13 May 2017

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf,
a Wren church saved by
Welsh speakers in London

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf … a Wren church that survived World War II and that was saved by London’s Welsh-speaking Anglicans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During my strolls through London earlier this week [11 May 2017], between Liverpool Street Station and the USPG offices in Southwark, one of the former Wren churches I visited was Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf, the Welsh church close to Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge.

The church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and has been described as ‘one of his most successful exteriors.’ It is one of only four churches in the City of London to escape damage during World War II.

Although this church is close to Saint Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge, and just off Queen Victoria Street, it is difficult to access at the bottom of a hill surrounded by traffic and footpaths that are difficult for a pedestrian to negotiate. In addition, apart from Sunday services, the church is only open to the public for a few brief hours on Thursdays, so I never got to see inside.

Since 1879, the Church of Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf has been the Welsh Anglican church in London. Long before that, since 1556, it has also been the official church of the College of Arms, which regulates heraldry and heraldic law in England.

But the story of the church on this site is much older, and a church has stood here since 1111, dedicated to Saint Benet or Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order. Paul’s Wharf was close by on the riverside, and over the centuries was the main landing stage for this part of the City. To the west of the site was the watergate of Baynard’s Castle.

Over time, the name was abbreviated to Saint Benet, just like Saint Bene’t’s in Cambridge. The parish records, dating from the reign of Elizabeth I, contain many references to the Welsh, and the considerable Welsh presence in the parish dated back to at least 1320, when they were evicted from the Tower Hill area by a Papal Bull.

Queen Elizabeth settled her ‘imbroyderers’ in the parish, and they had Alms Houses here. The Broderers’ City Livery Company, representing workers in embroidery, probably started here, and the Dyers were strongly connected with the church too. Later the Royal College of Physicians came into being in the parish.

Shakespeare mentions the church in Twelfth Night, Act V, Scene 1. The clown, having received two pieces of gold from the duke, says; “Primo, secundo, tertio, is a good play; and the old saying is, ‘the third pays for all’: the triplex, sir, is a good tripping measure; or the bells of; Saint Bennet, sir. may put you in mind; one, two, three.’ But the duke replies – “You can fool no more money out of me at this throw.”

Today there are two bells, one dated 1633 and the other 1685.

Saint Benet has been the Church of the College of Arms since 1555, when Phillip and Mary gave Derby House, at the north-east corner of the churchyard, to the heralds. Since then, they have had their own seats in the church.

The burial of at least 25 officers of arms or heralds, starting with Sir Gilbert Dethick in 1584, is recorded in the registers, along with a large number of domestic staff. There are several memorials in the church – one to the memory of John Charles Brook, Somerset Herald, who was one of 16 people crushed to death when George III and Queen Charlotte visited the Haymarket Theatre in 1794.

In 1652, Inigo Jones, ‘the king’s architect,’ was buried in Saint Benet, with his father and mother. A copy of the inscription on the original memorial has been placed above the site of the original vault.

The church and Baynard’s Castle were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1683 at a cost of £3,328.13s.10d. and has been described as ‘one of his most successful exteriors.’ It was re-built in the Dutch style, although there is evidence that the design was principally by Wren’s assistant Robert Hooke. It was completed by Wren’s master mason Thomas Strong in 1683.

This is a particularly valuable example of Wren’s work, for it is one of only four churches in the City that escaped damage in World War II, and it remains basically as Wren built it.

Unusually for Wren, it is built of red and blue bricks with Portland stone quoins, and with carved stone garlands over the windows. It has a hipped roof on the north side.

The tower, built on the site of the original, contains the base of the old tower to a height above ground of some 12 ft, but encased by new brick and stone. This is surmounted by a dome and cupola, topped by a ball and weathervane, and rises to a height of 115 ft to produce an elegant and attractive structure.

Inside, the church is almost square, and it retains its galleries, west and north on the sides of the tower. Inside, the church is almost a square. Unusually for a Wren church, the ceiling is flat rather than domed or curved.

The north gallery, formerly used by the Doctors’ Commons, is now used by the College of Arms. The galleries are supported by Corinthian columns. On the front centre panelling of the gallery is a cartouche of the Royal Arms, with the arms of the Kingdom of Hanover. This was painted in 1837, the last time these arms were used in England. To the west of it the fouled Anchor of the Court of Admiralty represents Civil Law, and to the east of it the Pallium of Canterbury represents Ecclesiastical Law.

Most of the original 17th century furniture of Wren’s church is still intact, including the baroque altar of Dutch origin, the reredos and the pulpit, designed by Grinling Gibbons, originally marked on its panels with the Royal Cypher and Donum 1683, the altar rails, the marble font and its carved wooden cover. The carved doorcase is unique with the Stuart coat of arms given by Charles II above it.

The flags hanging in the church are the personal arms of the 13 members of the College of Arms, with the Duke of Norfolk’s banner completing the set.

The Great Fire also destroyed the church of Saint Peter Paul’s Wharf, or Saint Peter Parva, stood at the south-west corner of what is now the international headquarters of the Salvation Army. This church was not rebuilt and the parish was amalgamated with Saint Benet. However, the congregation maintained its own services, service books, churchwardens and parish clerk and separate records until 1867 and its own burial ground until 1838.

Saint Benet was also the parish church of Doctors’ Commons, which stood at the north-west corner of the churchyard where Faraday House stands today. This was a legal institution that could provide facilities for hasty marriages. This probably accounts for the fact that 13,423 marriages were solemnised in the church between 1708 and 1731.

Doctors’ Commons, also called the College of Civilians, was a society of lawyers practising civil law in London. Like the Inns of Court of the common lawyers, the society had buildings with rooms where its members lived and worked, and a large library.

The college consisted of a president, who was the Dean of Arches for the time being, and of doctors of law who had taken that degree in either Oxford or Cambridge, had been admitted advocates by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and who were elected fellows according to the terms of the college charter. In addition, 34 proctors attached to the college had duties analogous to those of solicitors.

Doctors’ Commons occupied the north gallery of the church, paying £5 a year per household for its upkeep, as well as paying for the lector or curate. Doctors’ Commons came to an end and was demolished to make way for Queen Victoria Street in 1867.

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf is the Metropolitan Welsh Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf narrowly saved destruction in the late 19th century, when the parish was merged with neighbouring Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey. After an energetic campaign by its supporters, Queen Victoria in 1879 granted the church to Welsh Anglicans for services.

As far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, Welsh Anglicans had arranged for services in the Welsh language whenever a priest was available. A Welsh-language service was held in Saint Paul’s, Covent Garden, in 1715. But these Welsh Anglicans longed for a church of their own, with regular services from the Book of Common Prayer in Welsh.

Saint Etheldreda’s in Ely Place, Holborn, was obtained for use by Welsh-speaking Anglicans at an annual rental of £105, and a full-time priest was appointed. They remained there until the 1870s. Saint Etheldreda’s was sold by auction and in 1874 it became a Roman Catholic church run by the Rosminian, leaving the Welsh congregation homeless.

The vicar of Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey allowed them the use of his church for one service each Sunday. Meanwhile, several city churches were scheduled for demolition, including Saint Benet. The Priest-in-Charge suggested Saint Benet should be saved from demolition and given to the Welsh congregation.

Saint Benet was granted to the Welsh Anglicans for services ‘according to the Rites of the Church of England’ in perpetuity. The first Welsh service was held here in 1879 and these services have continued since.

When these services began, the Anglican Church in Wales was part of the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England. With the Welsh Church Act in 1920, the disestablished Church in Wales was formed. To show their disapproval, the bishops of the then four Welsh dioceses – St Asaph, Bangor, St David’s and Llandaff – attended a service of Holy Communion in Saint Benet. However, Saint Benet remained part of the Diocese of London in the Church of England.

The church is one of only four churches in the City of London to escape damage during World War II. In 1954, in the reorganisation of the City churches and parishes, Saint Benet became one of the City Guild Churches.

The composer Meirion Williams was the church organist in the 1960s and 1970s, and wrote a Mass especially for the church, Missa Cambrensis.

Vandals set fire to the interior of the church in 1971, and although fire damage was confined to the north-east corner, the whole interior was affected by the intense heat. The church was reopened in May 1973.

In 2008, the church was closed for a few months due to a ‘dwindling congregation,’ but it reopened in time for the carol service in December that year.

Today, Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf is the Metropolitan Welsh Church, with as many as 50,000 Welsh speakers in London. The priest-in-charge is the Revd Aneirin Glyn, who studied theology at Oak Hill Theological College and is also a curate of Saint Helen Bishopsgate.

The church is now in the ‘conservative evangelical’ tradition and Holy Communion is celebrated only once a month. Services are held weekly on Sunday mornings at 11am, with occasional special services on Sunday afternoons at 3pm. Services are conducted in the Welsh language, and with English translation provided. The church can be visited on Thursdays between 11 am and 3 pm.

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf is one of only four churches in the City of London to escape damage during World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Next: Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.

Postings on London City Churches:

Greyfriars Christ Church.

Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe.

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf.

Saint Botolph-without-Bishopsgate.

Saint George-in-the-East.

Saint Lawrence Jewry.

Saint Margaret Lothbury.

Saint Mary Aldermary.

Saint Mary-le-Bow.

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.

Saint Olave Jewry (tower).

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster.

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