22 May 2018

The unique church tower
is all that survives at
Saint Mary Somerset

Saint Mary Somerset, Lambeth Hill … all that remains of the church is the tower with its pinnacles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On my walks between Liverpool Street Station and the offices of USPG in Southwark two weeks ago [9 May 2018], I stopped to look at the remaining towers of two lost London churches: Saint Augustine Watling Street, which stood to the east of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and the Church of Saint Mary Somerset, where Upper Thames Street and Lambeth Hill meet, south of Saint Paul’s.

Both churches were rebuilt in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London.

The Church of Saint Mary Somerset is first recorded in the late 12th century, in a deed in the reign of Richard I.

Lambeth Hill is some distance from Lambeth, but the street name was derived from Lambard and was changed to Lambeth because of folk etymology. It is even further from Somerset, so the designation ‘Somerset’ in the church name is more puzzling. It has been linked to Ralph de Somery, who is mentioned in records at the same time. It is also linked to Summer’s Hithe, a small haven on the Thames, at a time when the banks of the river were much closer.

Following disputes between the Flemish weavers and the weavers from Brabant in London in the late 14th century, the Mayor of London ordered the weavers from Brabant in 1370 to meet in the churchyard of Saint Mary Somerset for the purpose of hiring serving men, while the Flemish weavers were ordered to meet a safe distance away in the churchyard of Saint Laurence Pountney.

The church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Before the Great Fire, London had 14 churches named after the Virgin Mary. This one of six of those churches rebuilt after the Fire and one of the 51 churches in London rebuilt by the office of Sir Christopher Wren. At the same time, the parish of Saint Mary Somerset was combined with the parish of Saint Mary Mounthaw, which was not rebuilt.

Saint Mary Somerset, Lambeth Hill … the church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren’s office after the Great Fire of 1666 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Building the new church began in 1686, but stopped in 1688 owing to the financial uncertainty associated with the Williamite Revolution. Rebuilding recommenced the next year, and the church was finished in 1694 at a cost of £6,579. The rebuilt church was smaller than its predecessor, as a strip of land was taken by the City to widen what was then Thames Street.

Wren’s church had a nave but no aisles and had a flat roof. George Godwin described the interior as ‘a mere room with low whitewashed walls.’ Two columns supported a gallery at the west end, from which the royal coat of arms was suspended.

The tower projected from the south-west. It is 120 ft high and faced with Portland stone. Lines of windows, alternately circular and round headed, run up each side, with grotesque masks and cherubs serving as keystones.

Saint Mary Somerset, Lambeth Hill … the pinnacles, obelisks and finials may have been designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The unique features of the tower are the eight baroque pinnacles. The four on each corner have panelled bases and scrolls, surmounted by urns or vases. Between each of these are 20 ft obelisks, with ball finials. The style strongly suggests that they were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. They create the optical illusion of changing heights when viewed from different vantage points.

The parish was very poor, and it was one of only two churches for which Wren provided funds for the furnishings from the Coal Tax – the other was Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe.

Gilbert Ironside (1632-1701), Bishop of Bristol (1689-1691) and then Bishop of Hereford (1691-1701), was buried here in 1701. As Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Ironside had defied James II in upholding the rights of the fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Communion plate was stolen from Saint Mary Somerset in 1801 and was never recovered. At this time, the church had a reputation for being Low Church. James Peller Malcolm wrote in Londinium Redivivum (1803): ‘When I mention that the late well-known Methodist Mr Gunn was a preacher in it on certain days, the trampled and dirty state of the church will not be wondered at.’

There was a major movement of population from the City of London in the second half of the 19th century to new suburbs in Middlesex, Kent, Essex and Surrey. With these moves, many of the city churches in London were left with tiny congregations, while many of the newly-built suburbs had no churches.

The Union of Benefices Act (1860) allowed the demolition of City churches and the sale of land to build churches in the suburbs. Over 20 churches were demolished to make way for other buildings, including railway stations. The last service was held in Saint Mary Somerset on 1 February 1867, with about 70 people present.

Saint Mary Somerset, Lambeth Hill … the last service was held here is 1867 and the church was demolished in 1871 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The parish was then combined with Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey, and the church was demolished in 1871. Before the church was demolished, Bishop Ironside’s body and his black marble tombstone were moved to Hereford Cathedral in 1867.

Thanks to the efforts of the architect Ewan Christian (1814-1895), the church tower was preserved. The proceeds of the sale were used to build Saint Mary Hoxton, which also received the church furnishings and the bell.

Before World War II, the church tower was used as a women’s rest room. The tower now stands on a traffic island surrounded by a small landscaped garden.

The pinnacles on the tower were taken down after World War II, due to bomb damage in the London Blitz. The remains of the church were designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950, and the pinnacles of the tower were restored in 1956.

The building is being refurbished and extended into a private family home by the architects Pilbrow and Partners.

Before the redevelopment of the tower as a residential property, an archaeological survey found a short section of the west wall of the Wren church and a substantial quantity of human skeletal remains that were removed for reburial.

Saint Mary Somerset, Lambeth Hill … the tower is being converted into a private residence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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