22 February 2024

Saint Dunstan-in-the-West
remains a constant
presence in the midst
of change on Fleet Street

The Guild Church of Saint Dunstan-in-the-West, next door to the former DC Thompson building on Fleet Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

During all the years I worked as a journalist with The Irish Times, I had many working visits to Fleet Street, when the London offices were based in the old PA Building at 85 Fleet Street, a building designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

There were colleagues to meet from other newspapers too, and exchanges with the Guardian. In those days, liquid lunches were popular among journalists on the ‘Streets of Shame,’ and at a time when many journalists still worked on Fleet Street, Private Eye developed the character of Lunchtime O’Booze as the archetypal drunken journalist.

But all has changed in recent years, and DC Thomson journalists were the last on Fleet Street until they left in 2016.

During those working visits to Fleet Street, there were visits too to Saint Bride’s, the journalists’ church on Fleet Street, which also had a family link through a former rector, the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), father of Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were constant vigils in Saint Bride’s for John McCarthy, Terry Anderson and other journalists held hostage in Lebanon.

Yet, until last week, I had never visited the Guild Church of Saint Dunstan-in-the-West, next door to the former DC Thompson building on Fleet Street. The church has links with the media barons Lord Rothermere and Lord Northcliffe, who were brothers, and Lord Camrose, and it appeared as the ‘journalists’ church’ in the 2018 TV series Press. But Saint Bride’s, not Saint Dunstan’s, has always been the real journalists’ church on Fleet Street.

Saint Bride’s and Saint Dunstan’s are two of the remaining constants on Fleet Street, reminders of what this street was in the past. Saint Dunstan-in-the-West is impressive inside, with an octagonal nave that creates the impression of a round church. However, this is not the original church, and it was built in the 1830s to designs by John Shaw to replace an earlier mediaeval church demolished to allow for a 19th century street widening programme.

Saint Dunstan depicted in a stained glass window above the High Altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint Dunstan-in-the-West is dedicated to Saint Dunstan, one of the most venerated saints in England before the cult of Saint Thomas Becket became popular. He was born in 909 and was taught by Irish monks at Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset. He became Abbot of Glastonbury in 945, and was Bishop of Worcester and then Bishop of London before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. When he died in 988, he was buried at Canterbury Cathedral.

The Church of Saint Dunstan-in-the-West is first mentioned in written records in 1185, but there is no evidence of the date of its original foundation. Some accounts say it was built by Saint Dunstan or by priests who knew him well. Others suggest a foundation date between 988, when he died, and 1070.

It could be that a church on this site was one of the churches of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic, such as Saint Martin within Ludgate, Saint Martin in the Fields, the first Saint Mary le Strand, Saint Clement Danes and Saint Bride’s, which may pre-date any churches within the walls of the City of London.

King Henry III gained possession of site of Saint Dunstan’s and its endowments from Westminster Abbey by 1237. He then granted them to the Domus Conversorum (‘House of the Converts’) in Chancery Lane, housing converted Jews. This led to neglect of the parochial responsibilities of the church until a separate rector was appointed in 1317.

Inside the Church of Saint Dunstan-in-the-West, facing the north or liturgical east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

William Tyndale (1494-1526), an early translator of the Bible into English, was a lecturer at the church. The priest-poet John Donne (1572-1631) was the vicar (1624-1631) while he was also Dean of Saint Paul’s (1621-1631), and preached in the church.

George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, who founded Maryland, was buried in the church in 1632, as was his son.

The church narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666. In the middle of the night, the Dean of Westminster, John Dolben, woke up 40 schoolboys from Westminster School to form a fire brigade that extinguished the flames with buckets of water. The flames reached a point three doors away.

Samuel Pepys mentions the church in his diary and was a regular worshipper. Izaak Walton (1593-1683), author of the Compleat Angler and biographer of John Donne, George Herbert and Richard Hooker, was a sidesman.

Inside the Church of Saint Dunstan-in-the-West, facing the south or liturgical west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The mediaeval church underwent many alterations over time. Small shops were built against its walls, and the churchyard became a centre for bookselling and publishing: John Milton found a publisher there for Paradise Lost in 1667.

Later repairs were carried out in an Italianate style. Rusticated stonework was used, and some of the Gothic windows were replaced with round-headed ones. The old vaulted roof was replaced in 1701 with a flat ceiling, ornamented with recessed panels.

The London clockmaker and watchmaker Charles Gretton was a churchwarden and was buried there in 1731. The church has a bronze memorial plaque for Thomas Mudge (171516-1794), inventor of the lever escapement and watchmaker to George III.

The baptismal font in the Church of Saint Dunstan-in-the-West (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The mediaeval church was spilling onto what is now the tarmac of Fleet Street, and was removed to allow the widening of Fleet Street in the early 19th century, when a new church was built on its burial ground. An Act of Parliament in 1829 authorised the demolition of the church, and some of the materials of the old church were auctioned off in December 1829 and September 1830.

The new building was designed by John Shaw Sr (1776-1832). The first stone was laid in July 1831 and building went ahead proceeded rapidly. The last part of the old church, left as a screen between Fleet Street and the new work, was removed in August 1832.

Shaw handled the restricted site by designing a church with an octagonal central space. Seven of the eight sides open into arched recesses, the northern one containing the altar. The eighth side opens into a short corridor, leading beneath the organ to the lowest stage of the tower, which serves as an entrance porch. Shaw designed a clerestory above the recesses, with a groined ceiling above the clerestory.

The square tower has an octagonal lantern, resembling those at Saint Botolph’s Church, Boston, and Saint Helen’s Church, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The square tower has an octagonal lantern, resembling those at Saint Botolph’s Church, Boston, and Saint Helen’s Church, Stonegate, York. Shaw died in 1833, before the church was completed, leaving it in the hands of his son John Shaw jr (1803-1870).

The communion rail has survived from the old church. It was carved by Grinling Gibbons when John Donne was the vicar (1624-1631). Some of the monuments from the mediaeval building were kept in the new church, and a fragment of the old churchyard remains between Clifford’s Inn and Bream’s Buildings.

The church survived the London Blitz largely intact, though bombs damaged the open-work lantern tower and the church lost its stained glass. The church was damaged again on the night of 24-25 March 1944.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950, and it was largely restored that year, when the tower was rebuilt through the generosity of newspaper magnate William Ewart Berry (1879-1954), Viscount Camrose, proprietor and/or editor at various times of the Sunday Times, the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph.

Saint Dunstan-in-the-West became a Guild Church in 1952, dedicating its ministry to the daytime working population around Fleet Street.

The chiming clock on the façade has figures that strike the bells with their clubs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The chiming clock on the façade has figures of giants, said to represent Gog and Magog, who strike the bells with their clubs. It was installed on the previous church in 1671, and may have been commissioned to celebrate its escape during the Great Fire in 1666. It was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. The figures of the two giants strike the hours and quarters, and turn their heads.

When the mediaeval church was demolished, the clock was removed in 1828 by the art collector Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford, to Winfield House, his mansion in Regent’s Park, which became known as Saint Dunstan’s. During World War I, Winfield House was a hostel for blinded soldiers, and the new charity took the name Saint Dunstan’s – now Blind Veterans UK.

The clock was returned to the church to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935 by the press baron Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, brother of Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe.

There are numerous literary references to the clock, including in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the Vicar of Wakefield and a poem by William Cowper (1782).

The statue of Elizabeth I in the courtyard dates from 1586 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The statue of Queen Elizabeth I above the entrance to the old parochial school in the courtyard is the only one known to have been carved during her reign.

The statue by William Kerwin dates from 1586 and is said to be the oldest outdoor statue in London. It was moved from the old Ludgate when it was demolished in 1760.

In the porch below are three statues of ancient Britons also from the old Ludgate, and said to represent King Lud, the mythical sovereign, and his two sons.

The memorial to Lord Northcliffe has an obelisk by Sir Edwin Lutyens and a bronze bust by Kathleen Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The wall of the church also has a memorial to Lord Northcliffe, co-founder of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. The obelisk was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with a bronze bust by Kathleen Scott, and was unveiled in 1930.

Next to Lord Northcliffe is a memorial tablet to James Louis Garvin (1868-1947) was a journalist, author and editor of The Observer (1908-1942).

The High Altar and reredos are Flemish woodwork dating from the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Much of the internal fabric predates the rebuilding in the 1830s. The High Altar and reredos are Flemish woodwork dating from the 17th century, and many of the monuments have been retained from the original church.

The church is often associated with the legend of Sweeney Todd, the ‘demon-barber’ of Fleet Street. It was mentioned in the original ‘penny dreadful’, The String of Pearls. According to some sources, Sweeney Todd set up shop as a barber, tooth-puller and surgeon at 186 Fleet Street in 1785.

He is said to have murdered over 100 clients, selling their flesh to Margery Lovett who owned a pie shop in nearby in Bell Yard, and dumping the remnants of their victims in the church crypt.

The Hoare family donated the stained glass window showing Archbishop Lanfranc, Saint Dunstan, Saint Anselm and Archbishop Langton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church has been associated with the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers (shoemakers) since the 15th century. Once a year the company holds a service in the church to commemorate two of its benefactors, John Fisher and Richard Minge.

The church also has a long association with C Hoare and Co, whose bank has stood facing the church from the other side of Fleet Street since 1690. The Hoare family donated the four-light stained glass window above the high altar and the carved canopies of the altar-piece. The window shows Archbishop Lanfranc, Saint Dunstan beside a roaring furnace into which he has thrust his pincers ready to pull a devil’s nose, Saint Anselm and Archbishop Langton with King John at the signing of Magna Carta.

Members of the Hoare family have been generous benefactors and many have been churchwardens over the centuries. Two have been Lord Mayors of London and a family vault still lies in the church crypt.

The Romanian iconostasis was brought from Antim Monastery in Bucharest in 1966 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint Dunstan’s is also home to the Romanian Orthodox Church in London, and serves as Saint George’s Church. The chapel to the left of the main altar has beautiful iconostasis or icon screen, brought from Antim Monastery in Bucharest in 1966.

Behind the iconostasis, high on a wall, is a marble memorial tablet to the 17th century clockmaker Henry Jones (1634-1695), who worked in the Inner Temple, and his wife Hannah.

Saint Dunstan-in-the-West is home to the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, and is a centre of prayer for Christian Unity. The side chapels contain altars dedicated to various traditions, including the Lutheran Church in Berlin (EKD), the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Syro-Indian), and a shrine of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches.

Saint Dunstan’s continues in its special role of promoting good relations with Churches outside the Anglican Communion, including through its role as the Diocese of London’s Church for Europe.

Meanwhile, any journalist feeling nostalgic about the ‘Old Fleet Street’ and its memories must be heartened by the news last week that the Tipperary, one of Fleet Street’s best-known and oldest pubs, is to reopen, after closing during the pandemic two years ago and never reopening. Save London Pubs, a social media campaign, reported last week that the Tipperary is to reopen after a refurbishment, with repairs to the exterior and interior, new seating, and work to preserve its old features.

• The Priest-in-Charge of , the Revd James Wilkinson, became Associate Vicar at Saint Andrew, Holborn Circus, last month. Mass is celebrated at 12.30 pm every Tuesday, and the church is open 10am-3pm Monday-Friday. Friends of the City Churches are there from 11am-3pm on Tuesdays to answer questions.

Looking out onto the world … with a glimpse of the Hoare Bank to the left on the other side of Fleet Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
9, 22 February 2024,
Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne

Saint Aidan depicted in a panel on the altar in Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Season of Lent began last week with Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and we began this week with the First Sunday in Lent (Lent I, 18 February 2024).

This year, I am taking time each morning in Lent to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated by the Church of England in the Calendar of Common Worship.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The lower panels in a window in Lichfield Cathedral depict Saint Aidan preaching, with King Oswald interpreting, and Saint Aidan at his school in Lindisfarne, where Saint Chad was one of the students (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 9, Saint Aidan (651), Bishop of Lindisfarne, Missionary

Saint Aidan (651), Bishop of Lindisfarne, is commemorated in Common Worship on 31 August. He was one of Saint Columba’s monks from the monastery of Iona. He was sent as a missionary to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald, who was later to become his friend and interpreter. Aidan was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne in 635, worked closely with Oswald and became involved with the training of priests.

Saint Chad of Lichfield was one of four brothers who were of Northumbrian nobility and who were educated by Saint Aidan at the monastery in Lindisfarne. At that time Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, was one of the most important religious and centres in these islands.

From Lindisfarne, Saint Aidan was able to combine a monastic lifestyle with his missionary journeys. With his concern for the poor and enthusiasm for preaching, he won popular support that enabled him to strengthen the Church beyond the boundaries of Northumbria. He died on 31 August 651.

Saint Aidan (right) and Saint Oswald (left) in a stained-glass window in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 7: 7-12 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said,] 7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

12 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’

The Saint Oswald and Saint Aidan window in Lichfield Cathedral … in memory of Archdeacon John Allen and Canon Henry George de Bunsen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 22 February 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Stories of Hope, Ukraine – Two years on …’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Rachel Weller, Digital Communications Officer, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (22 February 2024) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray for the counsellors who help heal the unseen wounds of war. May those who receive therapy know peace and protection.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you have renewed us with the living bread from heaven;
by it you nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
and strengthen our love:
teach us always to hunger for him who is the true and living bread,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Heavenly Father,
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection: Saint Birinus of Dorchester

Tomorrow: Saint Cedd of Lastingham

Saint Aidan (left) with Saint Oswald (centre) and Saint Chad (right) on the altar in Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org