Tomorrow is the 300th anniversary of the Act establishing the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches in London, following an earlier Act to set up the principal intention the previous year. They were enacted partially to fulfil the spiritual needs of London’s burgeoning populus, but mainly to cement the authority of the Church of England against Catholicism and popular non-conformist sects: the Jacobite threat still had over three decades to run its course. The moving force behind the Act was the new Tory government, freshly ensconced after 22 years of Whig rule.
The men who were to build the churches learned their trade at the foot of Sir Christopher Wren. They were led by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who began his career as an unschooled (in architectural terms) clerk and whom Wren took under his wing. Hawksmoor was a prodigious talent, a man who found practical solutions to any architectural challenge and who could, and did, turn his hand to many architectural styles, often mixing and matching, frequently nicking – magpie fashion – a bizarre design idea, the prime example being the ribbed steeple on St George’s Bloomsbury.
In the end, just twelve churches were built under the auspices of the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches. A further five were subsidised and two existing churches purchased. Of the twelve, Hawksmoor was responsible for six, and had a hand in another two.
Hawksmoor’s six – all of which survive, despite being blitzed and unsympathetically altered – are:
St Alfrege’s, Greenwich
St George’s, Bloomsbury
Christ Church, Spitalfields
St George in the East, Wapping
St Mary Woolnoth
St Anne’s Limehouse
From the magisterial and magnificent Christ Church in Spitalfields to the intimate St Mary Woolnoth in the City, all will reward a visit, all have quirks and a tale to tell. All have the unmistakable stamp of Hawksmoor and an inevitable whiff of Wren, stronger in some than others. Christ Church and St George’s Bloomsbury have both benefitted from very recent total restoration, sympathetically executed. But be sure to check public access times, some are restricted.
Nicholas Hawksmoor timeline.