossessed.

Yesterday’s reflection

>Continued tomorrow

The Priory Church at Hawkesyard was built for the Dominicans by the architect Edward Goldie in 1896-1914

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