27 February 2023
Saint Olave’s Church: ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’ of
Dickens and burial place of Mother Goose
During my walks through London last week, I visited Saint Olave’s Church, on the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane, near Fenchurch Street station, in the late afternoon.
Saint Olave’s is both a local parish church and the Ward Church of the Tower Ward of the City of London. It is one of the smallest churches in the City of London and one of only a handful of mediaeval City churches that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The poet John Betjeman described Saint Olave’s as ‘a country church in the world of Seething Lane.’ The church was a favourite of the diarist Samuel Pepys, and Charles Dicken once described the church as ‘Saint Ghastly Grim.’
Saint Olave’s Church is first recorded in the 13th century as Saint Olave-towards-the-Tower, a stone building replacing an earlier, probably wooden building. It is dedicated to the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II of Norway, who fought alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred ‘the Unready’ against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014.
Saint Olaf was canonised after his death in 1030 and the church of Saint Olave’s is said to have been built on the site of the battle.
Saint Olave’s was rebuilt in the 13th century and then again in the 15th century. The present church dates from around 1450. A major benefactor of the church in the late 15th century was wool merchant Richard Cely, who held the advowson of the church. When Cely died in 1482, he left money for making the steeple and an altar in the church.
Queen Elizabeth I held a thanksgiving service at Saint Olave’s on Trinity Sunday, 15 May 1554, while she was still Princess Elizabeth, to celebrate her release from the Tower of London.
Saint Olave’s survived the Great Fire of London with the help of Sir William Penn, the father of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and is men from the nearby naval yards. Penn had ordered the men to blow up the houses surrounding the church to create a fire break. The flames came within 100 yards or so of the building, but then the wind changed direction, saving the church and a number of other churches on the east side of the City.
The church was a favourite of the diarist Samuel Pepys, whose house and Royal Navy office were both on Seething Lane. A regular worshipper, he referred to Saint Olave’s in his diary as ‘our own church.’ For 14 years, from 1660, Pepys recorded parish affairs in his diary, often falling asleep in the sermons by the Revd Daniel Mills.
When his wife Elizabeth died in 1669, Pepys had a marble bust of her made by John Bushnell and installed on the north wall of the sanctuary. He was buried next to his wife in the nave in 1703.
The gateway to Saint Olave’s churchyard, with its skulls and crossbones, led Charles Dickens to refer to the church as ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’. The gateway is dated 11 April 1658 and the Latin text is from Philippians 1: 21: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (NRSVA).
Saint Olave’s has a modest exterior in the Perpendicular Gothic style, with a squat square tower of stone and brick that was added in 1732.
In The Uncommercial Traveller (1861), Dickens described the 17th century gateway with its carved skulls and crossbones in the tympanum as ‘one of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim.’ He recalls visiting it after midnight during a thunderstorm to see the skulls ‘having the air of a public execution.’
The Norwegian connection was reinforced during World War II when the exiled King Haakon VII of Norway worshipped there.
The church was gutted by German bombs in 1941 during the London Blitz. The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950. It was restored in 1954, when King Haakon returned for the rededication ceremony, when he laid a stone from Trondheim Cathedral in front of the sanctuary.
Saint Olave’s has retained long and historic links with Trinity House and the Clothworkers’ Company. It is the official church of the Ward of Tower, and of the Clothworkers’ Company, the Trinity House, the Wine and Spirit Trade, and the Environmental Cleaners’ Company.
The interior of Saint Olave’s only partially survived the wartime bombing, and much of it dates from the restoration in the 1950s. It is nearly square, with three bays separated by columns of Purbeck limestone supporting pointed arches. The roof is a simple oak structure with bosses.
Most of the church fittings are modern, but the significant survivals include the monument to Elizabeth Pepys and the pulpit said to be the work of Grinling Gibbons.
A memorial in the tower recalls Monkhouse Davison and Abraham Newman, the grocers of Fenchurch Street who shipped crates of tea to Boston in late 1773. The crates were seized and thrown into the waters during the Boston Tea Party, one of the causes of the American War of Independence.
The molten bell metal was recast into new bells in the 1950s by the same foundry that created the original bells – the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1662 and 1694 – and the new bells were hung in the rebuilt tower.
The 1781 organ was destroyed in the Blitz in 1941. After the war, a Harrison & Harrison organ was installed into the rebuilt church.
Perhaps the oddest burial at Saint Olave’s is the ‘Pantomime character’ Mother Goose, whose burial is recorded by the parish registers on 14 September 1586. The churchyard also has the grave of one Mary Ramsay, popularly believed to be the woman who brought the Plague to London in 1665.
The Great Plague broke out around Drury Lane and spread rapidly, and 357 victims are buried in the churchyard. Their names were marked with a ‘P’ for ‘plague’ in the church register of burials.
• Saint Olave’s Church has been a place of Christian worship and sanctuary for almost 1,000 years and is one of the few surviving mediaeval buildings in London. The Rector is the Revd Arani Sen. The Choral Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays at 11 am and the mid-week Eucharist is at 12.30 on Tuesdays.
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