22 November 2016

Saint George-in-the-East, a 300-year-old
unique church in the heart of the East End

Saint George-in-the-East, one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpieces, has survived ritual riots and the Blitz (Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Nicholas Hawksmoor (ca 1661-1736) was an idiosyncratic architect and one of the leading figures in the English Baroque school of architecture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He has been rediscovered in recent years, both as a major architect and also as the subject of myth.

Little is known of his personal life: he was born in 1661, or perhaps earlier. He was self-educated, and from the age of 18 he worked as Christopher Wren’s domestic clerk – Sir John Betjeman describes him as ‘rather a talented clerk.’

As Hawksmoor never travelled abroad, his vast knowledge of classical architecture came from books and drawings, and from his conversations with Wren. He worked with the principal architects of the time, principally Wren and John Vanbrugh, and contributed to the design of some of the most notable buildings of the time, including Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Wren’s churches in the City of London, Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He probably had a hand too in the Gothic west front of Westminster Abbey too.

Hawksmoor designed by six London churches: Saint Alfege’s Church, Greenwich, Saint George’s Church, Bloomsbury, Christ Church, Spitalfields, Saint George-in-the East, Wapping, Saint Mary, Woolnoth, and Saint Anne’s Church Limehouse They are his best-known independent works of architecture, and have been compares in their complexity of interpenetrating internal spaces with contemporary work in Italy by Francesco Borromini.

Although some of Hawksmoor’s works have been correctly attributed to him only in recent years, he has influenced several poets and authors in the 20th century. Saint Mary Woolnoth is mentioned in TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922), in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop (1938), where Algernon Stitch lives in a ‘superb creation by Nicholas Hawksmoor’ in London, and Hawksmoor is mentioned by Alan Bennett in The History Boys, when Akthar is questioned by Mrs Lintott about his interest in architecture. Saint George-in-the-East also appeared in the film The Long Good Friday (1980).

Hawksmoor died in 1736 of ‘gout of the stomach,’ either at Millbank or at East Drayton in Nottinghamshire.

Saint George-in-the-East seen from the gardens on the south side of the church (Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Last week, while I was staying in the East End at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine, during a residential meeting of the trustees of USPG, I visited Saint George-in-the-East, which many consider the most original of Hawksmoor’s six London churches.

This church in Shadwell stands on the corner of Cannon Street Road, halfway along Cable Street. One of the best-known vicars of this parish was Father St John Groser, an Anglo-Catholic ‘slum priest’ of the East End who was injured in the Battle of Cable Street 80 years ago in 1936 and who later became Master of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine.

The story of this church dates back over 300 years to 1710-1711, when Acts of Parliament were passed to build 50 new churches in the rapidly expanding edges and suburbs of London and Westminster. Only 12 of these church were completed, including Saint George-in-the-East.

The parish of Saint George-in-the-East was largely rural at the time of its creation, when the main centre of population was the small village of Wapping Stepney. It was part of the ancient parish of Stepney in the Tower division of the Ossulstone Hundred of Middlesex.

To distinguish it from other parishes in and near London also named Saint George’s, it became known as Saint George-in-the-East because it stood to the east of the City of London.

The site for the new church was bought for £400 in 1714, and the foundation stone was laid in 1715. But there were many delays – bad bricks, workers moved to other projects and because local criminals allegedly stole the building materials, ‘especially on Sundays.’ The new church cost between £18,000 and £24,000 to build, and it was not completed until 1729, and was consecrated on 19 July 1729.

When this parish was separated from Stepney by act of parliament, the benefice was made a rectory. The first rector of Saint George-in-the-East was the Revd William Simpson, DD. He was succeeded in 1764 by the Revd Herbert Mayo, DD.

The Grub Street Journal in 1734 described it as a strong and magnificent pile that commands the attention of all judicious observers, especially the chancel end, which is truly magnificent. But another writer at the time spoke of the strange ponderous walls of the church, claiming the windows were like those of a prison.

Saint George-in-the-East was designed to seat 1,230 people. It was built as a stone building, of mixed architecture. The inside was fitted up with Dutch oak, and the pillars were, for the most part, of the Doric order.

Over the altar, in a recess at the east end, was a painting by Clarkson of Christ in the Garden. It was bought by subscription when the church was repaired and beautified in 1783.

The flag of Saint George flying on the tower … Saint George’s has a uniquely complex skyline (Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Saint George’s has a uniquely complex skyline. As well as the western tower there are four ‘pepperpot’ turrets, each large enough to form the tower of an ordinary church. Each marks the position of a spiral staircase that originally led to the great galleries; now they lead to the church flats.

The spires are essentially Gothic outlines executed in innovative and imaginative classical detail. It was an unusual choice to top Saint George’s tower with six circular Roman sacrificial altars, but Hawksmoor was seeking to recover for the Church of England a pure and primitive style of architecture that he believed stemmed from the Jewish Temple.

There were nine doorways into the church, with Hawksmoor providing separate entrances for the different classes according to their ability to pay for better or worse seats.

The major change to Hawksmoor’s design is the entrance steps, which date from ca 1800.

Saint George-in-the-East was one of the churches disturbed by the ritualism riots in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The riots at Saint George’s went on, Sunday after Sunday, for nine months, with the clergy arriving to ‘hisses, cock-crowing, cat-calling, and the rude howling of n*gg*r songs; slamming of pew-doors, stamping of feet, and the sharp, disagreeable crack and scent of matches struck heedlessly across woodwork.’

The complaints were against candles on the altar and choirboys wearing surplices. ‘Unless you desist from your hellish and popish practice,’ said an anonymous letter to the rector, the Revd Bryan King, ‘I shall take foul means to prevent you doing so.’

King had been rector since 1842. He reported: ‘The four streets within which my church is situated contained 733 houses – of which 27 were public houses, 13 beer houses, and no fewer than 154 were brothels.’

His poverty-ridden parish had 45,000 residents, ‘of those very classes who are, alas, almost universally alienated from attendance upon the services of the Church.’ He set up schools and two mission chapels, and in 1846 a choir. Weekly services increased from four to 54. In King’s mind, an alb and chasuble helped teach ‘our flocks, and especially the poorer members, the deep doctrine of the Holy Eucharist.’

The spark for the riots was the appointment by the churchwardens of a weekly preacher, Hugh Allen, a fierce puritan who despised King’s Tractarian sympathies and liturgical practices.

After 14 months of weekly riots, apart from a month when the church had to be closed, King’s health broke down. In July 1860 he took a holiday in Bruges, and never returned as rector. He spent his last years in Avebury, Wiltshire. Bishop Tait continued to persecute ritualists, but was struck during the cholera epidemic of 1866 by the devotion shown by King’s former curates, the Revd Charles Lowder (1820-1880) and the Revd Alexander Mackonochie (1825-1887), as they cared for the poor around Saint George-in-the-East.

The nave and apse in Saint George’s … the church was disturbed by 14 months of weekly riots in 1859-1860 (Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Venetian glass mosaics installed in the curve of the apse in 1880 depict scenes of the Passion.

The civil parish of Saint George-in-the-East became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney in 1900 and it was abolished as a civil parish in 1927. The vestry hall still stands on Cable Street.

During World War II, the church was hit in May 1941 by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz on London’s docklands. The original interior was destroyed by the fire, leaving only the outer walls, vestry, Lady Chapel, fire-shattered fragments of the capitals of pilasters on the east and west walls, the 147 ft shooting tower and the distinctive ‘pepper-pot’ towers stayed standing.

After the war, worship was conducted in the rectory and the mission hall, and then for 17 years in a prefab within the shell, known wittily as Saint George-in-the-Ruins.

The modern church interior was designed by Arthur Bailey in 1964 (Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1964 Arthur Bailey designed the modern church interior that was built inside the shell, and a new flat was built under each corner tower. The restored church was reconsecrated in 1964.

The new space is approached from an open courtyard where the nave once was. From there, you enter a light, airy and prayerful space, focused on elements of the surviving semi-circular apse, with a full-height glazed window.

Local lore says one pair of cherubic heads in the apse plasterwork survived the Blitz. All that remains of the original interior is the apse, redecorated to the original designs; the two stone corbels, on either side of the east wall; and the mosaics that were rescued from the ruins and restored.

The font is said to have been brought from the City church of Saint Benet, Gracechurch, when the Revd Harry Jones was the rector. This Wren church was demolished in 1876 for a road-widening scheme.

This second font stood in the north aisle near the pulpit, the original font remaining in the north-west baptistery. The ‘new’ font was first used in 1877.

By the font stands a paschal candlestick carved by Father St John Groser’s son, Michael, with seven roundels depicting symbols of the passion and the resurrection. Over the font hangs an unusual metal corona in aluminium and copper, designed in 1966 by Frank Berry and made by Arthur Greenwood of the Brotherhood of Prayer and Action who were working in the parish at that time. It holds 12 candles that are lit at Christmas and other festivals.

In the south-east corner, a small plaque commemorates Father Alex Solomon, who was rector in 1958-1979 and who inspired and led the rebuilding.

On one of the pillars on the south side is an abstract watercolour by Peter Bedford, a member of the Pacifist Service Units who was on fire watch at the top of the tower the night the bomb fell. It is inscribed: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings of peace (Isaiah 52: 7), and Remember before God the horror and destruction of war / Pray and work for peace and reconciliation in our world.

On the north side, is an icon of Christ the Merciful written by Dom Anselm Shobrook OSB. It was commissioned in 1997, and the text reads Come to me, you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Until a few years ago the walls were painted in a stone colour, and the lampshades were black metal cylinders with small vertical slits, in post-Festival of Britain style.

On the north wall is the organ, built in 1964 by NP Mander.

The silver altar candlesticks and processional cross and wooden alms plate were designed for the church. The communion silver is a mixture of 20th century pieces and items from former churches in the parish. The sacrament is reserved in a hanging pyx in the apse, behind the altar, installed in 1969 in memory of Charles Turner, Bishop of Islington.

On Saint George’s Day 1991, a week after the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the church interior, the church was presented by with a lavabo bowl designed by Tom Tudor-Pole. It bears the inscription I will wash my hands in innocency, Oh Lord, and so will I go to thine altar (Psalm 26: 6).

The rectory accommodation on two floors and three separate apartments were created in the former gallery space, and are accessed by spiral staircases under each tower.

The church continues to have an active congregation. In May 2015, the parish entered into a partnership with the Centre for Theology and Community (CTC), an ecumenical charity that is based in its East Crypt. Anglican clergy working for CTC now serve the parish, and the Rectory is the home to the Community of Saint George, a group of laypeople who assist in the worship and mission of the church.

Behind the church lies Saint George’s Gardens, the original churchyard, which was passed to Stepney Council to maintain as a public park in mid-Victorian times.

The church is a Grade I listed building, and several of the monuments, gates and walls around the church have separate Grade II listing. The design won a Civic Trust award in 1967, and the church is now more visible than when it was surrounded by buildings that were levelled in the Blitz. Its gleaming Portland limestone now dominates this part of the East End as never before.

The former Saint George’s Town Hall on Cable Street, once the Vestry Hall of the parish (Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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