21 September 2023

Christ Church, Blackfriars,
has come back to life
after the destruction of
the London Blitz in 1941

Christ Church, Blackfriars, in the evening light last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Charlotte and I were back in Southwark last week, when we spent some time in Southwark Cathedral and the USPG offices in Trinity Street, and visited the Blackfriars Bridge area. Late in the day, we called in to Christ Church, Southwark, beside the Hoxton Hotel on the west side of Blackfriars Road.

Christ Church or Christchurch Blackfriars Bridge describes itself as a spiritual community and presence, promoting wellbeing, health, and contemplative spirituality in the ‘south of Blackfriars Bridge’ area of London

When the first church was built in this part of Southwark, there was no bridge at Blackfriars nor and major road connecting the area to the south or to the City of London.

The present church was built in 1959, after the total destruction of the earlier church during the London Blitz in 1941. It has been a Grade II listed building since 2010.

The mural behind the altar in Christ Church is of Wall Street, New York, originally made for a National Theatre production of ‘New Regime’ by Ian Walters (Photograph: Andy Scott / Wikipedia / CCL)

The parish of Christ Church was created by an Act of Parliament in 1682 in the Manor of Paris Garden in response to a bequest in the will of John Marshall, a member of a Southwark family of ‘whitebakers.’ At the time, the area was in Surrey and was part of the Parish of Saint Saviour’s, now Southwark Cathedral.

The parish coincided with the Manor of Paris Garden, which was given by Robert Marmion to Bermondsey Abbey in 1113, although it was not called the Paris Garden until the 14th century.

The Manor of Paris Garden, along with the Great Liberty and the Clink Liberty, was one of the three liberties of Southwark. The land was marshy, intersected by many small streams, with numerous willow trees growing on the land, and Paris Garden amounted to about 100 acres (40 ha).

It lay outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester’s Liberty of the Clink to the east and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Manor of Lambeth to the west, and for a long time it was a place of disrepute.

John Marshall’s will in 1627 directed that a new church should be built and a rector be appointed and paid for in the Manor of Paris Garden, the most westerly part of Saint Saviour’s Parish. Marshall died in 1631, and the first church was eventually built in 1671.

The charity set up by John Marshall’s bequests still provides for these purposes. The John Marshall Trustees are independent of the parochial charities and the wealth they have accumulated for its objects are distributed over most of the counties of Kent, Lincolnshire and Surrey, including parts of Greater London today.

The beneficiaries are rectors of parishes in the Church of England, and the first charge on the charity is the maintenance of Christ Church which they completely rebuilt in 1738.

The fountain in the churchyard in Christchurch, Blackfriars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The first church on the site was built on marshy ground, but by the 1720s it was in a poor condition and collapsed. By an Act of Parliament in 1738, the trustees were able to demolish the church and rebuild it in an improved enclosure. The new Christ Church was completed in an Italian Romanesque style by 1741, with a clocktower rising in three stages from the ground, surmounted by an octagonal lantern and cupola.

The parishioners included the writers Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, as well as the Rennie family of railway and bridge engineers. The church was also known to Charles Dickens.

The churchyard was closed to burials in 1856. Almost half a century later, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association laid out the churchyard as a public garden in 1900, and it was opened that year by Bishop Edward Talbot of Rochester. The works included a drinking fountain donated by the philanthropist, journalist and Liberal MP John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911).

The burning cross from the church fell into the churchyard in 1941, scorching the ground (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church was destroyed by bombing in 1941 during the London Blitz. The burning cross from the church fell into the churchyard, scorching the ground. The place where it landed is marked by a stone cross, and is near to the drinking fountain that remains in place and is Grade II listed.

From the late 1970s on, many of the traditional riverside Industries such as printing, food processing and engineering, depicted in the church's stained glass windows, were dosing down or relocating. Many people moved away from the area and the buildings became empty and rundown.

Today this is an office location north of Southwark Station on the Jubilee line, and it is part of the Borough of Southwark. Regeneration using public, private and charitable funds began just before the Millennium in 2000. The garden was landscaped by Marcus Beale architects as a green oasis for the new generation of local workers and residents.

The new garden was opened on 16 June 2000, the centenary of the original opening. The drinking fountain has since been refurbished.

Christchurch, Blackfriars, has an interesting collection of late 20th century stained glass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John Marshall is commemorated in the church porch with his coat of arms and the attached church hall is also named after him. It is also the home of the South London Industrial Mission.

The church has two large sequences of stained glass showing features of life within the parish. one by Kenneth Bunton (1959), the other by John Lawson (1984) celebrating the church’s 25th anniversary.

The first range includes a London Transport bus. the latter range includes buildings as diverse as Sampson House, the Lloyd’s Bank Computer Centre, Sea Containers House, the Kirkaldy Testing Museum and a Sainsbury supermarket. Some of the industries and commercial businesses depicted in the 1984 windows have since left the area. The stained glass in the nave and sanctuary is the work of Frederick Cole.

The church was rebuilt in 1959 and is now a Grade II listed building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The parish is vacant at present and the recruitment of a vicar is underway.

The Assistant Priest, the Revd John Henry, joined Christ Church in 2020 after training at Ripon College Cuddesdon Oxford. He is a management consultant and previously John was part of two new monastic communities and a worshipper at Southwark Cathedral.

Christ Church is usually open from 9 am to 2 pm on weekdays. The Sunday services include the Parish Eucharist at 10 am, and a contemplative service at 6:30 pm, which rotates between Said Compline, Sung Compline, Taizé Service, and Contemplative Eucharist. In addition, there are daily services throughout the week.

Christ Church, Blackfriars, was rebuilt after the total destruction of the earlier church during the London Blitz in 1941 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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