All Hallows by the Tower was founded in 675, a good 400 years before the eponymous Tower itself. There are a few remains of the original Saxon building in the form of an arch, but older still are parts of a floor from a Roman dwelling which can be seen in the crypt. Today the crypt houses an excellent small museum, one of whose many artefacts includes a crow’s nest from Ernest Shackleton’s ship “Quest”. The church is very much associated with sailors, Merchant Navy and Royal Navy alike: there are ships’ models and memorials scattered around the building. It’s no coincidence that the Merchant Navy war memorial is just across the road.
Most of the post-Blitz surviving parts of the church are mid-17C. Samuel Pepys observed the Fire from what would have been the very new bell tower. In fact, All Hallows survived the conflagration thanks to firebreaks having been made around it.
Proximity to the Tower inevitably means All Hallows has close associations with executed martyrs, whose heads were delivered there for burial. Noteworthies include Thomas More (1535), St. John Fisher (1535) and William Laud (1650).
The church has very close ties to the USA owing to William Penn having been baptised there in 1644 and John Quincy Adams’s marriage there in 1797.
So a massive store of history. Yet, I found myself most taken by a more recent tale, the inspiring story of Philip “Tubby” Clayton (1885 – 1972). Do you perhaps remember your parents, when describing a stupid person, to say: “as dim as a Toc H lamp”? I know mine did. Well, it all started with Tubby. As an army chaplain in World War One, he founded what became the Toc H movement. It was a Christian friendship association for the soldiers, begun in a building behind the lines where they could fraternise and use the library which Tubby set up. To prevent the theft of books, he instituted a system whereby the soldiers had to leave their hat as collateral. After the war, he continued to develop Toc H, but was also the Vicar of All Hallows for some 40 years. He suffered the destruction of his church by the Luftwaffe but it must have been most uplifting to witness its restoration in the following decades.
Did I mention the gorgeous Grinling Gibbons font cover in the Baptistery?
All Hallows by the Tower is welcomes visitors seven days a week. Check their website for opening times.